1868 August 13*
The Wataree and the tsunami
In 1868, the city of Arica, Lat. 18° 28' S., Long. 70° 24' W. was the second seaport of Peru after Callao. All the produce of the interior was brought over the mountains by pack mules and llamas to Tacna, then by rail the 40 miles to Arica.
Near the city was a white perpendicular bluff rising from the sea, about 400 feet high, the terminus of part of the coast mountain range. It formed a landmark for approaching ships, and was called by the citizens the 'Morro'.
The houses of the city were mostly of adobe and rushes, one storey high, with a few buildings of stone. A large imposing custom-house stood near the water's edge, and, further back, a church with high twin steeples. These were the only two buildings 'whose exteriors were at all prepossessing'.
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The people of Arica were hospitable, especially to visiting American naval officers. “Parties and hops were of frequent occurrence”. The president of the Tacna railway gave passes to all visiting officers. The respective Independence Days of the United States and Peru were celebrated with mutual zeal. An occasional earthquake shock caused panic, but, as they had no serious results, they were soon forgotten.
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Thursday, August 13, 1868, was a peaceful day. “The sky presented no remarkable appearance”. The sea was as placid as a lake, and the air was almost calm. At 5 o'clock in the afternoon there was an earthquake, the most severe felt for years. Many houses fell, and others were damaged. As soon as the Aricans felt the swaying, they followed their first instinct to rush out into the open air.
In the harbour, the shock was felt aboard ship as a “trembling from stem to stern”. Looking to the shore, the crews saw fallen houses and frightened crowds, and realised that there had been an earthquake. The sea remained calm, and the shock ended. Many people in the city returned to their homes. Aboard the United States steamer Wateree, precautions in case of a sea disturbance or tidal wave were taken; heavy articles were secured, tarpaulins made ready and hatches prepared for battening down.
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About 25 minutes after the first earthquake, a second, more severe shock occurred. The only warning (apart from the first tremor) was “a low rumbling, like distant thunder” which preceded the shock. Once more many of the inhabitants fled for the open, and many succeeded in reaching the squares and the hills. Others were buried in falling ruins.
On board the ships, the shock was strongly felt, and collapsing houses distinctly seen. An enormous landslide fell from the 'Morro', raising a huge cloud of dust, which, for a while, concealed the ruins of Arica. Then the sea became disturbed. It retreated a short distance, then rushed towards the crumbling city. Hundreds of people who had taken refuge on the harbour mole, shouted “La mer! La mer!” and turned to rush through the ruined streets to the hills. However, the wave, rushing beyond the highest tide-mark, engulfed the rear of the fleeing crowd and drew many of them back into the ocean.
The deadly 'tsunami' did not appear as the traditional towering wave. In fact, the sea seemed perfectly smooth. As it rushed in and out, it seemed to be merely rising and falling, as if being fed and drained by some vast underground reservoir. Conflicting currents swirled in all directions, carrying masses of wreckage, human bodies, survivors, and crowded boats which were beyond control.
Boats from the Wateree and a Peruvian corvette, America, sought to rescue those persons who had been swept away by the sea wave and were clinging to floating debris. Some were picked up, but most were swept away and drowned. When the boats attempted to return, they found it impossible. The strength of the rowers was vain against the rushing currents. One from the Wateree managed to reach its parent vessel, but a towline parted and the boat was once again swept off, until it fetched up against the America.
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The survivors of the city were now gathered on the hills, but even there they could not feel safe. Shocks continued, and the earth heaved continually. Cracks opened, and jets of water shot out. People threw themselves upon the trembling ground and implored Heaven to be spared. The sea continued to rush in and out. Each rise was greater, and at last the ocean penetrated deep into the ruined city, “obliterating all traces of street and plaza.”
The ships in the harbour could not escape. There was no wind, thus sails were useless. Of the two steamships, the Wateree's boilers were being repaired. The America was low on coal; her captain was on shore, and could not be found. Both ships made themselves as secure as possible, dropping their anchors and casting off stern cables. A small brig near shore rolled over as the sea receded; the crew abandoned ship and sought to reach the shore, but a returning wave engulfed them. Their ship was washed onto the beach, where she remained, almost intact.
