Earthquakes have been rocking the Philippines for the last few months. This should be expected given that our country is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. However, frequent reminders from Philvocs for the “Big One” combined with fake news providing “earthquake forecasts” has been causing some panic for the populace. To make matters worse, a clueless politician a month ago suspended a mining exploration company fearing that their operations might be causing the earthquakes originating from their province. This basically exposes the truth that we still have a lot to learn – not just science but also history.
Why history? History tells us that our country has been ravaged by very strong earthquakes in the past, with the 1976 Moro Gulf earthquake being the deadliest of all. We also had the 2013 Bohol earthquake, 2010 Mindanao earthquake, the 1990 Luzon earthquake, and the 1880 Luzon earthquake. Strongest recorded magnitudes have been around 8.2 to 8.0 in the moment magnitude scale. However, no earthquakes seemed to be the most impactful than the “big one” of 1863. It did not just kille and injured people but also shook the foundations of society in Imperial Manila. How come?
It was a hot Wednesday evening of June 3, 1863. A foreign correspondent specifically mentioned that the temperature was around 32 degrees Celsius. Parishioners were attending mass in some churches. The sick were recovering in the military hospital. The fish vendors in Divisoria were still selling their goods. Governor-General Ramon de Echague seemed to be having some quality time with his family in Palacio del Gobernador. Archbishop Gregorio Meliton Martinez and the whole Catholic community were preparing for the Feast of Corpus Christi. No one had the slightest idea of an upcoming tragedy that would affect the whole capital and its vicinity.
Enter the Big One
At exactly 7:20 pm, an Intensity X earthquake shook Manila. Strong vibrations followed by oscillatory movements were felt in Manila, Morong (now province of Rizal), Laguna, and Cavite. The land shook from north to south then east to west for almost a minute. It was followed by a two-meter high tsunami that hit from southeast to northwest. Fire incidents were also everywhere.
By the time the trembling stopped, time stood still. Most of the remarkable edifices that defined colonial Manila were torn down. These include the Royal Audiencia, the Intendencia, the Council of Administration, and the Customs office. The seat of power, the Palacio del Gobernador, collapsed as well with Governor-General Echague and his family barely making it alive. The Military Hospital was destroyed too and the sick were killed by the debris. Two men and 40 horses died in the Meisic Barracks.
The earthquake didn’t spare the faithful as well. Seven singers and service boys, nine priests, and some parishioners of the Manila Cathedral were enveloped in ruins. The Churches of Santa Isabel, Santo Domingo, San Juan de Dios, San Francisco, Binondo, and Santa Cruz were destroyed. The upper portion of the Antipolo Tower injured three people. Bell towers and churches were also destroyed in the provinces of Bulacan, Pampanga, Cavite, Laguna and Morong. In Intramuros, only the San Agustin Church remained serviceable.
In Divisoria, the whole upper part of the fish section fell and buried about 40 persons. In Quiapo, only a few homes remained habitable. Twenty three died and two were injured. A part of the prison of Santa Cruz lied in ruins, killing 35 and injuring 32 people. Buildings called “possesiones” were demolished in Tondo and buried 23 persons. San Miguel suffered the least casualties with 10 injured Chinese.
The earthquake also caused great destruction on the port of Cavite. The province’s barracks was destroyed too and the telegraph tower fell. The great stone bridge connecting two banks of Pasig was closed. Masonry buildings in Pasig, Tambo, and Navotas were also affected and considered uninhabitable.
It was also reported that ground opened in many places were gases escaped. A fissure, which emitted sand and water, also opened in Talavera River in Nueva Ecija. In Sangley point, a crater emitting sand and water appeared as well. The water of the Pasig River turned dark and noisome. Some aftershocks were reported by 11:30 pm and 3:00 am, the following day. Then, on June 9, another earthquake hit Manila and most of the tottering buildings were finally brought to the ground.
Later in 1910, Assistant Director of the Manila Weather Bureau, Rev. Miguel Saderra Maso, S.J., estimated that 400 died and 2,000 were injured in the earthquake. Forty-seven public buildings were in ruins and 25 were badly damaged. Five hundred private houses were destroyed and 531 were left unstable.
Shaking the Nation’s Society
The legacy of the “big one” of 1863 did not just end on the lives it took and the buildings it tore down. It also brought changes in the society – both for the good and for the bad. We can say that it became a turning point in Philippine history and its significance should not be undermined due to two reasons.
First, the center of power was moved outside the walls of Intramuros. Due to the destruction of the Palacio del Gobernador, Governor-General Echague refurbished his temporary summer residence and made Malacañang the official residence of the leader of the archipelago. Almost all of his Spanish successors and American governor-generals resided in the Palace. Afterwards, all Philippine presidents starting from Manuel L. Quezon lived in the luxurious mansion.
Second, it ushered a new era of the secularization movement and Philippine nationalism. One of the seven priests killed in the Manila Cathedral was its leader, Father Pedro Pablo Pelaez. His renowned student, Father Jose Apolonio Burgos, continued their cause by writing and debating with contemporaries for the rights of native clergy. Eventually, in 1872, Fathers Burgos, Mariano Gomes and Jacinto Zamora were executed which became an inspiration to then future leaders like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and Marcelo del Pilar.
Rarely does a natural calamity affect a society. This makes the “big one” of 1863 an event that must be remembered by Filipinos. As for our preparations for the upcoming “big one,” let us hope and do necessary preparations so that not much lives will be taken similar to the tragedy of 1863. After all, we have much knowledge now about the world compared to the mid-19th century – provided that everyone knows this thing.
This article was included in the first release of the Alpas Journal on June 30, 2017.