The unfolding tragedy of Haiti’s earthquake should hardly be taken lightly. It is certainly not something to make religious capital out of as the right-wing televangelist nutjob Pat Robertson saw fit to do when he suggested that the earthquake was a divine punishment for the nation’s founders making a ‘pact with the Devil’ to liberate themselves from the French slave owners in 1791.
Even the Presidential Palace, built in 1918, was critically damaged.
But history tells us that structures can be built to survive such natural disasters. Pliny, in his Natural History, for example, eulogises over the solid construction of Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, the world’s oldest extant sewage system which dates back to 600 BCE.
Occasionally, too, the Tiber, overflowing, is thrown backward in its course, and discharges itself by these outlets: obstinate is the contest that ensues within between the meeting tides, but so firm and solid is the masonry, that it is enabled to offer an effectual resistance. Enormous as are the accumulations that are carried along above, the work of the channels never gives way. Houses falling spontaneously to ruins, or levelled with the ground by conflagrations, are continually battering against them; the ground, too, is shaken by earthquakes every now and then; and yet, built as they were in the days of Tarquinius Priscus, seven hundred years ago, these constructions have survived, all but unharmed.
(Gaius Plinius Secundus – Natural History 77 AD)
The awesome power of earthquakes, of course, is not something that has gone unnoticed by comical scatologists. In 1607, Henry Ludlow farted in Parliament during a debate about the naturalization of the Scots. This may have been an accident – his father Sir Edward Ludlow was renowned for having farted in a committee meeting – but the House fell about and Ludlow’s farting Nay-vote passed into folklore. Endless poems were written about the fart – the best-known being The Censure of the Parliament Fart, a satirical work of unknown authorship. At one point, the act of farting is likened to an earthquake of devastating scale.
Saith Mr. Moore, let us this motion repeale,
What’s good for the private, is ill for the Common weal.
A good year on this Fart, quoth gentle Sir Harry,
He hath caus’d such an earth-quake, thay my Coal-pits miscarry.
(Anonymous – The Censure of the Parliament Fart c.1620s)
The association of farting with earthquakes was taken further by the Whig politician Charles James Fox (1749-1806) in his slightly puerile Essay Upon Wind, in which he analyses the ‘different species of farts’.
As to fart no. 5 – which I have emphatically denominated the sullen wind-bound fart, it is the most uncomfortable, unhealthy and troublesome of all farts whatever that have been yet discovered, as it comes slowly forth, with a painful sensation and sudden rumbling, like to pent-up air in a volcano, which sometimes produces earthquakes and horrible shakes of the earth from not having a free and open passage for the gas or phlogistic air to escape. Those who are unhappy as to issue such farts from their unwholesome premises are really patients; they cannot be well with such a plentitude of impure and foul air pent up in every cavity of their volcano. However, this produces the sullen fart, issuing slowly, and mournfully murmuring at long and stated intervals; medicinal assistance is here necessary. As I have often suffered in this case myself (particularly last week, when, in a sleepless night, I thought of penning this useful essay), I think I may, with some confidence, take the liberty of saying to what I attribute the farting malady and, as a benevolent man always ready to assist my fellow creatures, and being a sincere friend to ease and liberty, I shall at the same time point out the cause.
(Charles James Fox – An Essay upon Wind 1787)
While humour is said to be the best medicine, none of this is likely to be of comfort to the Haitians who will be better served by generous donations to any of various disaster funds. Suggested places to donate are here:
Pat Robertson, meanwhile, deserves the collective contempt and the combined farts of the world.