Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)


Chapter 13. CONCEPCIÓN

Shaken, Not Stirred

To my mind since leaving England we have scarcely beheld any one other sight so deeply interesting. The Earthquake & Volcano are parts of one of the greatest phenomena to which this world is subject.


IT TOOK THE BEAGLE NEARLY TWO WEEKS to sail one hundred miles north to Concepción. When they arrived in the harbor on March 4, an estate owner rode down to the ship and told them that the earthquake had destroyed everything and that in Concepción and its port town, Talcahuano, not a house remained standing. Darwin went out riding and soon found proof. “The whole coast was strewed over with timber & furniture as if a thousand great ships had been wrecked,” he wrote. “Besides chairs, tables, bookshelves &c &c in great numbers, there were several roofs of cottages almost entire, Store houses had been burst open, & in all parts great bags of cotton, Yerba, & other valuable merchandise were scattered about.” On a small island in the bay at Talcahuano, Darwin recorded huge cracks in the ground and rocks covered in sea life cast high onto the beach. FitzRoy conducted his own studies by measuring mussels and seaweed on rocks that had once been underwater and concluded that the earthquake had lifted the rocks ten feet.

The next day the captain and the naturalist rode through Talcahuano and Concepción to survey the ruins. All of Concepción lay in heaps of bricks and timber, and debris clogged the streets, forcing Darwin to climb over piles several feet high to get from place to place. “The ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered,” he wrote in a letter home. “Solid buttresses 6-10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit.”

The earthquake had taken place at 11 A.M. and many residents had been outside, which probably saved thousands of lives. Darwin interviewed the English consul, who told him that he felt the first motion of the earthquake while eating breakfast and immediately ran outside, but only reached the courtyard before his house began to collapse behind him. The consul climbed atop part of the house that had already fallen, but the motion of the ground prevented him from standing. As he crawled up the pile of debris, the rest of the house collapsed. “The sky became dark from the dense cloud of dust; with his eyes blinded & mouth choked he at last reached the street,” Darwin wrote. “Shock succeeded shock at the interval of a few minutes; no one dared approach the shattered ruins; no one knew whether his dearest friends or relations were perishing from the want of help. The thatched roofs fell over the fires, & flames burst forth in all parts; hundreds knew themselves ruined & few had the means of procuring food for the day. Can a more miserable & fearful scene be imagined?”

Darwin guessed that “not more than 100” had died, although many others still lay buried in the rubble. In his longest diary entry from South America, Darwin described the ruins, theorized about the directional origin of the earthquake, wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck England—“the earthquake alone is sufficient to destroy the prosperity of a country,” he wrote—and delved briefly into earth science. He wrapped his musings up with a revealing comment about his own personality and the clash between his generally sympathetic nature and his lust for novelty—and geology. “It is a bitter & humiliating thing to see works which have cost men so much time & labour overthrown in one minute,” he concluded. “Yet compassion for the inhabitants is almost instantly forgotten by the interest excited in finding that state of things produced at a moment of time which one is accustomed to attribute to the succession of ages.”


Concepción, for the moment, is rebuilt. We expected to find sturdy, defensive-minded architecture, since major earthquakes had destroyed all or most of the city in 1570, 1657, 1835, and 1939. The largest recorded earthquake in human history, which struck offshore from Valdivia in 1960, caused by comparison only mild damage in Concepción. The subsequent tsunami, however—which also hit Japan, Hawaii, and the California coast—was devastating.

Josh and I arrived in the evening at a concrete bunker-style bus station in the middle of a rainstorm. We found a flea-ridden, dirty hovel on the edge of town and settled in for the night. Josh’s sagging bed cracked as he sat down. Within minutes of lying down, small welts began to appear on my arm and back, bringing to mind something Darwin had written about camping near Valdivia. “Our resting house was so dirty I preferred sleeping outside,” he wrote. “I am sure in the morning there was not the space of a shilling on my legs which had not its little red mark where the flea had feasted.”

Sometimes, in romanticizing Darwin’s trip as a wonderful adventure, I forgot that travel in the nineteenth century had certain blood-sucking disadvantages as well.

“I think something’s biting me,” I informed Josh.

He raised an eyebrow.

“Actually,” I continued, “I know something is biting me.”

We slept poorly. The hostel was full of laborers who woke up early to take breakfast and go to work. Someone started hammering something in the hallway outside our room at 7:15 A.M. I struggled out of bed and wandered down the hall. The bathroom was a miserable hole, with a rusting, dirty toilet and a shower that looked like something out of the better class of mystery novel. The shower had a huge crater in the middle of the tile, with a small metal grate not doing much to conceal it. There was a picture of a seahorse on the grate, though. I decided to skip the shower and trudged back to the room, where I flipped on the lights.

“I think they’re building an airplane out there,” Josh groaned.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” I said.

“I fully expect to walk out and see an assembled light craft in the hallway,” Josh said.


We switched hotels and found, to our surprise, that the rest of Concepción was not at all a miserable place. The University of Concepción, one of Chile’s finest, lent a good vibe to the city, small, high-character cafés stayed open late and proudly offered real coffee, and numerous clean, leafy plazas kept anything from feeling too industrial. The Plaza de Armas had a beautiful fountain in the middle and a nice, earthquake-safe cathedral on one end. The cathedral’s towers fell down in the 1939 earthquake (and earlier, in 1835, etcetera), and the citizenry evidently decided that they had watched their towers crumble enough times. So for now, no towers.

The 1835 quake, we discovered, was known as “La Ruina.” Concepción had suffered so many that each had been given a nickname.

