And yet the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake is nowadays almost unknown outside of Portugal. Combined with Britain’s 1750 ‘Year of Earthquakes’ (extremely modest by comparison) the mid-18th century saw a new scientific interest in the study of earthquakes, and sowed the first seeds of seismology, a discipline which later bloomed following the Naples quake of 1857.
As well as unimaginable death tolls, these geological events also had deep and lasting cultural, economic and historical impacts, as did all the case studies included in this chronological history of devastating earthquakes. From Caracas (1812) to Tokyo (1923), Tangshan, China (1976) to Gujarat, India (2001), many pivotal moments in history, whether the fusing of nations, the launching of political careers, the signing of peace treaties, and even declarations of war, can be traced back to earthquakes. Indeed, the world is still waiting upon the long-term impact of the 2011 Fukushima tsunami, amid the various political twists and turns which Japan has taken since then.
Robinson’s final note, that, even with all our modern technology, earthquake prediction remains an impossibly difficult preoccupation, is reflected in the indifference to this threat among most populations living in earthquake-prone parts of the world. Whether or not massive losses of life can be avoided in future quakes could have a highly significant impact on the state of many nations.
This review was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.