- Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru and its Long Aftermath
The earth shuddered and convulsed. In just three minutes the city suddenly became “a frightening place, like a war scene put to the sword and set to fire, its beautiful buildings turned into piles of dirt and stones. . . . Dogs, hunched next to cadavers and with their eyes to the sky, gave such great howls that even the most insensitive broke into tears.” It was 10:30 p.m., October 28, 1746, when most of the inhabitants of Lima, the viceregal capital of Spain’s South American treasure house, were settling down inside their homes, the worst possible moment for an earthquake to occur. By modern calculation it registered 8.0–8.5 on the Richter scale. A half-hour later a giant tsunami washed over the nearby port of Callao. One observer recalled that the floating bodies of the dead served as “birdseed,” with “the sea vomit[ing] bodies for months, naked cadavers half eaten by fish.” The death toll was appalling—5,000 out of a population of 50,000 in Lima and virtually the entire 6,000 inhabitants of the port. [End Page 544]
Taking his cue from what Robert Darnton calls “incident analysis,” Andean historian Charles Walker has homed in on Lima’s earthquake-tsunami of the mideighteenth century to dissect the disaster and its repercussions in a highly readable and analytically penetrating study. While the recent events in Haiti, Chile, and our own Katrina remind us that such natural disasters take a devastating toll in lives, human suffering, and economic loss, they nevertheless also create the possibility for change, reform, and modernization. Shaky Colonialism takes a similar, if early modern, line of inquiry, focusing on the Viceroy’s attempt to reshape what was the epitome of a Spanish Baroque counter-reformation city in South America into a shining example of Bourbon enlightened colonialism. In doing so, the author revises the standard time frame for the onset of the modernizing project of the Bourbons in South America to 1746 and its aftermath rather than the reign of Charles III (1759–88).
More importantly, Walker deftly shows how the Viceroy’s ambitious attempts to rebuild and change the city along more orderly, rational, and modern lines of the European enlightenment provoked intense opposition and conflict from elites, the church, and even Lima’s multiracial plebeian inhabitants. This was perhaps not surprising, as the author reminds us, in a society already fractured along deep social, political, and cultural fault lines based on race, class, gender, and caste. Nor would a city accustomed to Baroque-style elaborate, sumptuous, sensuous, political, religious, and social celebrations and an enormous clerical presence (46 churches and monasteries and a clergy representing 20 percent of the population) yield easily to the centralizing, secularizing, and anticlerical reforms proposed by the Bourbons’ viceroy in response to the great earthquake. As the conflicts erupted over how to respond to the 1746 disaster, one can also discern, according to Walker, the seeds for the eventual rupture that would lead to the demise of Spanish rule in South America three quarters of a century later.
Among other things, the Viceroy sought to restore control over what he viewed as a socially and religiously chaotic city, even before the earthquake. This meant reining in the excessive expressions of public piety and overindulgence of religiosity for which the city was well known and curtailing the notorious show of ostentation and immorality of the elites who flaunted and displayed their wealth as evidence of their power, prestige, and independence. This proved to be no easy task, for the earthquake and its aftermath seemed to exacerbate the recalcitrance and independence of both groups, thereby posing a threat to royal absolutism that intensified during the reign of the reforming Charles III.
Walker’s skillfully constructed and thoroughly researched study is therefore more than a simple account of the earthquake-tsunami of 1746. It is rather a history of eighteenth-century Lima...