It was an early Sunday afternoon, and notary Marc’Antonio Brancati was noting down Grazia Cassar’s last wishes.

Suddenly, the dying Mqabba woman and the eight men around her turned pale and stared at each other as the house they were in shook violently.

The notary paused the writing of his deed to record – for posterity – one of the island’s most terrifying earthquakes.

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

“It was sometime between 1pm and 2pm of Sunday, January 11, 1693. Grazia Cassar was on her deathbed, surrounded by seven male witnesses.

"The notary assures us that while she was infirm in her body, she was still clear in her mind and was able to depose of her last wishes in a proper manner,” says Vanessa Buhagiar, palaeographer at the Notarial Archives.

“Lo and behold, as he started to note down her first wishes, the famous earthquake that shattered Sicily and parts of Malta, hits: Behold! A crack just like thunder was heard in the distance and is advancing towards us from afar,” Brancati writes. Eventually the entire house started shaking violently.

“It rocked to and fro, just like a boat struggling at sea, tormented by the wind and cruel storms. Pale in the face, they stared at each other. They were rendered speechless. Their hearts were racing, beating fast just like the mass of the earth that was quaking,” he wrote.

The men fell to their knees and summoned the Holy Spirit, their sins racing through their minds, the notary explains. They asked the Lord for forgiveness, and prayed, invoking the intervention of St Anthony of Padua.

Buhagiar says: “They felt they had wandered off the right path and were being punished for their sins. They pleaded with the holy creator and redeemer to stop this ‘supernatural occurrence’. And then suddenly, the tremor stopped, and the notary returned to the writing down of the deed.”

It is estimated that the 1693 earthquake measured around 7.4 on the Richter scale and even caused a tsunami on the eastern coast of Sicily, which was also reported in Gozo by Canon Agius de Soldanis.

It devastated the Val di Noto area, kicking off the birth of Sicilian Baroque, with the Noto cathedral, among others, being rebuilt in the new architectural style. Similarly, the Mdina cathedral, formerly built in a Gothic style, was partly demolished by the quake and rebuilt in Baroque style.

Brancati’s account – the first eyewitness account of an earthquake in Malta – is quite unique, Buhagiar says.

She explains that the Maltese islands are not particularly known for a lot of seismic acti­vity, unlike places like Greece, whose people developed a culture with the preoccupation of earthquakes: among others, Poseidon, in Greek mythology, is the god of many things, including earthquakes.

“These preoccupations did not materialise in Maltese culture, and the archives echo this to a certain extent because there is largely no mention of earthquakes in our records.

“We find one instance of a previous earthquake in the 16th century, and we only know about it through records in Sicily,” Buhagiar explains.

Brancati’s account forms part of the Notarial Archives collection, within the National Archives of Malta.

Evacuation plan in case of earthquake… 100 years ago

The devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria last Monday, following a series of tremors felt in Malta in recent weeks, have caused concern among the local population, with several asking whether the island is prepared for a natural disaster.

But 100 years ago, Malta already had an emergency plan in place in case of an earthquake… or an aerial bombardment.

In 1924, Governor of Malta Viscount Herbert Plumer instructed Chief Engineer Colonel R.A. Gillam to devise a scheme for a mass exodus from Valletta in case of emergency, such as aerial bombardments and earthquakes.

The police, public works department and the self-government were all consulted over the plan, which, if set in motion, would have seen, among others, the halting of the railway service.

The plan, which is preserved at the National Archives of Malta in Rabat, saw the capital being split into five sections and officers stationed at different roads and corners accordingly to manage the flow of traffic of pedestrians and vehicles.

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