to Mr. Evarts.
Caracas, June 5, 1878. (Received July 1.)
Sir: Deeming the communication of such information to be fairly covered by section XIX of the printed “Personal Instructions to the [Page 935] Diplomatic Agents of the United States” I have the honor to send to you an account of the earthquake at Cúa, which occurred at or about 20 minutes before 9 o’clock p.m. on Friday, the 12th day of April last.
According to the best information that I have been able to procure, Cúa was a city of some 5,000 inhabitants, situated in a valley of the Andes bearing the name of Tui, and at a direct distance of about 24 miles south by east from Caracas, although the road by which it is approached from the latter city is something near double that distance.
From Prof. Adolph Ernst, of the University of Caracas, who informs me that he reached the scene of the disaster on the 18th of April and remained till the 20th, I learn that the ill-fated city is partly situated upon high ground penetrating into the valley from its northern rim, and partly upon lower contiguous land lying to the east, south, and west, and that the destruction of life and property was very much greater in the former than in the latter portion of the city, a difference which Professor Ernst is disposed to attribute to the different geological formations of the two sites.
The shock was felt at Caracas at or about the same time that Cúa was prostrated, and it was so violent that the entire city was filled with consternation and alarm. Great numbers of the people rushed from their houses and assembled in the plazas, where many of them remained during the rest of the night. The Plaza Bolivar was thus occupied for some time afterward, and many of the inhabitants improvised temporary shelters, either in the court-yards of their houses or other open places, under which they slept. When I drove in to Caracas, near midnight on the 14th of May, among the first and most curious things that I observed in the bright moonlight were long rows of soldiers sleeping on the sidewalk around the Capitol buildings. I was told next day that this was on account of the earthquake, and that the open street was considered safer than the barracks. I observed soldiers occupying the same resting-place for a number of successive nights after my arrival, but they have lately disappeared.
One of the observations which I have made is that native Venezuelans appear to be more keenly alive than strangers to the danger of earthquakes, a curious reversal of the usual rule that familiarity with danger lessens our dread of it, an observation, by the way, which I believe is equally applicable to all countries subject to earthquakes. It is said here that the reason of this is that the natives know what an earthquake, is, with the implication that strangers do not.
The following paragraphs, which I translate from La Opinion Nacional, of Saturday, April 13, will give some idea of the shock of the preceding night, as felt at Caracas, and of its effect upon the inhabitants of the city:
Last night at 20 minutes before 9 o’clock, the bells of the Cathedral gave forth a strange and irregular sound, which caused some people to think for an instant that they had struck a quarter to nine. It was the effect of a violent commotion of the earth, which put the whole city in profound alarm.
In a few seconds another shock was felt, more violent than the first, and like it, of an oscillatory character, according to experts in the observation of these phenomena. Instantly the Plaza Bolivar was filled with hundreds of persons, many of them aghast with terror, and seeking a place of safety in case of a catastrophe. In all the streets there were runnings, outcries, and scenes more or less tragic or comic, although truly enough the thing was not to be taken calmly. Many of the most wealthy families in the city left immediately for their houses in the country; others took the precaution to sleep in court-yards and coaches in the open air; and others finally repaired in great numbers to the Plaza Bolivar, and other public places, where they remained till long after midnight.
Fortunately the dreadful menace was not repeated, and the morning found Caracas wearing her usual aspect.
The following, which I translate from another article in the same number of the Opinion, will give some idea of the considerable range of the earthquake, and of the form in which the first news from Cúa reached Caracas:
Last night the telegraph transmitted similar notices of the shock having been felt at the same hour with great force and causing a great panic among the inhabitants at La Guaira, Puerto Cabello, Valencia, Maracai, La Victoria, and Los Teques. It is known that the inhabitants of none of these towns have suffered any fatal casualties.
Would that we might say the same of other cities and towns situated almost in the immediate neighborhood of the capital, and concerning which rumors were carried in the course of the day which rill the mind with anxiety and distress. Of Cúa especially it is said, in a way which we consider authentic, that the whole city was destroyed by the earthquake, which occasioned great ruin and loss, and what is still more painful, the loss of several lives, only the straw-covered ranches being left standing.
The first direct communication from Cúa which I find appears in the Opinion of Monday, April 15, three days after the earthquake. It is as sententious as the calamity which it announces, and I give it in English, as follows:
Cúa, April 12, 1878.
Men of Caracas: At a quarter to nine Cúa was destroyed by a great earthquake; Tell us what has happened with you. For the survivors.
IDE D. ROO.
The same number of the Opinion contains a communication from Cúa of April 14, addressed by Mr. Genaro Espejo to the cabinet ministers of the government at Caracas; and from this I translate a single paragraph descriptive of the situation shortly after the earthquake.
