As part of our Environmental History month on the blog, I am going to discuss the effects of man-made and natural disasters and the effect that these types of environments have on society. There have been many well-documented instances of both natural and man-made disasters and I intend to draw the attention to two from each category.
Shaanxi Earthquake, China
In 1556, one of the most devastating earthquakes tore through Shaanxi in central China, killing nearly 1,000,000 people. This region of China has boiling summers and freezing winters, so to try to accommodate a home for both extremes, the Chinese started to burrow into the hillsides, a tradition which has been maintained for over 2,000 years. The soil is soft and can be tunnelled through, sometimes to depths of hundreds of metres in order to build yaodongs (caves). However, as the soil is so light, it means that it is highly unstable and can collapse easily; these structures would therefore not survive the earthquake of 1556. Estimates on the modern scale put the earthquake at around an 8.0 magnitude and everything within 1,300sqkm was destroyed, landslides were triggered on the hillsides and therefore the yaodongs were completely compressed. Accounts from the time described scenes of mountains and rivers changing places and roads being destroyed. In some places the ground rose up creating new hills, or sank abruptly creating new valleys. In today’s society, there are close to 40,000,000 people still living in these caves and it begs the question, if 1,000,000 died 450 years ago, how many would perish today if history was to repeat itself. This may not have been the biggest earthquake, but it was responsible for the deaths of the most people killed by an earthquake.
Mount Vesuvius, Italy
On an early August morning in 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted. An eyewitness account from Pliny the Younger was the only surviving written evidence of this eruption and since, many geologists and volcanologists have visited the buried towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to study the sites. Vesuvius spewed toxic clouds of ash, gas and fumes to a height of 20.5 miles and released around a hundred times more thermal energy than the atomic bomb, killing an estimated 16,000 and leaving towns still today, perfectly preserved in their natural state since the eruption. The main cause of death was due to the hydrothermal pyroclastic flows; these were fast-moving currents of hot gas and rock which can reach up to 450mph and tend to flow down the volcano and across the ground if there is not sufficient heat to carry the plume upwards. There was no possible way for the majority of lives to have been saved without modern technology to detect unusual volcanic activity. Pliny the Younger reports that minor tremors in the region ‘were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania’. However, there were a series of small earthquakes leading up to the supposed date of the eruption and locals may have noted the strengthening of the tremors, not the possible outcome. ‘It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.’ (Pliny the Younger)
Christopher Columbus, the New World
In the 1490s, Christopher Columbus was given financial support from Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain to go on a voyage to discover the East Indies. However, before he reached his destination, he came across the Americas – a land those in Europe had never before discovered (at least that had been documented), and so Columbus aptly named it the ‘New World’. His discovery of the Americas spans from 1492-1504, where he makes four voyages, the last in 1502 reaching the mainland.
Columbus said of the Indians: ‘So tractable, so peaceful are these people, that I swear to your Majesties there is no better nation on earth. They love their neighbours as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile.’ However, although stating that they would make excellent slaves, the Caribbean natives were nearly exterminated by the extreme brutality of the colonists and the impact of diseases of which they had no resistance – the first epidemic of smallpox in Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) in 1507 was said to have wiped out entire communities. This forced the Spanish to venture further into mainland America in search of slaves.
In 1519, the Conquistadors began the massacre of Southern and Meso-Americans. Cortes was elected Captain of the third expedition to the mainland – however, at the last-minute, orders were revoked for the potential colonisation of Mexico. Cortes ignored the orders and in an act of open mutiny, arrived in Mexico with around 500 men. Cortes ensured he had allies within the Aztec population and through these he learnt of the treasures of their people, but also the horrors. The act of ritual sacrifice, which became the defining feature of Mexican civilisation, came as a shock to Cortes and his men. A local rebellion triggered the extermination of the Aztec empire. However, before torturing and killing Montezuma (the Aztec emperor) and seizing Mexico City in 1521, Cortes made several attempts to convert him to Christianity, as if this could justify the entire conquest. Before 1519, the population was estimated to be around 12 million, however in 1600, there were only 1 million. The three main reasons were deliberate mass murder – scourging for treasures locals would not relinquish or rebellions that could not be quashed through anything but death. Death as a result of forced labour and malnourishment and as Todorov states, the natives were in ‘microbe shock’ by which the majority of the population were infected and died off.
These are only a few examples of both natural and man-made disasters. Today, men are still engaging in the most destructive of man-made disasters; war. Each day spent fighting against one another is another day changing the environment and the society that surrounds it. There is no disaster that can be classed as more destructive than the next, each in their own time had a massive effect on the environment, and therefore it makes it impossible to judge literally. However, humanely, man-made disasters are the worst, purposefully creating havoc and causing death is never the answer when trying to gain authority. To conclude, it is easy to sit and judge which disaster caused more destruction than another, however, I think it is more important to take from this a history lesson. If changes in the first century, even in the 1500s to the environment were anything to go by, imagine the damage that is being caused today.