Earthquakes in Japan: some nineteenth-century reports

Nineteenth-century newspaper reports show how gradual the process could be of assembling information about distant events, even in an age when communications were becoming more sophisticated. A reader might wait two months or more for an extended account of a major incident, and the report when it came might be, for all its striving for detail, rather sketchy. In the case of natural disasters, attempts to explain causes reflect the imperfect scientific knowledge of the day, and reveal a tendency to find in an event the work of a higher power and a pattern of responsibility and punishment.

Earthquakes in Japan were known to be frequent. Particularly large earthquakes in 1855 and 1891, for example, were remembered as exemplifying the susceptibility of Japan to major upheavals.

In December 1891 the Maitland Mercury reported a recent earthquake in Japan as affecting an enormous area and causing unprecedented havoc. As well as giving details of the scale of destruction, the article referred to the behaviour of the Japanese in response to the disaster:

To all this instantaneous and almost incredible ruin the Japanese oppose a cheerful and invincible fortitude. Panic there may have been during the fearful ten or twelve minutes while the land surged like a sea beneath their feet, and all the works of their hands toppled like a house of cards upon their heads. But in the midst of this widespread desolation and bereavement they maintain their customary demeanor, and accept the inevitable with laughing stoicism.

The writer sought to place the event in a longer historical perspective:

It is noted as a remarkable coincidence that the news of the terrible earthquake in Japan should be published in London on the 136th anniversary of the great Lisbon earthquake, when in about eight minutes most of the houses in the Portuguese capital and upwards of 50,000 inhabitants were swallowed up. The latest calamity in Japan brings up the total number of earthquakes and earthquake shocks recorded in the present century to about 130…

According to the article, the most fatal so far in the nineteenth century were those at Naples, 1805; Algiers, 1516; Aleppo, 1822; South Italy, 1851; Calabria, 1857; Quito, 1859; Mendoza (South America), 1860; Peru and Ecuador, 1868; Columbia, 1875; Cashmere, 1885; Corsica, Geneva and other towns, 1887; and Yun-nan, China, 1888. Even more destructive were earthquakes in preceding centuries at Naples, 1456; Schamacki, 1667; Sicily, 1693; and Jeddo, Japan, 1703. Among these the greatest loss of life occurred at Jeddo, when that city was ruined and some 200,000 people died.

Edo, also spelled Yedo, Yeddo and Jeddo, was the name of the city now called Tokyo.

In February 1892 the Mercury (Victoria) described the November 1891 earthquake in Japan in the light of details that had come to hand in the meantime. It was suggested that the earthquake was ‘the result of actual explosion somewhere in the bowels of the earth.’ Where the shocks were most severe, over an area of 500 square miles, nothing could withstand them; double that area was violently but less destructively shaken; ‘and even in the capital, 170 miles distant, the earth movements were of a kind to which there has been no parallel since the great Yeddo earthquake thirty-seven years ago.’

The Jeddo earthquake of 11 November 1855 was reported at length in the Perth Gazette eight months after the event. Some analysis was drawn from the San Francisco Herald:

… it is possible that the report exaggerates the real facts. Indeed, the destruction as given is so vast and appalling that one is tempted, through the sympathies of a common humanity, to doubt it and to hope for a less fearful account. But, when it is remembered that Jeddo is reported by some as containing a mil<l>ion of inhabitants, the wide-spread destruction is not impossible. It will be remembered that the Russian frigate Diana was wrecked [la]st year at Simoda by an earthquake, which was terrific and very destructiee [sic]. And it is said that at the same place the shock which was so destructive at Jeddo was severe.

The San Francisco Herald added:

The advent of the Americans, French, English, and Russians into Japan has been accompanied by natural phenomena of such an uncommon character that the Government and people may not very unnaturally connect the two as judgments sent upon them.

Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser 22/12/1891, p. 5. Mercury and Weekly Courier (Victoria) 4/2/1892, p. 3. Jeddo, 1855: Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News 25/7/1856, p. 3.

