What We’re Reading: QandA with Jarrod Hore on ‘Settlers in Earthquake Country’

Jarrod Hore and Chi Chi Huang, 28 September 2021

Black and white photo of Alexander McKay’s son William on Glyn Wye station in 1888. McKay is sitting on the ground, using his body to indicate the size of the vertical rupture. It's the length of his legs, about 1 metre

Jarrod Hore: ‘Settlers in earthquake country: Apprehending instability in New Zealand and California’ (forthcoming in Pacific Historical Review) examines how two slightly different colonial societies responded to seismic instability throughout the late nineteenth century. Focusing on two earthquakes in Aotearoa New Zealand and two in California, I align the temporality of natural disaster with an economic temporality of settler colonial boom and bust. In contrast to more recent disasters, such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, settlers in earlier times often confronted seismic instability with optimism and enthusiasm. Despite some dissenting voices, most settlers were quick to resume their speculation on colonial markets in both Wellington in 1855 after the huge Wairarapa earthquake and in San Francisco after the 1868 Hayward quake. Shifts in the faults underlying Wellington and San Francisco could produce opportunities to reclaim land, improve infrastructure, and reiterate settler control.

In some ways earthquakes signify the creative destruction at the core of the settler colonial project, which ‘destroys to replace’ to adopt the terminology of the historian and theorist Patrick Wolfe. This was simple when boom economies insulated settlers from the anxieties of dispossession, but more complicated during crashes. In the aftermath of the 1888 North Canterbury earthquake for example, settlers were more circumspect about recovery, eventually reinventing the image of the city’s toppled cathedral as a symbol of stoic endurance. A more open articulation of instability inflected scientific reports in the aftermath of the 1872 Owens Valley event, which, according to the geologist Joseph LeConte, was a symptom of a whole world in a ‘rather unstable state of equilibrium.’

Read together, responses to these four events offer us a new way into the environmental history of settler colonialism. Earthquake country is, for me, an intriguing site to begin a consideration of the relationships between scientists and settlers, their environmental knowledge, and the physical world. These relationships always came back to the fundamental conflict over land between settlers and First Nations people, but they were also shaped by economic conditions that insulated colonists or exposed their worries.


Chi Chi Huang: I was struck that it was quite novel to think about Aotearoa New Zealand and California in the same historical space. You make a great case for thinking about both these places as comparable earthquake country, but could you expand a bit more about them as comparative sites within your research? And perhaps comment on the extent to which there was exchange or communication about these events and the subsequent approach to seeing them as moments of opportunity?

JH: It’s kind of interesting to reflect on that double register actually. I came to this topic through a wider comparative history of settler environmental attachment in nineteenth-century California and Australasia. We know that there was quite a high degree of trans-Pacific mobility throughout the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Gold-seekers, to begin with, circulated from California to the Australian colonies to Otago. Later on, as Thomas Dunlap, Ian Tyrrell, and now Marilyn Lake have shown, agriculturalists, environmentalists, and politicians looked across the Pacific (from both sides) to adopt technologies and strategies to improve yield and preserve or transform environments. From this perspective it’s natural to think about National Parks, intensive settler agriculture, progressivism, and earthquakes as trans-Pacific phenomena. Of course the other fundamental history that these places share is one of Indigenous dispossession, which I think is important to always return to in environmental and economic histories.

I found that earthquakes, especially, were useful because they have a very clear material basis in plate tectonics. While those other phenomena can be explained by the exchange of people and ideas, I wondered whether there was something essential about shaky places that might reveal the fundamentals of settler colonialism. They were also almost immediately linked together within scientific networks. I start the essay with Charles Lyell, who upon learning of an 1855 earthquake in Wellington immediately tried to place its importance geologically in a kind of earthquake ‘power ranking.’ The causes of these earthquakes were a very much a live question within scientific networks, and so we get people like the geologist Josiah Whitney, in 1872, trying to place local events in a global ‘earthquake cycle,’ and the Berkeley geologist Joseph LeConte trying to emphasise the importance of comparison in studying seismic movement. Overall, I was initially quite surprised by how unperturbed settlers were in the aftermath of earthquakes, which I think attests to how powerful flows of capital and people could be when times were good in the colonies.

