Greece - Zante
( Originally Published 1899 )
THE WORK OF THE EARTHSHAKER
POOR Zante ! When first I saw her, from the heights of Cephalonia, she was lying peacefully, like a brooch, on the quiet bosom of the sea. And then, as if seized by a fearful nightmare, she .was rudely shaken from her sleep, and her scarred face plainly shows the suffering she endured.
Zante, or Zakynthos, as it was anciently called, and as it has been renamed by the modern Greeks, is one of the most beautiful of the Ionian islands. It lies to the south of Cephalonia and to the west of the Peloponnesus, and, like the other Ionian islands, floats the Greek flag. It is old enough to be mentioned in the Odyssey, but, unlike Corfu or Ithaca, has not been the scene of epic description or adventure.
With the exception of a constitutional tendency to earthquakes, Zante is a little island paradise, " the flower of the East." Its climate is exceptionally fine. In spring the multitude of flowers is something phenomenal, and even in winter roses and cyclamen bloom in abundance. It is a great garden for currants, oranges and lemons, and its olive groves are hale and venerable.
Zante is seldom visited by Americans; but there are few who are not familiar with its products in the shape of currants and olive oil, which, until recently, have formed a large part of its trade, now sadly debilitated by causes as revolutionary as earthquakes. The island has a population of about forty-four thou-sand and an area of one hundred and sixty-nine square miles.
Ordinarily, Zante is not a place for sightseers. The town by that name, with a population of about sixteen thousand souls, is quiet, well behaved, and not at all sensational. It has a fine old Greek church, a Roman Catholic church, and a ruined Venetian castle commanding the city from the high hill above. The archaeologist generally goes elsewhere in search of ruins; but in February, 1893, he could find them there in sad abundance. He could watch them, too, in process of making, with the added interest which came from knowing that he was in great danger thereby of becoming a ruin himself. At Vido I had seen them made by gunpowder; I was interested to see how they were made by earthquakes. My curiosity was abundantly satisfied. A dead earth-quake is bad enough, especially when it leaves poverty and distress in its path, but a live one, when you are in the second story of a hotel, is the most surprising of earthly sensations.
It does not seem strange, when you think of the globe as rushing through space faster than a cannon-ball, that occasionally a section of its crust, warped by volcanic fires or wrinkled by some great subsidence, should crack and shiver. But, though we are perfectly used to the motion of the earth as a whole, there are few things more startling than the motion of a large piece of its surface. It is doubly startling when you are on an island which everywhere bears marks of the mighty force which has convulsed it, and left ruined homes and churches, and pain and poverty in its track. You have seen what such a tremendous force can do; you feel absolutely help-less in its hands. One may become so thoroughly accustomed to the motion of water as to have a sense of mental and physical exhilaration in riding on its waves; but when the very earth shakes beneath you like a sieve, you feel as helpless dust within it.
It was four days after the great shock which left town and village sadly shattered that I had my first experience with an active earthquake. It was a sort of shuddering reminiscence of what had gone before, a premonition, too, of what was to follow, not the kind of dessert you want for your dinner. It was not what it did that frightened one, so much as what it seemed capable of doing. Emotionally at least you had considered this "terrestrial ball" as solid and inert. You are suddenly amazed to find it alive. It is arching its gigantic back; it is trembling with anger or pain. More fearful than the thought that its motion is voluntary is the terribly swift suspicion that it may be involuntary; that the great creature cannot help it; that it is the victim of internal distress. If you were not so frightened, you might even be sympathetic; you are immensely relieved when the shaking stops; but you have no surety that it will not come again.
In this pale incertitude none of us left the table. We might have done so had it not been for the stolid indifference of the hotel keeper. He was the only person or thing in the vicinity that in the midst of the general agitation seemed to be absolutely unmoved. He felt perfectly sure, he said, that his hotel would stand. Did he hold a mortgage on the land?
The next morning at six o'clock occurred the most powerful shock after the first ruinous one. We were sleeping, my companion and myself, in two iron bed-steads, each of which had a frame above, terminating in a gilded crown for the support of a mosquito netting. The affirmation of Shakspere, " Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," seemed to have in it an element of prediction. The King of Greece, however, had taken off his crown, or the jaunty little yachting-cap that serves the same purpose, and gone to a safe place on his yacht. Our gilded crowns were a part of the bedstead. I do not know how the king felt, but as for myself, the sensation I had at six o'clock that morning was unlike anything I had ever experienced. For a moment it seemed as if the bottom had dropped out of everything. We waited expectantly for the tremendous crash with which the building would collapse and bury us in its ruins. What a mighty ague ! It was not a wave, not an undulation, but a wrenching, shivering, shattering, Titanic power. It is only three or four seconds in duration, but each second is a brief eternity. What can you do? If you are able to rush into the street, you may be killed by your neighbor's walls; if you stay in your house, you may be buried under your own. On the whole, the safest thing is to do nothing. Your fate will be decided for you.
One needs to experience an earthquake to know what terror might reside in the old time in the designation of Poseidon as the earthshaker. Had the sea god waked up to wreak his vengeance on Christian shrines?
