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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/January 1900/Remarkable Volcanic Eruptions in the Philippines

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | January 1900


EVERY one knows that the Philippine archipelago, like other regions in its neighborhood, abounds in volcanoes, some of which are still active, while the majority are extinct. Some geologists have tried to distribute the Philippine volcanoes into two parallel belts or lines running in a general northwest and southeast direction, following the trend of the island group, and extending from the southern end of Mindanao to the northern part of Luzon—some sixteen degrees of latitude. Early, possibly prehistoric, volcanic activity in the group has left its imprint upon the native mythology, as was the case in the Mediterranean, and an explanation of some of the mythical stories is to be found in earth movements. The Spaniards have given accounts of many eruptions in the last three hundred years, which were remarkable either from the destruction they caused or the terror they inspired. Some of these accounts were written by the terrified eyewitnesses themselves, such as the monks in charge of parishes where the greatest damage was done, and are sufficiently vivid, however much they may lack of what would now be called "scientific" accuracy.

Probably the most remarkable volcanic outburst in historical times, on account of the distance apart of the simultaneous eruptions, although its intensity might not be regarded as great when compared with that of Krakatoa, was that of January 4, 1641, when a volcano on the southeastern extremity of Mindanao, another on the northern coast of the island of Sulu to the west, and a third in Luzon far to the north, became active at the same time. A translation of the original Spanish report of this extraordinary phenomenon, which is extremely rare and practically inaccessible to students, is given in Jagor's Reisen in den Philippinen. From this it appears that upon two occasions, toward the end of December, 1640, volcanic ashes fell at Zamboanga (on the southwest coast of Mindanao) and covered the fields like a light frost. On January 1, 1641, the auxiliary fleet carrying troops from Manila to the island of Ternate was off Zamboanga, and on the 3d, at about 7 p.m., people in the latter place heard what they supposed was artillery and musketry firing at some miles' distance. Believing that an enemy was attacking the coast, preparations were made to meet him, and the commander of the galleys sent a boat out to see if any of the vessels of the fleet needed assistance, but the boat returned without finding the fleet.

On the next day, January 4, 1641, at about 9 a.m., the noise of the supposed cannonading increased to such an extent that it was feared in Zamboanga that the Spanish fleet had been attacked by the Dutch, with whom the Spaniards were then at war. This noise lasted about half an hour, when it became evident that it was not caused by artillery, but proceeded from the outbreak of a volcano, for, toward noon, thick darkness began to spread over the sky to the south, which soon covered that part of the heavens and gradually spread over the whole sky, so that by 1 p.m. it was as dark as night, and by 2 p.m. the darkness had so increased that one could not distinguish objects a short distance off. Candles were lighted, and a great fear fell upon the people, who fled to the churches to pray and confess. This darkness, during which no light was visible in the whole horizon, lasted until 2 a.m., when the moon became visible, to the great joy of both Spaniards and Indians, who were afraid of being buried beneath the ashes which had been falling since 2 p.m. The fleet, which was then passing the southern end of Mindanao, was thrown into confusion by the tumult of the elements, and was in darkness earlier than Zamboanga—viz., at 10 a.m.—because it was nearer the volcano. The darkness was so intense that the crews believed the last day had come, and the vessels were endangered by the heavy shower of stones, ashes, and earth which fell upon them and which the men hastened to throw overboard. The ships' lanterns were lighted as at night. The volcano could be seen, at a considerable distance, throwing up columns of flame which, on descending, set the neighboring woods on fire. The darkness covered the greater part of Mindanao, which is a very large island, and the ashes were carried to Cebu, Panay, and other islands, and there was an especially heavy fall on the island of Jolo (Sulu), which is more than forty leagues west by south from the southeast point of Mindanao, where the volcano burst out. On this island, on account of the darkness and the general uproar, the source of the ashes which fell there was not known at the time, but when it became light enough to see it was found that at the same time with the eruption on Mindanao a second volcano had burst out upon a small island which lies off the mouth of the principal river of Sulu. There the earth had opened with a violent commotion, and had vomited out flames mingled with trees and huge stones. So great was the disturbance that the sea bottom was mingled with the interior of the earth, and the volcano threw out quantities of shells and other things that grow upon the bottom of the sea. The mouth of this volcano remained open afterward. It was very broad, and the eruption had burned up everything upon the island. But what excited the greatest amazement was that a third volcano broke out on the same day and hour with the two just mentioned, in the province of Ilocos, in Luzon, and at least six hundred miles north; and this volcano ejected water. The outbreak was preceded by a violent storm and earthquake. The earth swallowed up three mountains, on the sides of one of which were three villages. All three mountains were torn from their foundations and blown into the air, together with a vast amount of water, and the chasm which took their place formed a broad lake, that showed no trace of the mountains which had stood on the spot. The letter from which the foregoing account is taken goes on to say that the noise of this outbreak, which occurred between 9 and 10 a.m., was heard not only in Manila but in all the Philippine Islands and the Moluccas. It even reached the mainland of Asia in the kingdoms of Cochin China, Champa, and Cambodia, as was learned from priests and others who came to Manila from those countries afterward. The noise sounded like heavy artillery and musketry fire at two or three leagues' distance. In Manila it was supposed that the firing was going on in Cavite, while at Cavite it was referred to Manila, and messengers were sent from one place to the other to make inquiries, and a similar impression prevailed in all the islands, cities, and villages in a circuit of nine hundred leagues, within which the noise was heard. Malacca was taken by the Dutch on the 13th of January, and was already hard pressed on the 4th, and many pious Spaniards believed, after the news had come of the capture of the place, that Heaven had taken this volcanic means of warning them of the great injury which would result to the archipelago from the loss of so important a city.