We hiked over to ask the director of the regional history museum about earthquakes. It was starting to get a little bit old, going to museums in almost every town, but they were such useful little places, collections not just of local history but of local values, revealing so much about what the town prioritized. Stuffed birds and sheep shearing photos in Patagonia, a small display disparaging the native people’s keenness in Tierra del Fuego, the gold -tipped cane of an old Scottish lord in Valdivia. The Concepción museum featured dioramas about Chilean history. There were several depicting Indian raids and b a ttles, and finally near the end we found the earthquake diorama. Although it ostensibly showed the aftermath of the 1939 quake, it listed all the others, possibly on the assumption that a ruined town is a ruined town. Only the costumes and wrecked store signage would differentiate an 1835 pile of rubble from a 1939 pile of rubble. “The earthquake and tsunami known as La Ruina,” a small plaque read, “partly changed the physical geography of the place where its ferocious whips were felt for three days. This new disaster took place in Concepción February, 20, 1835, and included the zone between Coquimbo and the islands of the archipelago of Chiloé.”

Coquimbo and Chiloé are both 400 miles from Concepción, which means the scale of the quake was mind-boggling. Imagine an earthquake centered in San Francisco that’s felt along the entire California coast, or a quake in New York City shaking Montreal, Canada, and Richmond, Virginia. Various experts estimate the magnitude of La Ruina at 8.5 on the Richter scale, which would make it easily one of the top ten largest quakes in human history. One of the reasons the Richter scale is no longer in official use—at least in the United States—is that it’s fairly useless beyond a magnitude of about six, so who knows, really, what 8.5 means exactly. Since earthquake measurement didn’t start until the early twentieth century, a more exact magnitude wasn’t recorded. But that 8.5 estimate explains why Darwin was so fascinated, and why he struggled with feeling lucky to have been present. He had felt an earthquake so large as to be almost unimaginable. Most European geologists would have given their careers to witness such an event. And yet he also saw men crawling over ruins and entire families made homeless and hungry.

As we pondered the Playmobil-style men in the dior ama, a museum guard approached and indicated that we could see the director now. He led us upstairs to a small corner office where a very large man and a smaller, Smithers-like man sat facing a computer. It was easy to tell who was who.

Without looking up or facing us, the director asked us to wait a few minutes, while he and Smithers scanned photos of Concepción from the 1940s. Proportionally, the museum director put Santa Claus in mind, though he sported a nicely trimmed gray beard and the standard professor costume of vest and bowtie. A golden breastplate and sword hung on the wall, and I asked his back if they belonged to him. Without turning, he said yes, “They’re only replicas.”

“For wearing to parties?” I inquired. Smithers smiled, but the director didn’t turn.

Finally, the last photo appeared on his computer screen. He swiveled in his desk chair and looked us up and down and asked where we were from. “I’m from California,” I said. “And he’s from New York.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I can see that by how white he is.”

He paused and chuckled. “And you’ve got dark skin. You’re from the California sun.”

“Mediterranean,” I explained. “My mom’s family is Greek.”

“Ah,” he said. “Excellent. I’m European myself. Alejandro Mihovilovich Gratz.”

He whipped out a business card and I wrote down the name.

“So,” I said, by way of introduction. “What can you tell us about earthquakes?”

“What we have here, in Concepción, more than anything else, is earthquakes,” he replied. “This is a city of earthquakes.”

“The town has been destroyed seven times in the last 500 years,” I said. “Is there anything you can do to prepare?”

“I don’t worry,” he said. “You’re never prepared for an earthquake. If there’s another nine or ten, there’s nothing you can do.”

I tried again. Surely the town must have done something for seismic safety.

“How have people changed with so many earthquakes?”

He pulled out his coffee mug and set it on the edge of the desk. “They don’t put their things here,” he said. “They put them here.” And he moved the mug to the middle of the desk.

Gratz settled back into his chair and started to tell us about the tidal wave that followed the 1960 earthquake, which had been so powerful it lifted livestock out of their fields and tossed them high up in the air. “And there was a cow,” he said. “Moooo, you know?”

He glanced over at Josh, to make sure he understood. Josh nodded.

“And it was launched in the air, like this.”

He paused again, held his hands up and traced an arc in the air following the cow’s trajectory. I was reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Josh looked suitably impressed.

“It’s kind of refreshing to see a bit of fatalism,” he said as we left the museum.

“It’s a jolly fatalism,” I agreed. “It’s like a darkly comic version of Santa Claus.”

“I think in the United States we’ve lost a bit of that,” Josh said. “We’re so afraid of everything, and we spend so much thinking we can prevent and prepare for everything, and sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do.”

In the nineteenth century, the English were starting to feel that they could solve almost anything through technology. This attitude is obviously prevalent in the United States of the early twenty-first century. The earthquake reminded Darwin—as the museum director reminded us—that sometimes people really are helpless in the face of disaster. Although I enjoyed the museum director’s what-me-worry attitude, and his laughing at fate, Darwin reacted much more somberly. He’d “never again laugh” at the power of catastrophe, not after he had thought about it and realized how fragile England’s own infrastructure was.

One of Darwin’s most prized possessions on board the Beagle was a copy of geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. The book set out a case for why the earth had been shaped over millennia by the same forces familiar to ninteenth century scientists—erosion, wind, waves, volcanos, and earthquakes. Lyell and Darwin would become close friends after the voyage, bonding at first over the way Darwin set out with such intense interest to prove Lyell’s theories. Lyell in some ways returned the favor, as it was he, more than anyone else, who encouraged Darwin to publish The Origin of Species. But in 1835, still nothing more than Lyell’s number one fan, Darwin was laying the seeds of their friendship in his west coast explorations. After the wonders of rainforests and ostriches on the east coast, Darwin had gone to Chile and embraced geology. It was, he wrote at one point, practically all he could think about. Good thing, because as he headed into the Chilean north, rocks, and the stuff in them, became the biggest story in town.