In 1812, a National Catastrophe Helped Topple a Weak Government

On March 26th, 207 years ago, an earthquake devastated Caracas and other cities in that young Venezuela that was trying to be a republic. The event was decisive to the collapse of the revolutionary regime.

On March 26th, 1812, a Holy Thursday, there were three simultaneous earthquakes in three regions of Venezuela: Caracas and La Guaira, Barquisimeto and San Felipe, and Merida. This remains the most devastating phenomenon of Venezuela’s rich seismic history. All historical sources point out that Caracas was mostly destroyed, like never before or since.

The city had just approved the first National Constitution, on December 21st, 1811, and it was soon going to experience the horrors of war for the first time, starting in March 1812, when general Domingo de Monteverde disembarked to recover the territory for the Spanish Crown.

The death toll of the earthquake is as varied as the sources about the event, but researcher Rogelio Altez, who has been obsessed with the subject, says: “This is probably the figure closest to the reality of that long gone afternoon and we might conclude that the earthquake’s death toll was around 2,000 people.” This figure is very different from the one offered by Centeno Grau (14,000) and Ker Porter (16,000), but very close to Roscio’s (1,000) and Semple’s (3,000). Altez is conservative about the number of people dead in a city that had around 40,000 inhabitants, but he doesn’t ignore the fact that the physical destruction might have been massive.

The state of the Venezuelan capital in the aftermath of this event was an important political factor in the conflict at the time because it favored Monteverde’s work and harmed the patriotic ranks. Therefore, the earthquake contributed to the fall, in July of that same year of 1812, of the first revolutionary government in Venezuela, the so-called First Republic.

But in Venezuela’s historical folklore, this earthquake tends to be associated with the role that Simón Bolívar played, encouraging Caraqueños back then to overcome any challenge of nature. An eye witness of the events, royalist José Domingo Díaz, wrote down his experience, providing a foothold for what would later become the myth around Bolívar’s character. We’ll reproduce part of what he wrote: “It was four, the sky above Caracas was extremely clear and bright, an immense calm increased the intensity of unbearable heat, water drops fell but there were no clouds to release them, and I left my house for the Holy Cathedral Church. About a hundred steps before reaching the San Jacinto Square, the convent of the Order of the Preachers, the earth started moving with a terrible sound; I ran, some of the balconies of the Post Office fell before me when I entered, I moved out of the reach of the ruins of buildings and watched as most of the temple collapsed, and also, among the dust and death, I saw the destruction of a city that was the joy of natives and foreigners.”

“That inexplicable sound was followed by the silence of the grave. At the moment, I was alone in the middle of the square and rubble; I heard the screams of those who were dying inside the temple, I climbed up the broken ruins and entered the place. Everything happened in an instant. There, I saw about forty people either torn apart or close to dying among the debris. I climbed back, and my mind will never forget that moment. At the top, I found Simón Bolívar who, with his sleeves rolled up, was climbing up to carry out the same examination. His face showed the greatest terror or the deepest despair. He saw me and told me these cruel and extravagant words: ‘If Nature opposes us, we’ll fight against her and make her obey us.’ The square was full of people screaming loudly. I returned home, took my family and led them to that place.”

So great was the devastation, and the inability of later governments to reconstruct, that a considerable part of Venezuela’s capital remained in ruins for decades. 40 years after the earthquake, conselheiro Miguel María Lisboa, the ambassador from the Brazilian Empire, wrote: “Whoever visits Caracas for the first time can’t but contemplate, with an air of melancholy, the testimonials that remain there, even though more than 40 years have passed since the fatal earthquake of 1812!”