A wind as from the mouth of a furnace

On 15 May 1828 the Monitor in Sydney reported:

The weather for the last two days has been remarkably warm, the thermometer having stood at 84 on Monday at noon. On the evening of the same day it reached 80 at nine o’clock at night, a hot wind having set in from the N. W. How this can be accounted for we know not, as the hot winds have never been known to prevail after April. The weather just now is altogether unprecedented. But it is an unprecedented Country altogether—natural, moral, political, and religious.

On 12 November of the same year, the Sydney Gazette reported:

One of those sudden squalls which are of such frequent occurrence in this part of the world, visited Sydney, on Saturday last. The forenoon of the day was peculiarly sultry, with a dense atmosphere, the heaviness of which was only disturbed by an equally disagreeable hot wind, which cast a glare upon the face of nature, not very dissimilar to that which proceeds from the mouth of a furnace.

The furnace analogy recurs in John Dunmore Lang’s description, in his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, of the effect of hot winds in several districts of New South Wales in 1828. The drought had been interrupted by ‘a copious and seasonable fall of rain’ in the upper parts of Hunter’s River and elsewhere. The wheat crop revived and an abundant harvest was expected. But there was a sudden change in the settlers’ fortunes (pp. 209-210):

Just, however, as the wheat had got into the ear, a north-westerly wind, blowing as if from the mouth of a furnace, swept across the country, and in one hour destroyed many hundred acres of highly promising wheat.

The Monitor 15/5/1828, p. 5. Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 12/11/1828, p. 2. John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875, pp. 209-210.

Rain at Hunter’s River and not a blade of grass at Bathurst

On 17 February 1827 the Monitor newspaper in Sydney published a letter to the editor which referred to current weather conditions:

Cattle are dying in many parts of the Country through the drought, and the Hawkesbury Maize crop is ruined. There is, however, a plenty of it at Hunter’s River, where the rains have fallen (so I am informed) in great profusion. There is not a blade of grass at Bathurst and the case is much the same in many parts of Argyle.

The letter was dated Clydsdale [sic], 12 February 1827, and signed ‘R. M. T.’ The last initial suggests a relative of Charles Tompson, who bought Clydesdale Farm near Windsor in 1819 and was still in possession at the time of this letter. He had arrived in Sydney in 1804, having been transported for seven years. He acquired land in various parts of the colony, including (I understand) a property at Bathurst also given the name Clydesdale. In the present context ‘Clydsdale’ no doubt refers to his estate at South Creek near Windsor. The letter-writer (a son of Charles?), in mentioning the four regions of the Hawkesbury, Hunter’s River, Bathurst and Argyle, is likely to have had specific properties in mind. Charles had a number of sons, among them Charles jr., a poet; I have not identified R.M.T. The county of Argyle lay to the south-west of Sydney and centred on the township of Goulburn.

In his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, John Dunmore Lang comments (p. 209) on the regional variability of climatic conditions in the colony, in a passage which has in view the same drought to which the letter-writer was referring:

Calamitous as it was, however, the drought was only partial, whole districts having either entirely or in great measure escaped its influence. It was much less felt, for instance, in the county of Argyle, to the southward and westward, than in the lowlands or earlier settled districts of the colony. In the lower parts of the settlement of Hunter’s River, or on what the Americans would call the sea-board, it was by no means so severe as at a greater distance from the coast: and in Illawarra, an extensive and highly fertile district about fifty miles to the southward of Port Jackson, the few settlers who had cultivated grain in any quantity never lost a crop. Such also was the case at the settlements of Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay, to the northward; and at Patrick’s Plains, a tract of fertile land on Hunter’s River, naturally destitute of timber, where the crop was nearly all destroyed in the year 1828, a good crop was reaped in the first year of the drought.

Letter to the editor: The Monitor 17/2/1827, p. 5. Note Adele Whitmore (comp.), Descendants of Charles Tompson: Australian Family Tree and Album, 4 vols., South Penrith NSW, A.M. Whitmore, 1987. John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875, p. 209. Baker’s Australian County Atlas includes a map of the County of Argyle, accessible online.

