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.