Tsunami from Chile quake reached Syd­ney

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - History - TROY LEN­NON HIS­TORY EDI­TOR

Some­thing weird was hap­pen­ing on Syd­ney Har­bour in August 1868. A re­port in The Em­pire news­pa­per de­scribed it as “an ex­tra­or­di­nary tidal phe­nom­e­non … com­menc­ing dur­ing the ebb, about as near as can be as­cer­tained, a lit­tle be­fore 9 o’clock on Satur­day morn­ing.

“An ex­ces­sive flow of the tide then took place, the ex­tent of which may be gath­ered from the fact that it reached within a few feet of the foun­da­tion piers of the toll­house on the Pyr­mont Bridge, and ran out to a dis­tance of 15 ft from that point, in a less pe­riod of time than a quarter of an hour. This dis­tur­bance was wit­nessed at least four times in a pe­riod of two hours.”

The pa­per de­scribed boats be­ing tossed around, a large amount of sed­i­ment be­ing churned up, part of a sand spit be­ing washed away at Mid­dle Har­bour and wa­ter ap­pear­ing to “boil up”.

No­body could re­mem­ber seeing the wa­ters of the har­bour be­have in such a way be­fore. Peo­ple spec­u­lated on pos­si­ble causes.

Some blamed at­mo­spheric dis­tur­bances, but the pre­vail­ing winds were blow­ing from the west, not com­ing in from the ocean. Some spec­u­lated on the pos­si­ble effects of a com­ing so­lar eclipse or of a mys­te­ri­ous “sub­ma­rine dis­tur­bance”, but oth­ers won­dered if the waves could have been caused by an earth­quake.

News then be­gan to fil­ter through of tsunamis in Tas­ma­nia and New Zealand and soon it be­came ap­par­ent that an earth­quake was the most likely sus­pect. Just such an earth­quake had taken place across the other side of the Pa­cific in South Amer­ica.

A tremor es­ti­mated to have been of a mag­ni­tude about 8.5 to 9 struck Peru and Chile 150 years ago to­day, on August 13, 1868. The worst hit was the port town of Arica in what was then Peru (now in Chile).

Arica had been in­hab­ited by Na­tive Amer­i­cans for at least 10,000 years be­fore the Span­ish in­vaded in the 16th cen­tury. It was a place where over­land trade routes met with a fish­ing vil­lage and where goods were ex­changed for fish or taken fur­ther along the coast.

In 1541 Cap­tain Lu­cas Martinez de Begazo be­gan build­ing wharves to con­vert the vil­lage into a port for Span­ish ships. It be­came the main point of ex­port for sil­ver and gold mined in the re­gion and was of­fi­cially founded as the town of Arica in 1570.

The town was rich pick­ings for pi­rates; in 1579 Sir Fran­cis Drake raided the town.

Arica re­mained an im­por­tant en­tre­pot into the early 19th cen­tury when Chile and Peru as­serted their in­de­pen­dence from Spain.

In 1855 the Peru­vians built a rail­way line con­nect­ing Arica to the in­land city of Tacna. It be­came a ma­jor trade route. Goods were trans­ported over­land by pack mules to Tacna then sent by rail to Arica, loaded on ships to be taken around the world.

It was still a thriv­ing port when it was rocked by a quake which cen­tred off­shore from Arica at a point where the Nazca Plate slides be­neath the South Amer­i­can Plate.

The rum­bling be­gan at 5.15pm and some wit­nesses say it lasted for sev­eral min­utes, by which time many build­ings had been de­stroyed or badly dam­aged.

Twenty-five min­utes later, af­ter peo­ple de­cided it was safe to re­turn in­doors, an af­ter­shock buried more in fall­ing build­ings. Sur­vivors scur­ried back into the street and be­gan head­ing for the hills.

About 50 min­utes af­ter the first quake, those res­i­dents who chose to re­main were struck by a sec­ond, more deadly, disas­ter. Eye­wit­nesses say they saw the sea sud­denly rush away leav­ing the ships in the har­bour on a dry seabed. The wa­ters then rushed back as huge waves, some as high as 16m.

Ships that were cap­sized, swamped or dashed to pieces on rocks were car­ried in­land. Civil War gun­boat USS Wateree ended up 390m away from the shore, with the loss of just one sea­man. They were more for­tu­nate than their com­rades aboard the Fre­do­nia who all per­ished when the ship was de­stroyed.

About 25,000 peo­ple were killed or in­jured in the earth­quake in Arica. But many other towns along the coast were also in­un­dated by the tidal wave, and it is be­lieved as many as 70,000 died.

The effects were felt all the way across the Pa­cific.

In New Zealand sev­eral peo­ple were killed try­ing to res­cue a small boat when the ocean rushed out leav­ing the boat stranded on sand.

Back in Arica peo­ple tried to pick up the pieces. From their beached ship the crew of the Wateree dis­pensed aid to the Ari­cans. The ship was later deemed to be un­sal­vage­able and sold and used as a hos­pi­tal, an inn and a store­house. Parts of the ship still re­main there as a mon­u­ment to tragedy.

An illustration of the tidal wave af­ter an earth­quake at Arica in 1868; and (be­low) the USS Wateree. Main pic­ture: State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria

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