Showers have revived our hopes

Sir Thomas Brisbane was Governor of New South Wales from 1 December 1821 until 1 December 1825. Three years after his departure from office, the Sydney Gazette referred to a long-range weather forecast attributed to the Governor:

The Australian says, that “Sir Thomas Brisbane, before he left the Colony, predicted that we should have a drought of three years’ duration in New South Wales!” For the first six months after Sir Thomas left, it did nothing but rain, and that as violently as ever rain descended from the heavens. But, should this prediction come true, there are about two years yet to the good: and, if there be no rain in that time, we will undertake to predict that the world will then be at an end.

This suggests that in March 1828 the writer was of the view that the colony had been subject to drought for about a year, that is since about March 1827. We read of drought in 1826 but there was evidently sufficient rain by the beginning of 1827 to mark off that period of drought from the more prolonged period which succeeded. Thus we read concerning the Thursday market in Sydney on 4 January:

The fruit is beginning to shew itself, though the long drought has been a great drawback upon the orchard; but the late occasional showers have revived our hopes in this respect.

There seems to have been a spirit of hopefulness abroad in March 1827. Experience suggested that substantial rains were likely in the latter part of the month, and on 10 March the Sydney Gazette was taking heart from recent conditions and expecting even better:

Upon looking into the Almanack we are glad to find, for once in a way, that our Colonial Compiler is tolerably correct. We see that we are to expect rain in torrents this month; of this we are right glad, as nothing is more universally needed than rain in abundance. Horticulture begins, even already, to wear a smiling aspect; and, as for the field, nature has proudly and joyously assumed her ever-green. We have had a long drought. The maize has somewhat suffered; but still nothing—no, not even the apparent frown of Providence, will operate as a drawback upon our prosperity, since all things will continue to work together for our Commercial, Agricultural, Political, and Moral Good.

Some readers may have wondered whether, in ascribing to Providence merely an ‘apparent frown’ that could hardly hinder human progress, the writer was tempting Fate.

Governor Brisbane’s prediction: Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 21/3/1828, p. 2. Market report: ibid. 6/1/1827, p. 2. Almanack: ibid. 10/3/1827, p. 2.

An era of drought

In his Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales (4th ed., 1875), John Dunmore Lang makes a number of notable references to weather patterns in the colony and consequences for the inhabitants.

In discussing exploration in the time of Governor Macquarie, Lang notes that floods on the Hawkesbury River were succeeded ‘in the usual course of the seasons in New South Wales, by a serious drought in the year 1813’ (p. 163). Given that the colony had over 65,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle, and nearly 2,000 horses, it was imperative to find new pastures for them, and this gave an impulse to search for land on the other side of the Blue Mountains.

A quarter of a century later there was a momentous period of drought in the time of Governor Darling. That Governor’s tenure (1825-1831) was marked by ‘four remarkable epochs’: ‘the era of general excitement … the era of general depression … the era of drought … the era of libels’ (p. 196).

In 1825 the Australian Agricultural Company was formed as a joint-stock company under Royal Charter, to cultivate land, to rear sheep, cattle and horses, and to contribute to the improvement of the colony (pp. 196 ff.). It had a capital of a million pounds sterling and was authorised to select and take possession of a million acres free of charge. Around the same time, other men of means in England, with agents in New South Wales, obtained extensive grants of land. The price of livestock had been rising during the time of Governor Brisbane (1821-1825), when landholdings increased and there was a corresponding demand for sheep and cattle. With the advent of the Australian Agricultural Company and the great extension of landholdings at that time the additional demand caused prices to rise rapidly. And then a ‘sheep and cattle mania’ formerly unknown in the colony ‘instantly seized on all ranks and classes of its inhabitants’ (p. 198). Barristers and attorneys, military officers and civilians, clergymen and doctors, merchants, settlers and dealers wanted to buy sheep and cattle at the markets.

