Chilean Disasters and the Middle Period, 1750–1850, in Spanish American History: The 1751 and 1835 Concepción Earthquakes and State Responses

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Quinn P. Dauer, Indiana University Southeast
Traditional Latin American historiography uses the wars of independence (1810-1824) to divide the colonial from the national period. Instead, using the middle period (1750-1850) as a framework, historians can better trace changes and continuities between the colonial and national periods. Studies of disasters often focus on one catastrophic event.  Including multiple disaster events, however, allows for the observation of the state-formation process over a longer time frame. The 1751 and 1835 Concepción earthquakes, provide opportunities to study how the Spanish Crown and the embryonic Chilean state responded to disasters.  Urban studies of Chile have focused on the country’s capital and chief port city, largely ignoring secondary cities such as Concepción.

In 1751, a seismic shock leveled the frontier outpost of Concepción and prompted officials to propose new sites for the town on firmer ground. Earthquakes and tsunamis previously destroyed the settlement in 1570, 1657, and 1730. In the aftermath of the 1751 catastrophe, the bishop, municipal officials, Chilean Governor, Peruvian Viceroy, and Consejo de Indias clashed over rebuilding proposals for the frontier garrison. The 1835 earthquake hampered Concepción’s and the surrounding region’s return to normalcy after the wars of independence and political upheavals of the 1820s. The catastrophe led to a poor harvest and an epidemic spread throughout the area in the disaster’s aftermath. The president and his government took immediate action to provide relief and begin the rebuilding process. A scientific commission, sponsored by the intendant, examined the city’s structural damage and studied possible locations to rebuild the city. Despite recommendations to move the urban center’s foundation, citizens remained and initiated reconstruction in the same place. In both cases, political elites argued over the shape and location of rebuilding, but subjects and citizens living in Concepción ultimately determined where they rebuilt their homes and businesses.

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