A Brief History of Most Devastating Earthquakes Part 2

Aco Momcilovic
7 min readMay 3, 2020


Interviewer: Aco Momcilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, PhD, Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

Part 1 is available here: https://medium.com/@acomomcilovic/a-brief-history-of-the-most-devastating-earthquakes-part-1-a91a560f1a53

In the aftermath of the Zagreb 2020 earthquake, many questions have arisen, and to answer some of them I again turned to history experts. It seems that earthquakes claimed millions of lives only in the last 100 years, and surprisingly unlike in many other areas, improvements in technology “have only slightly reduced the death toll”. They are dispersed around the world in the critical areas, and they did force us to build in a smarter way. In the past we attributed their causes to many different things, and today we have much clearer scientific information about their origins, yet, it seems they still make us feel helpless. How did our ancestors deal with all those questions? Hopefully we will get some answers in my interview with Mirko Sardelić.

1. How did people deal with the damage earthquakes caused? Did any country/empire or ruler undertake some actions to help the victims?

The help for the victims of the Messina earthquake of 1908 was quite international. Russian, French, and English battleships and cruisers that joined the relief, as well as sailors of the US Great White Fleet joined relief efforts. The high extent of the grave situation was evident in the measures imposed by Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti. The martial law dictated that all looters (even if it had been just for food, to survive) were to be shot.

There are differences in the response towards hardening structures after the quakes. Italy has been hit by dozens of quite strong earthquakes in the last fifty years. Still, the majority of the renovated buildings unfortunately does not comply with anti-earthquake standards. This can be analysed from several angles, including the profile and age of Italian traditional architecture. Infrastructure approaches and the cultural heritage protection standards are somewhat different than, for example, in Japan, a country which is proverbially shaken quite often. Furthermore, the anti-seismic regulation in Italy dates from the 1970s, while the same regulation in Japan started in the 1920s.

The Great Hanshin earthquake, known also as the Kobe quake of 1995, saw some quite positive aspects of responding to the second worst earthquake in Japan in the 20th century. Firstly, there were more than a million volunteers helping the relief efforts in the first 90 days following the disaster. There were more than 120,000 structures that fully or partially collapsed — it took three full years to completely remove the debris. Secondly, a relatively poor response to the catastrophe on the national level was significantly improved; for instance, the government can hold the emergency meeting of its crisis management team in 30 minutes nowadays. Some other urban, political, and social measures were taken, and one can expect quite better response in the future. Nonetheless, the merciless chthonic strength that in 1995 ashamed Japanese engineers, arguably the world’s finest, still poses questions that pend over the heads of the government.

2. Did laws adapt to the possibility of earthquakes, and when did people start to think about the insurance?

Earthquake insurance is a quite complex issue, so governments and insurance companies deal with it in different ways. The complexity lies in the nature of this disaster — it strikes almost indiscriminately all structures in a particular area. On top of that — which is a problem for both homeowners and insurance companies — the quakes are very often accompanied by other elements, such as fires and floods, largely due to problems with gas or water pipes. Unfortunately for everyone, the earthquake rarely comes alone, but rather with some several nasty companions.

In Turkey, for example, the earthquake insurance is compulsory. In Japan, there is an Earthquake Reinsurance scheme (started in 1966 and revised several times) through which the government helps the insurers with billions of US dollars (up to $ 40 billion in a single year). In the US not many people buy earthquake insurance, even fewer in Italy where less than 1% of homeowners are insured for earthquakes. Italy has quite an unpleasant tradition of being uninsured for natural disasters. Attempts to introduce it failed for two main reasons: the costs involved and the difficulties in assessing the risk.

3. Is there a difference in the cultures that differently approach the explanation of earthquakes?

As I mentioned in our previous interview, there are cultural variations in ways how people experience and express emotions. Nevertheless, some constants have been described across cultures. For example, when it comes to disgust, members of all cultures react to the following: bodily excretions (feces, vomit, blood); something rotten, diseased or dying; filthy places; sexual intercourse with the members of one’s family; heavy injuries. Disgust protects us from pathogens and other harmful influences.