The missionaries in Cochin China gave January 5th as the date of the outbreak, instead of the 4th, there being one day's difference between the reckoning of the Portuguese, who sailed from west to east, and that of the Spaniards, who sailed from east to west, to their Eastern possessions.

The volcano of Mayon, or Albay, in the province of Camarines, has been in frequent eruption from 1616 down to within thirty years. Some of the eruptions were very destructive to life and property. After an activity in July, 1766, of six days' duration, accompanied by a great flow of lava, on October 23, 1766, during a violent storm, which began at about 7 p.m. from north-northwest and at 3 a.m. suddenly veered to the south and blew down all the houses of one of the villages in the neighborhood, the volcano ejected such a vast quantity of water that several torrents of thirty varas (ninety feet) wide ran down to the sea between the villages Tibog and Albay. Between Bacacay and MaKnao the floods were over eighty varas (two hundred and forty feet) wide, and the highways were obliterated. One village was entirely destroyed, nearly all the houses of the region were swept away, and the fields were covered with sand; another village was partly destroyed, its remainder forming an island, or rather a hill, surrounded by deep, broad ravines, through which the stream of sand and water ran. In another place palms and other trees were buried in sand to their tops. Some fifty persons lost their lives. As far as could be judged, the account declares, this [cold?] water came from the interior of the volcano, while we should be inclined to regard it as a cloudburst. The outbreak of February 1, 1814, however, was the most destructive of all. An eyewitness writes that at about 8 a.m. the mountain suddenly threw out a thick column of stones, sand, and ashes, which quickly rose to the highest layers of the air. The sides of the volcano became veiled and disappeared from the view of the spectators, while a stream of fire ran down the mountain and threatened to annihilate them. Every one fled to the highest attainable point for safety, while the roar of the volcano struck terror into all. The darkness increased, and many of the fleeing ones were struck down by the falling stones. Houses afforded no protection, because the red-hot stones set them on fire, and the most flourishing villages of the Camarines were thus laid in ashes. Toward 10 a.m. the rain of stones ceased, and was replaced by one of sand, and at about 2 p.m. the noise had lessened and the sky began to clear. Twelve thousand persons were killed and many wounded by this eruption. After the mountain had become quiet it presented a frightful appearance, its former picturesque, highly cultivated slopes being covered with barren sand, which enveloped the cocoanut trees to their tops, and some one hundred and twenty feet of its summit had been carried away during the eruption. An enormous opening had been formed on its southern side, near which three other mouths appeared, which continued to emit ashes and smoke. The finest villages of the Camarines were destroyed, and the best part of the province was converted into a sandy waste.

This mountain has been active at short intervals down to the present time. Sometimes its activity has been continuous for a year or more. Its eruptions were frequently accompanied by earthquakes and storms. The next outbreak after that described above was in 1827. In 1834 and 1835 the mountain was active nearly all the time. There was no eruption of ashes, but every night a stream of molten lava could be seen running into the higher ravines. In 1845 there was an eruption of ashes which lasted several days; a violent eruption occurred in 1846, two unimportant ones in 1851, and another violent ash and stone eruption occurred on July 27, 1853, during which thirty-one persons were killed. Others occurred in 1855, 1857, 1858, 1859, 1860, 1865, and 1871. The heights of the Philippine volcanoes vary from ten thousand and nine thousand feet (Albay or Mayon) down to Taal, only seven hundred and eighty feet high. This curious volcano is upon an islet in the middle of Lake Bombon, south of Manila. Lake Bombon was originally probably a vast crater. It is separated from the China Sea by a narrow isthmus. Taal contains secondary craters, crevasses emitting vapors, and lakelets of acid water. It is the principal "show" volcano of the islands, and was in action in 1885, when all the vegetation upon the island was burned up. Lake Bombon was doubtless formerly connected with the sea, the intervening barrier being formed of eruptive scoriæ. Its water is still saline, and its marine fauna has adapted itself to its modified environment.

On the small island Camiguin, on the northwest coast of Mindanao, is the extinct volcano Catarman, with a crater lake upon its summit whose level has been subject to great fluctuations. times the lake dried up, and again it has overflowed and inundated the low lands in the neighborhood, as in 1827 and 1862. Often its water has been set boiling by escaping gases. It would be interesting to know what varying pressure caused the changes in the level of this lake on the top of Mount Catarman.

A further idea of the volcanic activity of this region may be gained from the circumstance that a volcanic island emerged from the sea on the north coast of Luzon in 1856, which grew to seven hundred feet in height by 1860, and is now about eight hundred feet high. Every one has seen photographs of the streets of Manila after an earthquake, which form of subterranean activity is so common that it is taken into account in building.