CH: While this is a story of scientists and settlers making sense of seismic instability, you mention that photographers and artists also participated in the production of sentimental post-disaster landscapes. How did photographers and/or artists contribute to the documentation and interpretation of these earthquakes? Were images created in the process of studying these earthquakes as well?

JH: Absolutely. Alfred Burton takes quite a striking photograph of the Christchurch cathedral in the wake of the 1888 north Canterbury earthquake (see below for image). This image has, as you say, quite a sentimental affect, and is reminiscent of some of the imagery we’re so familiar with now when seismic events from around the world are reported. Another settler, Alexander McKay surveyed the area around the Hope Fault closer to the epicentre of the quake in 1888 and took several photographs of fence lines shifted out of alignment and of vertical ruptures. These photographs ended up settling some contention over horizontal displacement and became part of a collection of about 150 photographs that McKay used to document his explorations of the cause of the elevation of the Kaikōura Ranges north of Christchurch.

McKay was particularly invested in photography as a way of communicating geological arguments, but this crossover wasn’t unique. Settler photographers were often involved in scientific debates and expeditions. In California, Eadweard Muybridge’s spectacular images of ‘glacier channels’ in Yosemite fed into a controversy about the formation of the valley that pitted those who figured that something like an earthquake created the valley and those who favoured glacial origin. Similarly, Carleton Watkins’ images of trees were used as botanical index images across the United States and his 1870 photograph of the Whitney glacier became an important piece of evidence in a disagreement about the existence of ‘living’ glaciers in California. I like to think there’s still sentimentality in these images, but no doubt it differs from the pictures of urban places that photographers captured in the wake of natural disasters.

CH: In my study of typhoons in Hong Kong during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I similarly saw how, in the aftermath of a destructive natural event, it became an opportunity. In the Hong Kong context, it was an opportunity to consolidate imperial sentiment. What other dimensions did this sense of settler optimism and enthusiasm take on in the aftermath of an earthquake?

JH: Certainly, there’s a version of imperial sentiment being consolidated in 1888 as the Burton Brothers were developing that image of the Christchurch cathedral and processing it into photographs, colourised images, and eventually, postcards. It becomes a visual marker of settler endurance in much the same way that McKay’s geological studies across Canterbury are eventually celebrated as a kind of hard-won knowledge about the formation of this part of Aotearoa. The image of the spire carries a bit of extra symbolic meaning, though, which leads to some provincial press writing about the ‘melancholy appearance of the wreck.’

Settler colonies are also places of that same imperial sentiment, but I tend to think there’s often a fundamental vulnerability hovering on the edges. As I mentioned earlier, in times of rude health settlers were adept at thinking optimistically or even opportunistically about natural disasters like earthquakes, but in more trying times or in contested places this vulnerability creeps in. 1888 was one such time in Canterbury. Historians refer to it as the ‘great bust’ and it comes after a long period intense conflict between Māori and Pākehā: the New Zealand Wars. While few settlers made these connections at the time, and while this conflict mostly took place in the North Island, I do think it’s important to link any expressions of doubt in the settler project in this period to this history of settler colonial conflict, as well as to those economic patterns of boom and bust.

Images (top of page): Alexander McKay’s son, William McKay, on Glyn Wye station in 1888. GNS Science (photo by: Alexander McKay). Images (from left): Alexander McKay’s son, William McKay on Glyn Wye station in 1888, GNS Science (Photo by Alexander McKay); Christchurch Cathedral, injured by earthquake, September 1, 1888, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Te Papa (C.011676) (Creative Commons)

Leave a Reply