The large numbers of sheep and cattle bought in 1826 and 1827 had to be paid for, they and their progeny had to be fed, and in the meantime agriculture contracted through an over-emphasis on livestock and grazing. It was even more disastrous, therefore, when encouraging weather gave way to a drought that lasted for nearly three years, from 1827 to 1829.

John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875 [previous editions, 1834, 1837, 1852], pp. 163, 196-210. The literature on Governor Darling includes: ‘Darling, Sir Ralph (1772-1858)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 282-286, and online; Brian H. Fletcher, Ralph Darling: A Governor Maligned, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1984; Brian Fletcher, ‘Ralph Darling (19 December 1825 – 22 October 1831)’, in David Clune and Ken Turner (ed.), The Governors of New South Wales 1788-2010, Annandale NSW, Federation Press, 2009, chap. 7 (pp. 148-166).

Taking a stick to the environment

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), Presbyterian minister, member of Parliament and author of An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, relates in that work an incident which occurred as he was travelling alone on horse-back from the Hunter River to Sydney in March 1830. He writes (pp. 205-206):

I was trotting along the side of a hill, when a black snake, of upwards of four feet in length, which had been basking in the sun on the bare foot-path—for such was the only road at the time for a considerable distance among the mountains—sprang out from among my horse’s feet, and tried to escape. As it is considered a matter of duty in the colony to kill an animal of this kind, when it can be done without danger or inconvenience, I immediately dismounted, and, breaking off a twig from a bush, pursued and wounded the venomous reptile.

He had struck it a few inches from the head. The snake turned and glared, and the part of its body between the head and wound swelled up, but it could not attack and tried again to escape, whereupon the traveller killed it with a few more strokes.

It is usual in such cases to leave the animal extended, as a sort of trophy, across the footpath, to inform the next traveller that the country has been cleared of another nuisance, and to remind him, perhaps, of his own duty to do all that in him lies to clear it of every remaining nuisance; that it may become a goodly and a pleasant land, in which there shall be nothing left to hurt or to destroy.

The last allusion recalls Isaiah 11:9 and 65:25. The snake-destroying cleric, thinking himself to have the best interests of humanity at heart, concludes his narrative with an elegant quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid, which gives (he says) a ‘beautiful and most accurate description of the appearance the snake exhibited when half-dead’ (p. 206 n. 2).

John Dunmore Lang, An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, from the Founding of the Colony in 1788 to the Present Day, 4th ed., vol. I, London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1875, pp. 205-206 [previous editions, 1834, 1837, 1852]; for the date of the incident see p. 203. ‘Pleasant land’ occurs in a number of Old Testament passages; ‘goodly and pleasant land’ perhaps combines ‘good and pleasant’ as found in Psalm 133:1 with ‘green & pleasant Land’ in the last line of William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ (which like the passages in Isaiah makes reference to Jerusalem). The OED (s.v.) records ‘twig’ as dialectal for a stout stick. Lang’s text of Vergil, Aeneid 5.273-279 corresponds to that in the Bibliotheca Augustana (which uses Mynors, 1969) except for nodos in line 279 (the BA has nodis) and punctuation differences. The passage describes a snake, wounded on the highway by a wheel or rock, glaring, hissing and twisting as it tries in vain to escape. D.W.A. Baker, ‘Lang, John Dunmore (1799-1878)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 2, 1967, pp. 76-83, and online.

Beware the Ides of March

On 27 February 1823 the Sydney Gazette expressed a mixture of gratitude and foreboding:

The rains, with which we have been visited during the past week, have been extremely beneficial to the garden and to the field. The face of nature speedily assumed a grateful appearance, and the poor beasts even have had occasion to rejoice. From experience, however, we think it a duty to put the settler in mind of next month, for the “ides of March” approach.

The reference to the Ides of March seems to mean that there will be an inevitable development in the weather and it will come irrespective of the strength of one’s hopes and fears. Was the writer suggesting that by the middle of March there might be either too little rain or too much?

