[Chuck Walker has decided to squander some of his precious time today by posting on the 1746 Lima earthquake. Chuck’s extraordinary new book, on the same subject, can be found here. Thanks, Chuck, for agreeing to join us.]

On this day in 1746 a massive earthquake walloped Lima, Peru, the center of Spain’s holdings in South America. Tumbling adobe walls, ornate facades, and roofs smothered hundreds of people and the death toll reached the thousands by the next day. About ten percent of this city of 50,000 died in the catastrophe. The earthquake captured the imagination of the world, inspired Lima’s leaders to try to rethink the city, and unified the city’s population–in opposition to these rebuilding plans. With constant aftershocks and horrific discoveries of the dead and wounded, despair as well as thirst and hunger set in quickly. Life was miserable for a long time. Limeños took to the street in countless religious processions, bringing out the relics of “their” saints such as Saint Rose of Lima or San Francisco de Solano. People took refuge in plazas, gardens, and the areas just outside of the walled city.

Things were worse in the port city of Callao, ten miles to the west of Lima. Half an hour after the earthquake, a tsunami crushed the port, killing virtually all of its 7,000 inhabitants. Some survivors had been inland or in Lima while a few made it to the top of the port’s bastions and rode it out. Several washed up alive at beaches to the south, telling their miracle stories to all who would listen. One woman had floated on a painting of her favorite saint. Merchants in Lima who kept houses, shops, and warehouses in Callao claimed that when they arrived the next morning they could not find the site of their property—no landmarks remained. The water not only ravaged people, animals, and structures but also swallowed up the city’s records. For years people petitioned to the courts about their identity or property, unable to show their papers in the well-documented Spanish colonial world.

The earthquake/tsunami takes us into areas where historians cannot normally venture—we have descriptions of where people were sleeping and life (and death) in cloistered convents. It also serves as an entryway into the mental world of the era, as people displayed their fears and priorities. Some worried about recovering their property and others about rebuilding social hierarchies; some more subversive-minded members of the lower classes saw it as an opportunity. Everyone suffered, however, with the loss of life and the misery of the following months.

The Viceroy and his inner circle did a remarkable job of stemming panic, assuring water and food supplies, and rebuilding the city. José Manso de Velasco, who would be titled for his efforts the Count of Superunda (“Over the Waves”), quickly gathered his advisors, surveyed the city on horseback, and took measures to rebuild water canals and find food from nearby towns and beached ships in Callao. His social control measures contained an ugly racialized side as authorities and elites fretted about slaves liberating themselves, maroons raiding the city, and free blacks dedicating themselves to crime. Martial law apparently stopped a crime wave although stories circulated about people tearing off jewelry from the dead or dying. People lined up at nearby beaches to collect washed up goods and many died when ransacking tottering houses—either from the caved in structures or angry crowds.

The viceroy managed to assure food, water and relative calm. The Bush administration would envy his success or at least his public relations coup. In part it reflected Manos de Velasco’s experience as a city builder (he had done this in Chile where he was stationed previously) and his relative hands-on approach. But absolutist authorities were good at emergency relief; in some ways, this is what they did. They couldn’t allow the people to go hungry (or to eat cake) and so Manso de Velasco requisitioned workers and flour and banned profiteering. People of all castes and classes lauded him for his willingness to sleep in the central Plaza.

Yet the Viceroy’s plans went far beyond immediate efforts in public safety. He and his advisors sought to change the city in classic eighteenth-century fashion. After deciding not to move it elsewhere (in part because they so fretted over the thought of maroons taking over the remains of the former viceregal capital), they sketched out a city with wider streets, lower buildings, and less “shady” areas. They wanted people, air, and commodities to circulate with greater ease, with all movement ultimately leading towards the Viceregal Plaza in the main square. Think of a frugal version ofVersailles. His plan, quite brilliant in theory, failed miserably. It managed to bring almost all Peruvians together, but in opposition. The upper classes rejected limiting their rebuilt houses to one story and tearing down some of their heavy facades, status symbols that proved deadly in earthquakes. They claimed he didn’t have the right and fought him for years. The Church saw the plan to impede them from rebuilding some churches, convents, and monasteries (there were an astounding 64 churches in Lima at the time) as a dangerous step towards secularization. They stressed their role in aiding the wounded and destitute and reasoned that since the earthquake was a sign of God’s wrath, did it make sense to anger him even more?

The lower classes did not like the plan. Afro-Peruvians resisted the social control campaigns aimed squarely at them and Indians (surprise, surprise) did not flock to the city to volunteer for rebuilding efforts. In fact, blacks and Indians organized a conspiracy that rocked the city less than four years after the earthquake and spread into a nearby Andean region, Huarochirí. Authorities arrested conspiracy leaders when a priest passed information about it that he had learned in confession. They executed six conspirators, displaying their heads for months. The rebels planned to flood the central Plaza and then kill Spaniards when they fled their homes. One participant proposed that any rebel who killed a Spaniard would assume his political position. While nipped in the bud in Lima, the uprising spread in the nearby Andean region of Huarochirí. After rebels took several towns and imprisoned and even killed local authorities, officials in Lima fretted that they would take the city, link with a messianic movement in the jungle, and even ally with the pernicious English. A Lima battalion, however, captured and executed the leaders. Manso de Velasco proved highly capable in efforts immediately after the earthquake. He was much less successful in using the catastrophe to create a new Lima.

There is an old, perhaps dead, journalism standard that third-world disasters merit little if any attention. Stories on “earthquake in South America kills hundreds” should accordingly receive an inch or two on page 19, at best. Did international savants and writers overlook Lima’s earthquake-tsunami? Not at all. Earthquakes fascinated the erudite in Europe and what became the United States. They debated their causes in this pre-plate tectonics era, contributing to trans-Atlantic polemics about whether the Americas was a younger, more humid, and inferior continent. The Comte de Buffon and Thomas Jefferson feuded on this question. Accounts of earthquakes also interested some Englishmen with imperial yearnings, who saw them as an opportunity to take over from the “weak” Spanish. This interest increased greatly in 1755 when the Lisbon earthquake took place and became an obligatory topic for virtually all European intellectuals. Lima plays a role alongside Lisbon in Voltaire’s Candide. One account of the Lima earthquake was published in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and English, including a lovely edition by Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1749). The 1746 earthquake was by no means an overlooked and distant “third world” disaster.

I was in Lima for the destructive August 15, 2007 earthquake and confirmed that the Peruvian state’s response to earthquakes has changed over the centuries, not necessarily for the better. President Alan García’s efforts were more Bush than Manso de Velasco. While making impassioned speeches and taking the obligatory tour of the ruins in Pisco, the epicenter south of Lima, his government was unable to guarantee food, water, and shelter. And while international organizations and governments promised relief, the people of Pisco still live in makeshift tents and most of the city remains in shambles. The May 2008 China earthquake pushed Peru out of the press. Perhaps Peru needs a viceroy or at least a more committed and efficient leader; the world could always use a Voltaire and a Benjamin Franklin.