All shook up, Charlotte MacDonald

Magnitude Eight Plus: New Zealand’s Biggest Earthquake
Rodney Grapes
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864733400

Poor Baron Von Alzdorf, owner of Wellington’s largest brick building, a hotel, was the township’s only casualty in the earthquake which struck at 9.17 pm on the summer evening of 23 January 1855. The largest quake in New Zealand’s recorded history, and larger in scale (Richter or Modified Mercalli) than the 1929 Buller quake which claimed 17 lives and than Napier’s catastrophic 1931 quake with its 256 casualties, the 1855 Wellington shake is remarkable for its physical devastation, minimal loss of life (5-10 casualties over the whole affected region) and shaping imprint on the land. Yet its mark on human history is relatively slight.

In the eyes of contemporary Cantabrians Henry Sewell and Charles Bowen, the 1855 quake’s destruction of Wellington’s buildings, “a septennial calamity” (they were recalling the 1843 and 1848 shakes), confirmed the town’s unsuitability for permanent residence, let alone aspirations as the seat of government. They were wrong, of course. Wellington became the capital in 1865, proving geographical location stronger than geological frailty. For Aucklanders the quake confirmed Wellington’s reputation as a place whose foundations, as well as inhabitants, were prone to sudden and inexplicable shifts in position. But Rodney Grapes’s mission is not to stake a claim for the 1855 quake in the larger picture of New Zealand’s 19th-century history, or to overturn any existing orthodoxy as to its historic or seismic significance.

As the small print in the acknowledgements paragraph on the title verso page reveals, Magnitude Eight Plus is “a reconstruction”. Drawing on over 200 contemporary accounts, the book provides an eyewitness portrayal of the quake’s dramatic 50 seconds and their immediate aftermath. A lovingly arranged glass-case of textual artefacts, the result is a wondrous array, attractive and tangible. The interest and significance of the observations are taken as self-evident –  though a nod is made to contemporary utility in the book’s concluding sentence, where it is suggested that historical, along with geological and seismological evidence of the 1855 quake “provides important information to geologists, town planners, engineers, emergency services and insurance groups on the effect of a future big earthquake”.

How can historical accounts (manuscripts) serve as scientific evidence and what do contemporary accounts tell us of the human record, the social and cultural history, of a major natural trauma such as an earthquake? Lasting less than 50 seconds, the 1855 event was brief in its major strike though tremors continued for weeks afterwards. Arriving without warning and arbitrary in its impact, the effect on individuals and households was immensely variable. Settlers became distinctly un-settled, some to the point of leaving New Zealand altogether. The quake – or ru – was interpreted in some Maori quarters as a divine sign from a displeased Almighty; in others as a message from the god Ruaumoko. Everywhere it disturbed coast and river, leaving fishing grounds permanently altered.

Frederick Trolove at Kekerengu on the Marlborough coast watched as his “poor old house”, “one of the neatest New Zealand cottages with a healthy garden before it full of vegetables” tottered with every shock. “Now and then part of a chimney or wall would fall to the ground.” Writing in the detailed diary he kept in the days following 23 January Trolove noted: “I felt that what I had done in New Zealand was doomed to be undone in one night. So indeed was it too true.” At a more comfortable distance from the centre of the quake, Jane Maria Atkinson (in New Plymouth) and William Colenso (near Napier) left accounts which capture excitement rather than alarm or destruction.

Colenso’s excitement was characteristically apocalyptic while simultaneously threaded with the eye of systematic investigation. Lying on the ground outside his house, the movement making it difficult to stand, he watched “the tall weeping willows” throw their branches “about in an imploring frantic way – now lashing the earth, and now sweeping the sky”. The “neighbouring rivers and sea resurfed in a superlatively angry mood, instantaneously rising and falling several feet”. He was transfixed by a stream of pale blue fire with ragged edges gliding about a metre from the ground. This was a will-‘o-the-wisp, caused by a combustion of methane and other gases from an adjoining swamp. Initially dismayed to find that the entire contents of a bookcase in his study, some 4500 books, specimens, jars, etc, had fallen flat on the floor, he was then intrigued to see that they lay exactly in order “from the Encyclop. Britannica to the little pocket Horace”. Moreover, on the other wall, a shelf above a door had fallen in exactly the opposite direction, indicating that the movement of the quake resembled a gyrating motion rather than a north-south, east-west direction.

Some were prepared to admit to fear or loss. Mr Barrett in the Hutt Valley was hauled from the fissure which had opened up outside his house by his housemaid. The two of them, wet, muddy, frightened and cold, dressed only in night attire, made their way to the relative safety of other company through an alarming night. Did William Bennett and Mr Sherriff stay up all night sitting atop Mt Victoria, drinking brandy and water and smoking cigars, for fear, excitement, bravado or from shock? As a community Wellington was much less ready, and much less in agreement, as to how to broadcast its fate. Tell all and scare off future settlers and investors or set out the full damage of the quake to relieve shock and gain assistance or even compensation in rebuilding assets? In the end the common civic benefits nullified the controversy. Along with the very low casualty rate, Wellington gained considerable benefit from the quake: free reclamation and an expanded port “frontage”, a route around the Muka Muka rocks, the major impediment on the Wellington-Wairarapa coast route, an end to smuggling in the Hutt River mouth (the delta around Waiwhetu was drained), and – more than 100 years later – a pile of boulders on the southern coast around Turakirae Head that could, in turn, be “uplifted” for use as foundations to motorway and container port construction in the 1960s. (Only at the final hour was a scientific reserve at Turikirae Head established to preserve the site as one of international geological interest.)

Grapes sifts the contemporary accounts lightly. They are not always what they seem. Passengers on the Lady Grey reported seeing “white vapour” rising from a cone on the Kaikoura coast, thereby attributing the quake to a volcano in Marlborough. Alas, it was discovered the smoke came from a hilltop fire on a limestone hill which had caught a group of white birch. Jane Williams is located in Tauranga when she was in Turanga (Gisborne) and therefore more likely to have felt a sharper shake than her missionary colleague Reverend Brown to the north.

But there is something fittingly evangelical about the effect of the 1855 earthquake on New Zealand’s landscape: the wide-scale “upraising” of the south-east portion of the North Island and its tilting to the north-west. Grapes reveals a tantalising sliver of the scientific debates which have occupied many since 1855. To fill in another piece of the history from Sir Charles Lyell, the eminent 19th-century geologist who presented papers in London and Paris on the Wairarapa “fault” little more than a year after the event, and current theories of plate tectonics, it is worth turning to Anthony Dreaver’s An Eye for Country: the life and work of Leslie Adkin. Adkin, the dedicated amateur natural historian, was a keen student of southern North Island land formations. His photographs feature in Magnitude Eight Plus but there is little mention of his 1920s battles with Charles Cotton and his own use of eyewitness evidence to support what were unpopular and unorthodox theories, but which later won wide acceptance.

Like his 19th-century observers, Grapes lays out an account allowing readers to exercise their own scrutiny. A complementary project telling the history of scientific debate surrounding the quake and its effects would prove a satisfying sequel.


Charlotte MacDonald teaches in the Department of History at Victoria University of Wellington.


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