On 18 March 1824 the Sydney Gazette reported an alteration in the weather from dry to wet:

The recent rain has been productive of vast benefit to the drooping garden and perishing field. With the exception of a few showers at the commencement, this month has been marked as one of the most inclement for heat and drought, up to the 15th. Every year, as well as each revolving season, fully assures the Colonists that there is nothing more uncertain than the Australian weather—while it must be allowed, as well as generally acknowledged, that this uncertainty does not at all diminish the proverbial salubrity of our clime. As we have had but little rain since July, water has been scarce in town; but then it should be gratefully remembered what a providential supply Black-wattle Swamp furnishes in the most dry season.

In that year at least the Ides of March were associated with a welcome change.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 27/2/1823, p. 2; ibid. 18/3/1824, p. 2.

Weather and prophecy

After a long drought in the last months of 1821 and the beginning of 1822, the Sydney Gazette was able to report on 15 February 1822 that, ‘Rain has come at last.’ (See the entry ‘Droughts and flooding rains’ of 1/3/2011.)

A week later the newspaper reported:

The long-looked for and much desired weather, which is showery and also pleasant, still continues. Prophets (those of the calculating and predicting cast} are not to be found in every generation, and were never eminently notorious for numerical strength, yet it would seem that Australia may boast of some such antiquated mortal, by occasionally prying into the arcana of the Colonial Kalendar.

The somewhat cryptic reference to prophecy appears to be a qualified commendation of weather information found in the almanac which had been published annually in Sydney for quite a few years.

George Howe (1769-1821), publisher and printer of the Sydney Gazette, had produced the New South Wales Pocket Almanack and Colonial Remembrancer for the year 1806, the first almanac published in Australia. This effort was not repeated for 1807 because of lack of paper, but he reinvigorated the concept in 1808 under the title New South Wales Pocket Almanack, a publication which continued to appear annually for fourteen years, until the year of Howe’s death, 1821. His son Robert Howe (1795-1829), who had grown up with the Sydney Gazette, took over the newspaper and the almanac, and issued the Australasian Pocket Almanack for five years from 1822 to 1826, and the Australasian Almanack for 1827.

These almanacs contained a wide range of materials for reference, including weather information and other advice useful for farmers and gardeners. On the question of prophecy, an article on ‘Australasian Almanacks’ in volume 4 of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, published in London, observed that the Australasian Pocket Almanacks of 1822 and 1823, in contrast with English almanacks, have ‘no prophetic warnings about war or weather; but in each month “the usual state of the weather” is given, which to us, appears a much more rational method’ (pp. 406-408, at p. 406).

It was perhaps at least partly on the basis of information in the almanacs of George and Robert Howe that the Sydney Gazette was able to counsel patience among its readers when the weather was difficult for protracted periods.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 15/2/1822, p. 2; ibid. 22 February 1822, p. 2. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 49 vols., London, J. Limbird and others, 1822-1849 (there is a list with links to Google reproductions on the University of Pennsylvania website); vol. 4 was published in 1824. J.V. Byrnes, ‘Howe, George (1769-1821)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, pp. 557-559, and online (includes a section on the life of George’s son Robert Howe, who was born in 1795 and drowned in 1829).

A drought, a heat wave and high winds

In early February 1823, as in the first week of February in the previous year, Sydney was again in the grip of a drought. In the issue of Thursday 13 February the Sydney Gazette reported that the cattle on the Sydney side of the mountains were ‘deplorably off’, with the grass eaten away. Fortunately there was an abundance of supplies coming from the ‘new country’ on the other side, and there was beef from that region that ‘would no way discredit Old England.’ Rain was needed in Sydney soon or ‘the drought will be severely felt.’ The maize had been affected by lack of rain and it was likely that it would be scarce and dear.