The situation of Cúa since the occurrence of the great catastrophe is beyond measure frightful and threatening. Consternation and terror reign in the minds of the inhabitants, and it is impossible to portray in its gloomy anguish the affliction and distress of those who have, thanks to Providence, survived the catastrophe.
The Opinion of the 16th of April contains a communication from a commission consisting of Dr. Thomas Lander and General Pablo Manzano, sent by the government to Cúa. It is dated Cúa, April 15, 1878, 7.30 p.m., and is addressed to the cabinet ministers. From this document I translate the following part:
We arrived safely. The spectacle which we behold is disastrous, horrible, indescribable. Where before stood the beautiful, rich, and flourishing city of Cúa, there is now nothing but ruin, desolation, and horror. Only some huts, covered with straw or tiles, or upheld by forks, are left standing in the environs. A great part of the population were buried in the ruins; the rest are encamped in the open air. Many are severely wounded and bruised; everything excites compassion. We repeat to you, the picture is indescribable.
It appears that for some time after the earthquake of the 12th of April (whether the like yet continues to any extent I am not informed) Cúa was subject to considerable subterranean agitation, repeated at intervals, and this will explain the “threatening” aspect of the situation referred to above. Concerning this feature of the general phenomenon, I translate the following from the document last above quoted:
Last night at a quarter past nine distant sounds were plainly heard at this place similar to the reports of cannon discharged at successive instants. At a quarter past eleven there was a forcible, loud, and prolonged earthquake, since which there has been another, less intense.
It appears, also, that the earthquake has produced considerable physical changes upon the surface of the earth in and about Cúa. In illustration [Page 937] of this, I translate from an editorial of the Opinion under date of April 15:
On the other hand, report is made of some particular phenomena which have manifested themselves within the radius of Cúa; such as the sudden suppression of a sulphurous fountain, and the appearance of others; the extraordinary increase of the rivulet Quebrada de la Magdalena in the country outside of the city, and which before had scarcely supplied a thread of water; and the appearance of fissures in various directions, which are most notable in the highway.
The following paragraph, which I translate from a communication of Professor Ernst, as it appears in the Opinion of April 22, and written on his return from Cúa, may afford some scientific idea of the general character of the phenomenon:
The details of the earthquake are already sufficiently known. The shock came from the east-northeast, at an angle of about sixty degrees of emergence, as shown by the fractures in various walls which were not entirely overthrown. The center of the commotion was the elevated portion of Cúa. The houses in the lower part (Lemon, Cruz Verde, and the streets leading to San Casimiro and Chupulun) have suffered comparatively little. In regard to the time of the disaster, nothing can be determined with accuracy. Many say it was thirty minutes after eight; but this cannot be, since the shock was felt at Caracas at forty-one minutes after eight, and the wave of the earthquake would have traversed the distance between Cúa and Caracas, which is scarcely eight leagues, in about two minutes.
In going from Cúa, no matter in which direction, a rapid diminution is observed in the intensity of the disaster. This is especially observable in Charayare. The area of destruction was, therefore, of very limited extent, a circumstance which contributes no little to the great scientific interest of this earthquake. I do not find many instances in the history of seismic commotions, in which so disastrous a catastrophe was limited almost to a single point.
As to the loss of life it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to get exact statistics. In the article just quoted, Professor Ernest says that perhaps the number of victims would reach four hundred, or 13 per cent, of the population; and he tells me that he thinks a still larger number were badly hurt; hence, we may suppose that about one-fourth of the entire population of the city were either killed outright or severely injured.
Mr. Charles A. Reyes, of this city, who informs me that he visited Cúa on the 17th of April—five days after the earthquake—says that some of the bodies of the victims were then being burned, and that the air in some of the streets was very offensive.
It seems that the curious social law that great calamities (whether in the form of war, famine, pestilence, conflagration, or earthquake) are associated with a tendency to a sudden increase of crime, held good in the present case. I am told that the tendency to increased lawlessness manifested itself in the midst of the desolation and ruin of Cúa, but that the intervention of the authorities held it in check.
I have only to add that, according to my information, government, church, and citizens united with praiseworthy liberality in forwarding aid to the sufferers. President Alcantara visited Cúa in person; food, clothing, money, medical stores, and assistance were hurried forward to the scene of the disaster; and, I am told, it is proposed to found an asylum for the orphans of Cúa at Caracas.
I have, & c.,
P. S.—Imperfect as the foregoing account may be, it is for the most part purposely written in the very language of cotemporary documents, and it is certainly the more accurate and reliable for being so written. The phenomena are clearly of scientific and popular interest, whether viewed in their physical or social aspect.