The Historical Tsunamis of Indonesia: A Legacy of Earthquakes and Tragedy

Indonesia, situated at the convergence of three major tectonic plates—Eurasian, Pacific, and Indo-Australian—is no stranger to earthquakes. The dynamic geological activity in the region, driven by the movement of these plates, gives rise to seismic events that are part of the nation’s history. The presence of volcanic activity and numerous fault lines further amplifies the risk of earthquakes, making Indonesia susceptible to the devastating effects of these natural disasters. In this article, we delve into historical accounts of tsunamis triggered by earthquakes in Indonesia, exploring the profound impact they had on the archipelago.

Dating back to the 17th century, Indonesia faced a catastrophic event that combined both earthquakes and tsunamis. On February 17, 1674, Pulau Ambon was struck by a powerful earthquake, as documented by the naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius in his work “Amboina” (1675). Marlon Ririmasse recounts Rumphius’ observations, describing how the earthquake, followed by a sudden rise in sea level, inundated the island and surrounding areas. The destructive force of the waves led to widespread damage and loss of life, leaving an indelible mark on the region.

Moving forward to the late 19th century, the region around the Banda Arc experienced another seismic tragedy. On the early morning of September 30, 1899, Seram and its neighboring areas were jolted by a significant earthquake, recorded by Dutch geologist Rogier Diederik Marius Verbeek. The quake, accompanied by a subsequent tsunami, took the residents by surprise, claiming thousands of lives and causing extensive damage to Seram’s southern regions.

The impact of these historical tsunamis was profound, with significant devastation to coastal regions. In the case of the 1899 event, Verbeek reported that the sea level rose between 1.7 and 9 meters, causing landslides and further exacerbating the destruction. The aftermath saw entire villages submerged, churches and mosques damaged, and numerous casualties.

Rumphius’ account of the 1674 tsunami in Ambon reveals the suddenness of the disaster, catching the inhabitants off guard. The waves reached such heights that they surpassed the roofs of houses, sweeping away entire villages. The toll on human life was considerable, with casualties including Rumphius’ wife and child.

In the wake of these disasters, the resilience of the Indonesian people and the support from various quarters played a crucial role in recovery. The accounts from 1899 highlight the swift response from the government, which formed a committee to aid the victims. Donations poured in from different sources, demonstrating solidarity in times of crisis.

Queen Emma, the queen consort of King Willem III of the Netherlands, contributed 600 gulden to the relief efforts, underscoring the international awareness and assistance that these events attracted. The committee, consisting of key figures from the region, strategically organized meetings to assess the needs of the affected areas and determine the required funds.

The historical tsunamis triggered by earthquakes in Indonesia have left an enduring mark on the nation’s history. From the 17th-century catastrophe in Ambon to the devastating events in Seram during the late 19th century, these incidents underscore the need for ongoing preparedness and awareness in the face of natural disasters. The tales of resilience, solidarity, and international support in the aftermath of these tragedies serve as reminders of the human spirit’s ability to endure and rebuild in the face of adversity.