As darkness came on, one of the Wateree's anchors, on 100 fathoms of chain, gave way, and the ship was drawn seaward, dragging the other anchor and chain with it. Then the ship was carried toward the land again. Like the America, the Wateree's captain was ashore, but the executive officer thought if the ship could be kept at sea, she could eventually ride out the convulsion.
It was not to be. Eventually the Wateree went aground, broadside on, and a wave swept over her several feet deep. It seemed that the ship would be rolled over at any moment, but the wave receded, leaving the vessel high and dry.
The wave now changed form. As the mass of water receded, it met another wave approaching, was drawn under, and merged into a “solid sea wall”. The wave rushed towards the Wateree with a “frightful sullen roar” before appearing in the darkness as a white line of foam. Then all was a turmoil of seething spray, the ship spun round, and was forced further inshore with her bows pointing to the sea. As the wave retreated, there was a moment of silence, but from the America, also driven ashore, came desperate cries.
The waves returned and receded until early morning, although their strength was slowly ebbing. Earth tremors continued, rattling the ship.
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On the hills, shocks were incessant all night. Each was preceded by a rumbling noise and the 'unearthly howling' of dogs. Forewarned, the refugees threw themselves to the ground with arms extended in the form of a cross, and sent up prayers to the saints.
With morning, the disaster revealed itself. Only two houses in Arica were left standing, and those were so damaged as to be uninhabitable. The sea, which had risen bodily to 45 feet above high-tide mark, with waves 15 feet higher, had rendered even the ruins unrecognisable. No ship was left in the harbour. The Wataree was nearly 500 yards inshore. She was upright and her crew had survived, but for one man who had been ashore. The America lay at the water's edge, with all masts and spars gone. An English barque, the Chanarcillo, had been rolled over and over, losing her masts, deck, cargo and crew.
The beach was heaped with wreckage of every description; clothes, furniture, 'wines and liquors of all kinds in endless profusion', washed from the ruined custom-house, mingled with drowned corpses cast back by the sea. The survivors ransacked this debris for food, clothing and material with which to make tents on the hills. They also took advantage of the alcohol, and “the riotous scenes that followed were disgusting...No order was preserved in Arica, and fatal affrays were of frequent occurrence.” When the food on the beach was exhausted, the survivors went hungry until relief arrived from Tacna.
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About 500 persons, one-sixth of Arica's population, died in the city and the harbour. “Many were buried in the ruins, some so completely that they could not be extricated.” Other earlier burials were exhumed. Great numbers of Inca mummies had been forced from the earth near the foot of the 'Morro'; some thrown out completely and sitting upright. Nearby, 'a great many curious golden coins' were found, and soon the spot was crowded with treasure hunters.
Shocks continued day after day, although they became less frequent and severe as time passed, and the sea was left undisturbed. The crew of the Wataree, who slept ashore at night, were frequently woken by being tossed from the ground. Inhabitants of the interior appeared leading mules, to claim their share of the beach flotsam. After two weeks, four United States steamships arrived, and the officers and crew of the Wateree were evacuated.
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The destruction of Arequipa in the earthquake of 1868
The earthquake of 13 August 1868 was a major convulsion which extended from north to south over 14 degrees of latitude, or about 945 statute miles. On the eastern side the shocks seem to have paused at the Andes Mountains, whereas on the western a considerable part of the ocean bed was disturbed.
Ferdinand von Hochstetter said that the towns of Islay, Arequipa, Arica and Iquique, which were ruined, were the centre of the earthquake, although Schmidt thought that the disturbance was centred in the bed of the ocean to the west of South America. A seismic sea wave crossed the Pacific Ocean from Arica to the Chatham Islands, 5, 520 nautical miles, in 15 hours and 19 minutes, a speed of 415 miles an hour.
*Several sources give the date of this earthquake as 1868 August 8. This appears to be incorrect.