February 20, 1835 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, a massive earthquake hit Valdivia, Chile and Charles Darwin was right in the middle of the action. While HMS Beagle tried to make anchorage at Concepcion, Darwin was dropped off at the island of Quiriquina. During his exploration of the island, he discovered areas of land that had risen a few feet due to the earthquake. Darwin was very excited about this find, as it was direct evidence that the Andes mountains, and indeed all of South America, were very slowly rising above the ocean. This confirmed Charles Lyell’s theory that land masses rose in tiny increments over an extremely long period of time. Given this fact, Darwin accepted the idea that the earth must be extremely old. The next day he went by ship to the town of Talcuhano, and from there rode by horse to Concepcion to meet up with HMS Beagle. As the Beagle sailed from Concepcion, Darwin wrote in a letter to his sister Caroline:

We are now on our road from Concepcion. The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February. I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili [sic]. It is no use attempting to describe the ruins – it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld. The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles and lines of bricks, tiles and timbers – it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels builts of sticks and reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down and these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6-10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit. How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses and all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time. The shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood. I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England – A Fuegian Savage – Tropical Vegetation – and the ruins of Concepcion. It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.

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