Daily Archives: October 17, 2012

Atlantic Earthquakes

I experienced my very first earthquake last night, and even though it was a small one by global standards (4.5 on the Richter Scale) it was scary. I happened to be in the Salem Athenaeum (a brick building) when it occured, next to several tall windows, which shook vigorously along with the rest of the building for about a minute. There was no mistaking it for anything else. For me, it was a sensation without precedent, and my first thought (sadly) was for my tall brick chimneys back home. As stunning as it was, this earthquake was not enough to end the meeting I was attending, so after an hour or so I returned home to still-standing chimneys and a husband and stepson who didn’t even notice the earthquake!  I wanted to make sure that I and my fellow library trustees had not fallen into a parallel universe, so I turned on the television and googled and found that indeed, there had been an earthquake in New England and that its epicenter was in southern Maine–where my parents live!  A quick phone call reassured me that not only were they just fine, but they too had failed to notice the earth shaking under their feet (in a Chinese restaurant).

When you search for “New England Earthquake” on Google, you are going to be directed first and foremost to sites related to the Cape Ann Earthquake of 1755, not yesterday’s little quake.  The mid-eighteenth century earthquake, estimated to have been between 6.0 and 6.3 in strength and centered in the Atlantic Ocean just off Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts, must have been an extremely unnerving event not only because of its impact (as many as 1800 chimneys fell down in Boston) but also because it happened only 17 days after the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which (combined with a subsequent fire and tsunami) leveled that city. As news and impressions of both quakes set in, they were linked together by commentators up and down the Eastern seaboard.  This was the middle of the eighteenth century, the century of Enlightenment, but the majority opinion was still more focused on God’s wrath, as illustrated by Boston preacher Jeremiah Newland’s Verses Occasioned by the Earthquakes in the Month of November, 1755.  Addressing the “God of Mercy”, Newland writes:

Thy terrible Hand is on the Land,
by bloody War and Death ; It is becaufe we broke thy Laws,
that thou didst shake the Earth.

1755 Broadside, Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society; Contemporary woodcut of the Lisbon Earthquake and “Ruins of Lisbon immediately after the Earthquake and Fire of 1 November, 1755”, print by Robert Sayer after Le Bas, British Museum.

Like many of his fellow contemporary sermon writers, Newland displays no faith in science or reason in his Verses but he does have an “Atlantic” perspective, which is interesting.  And far from ceasing, the “bloody war and death” he references would only intensify in the very next year when the Seven Years’ War began, an epic conflict fought on both sides of the Atlantic.

%d bloggers like this: