Maria Graham and the Valparaíso Earthquake

An earthquake in Chile and the observations of eye-witness Maria Graham caused open hostility among 19th-century geologists.

Lady Maria Callcott, author and traveller, painted by her second husband Augustus Wall Callcott, c.1830. Government Art Collection. Public Domain.

‘Small Earthquake in Chile, Not many dead.’ The journalist Claud Cockburn supposedly won a prize for dreaming up this notoriously dull newspaper headline, although it seems never to have been used. In contrast, the very real Valparaiso earthquake of 19 November 1822 was immensely newsworthy: it killed or injured around 500 people, razed entire villages to the ground and prompted a tsunami. One on-the-spot eye-witness, Maria Graham, described how a 100-mile stretch of coast had been lifted several feet above its former level so that ‘the ancient bed of the sea laid bare and dry, with beds of oysters, muscles, and other shells adhering to the rocks on which they grew, the fish being dead and exhaling most offensive effluvia.’

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