On January 14, 1907, at exactly 3:30 p.m., the business and residential districts of Kingston, Jamaica, tumbled down after the first major shock of an earthquake, estimated to have lasted upwards of 35 seconds.
But the earthquake was only the beginning. Major fires broke out immediately throughout the city, bringing further death and destruction wherever the hungry flames fanned their orange tongues.
The resulting human tragedy made the earthquake one of the worst disasters in Jamaica’s history, comparable to that of the infamous 1692 Great Port Royal earthquake and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Between 2,000 and 3,000 persons died while thousands were left homeless. The recovering agricultural and the fledgling tourism sectors received severe blows.
One survivor of the disaster wrote the following:
The 14th day of January 1907 will long be memorable to the history of Jamaica. For years to come it will stand out prominently as the most notable in our island’s history: and whilst the pen of the historian will no doubt give in graphic detail the ruin wrought, and tell of the death and desolation which followed in the wake of the earthquake, only those who lived through those awful thirty-five seconds will be able to realize the horror of it all.
The above observer was quite right; while the historian’s pen can try its best to describe in every minute detail the tragedy that was Monday, January 14, 1907 at approximately 3:30 p.m., Jamaican Echoes wholeheartedly agrees that “only those who lived through those awful thirty-five seconds will be able to realize the horror of it all.”
Jamaican Echoes will now allow for one of the earthquake’s survivors to recount his experiences during those 35 seconds.
Please welcome Mr. H.F. Abell, visitor to the island in January 1907, with this wife and sister-in-law. On January 11, 1907, Mr. Abell, his wife and sister-in-law disembarked the mail-steamer, the “Port Kingston”, to begin their fourth visit to Jamaica. Like many other English tourists during this time, Mr. Abell and his travelling companions visited the Caribbean often to escape “the rigorous climate” of their home countries. He therefore had great expectations of enjoying “the best of times in this lovely land of sunshine.” Just three days after landing in Kingston, their vacation was interrupted by the earthquake.
Here follows an extract from his account of his experiences during the earthquake, which first appeared in the July 1907 issue of the Chambers’ Journal, with photos/postcards showing the devastation the earthquake wrought throughout Kingston to visualise some of his observations.
A Reminiscence of the Jamaica Earthquake
By H. F. Abell
Monday, January 14, a perfect Jamaica day of bright sunshine and cool breeze, we purposed to spend in Kingston. I knew Kingston well; and its quiet by-streets, with their lingering shadows of the prosperous days of old in the shape of fine old Georgian houses, always had a fascination for me. So, whilst my ladies should do their shopping, I purposed to wander about revisiting old haunts. An attack of fever, however, upset the plan so far as my wife and her sister were concerned, and I went into town alone, little thinking that it would be my last visit to the Kingston of Tom Cringle’s day, and intending to lunch either at the club or at the Myrtle Bank Hotel.
Accordingly, I passed a long morning in the city. I went to delightful old jasper and marble halls, once the town residences of merchant-princes, now the dilapidated abodes of dusky people; I spent some time watching for sharks at the pier of the Myrtle Bank Hotel; I went o the Museum; I was a long hour in the old parish church, reading anew fine old Benbow’s epitaph, which records how this ‘pattern of true English courage’ died from the effects of a wound which he had received in his ‘legg’, in action with Monsieur Du Casse, and discovering that a fine old brass candelabra which had been presented to the parish in Queen Anne’s reign by a ‘merchant’ of Kingston had been sold for old metal; and I wound up at the club. In less than three hour each one of these buildings was to be a shattered ruin!
Then, instead of remaining in town to lunch, I returned to Constant Spring to see how my ladies were getting on – a providential change of plan. At 3.25 P.M. such of the hotel guests as were not in town or away on country expeditions were variously whiling away a day which had gradually become almost airless, but which was still radiant with sunshine. Two energetic men – Britons, of course – were playing tennis. Towards them I strolled across the lawn, when suddenly I was staggering about and fancied I had been sun-struck. But when I saw the stretch of lawn in front of me violently agitated into waves exactly as a carpet is moved by wind under it, and at the same time a muffled roar like distant artillery filled the air, and when, a second later, I saw a huge rent spring, as it were, from the bottom to the top of one of the stone tower of the hotel, and then followed a deafening crash and the rising of a cloud of dust, it needed no experience of Japan in past days to tell me the terrible truth.