The time for you to make your preparation, when you live in an earthquake country, is when you build your house. And if you build as in the sight of the gods, you can put up a house that will endure on this tremulous island the repeated shocks of seven hundred years. So the Venetians built here, and so the English who followed them. This is one reason why there is little appearance of earthquake ruin as you sail into the harbor of Zante to-day. The great buildings, the lofty towers, were made to last. Not so the houses built by the Greeks living in the outskirts of the town and in the villages on the island. They have been built with stones and earth, without the grip of lime, and when the day of reckoning comes they go down.
Just how the earthshaker troubled Zante in ancient times, I do not know; but in the present century several visitations have been recorded. Severe shocks were felt in 1873 and 1886, but the last great convulsion before that of 1893 was in 1840, on Saint Luke's Day. It did a great deal of damage, but there was only one shock. The earthquake of 1893, however, was signalled by slight premonitions, and by several succeeding shocks of great power. The strongest, which did immense damage and endangered the lives of thousands of people, occurred at half-past five on the morning of January 31. It was followed by one at two o'clock the next day, and by a third at six o'clock the day following, February 2. Between these were a great number of minor shocks, which served to continue and heighten the alarm and to heap up another instalment of ruins in the outskirts of the city.
Excitement and terror were widespread. The nomarch, or governor of the island, lost his head completely, and was found on the shore hunting for a boat in which to escape with his family from the island. Five hundred people immediately sailed for Patras, and as many more left the next day. Those who owned anything in the shape of a wagon or carriage, pulled it out in the square or on the quay and slept in it. Others hired carriages for the same purpose. No one went to bed. The country people stayed out of doors. On the third day the terror was increased by a tremendous storm of thunder and lightning, and a general panic ensued.
The condition of a large number of people was certainly unfortunate. They were suddenly rendered homeless. Some had nothing but the clothes on their backs. The climate of Zante is usually mild, even in winter; but that week the cold was more severe than for many years. The rain poured into the roofless cellars in which many families had taken refuge. From the Greek naval station, about three hours by water, one hundred tents were sent to the island, where several thousand were needed. Half of these tents were taken possession of by the soldiers, who had left their barracks. The Athenian papers loudly rebuked this form of military cowardice, and the nomarch and the commandant were dismissed.
The poorest part of the town is on the south side, in what is known as Neachori. The havoc of the earthquake here was great, so far as property is concerned. Few houses were totally demolished. In nearly every case one or two walls were left standing, and in almost all cases the front. This fact is significant. The system of house building in Zante in the last thirty years has been disgracefully careless. No lime is used in the construction of the walls except on the facades, which are the only parts that stand. A wall of earth and stones may bear the slight exposure of such a mild climate as that of Zante, but it is no protection against a wrenching, jostling earthquake. That more people were not maimed or killed is due to the fact that the inhabitants well know where the weak part of the house is, and so have their sleeping-rooms in the front, and the kitchen and dining-room in the back. The most destructive shock was at half-past five in the morning, before they had risen. There were thus few people on the streets to be hit by falling stones.
Earthquakes undoubtedly have their freaks; but they do have some respect for good architecture. In the larger buildings, for the most part, the damage was confined to falling ceilings, tiles and copings. Yet some of the churches fared badly, the Roman Catholic having an immense hole in the side wall through which the morning sun shone on the dam-aged picture of the Virgin.
This little idyllic island, sunning itself in the Ionian Sea, is held to the larger world by no less than nine submarine cables, radiating to all points of the compass, — south and southeast to Crete and Alexandria, east to Katakolon and the Peloponnesus, north to Patras and Athens, northwest to Corfu and Italy, west to Malta. An island thus guyed by electric cables could not float away from the sympathies of the world or be left in isolated affliction. No sooner had the shock of January 31 shaken Zante than the lightning flashing in these nine cables carried the news of the devastation to all parts of the civilized world. Then came the echoes from sympathetio hearts and generous purses. I have never seen Greece stirred as she was by this event. Political feeling runs so high that unity of thought and feeling and action are sometimes well-nigh impossible. But the whole nation was welded into a sympathetic whole in the fires of affliction. The Athenian newspapers at once sent correspondents to the scene of the disaster, and every day served up a broadside of telegrams filling several columns. Earnest, patriotic and humane were their calls for aid to their unfortunate countrymen. Subscription lists were opened, and money came pouring in. It was not a time of financial prosperity in Greece; but as soon as the nature of the disaster was fully known, subscriptions were prompt and abundant. Athens has many newspapers, and it is evident that the people read them. Sad as it was to go round and see the evidences of disaster on this beautiful island, nothing during my stay in Greece made me gladder than this proof that the Greek people are inspired by the spirit of Christian philanthropy. While some of the subscriptions were imposingly large, the smaller ones represented even greater sacrifice. Clubs, societies, theatres, workingmen's guilds, school children, corporations and tradesmen all united their tithes and their endeavors.
The responses from England, France, Germany and America were equally prompt and generous.
