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On November 1, 1755--All Saints' Day--a massive earthquake struck Europe's Iberian Peninsula and destroyed the city of Lisbon. Churches collapsed upon thousands of worshippers celebrating the holy day. Earthquakes in Human History tells the story of that calamity and other epic earthquakes. The authors, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, recapture the power of their previous book, Volcanoes in Human History. They vividly explain the geological processes responsible for earthquakes, and they describe how these events have had long-lasting aftereffects on human societies and cultures. Their accounts are enlivened with quotations from contemporary literature and from later reports.
In the chaos following the Lisbon quake, government and church leaders vied for control. The Marquês de Pombal rose to power and became a virtual dictator. As a result, the Roman Catholic Jesuit Order lost much of its influence in Portugal. Voltaire wrote his satirical work Candide to refute the philosophy of "optimism," the belief that God had created a perfect world. And the 1755 earthquake sparked the search for a scientific understanding of natural disasters.
Ranging from an examination of temblors mentioned in the Bible, to a richly detailed account of the 1906 catastrophe in San Francisco, to Japan's Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, to the Peruvian earthquake in 1970 (the Western Hemisphere's greatest natural disaster), this book is an unequaled testament to a natural phenomenon that can be not only terrifying but also threatening to humankind's fragile existence, always at risk because of destructive powers beyond our control.
Weekend scholars and disaster fans will find the physical and the social sciences blend interestingly, if sometimes a bit awkwardly, in this study of earthquakes across the centuries. As in their previous book, Volcanoes in Human History, coauthors de Boer and Sanders consider the repercussions of natural disasters on everything from literature and religion to politics and science. Early chapters consider biblical references to a quaking earth ("the coincidence of easy passage across the Jordan and the easy conquest of Jericho suggests the aftermath of a major earthquake") and show how 14th- and 18th-century earthquakes in England and Portugal were taken as signs from God (encouraged by fiery preacher John Wesley, Londoners who had suffered through several small quakes in 1750 saw Portugal's disastrous 1755 quake as yet another warning of God's displeasure with sinners). A discussion of the New Madrid, Mo., quake of 1811 notes that while it was one of the strongest ever recorded in North America (it was followed by 1,874 aftershocks), it remains relatively unknown because the region was little populated. Modern-era quakes in San Francisco (1906), Kanto, Japan (1923), Peru (1970) and Nicaragua (1972) round out the book; the links between seismic aftermath and revolutionary ferment in the latter two countries nicely pinpoint the significant interplay between planetary and sociopolitical upheaval. Illus.