At once I ran at top speed into the hotel and up two flights of stairs to our rooms where my ladies were. I believe there was shaking and crashing all around me, but I neither felt nor heard; and, to my intense joy, I found my wife and her sister unhurt, but, although perfectly calm and collected, naturally in the greatest alarm. I need not say that a very few minutes sufficed to lead them, half-dressed as they were, into the comparative security of the gardens.
The shock, which lasted about fifteen seconds, had played strange freaks in our rooms, although it had not been spiteful and devastating as in rooms adjoining. Every article of furniture had been shifted from its place; clothes had been lifted bodily from walls to floor; securely fastened trunks and bags had been wrenched open and their contents scattered. The passage outside was strewed with fallen plaster and shattered glass, and in one case a door had been torn off its hinges, whilst a staircase corresponding to that by which we had escaped was blocked with the fallen roof. Only the fact that the wing of the building which we occupied was of wood saved us; and if the shock had taken place in the night, when the hotel was full of guests, the loss of life must have been awful. The main block, forming the large entrance-hall, with three stories of rooms above, was badly shaken and cracked, whilst the stone tower up which I had seen the rent run was a tottering wreck.
In the garden every person, white and black, stood silent and wondering what next would happen. And here let me place on record the splendid conduct of the hotel staff generally, and the black servants in particular. I saw much terror and some panic among the whites; but the poor black people kept their heads to a degree not usually associated with their racial character.
Of what had taken place in the outside world we knew nothing; but the rising of a dense black cloud over Kingston proclaimed catastrophes there. Little by little, as the non-recurrence of bad shocks established calm, the ladies, who had been tumbled out of their rooms in every variety of dishabille, began to care for appearance; the black servants were sent into the hotel for trunks and bags, and in no case did these good fellows refuse, although another severe shock would have brought the whole building down upon them.
About an hour after the great shock I drove into Kingston with the Bishop of Barbadoes, on the double errand of ascertaining the fate of his daughter, newly married to an officer in the West Indie Regiment, and of helping in the city. Directly we emerged from the hotel grounds we saw signs of trouble. A dam had burst somewhere in the hills, and a swift torrent ran down the roadway. Great cracks were visible in the road itself, and as we passed from the country proper into the zone of human habitations, signs of ruin and destruction multiplied. Every structure of brick or stone had suffered more or less, with the result that while the houses of the well-to-do were wrecked or badly damaged, the mud-and-timber cabins of the poor were comparatively untouched.
The destruction wrought during the few seconds of the earthquake’s duration was incredible. Whole sides of houses were lifted away and shattered; a ground story would be wrecked and the upper left intact, and vice versa; one brick gate-post and iron gate would be overthrown and the companions remain whole; lines of palisading were as clean shaven off the supporting walls as by a machine.
We passed the electric-car which runs between Kingston and Constant Spring standing just as its course had been abruptly stopped by the destruction of the dynamo-house in Kingston. Then we began to meet fugitives. We stopped a buggy containing fellow-passengers by the Port Kingston – dishevelled, dust-begrimed, and one with head in bandages, all with the grave looks of those who had seen terrible things – and learnt that Kingston was practically level with the ground. Then came a cart full of maimed and bleeding people, followed by another with still, draped forms lying in it; then families of blacks carrying their household gods, and groups of praying, screaming women.
We entered the stricken city. We had to thread our way between masses of fallen roofs and walls, shattered palisades, entanglements of telegraph and telephone wires, crushed buggies, and notably groups of distracted people who rent the air with cries of lamentation, hymns, and entreaties for help. As yet no idea could be formed of the number of victims; but so many people implored us to help in removing heaps of ruin beneath which lay relations and friends that we knew it must be very great.
Down the comparatively broad thoroughfare of King Street, above the masses of ruin, we could see the flames and dense smoke of the fire which was consuming all that quarter of the city which lay parallel with the shore, as well as the coal-stacks of the shipping companies. We reached the great public garden which marks the centre of the city. Our wheels brought up sharply against something, and I saw that it was a marble hand holding a marble tall hat belonging to a shattered statue of a former governor. We could not get around to the side on which stood the parish church, but over the trees I could see the spire apparently on the point of topping over.
