The Twin Disasters in Santiago de Cuba (1766) and San Cristobal (1880), Cuba: Comparing and Contrasting Bourbon Reform to Laissez-Faire Disaster Mitigation

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 11:20 AM
Elizabeth Ballroom H (Hyatt)
Sherry Johnson , Florida International University, Miami, FL
In mid-summer 1766, a devastating earthquake struck the eastern city of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba, destroying most of the structures in the city. A century later, the same fault line that produced the 1766 catastrophe (and the earthquake in 1692, examined in Mulcahy’s paper) shifted again, generating an earthquake that was felt in Havana but wrought its greatest destruction in the small town of San Cristobal. A visiting party of North American dignitaries including former US president Ulysses S. Grant, lieutenant general Philip H. Sheridan, and their entourage were eyewitnesses to the latter earthquake, and reporters accompanying the party left sketches and newspaper articles as evidence of the catastrophe.

The twin disasters raised questions of authority and the efficacy of governmental control. Who, if anyone, was responsible for responding to the crisis? In 1766, the Church was the first responder, but one key tenet of the Enlightenment was to reduce the Church’s influence. After 1763, the government chose to take over the recovery functions once accomplished by ecclesiastical officials, and the Santiago de Cuba earthquake became the first real test of such reform measures. A century later, a weakened Spanish government combined with laissez-faire economic policies made the metropolitan response less effective than it had been a century previous. Rather than advancing, governmental mitigation efforts receded. Disaster mitigation programs implemented 100 years apart in Cuba can be compared and contrasted to responses in other areas of the empire (notably Lima, Peru for the 18th century and with Dauer’s paper, next) to speculate upon change and continuity in responding to catastrophe