More immediately urgent than money gifts was the need of tents and supplies for the homeless and hungry. In the race to furnish relief England came in ahead. News of the disaster had been telegraphed to London, and thence to Admiral Tryon of the Mediterranean fleet. It took only a single electric spark to kindle the humane energy of our English cousins. The English ironclad " Camperdown " was just going into Malta. Within three hours after she arrived she was loaded with five hundred large and one thousand small tents, two marquees, seventy tons of boards, a large quantity of biscuit, rice, flour, cocoa, and two thousand blankets. She sailed immediately, under the command of Captain Johnstone, and arrived at Zante on the third of February. The same energy displayed in getting the supplies was shown in distributing them for the relief of the sufferers. The English Jack-tars worked with a hearty good will in putting up tents. Captain Johnstone was ubiquitous on horseback, bringing cool judgment as well as warm sympathy to the aid of the panic-stricken people.
A committee of relief was at once formed for the proper distribution of tents and food. It consisted of the English residents and members of both of the prominent Greek political parties, with sub-committees in the villages. Later three Greek men-of-war arrived with further supplies, and an Italian man-of-war came on a similar errand of mercy. King George of Greece and Queen Olga, with the Crown Prince and Prince Nicolas, arrived in the royal yacht, accompanied by the Minister of the Interior.
I joined the king and queen and the rest of the royal party in their tour of inspection. Large throngs met them at the wharf, and followed them silently through the streets. At any other time there would have been great cheering and speechmaking; but the royal visit seemed a sorrowful pilgrimage to minister to stricken subjects, and there were more tears than cheers. The king and queen went into churches and monasteries, but especially into the wrecked homes, and gave to many poor people that sympathy which helps to bear trials. The king with his little yachting cap looked like a naval officer, and the queen, dressed in deep black, like the Sister of Charity that she really is. Every one was impressed with her simplicity and tender kindness.
Students of seismology found interesting material for study in the earthquakes of 1893. The nine submarine cables converging in Zante pass over known seismic centres. In all the serious shocks which the island has sustained since they were laid, the cables in the path of the earthquake have been broken. In the great convulsion of the 27th of August, 1886, which preceded that of Charleston, six miles of the cable were buried by a landslide on the bottom of the sea, which increased-the depth from seven hundred to nine hundred fathoms. The cable was never re-covered, and another one was laid. A shock having precisely the same characteristics, without the same strength, occurred in 1873, and parted the cable six miles away from Zante. In the catastrophe I have described the cable was not affected.
Zante is composed of rock surrounded on the southeast and northwest by a bank of yellow mud, gradually shelving into forty or fifty fathoms two miles away from the shore, when suddenly the lead drops from three hundred to five hundred fathoms. That this latter depth is the centre of the earthquakes, seems probable from the fact that Cephalonia, to the north, felt no shock; Patras, but a slight one; Gastouni, fifteen miles due east from Zante, was shaken severely; and Katakolon and Pyrgos, twenty-five miles east and southeast of the town of Zante, felt the disturbance strongly, but suffered no damage. The lesser shocks were not felt elsewhere. The cables tested showed no increase of sea temperature, which would have occurred if there had been an active volcano. Mr. Foster, the Zante seismologist, claims that while earthquakes in Japan and in the vicinity of 'Etna and Hecla are due to volcanic causes, those in this region are due to mechanical causes. There are evidences of a strong current even at the bottom of the ocean. Some of the cables have been eaten away by chemical action. Disintegration is constantly going on and vast displacements of submarine mountains occur, burying the cables and causing the tidal waves which generally accompany an earthquake.
Zante has gradually lost the position it once held as a commercial town. This is largely owing to the opening of the railway on the mainland between Pyrgos and Patras. During the currant season the city of Zante used to be not only the port for loading steamers with her own produce, but all the currant-growing centres on the Arcadian coast sent their fruit up in calques to be sold and shipped there, adding fifty thousand tons to her trade. The people have been unusually thrifty in days that are past. From the English they acquired the habit of putting by something for a rainy day. But owing to the reduced commercial importance of the island and an exceptionally bad season, their little savings had been entirely exhausted and the next year's crop mortgaged. The misfortune of the earthquake was thus accentuated by commercial depression. That explains why many of these hitherto thrifty people were not able to buy bread.
Ten years ago there began a mania for the production of currants, owing to the increased demand in France for dried fruit to replace the damage done by the phylloxera. All the good, bad and indifferent fruit remaining in the country was bought up at fabulous prices by French merchants. The Greeks up-rooted many of their olive-trees and ruthlessly burnt some millions of oak and pine trees in order to plant currants. But France found that the wine produced was not drinkable, and obtained her supplies elsewhere. The result was that two hundred thousand tons of currants were produced, when there was a demand for only half the amount. Owing to the destruction of olives, the quantity of oil produced was reduced fifty per cent. There is still a demand for olives; but it will take many years to replace the trees.
Thus the present outlook for Zante is not a cheerful one. But the soil is fertile, and were many of these currant vines uprooted and grains grown instead, the island, it is claimed by competent authorities, could well compete for the European market.