The club was a shapeless ruin, and a large church neat it was completely destroyed; yet one of the worst-built edifices in Kingston, the hall in which the delegates of the Cotton Conference were assembled at the moment of the earthquake, seemed unharmed. At last we could make no further progress, and turned to get out as best we could.
Passing by the racecourse, on which hundreds of refugee families were already assembled with their furniture, we saw a great mass of smoke rising above Up Park Camp, the station of the garrison, and learned that the hospital was on fire. It was known later that more than forty soldier-patients were burned here. So we returned to Constant Spring. Here we found that most of our party had returned from the city and the country. Those who had been out at Spanish Town had been obliged to return by road, for the railway was wrecked, and the greater part of the Kingston terminus had fallen.
As evening gathered over us, and the beauty of the starlit sky was only blurred by the ruddy glare and the dense smoke-cloud of the fire in Kingston, whilst the hotel people did their best to prepare for us some sort of meal in the open, a general recounting of adventures took place. Some escapes were remarkable. One young Scots lady was in a shop in Kingston when the earthquake occurred. The whole front of the shop fell into the road, burying two people. She had just time to spring out of the window and catch at a tree, to which she hung suspended until released. Two elderly ladies were on the first floor of a house; it sank with them, and they walked out into the street unharmed. Two men had been lunching at the Myrtle Bank Hotel, and had just stepped from the veranda into the water-side garden behind, when the whole building fell, burying ten men. Two men were playing billiards at the club; one ran, and was instantly killed by the fall of an iron pillar; his companion, too paralysed with fear even to run, remained, and was unhurt. The companion of Sir James Fergusson, when the latter was killed in Harbour Street, escaped. And so the narratives continued until we sought rest on chairs and couches and garden benches; but sleep came not to many of us, and many times during the silence of the night more or less severe shocks of earthquake would rouse the recumbent company into movement.
All next day we remained in the hotel grounds; but as the courage became restored by the non-renewal of shocks, we entered the hotel, packed our luggage, and had it carried out into the open. All the same, so suspiciously alert had our senses become, that the smallest fall of plaster or the sound of an unusually heavy trunk being dragged along a floor sufficed to send all but the calmest helter-skelter over the veranda railings into the garden. So frequent, indeed, were these little panics that openings were cut in the railings to facilitate egress.
The second night in the open was more peaceful than the first, for a great proportion of our party had chosen to go down to the Port Kingston, despite the fact of its having been turned into a hospital-ship, rather than risk more earthquake ashore. Moreover, we had mattresses and pillows, and could choose our locations.
On Wednesday we came across the island by rail to this beautiful Port Antonio, on the north coast, whence this description was written. Thanks to the intervention of the Blue Mountain range, Port Antonio suffered less than other parts of the island, and of course much less than the neighbourhood of Kingston. All the same, had there been no earthquake elsewhere, the half-ruined Town Hall here would have figured in the illustrated newspapers of the world; and, although the magnificent Titchfield Hotel, being constructed of timber, was not seriously affected, there are cracks in the wall of the room in which I write which would be photographed at home as fearsome.
Apart from its significance as a calamity, the occurrence of this earthquake is lamentable for another reason. Jamaica, after long waiting for a turn in the tide of her lack of prosperity, has at last become recognised as one of the happiest of health and holiday hunting-grounds, if not by us who own her, by Americans, and the winter season of 1907 had been looked forward to as one of real brilliancy. Good hotels—thanks largely to American example and enterprise—abound, and the authorities have been active in remedying many of the detriments and drawbacks which for so long have closed the gates on what is, on the whole, the most beautiful island in the world to pleasure tourists. A few seconds of earthquake have undone all this, and not only have driven away hundreds of visitors who came to stay, and deterred many other hundreds who intended to come, but have dealt the island a blow from the actual and moral shock of which it must take time to recover. How long this time will be must depend largely upon the sense of people at home and in the United States in refusing to receive as gospel much that is said and written by ignorant or malevolent alarmists.
And so we end today’s tour of the great Kingston earthquake of January 14, 1907. Join Jamaican Echoes again on Thursday as we continue retracing the historical echoes from this most devastating but significant event in Jamaica’s past.
Abell, H.F. (1907) A Reminiscence of the Jamaica Earthquake. Chamber’s Journal, sixth series, 11 (498-502).