‘Monday last’ (presumably 10 February) ‘was one of our hottest days.’ The temperature was still 80° at 4 in the afternoon. There was a stiff sea-breeze from the south-east and then about a quarter past 5 a gale-force ‘white squall’ sprang up from the south, a ‘hurricane that in a few moments spread for miles around the town of Sydney,’ enveloping the metropolis in ‘astonishing’ clouds of thick dust. It was among the most violent of gales ever experienced. The wind continued ‘with small intermission’ throughout the night. About 7 p.m. there were lightning and distant thunder, then ‘gentle and genial showers.’ The temperature was still 78 at 6 o’clock and 75 at 9 o’clock.

There had been a pattern of high temperatures at night in both January and February:

It has been nothing unusual to discover the thermometer, during the last month, as well as the present, as high as 70° of heat at 11 and 12 at night.

The temperatures mentioned, if accurate, are in the low to mid-twenties on the Celsius scale.

It was so windy on ‘Thursday last’ (this evidently means 6 February) that the Government boat the Antelope overturned as it was coming into Sydney Cove. Four crew had to be rescued and one named Stafford was drowned. The boat was recovered the next day.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 13/2/1823, p. 2. 80, 75 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit are approximately 27, 24 and 21 degrees Centigrade. Monday 10 February: the wild weather events of ‘Monday last’ are narrated before reference to the windy conditions of ‘Thursday last’, but Monday 3 February would presumably be too far away and would be several days before the preceding issue of the Sydney Gazette. In the Sydney Gazette of 1/8/1818, p. 3, the Antelope is described as ‘a boat of 20 tons, belonging to the Government dock-yard.’ Accounts published in the Sydney Gazette in March and November 1820 and September and November 1821 refer to John Cadman, ‘Cockswain of H. M. Boat Antelope’ (also spelled Coxswain), in that position as far back as 25 December 1817. The Sydney Gazette of 2/1/1823, p. 1, lists ‘J. Cadman’ among recipients of grants of land. Cf. D.I. McDonald, ‘Cadman, John (1772-1848)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 1, 1966, p. 192, and online (no mention of a grant of land; unclear about the origins of the cottage in which Cadman lived; states that he lived there from 1816). According to the City of Sydney website, the building now called Cadman’s Cottage, at 110 George Street North, The Rocks, possibly designed by Francis Greenway, ‘was built in 1815-16 as the ‘Coxswain’s Barracks’ attached to Governor Macquarie’s dockyard and stores’; Cadman lived there for a time from 1827 onwards, when he was Superintendent of Government Craft (this statement omits reference to his having lived there earlier). It is Sydney’s earliest surviving example of a residential building. See also ‘Cadman’s Cottage’, in Dictionary of Sydney; ‘Cadmans Cottage Historic Site’, and ‘Plans of Cadmans Cottage, 1815-16’, on the website of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water.

Droughts and flooding rains

On 8 February 1822 the Sydney Gazette reported that, ‘The present month of February makes the fourth month of continued drought this season.’ This indicates drought from October 1821, through November, December and January and into the first week of February.

It was driving people to distraction. The newspaper noted that ‘a professional Gentleman’ in Sydney had recently tried to dig for water to save a few choice plants and had found the earth twenty feet down ‘in as heated a state as that within only a few inches of the surface.’

The wheat harvest was ‘safely in’ but the maize was ‘in a terrible condition.’ Around Windsor the maize appeared to be healthy but was mostly stalks and leaves, with ‘hardly any cob.’ The most optimistic prediction was that, if plenty of rain came, about half the originally expected crop would result. The writer counsels patience:

To make up, however, for this apparent calamity, the next month’s rainy visitation, which is pretty certain, may be providentially instrumental in producing abundance from the forest or stubble crops. We must not too readily give place to despondency, after having been so signally blessed with such a luxuriant harvest.

Within the week there was cause for celebration. The next issue of the Sydney Gazette, dated 15 February, announced the glad tidings to a public already very much aware of the event:

Rain has come at last, and though there is not much occasion to render that public which is generally known, still it should be remembered that it calls forth from our hearts the liveliest gratitude towards that gracious Being, who so promptly attends to, and effectually relieves, our wants.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 8/2/1822, p. 3; ibid. 15/2/1822, p. 2.