Similarly, fear protects us from dangers. There are so many noted phobias, such as acrophobia (fear of heights) or pyrophobia (fear of fire), but they all could be categorized in just several groups, shared by all cultures. The ultimate fear that can provoke terrible anxieties is of existential nature, or simplified: the fear of death, of no longer being. Secondly, there is a fear that something will happen to our body, that we’ll lose a limb, or it will be invaded by a foreign matter/agent; this provokes the fear of snakes, insects, bacteria. The third fear relates to the loss of autonomy: that we’ll get trapped, immobilized, confined (claustrophobia in all forms). The fourth is the fear of loss, abandonment, rejection; while the fifth is the fear of ego-death — i.e. the collapse of our constructed sense of all the elements (often not palpable) that make us the persons we are.

In this sense, it is obvious that there are elements of several fear categories connected to earthquakes (seismophobia). Humans fear for their life, there are serious threats that the falling debris will provoke injuries to their bodies, or trap them beneath the rubble. This might be an explanation of why we all feel a state of shock after a serious earthquake, and why people may display questionable behaviour just after the disaster. A cocktail of very unpleasant emotions leaves traumas on everyone.

4. Do we have earthquakes mentioned in literature or other forms of art?

From the Greco-Roman traditions I can remember only short but powerful references to all sorts of ‘shakings’ attributed to gods and their activity. The London earthquake of 1580 was so powerful that it found a reference in, among other literary works, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Nurse (Act 1, scene 3) takes it as a milestone, dividing the time before and after: “Tis since the earthquake now eleven years”. Gentleman Arthur Golding, who famously translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the work that inspired Shakespeare and so many others, wrote a Discourse upon the earthquake, just one of three of his original writings.

Approximately once every 200 years, a powerful earthquake wreaks havoc on Lisbon, Portugal. After terrible shakes of 1321 and 1531, the 1755 earthquake (one of the most destructive in history) was well documented in visual depictions and documents. This earthquake is also important because of the questionnaire created by famous Portugal statesman Marquis of Pombal. This document was sent to all parishes of the country, asking information about the direction in which buildings collapsed, the change in the sea level, fires, and some quite intelligent details which were very useful for scholars to reconstruct the nature of the earthquake and the extent of the damage. This was indeed the first attempt to describe an earthquake with a scientific method and the Marquis was considered a proto-seismologist.

There is a quite impressive collection of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints that allegorically depict earthquakes and the abovementioned giant fish Namazu who causes them. One can clearly contrast those with realistic images of late 18th-century paintings and engravings of the Portugal earthquake. In the collection related to the Great Nobi quake of 1891 one notices some elements of a cross-cultural ‘tension’. Namely, one of the favourite motifs of Japanese artists was the destruction of Western imports, such as railroads, telegraph wires, and brick buildings in earthquakes. Japan opened to the West in 1853 and many of these features of contemporary engineering and technologies were brought to Japan. They were regarded as supreme until the nature challenged these achievements of civil engineering.

In a more recent history, I read about Christina McPhee and Susan Norrie, artists who created video and digital representations of quakes associated with memory and emotional response such as fear, traumas and anxieties. They explored correlations between seismic activity and human mind, the triggers and reactivations of traumatic memories. Performance artists can quite interestingly represent and interpret the intertwining of all these phenomena such as the tremendous activity and the power of nature, the fragility of humans, and all the triggered psychological states — the immediate and those lingering for weeks, months, years.

When it starts shaking, there are a lot of these seismic waves that truly play with our bodies and minds, in various ways. The energy unleashed by the most powerful earthquakes is sometimes beyond imagination, it could power whole countries for months. An earthquake was recorded that slightly changed the rotation of our planet. More probable ones, those in magnitude of 6.0, have the energy of a nuclear bomb. There are earthquake simulators — at the Natural history museum in London, for example — that can give some ideas of how terrifying they can be. Hopefully that will be as close as you will ever get to experiencing one of these devastating quakes.



Aco Momcilovic

Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…