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Response to Review no. 932

I want to begin by commending Reviews in History for this format.  It seems appropriate and productive to have authors respond to reviewers, with the expectation of sparking a dialogue (rather than settling a score). At times, of course, reviewer and writer require distance; they need to be separated like the soccer/football coaches who pace within their chalked rectangle. But in most cases, this exchange offers a rich opportunity for dialogue and discussion. 

I’m very happy that a geologist can find Shaky Colonialism a valuable even ‘vivid’ read. I commend him for his smart summary and I have no nitpicking whatsoever. I do want to make a general point that I always stress to my graduate students and that might strike a chord with other historians.

You will always receive conflicting advice when writing a dissertation/book. Currently, the biggest point of contention, it seems to me, is how deeply the writer can burrow into a topic. Editors and readers increasingly clamor for shorter, more accessible books, a demand with which I concur. The days of 800 page tomes of history that cover a broad topic from numerous angles and include extensive appendices are over. Yet often the editor will encourage if not demand brevity and then send reader reports that request more details on certain themes and recommend a broader literature review. This is the classic, contradictory reader report – the editor asking for 10,000 less words and the evaluators requesting development of certain topics or sections. 

So my first reaction is that in order to keep the book accessible, I didn’t develop several points. In the ‘old days’ of longer books, I would have had more on the trans-Atlantic notions of earthquakes and linked the book more with debates within environmental history. I’ll explain why I didn’t below. The great danger in this current mode of ‘when in doubt, cut,’ is, in my opinion, history lite, where the book delves into topics understandable and even amenable to today’s readers (for example, gory stories or gender debates, but not military history or medieval notions of death) but avoids less accessible topics. This can make for highly readable but superficial history. It also leads towards anachronism as the writer favors today’s interests (and short attention spans). I won’t use this as an excuse, although I do admit to a small cringe when I read that I should have written more on certain topics – and almost did.

Professor Svensen asks for more physical explanations of the earthquake. I found very few. The fascinating Limeño Renaissance man who plays a large role in the book, José Eusebio Llano Zapata, wrote a great deal about the earthquake, including its causes. As I outline, Llano Zapata built on the views of Nicolás Lémery and Martin Lister, who believed that subterranean fires prompted howling winds that shook the ground. Other scholars of the time pinpointed water seeping underground and weakening the earth’s shell as the cause. In 1756, Llano Zapata published a curious document in which he answered King Ferdinand’s query about the Lima earthquake and how it could help understand the 1755 ‘Lisbon’ earthquake that shook much of Spain. Nothing indicates that the King had actually asked Llano Zapata, but in ‘Respuesta dada al Rey Nuestro Señor D. Fernando el sexto sobre una pregunta … sobre el terremoto’ this Peruvian savant develops his ideas about the cause of earthquakes and anti-seismic architectural techniques that had fared well in the Lima catastrophe (Seville: López de Haro, 1756). I examined this document and sought to link it with trans-Atlantic notions of earthquakes but was disappointed to find that Llano Zapata was a brilliant man, but isolated from broader scientific trends or even key scientists in Peru and Spain, where he resided from 1751 until his death in 1780. I had hoped he was the missing link between a trans-Atlantic dialogue about earthquakes and society, but he wasn’t.

I also note in the book that Europeans paid attention to the 1746 Lima earthquake-tsunami, particularly after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. To my disappointment, this consisted of the translation of the ‘official’ account of the earthquake into several language and superficial mentions of the October 28, 1746 earthquake, rather than any type of detailed analysis. In the beginning of the project, I thought that European attention to Lima’s devastation would be a key topic in the book. I found many citations in numerous language but little actual material or even ruminations on the earthquake itself.

Professor Svensen also reflects on what historical studies can tell us about present-day disasters. I make it clear that while not the focus of the book, this question shaped the questions I asked. Beyond ‘Lima has survived and rebuilt before’, my study gave me little grounds for optimism. I shudder to think about what will happen in a massive earthquake in Lima and find myself worrying when I’m in crowded areas or tunnels there. In contrast to neighboring Chile, Peru has not updated its building codes or fully implemented the existing ones. Moreover, the state doesn’t have the ability that Viceroy Manso de Velasco displayed to provide rapid relief and to impose emergency measures. I agree fully with Professor Svensen that we need to think about these issues more historically. 

He also brings up my conclusions about the political repercussions of the earthquake. I was struck by how virtually everyone in Lima disagreed with the Viceroy’s rebuilding measures but from very distinct points of view or for very different reasons. I make a parallel with the wars of independence that would come a bit more than half a century later, stressing the ‘fragmented opposition’ that marked both. In the early 19th century, people in Lima had many reasons to dislike Spanish rule but could not overcome their own differences. For example, much of the upper classes remained royalist because of their fear of the lower orders. I didn’t want to overdo this point – the obvious one that a prior period foreshadowed a subsequent one – but perhaps I left it underdeveloped.   

I’ll close by thanking Professor Svensen for his incisive reading and reiterating my pleasure in that the book interests a geologist. I also want to acknowledge Reviews in History for this opportunity.