International Journal of Geosciences, 2010, 1-13
doi:10.4236/ijg.2010.11001 Published Online May 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
The Bayamo Earthquake (Cuba) of the 18 October 1551
Mario O. Cotilla-Rodríguez, Diego Córdoba-Barba
Departamento de Física de la Tierra y Astrofísica 1, Facultad de CC Físicas,
Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid, Spain
Received February 23, 2010; revised March 21, 2010; accepted April 20, 2010
Using contemporary and original documents from the Archivo General de Indias it has been possible to
complete the data for the 18 October 1551 earthquake in Cuba. The seism took place at midday, approxi-
mately. It had foreshocks and aftershocks. In Bayamo, 7 inhabitants were injured, and the town was severely
affected. Maximum seismic intensity was IX degrees on the MSK scale, and the area of perceptibility is es-
timated at 40,000 km2. Liquefaction processes and soil type in Bayamo contributed to the damage. This lo-
cality is in the Eastern region of the island, and continues to suffer the most and the strongest seismic events.
The epicenter was in the southern marine area of the western segment of Oriente trough (19.6 N 77.8 W, h =
15 km, Ms = 6.6), where there is a crossing of faults, and neotectonics and focal mechanisms are affected by
transtension, although the Bartlett-Cayman region’s tendency to left-lateral strike-slip movement is main-
tained, in the Caribbean and North American plate boundary zone.
Keywords: Bayamo, Cuba, Earthquake, Historical Seismicity
1. Introduction
In previous papers we have shown that relatively large
and destructive earthquakes have occurred frequently in
the past along the Oriente fault system [1,2]. We have
also shown that American contemporary documents must
be studied with care, in their historical and cultural con-
text, in order to avoid overrating when evaluating inten-
sity [3]. In this paper, we will discuss an historic Cuban
earthquake, which occurred in the year 1551. The infor-
mation for this seismic event comes from contemporary
sources, such as unpublished consular correspondence,
official documents and damage claims, as well as from
the observations of travelers who passed through the
epicentral region during and after the earthquake. An
extensive literature search for documents relative to this
earthquake was carried out in libraries and archives of
Belgium, Cuba, Dominican Republic, England, France,
Jamaica, Mexico, Spain, and United States of America.
Cuba’s written history is fairly extensive. It began in
1492 with the diaries of the first Spanish explorers [4,5].
The Spanish colonizers and priests established Catholic
churches throughout the island, in all the villages founded
from 1512 onwards. Many of these documents are avail-
able in the Archivo General de Indias (AI), Spain. Con-
sultation at the AI enabled access to the original sources
of information, for the first time, revealing that informa-
tion on many XVIth century earthquakes has been com-
piled. Cotilla [3] and Cotilla and Córdoba [2] have al-
ready shown the usefulness of the AI, in the studies of
four earthquakes in Santiago de Cuba.
In 1687, Cuban newspapers were published for the
first time, initially issued in Santiago de Cuba and La
Habana [5,6]. They mentioned perceptible earthquakes,
continued to spread across the Eastern Cuban region as
the population increased. Descriptions of the Cuban
earthquakes were catalogued by Poey [7-9], and were
later interpreted in terms of shaking intensity, and later,
earthquake epicenters and magnitude [10-12]. Cotilla and
Udías [5] classify the earthquake information quality of
the works by Andrés Poey y Aguirre, concluding that the
information given for the event of 1551 in Bayamo is
The aim of this paper is to detail what is known about
the 1551 Cuban earthquake (Bayamo) including its sequ-
ences, the location of the epicentral areas, assessment of
magnitude, and its effects both on the ground and on man-
made structures. A further aim is to provide a critical
review of the information available and to resolve some
ambiguities appearing in previous works. Attempts are
made to associate these events with local tectonics or to
evaluate the associated seismic hazard.
2. Short Notes on Tectonics and Seismicity
The relative motion between the North American and
Caribbean plates is decisive for the area’s tectonic re-
gime on a regional scale [13-20] (Figures 1(a), 1(b)).
Cuba is a megablock (or microplate) located in the
southern part of the North American plate (Figure 2)
[21-23]. The active plate boundary is situated along the
southeast coast where the main seismic activity follows
the eastern segment of Bartlett-Cayman fault zone (Ori-
ente fault) [14,24,25]. In this segment, faulting is mostly
sinistral strike-slip (Figure 1(d)) [1,14].
The general pattern of seismicity in the Caribbean re-
gion is shown in Figure 1(b). Large earthquakes occur
along the plate boundary near Hispaniola, Jamaica and
Puerto Rico [12,26], but no event since the XVIIIth cen-
tury has reached a magnitude of 7.0 [1,5]. Table 1 pre-
sents the most significant earthquakes in Southeastern
Cuba [2-4]. Low magnitude seismicity (Ms < 4) occurs
throughout the Western region of the island and particu-
larly around Santiago de Cuba [14]. The seismicity de-
termined with the Eastern Cuban network appears in
Figure 1(c). These low-energy events have been regis-
tered by 3 or more stations in the period 1979-1994 [1].
It shows two important earthquake clusters, namely, in
Cabo Cruz and Pilón-Baconao. The second cluster is the
largest and it corresponds to most important seismog-
enetic segment of Oriente fault [22] where the strongest
earthquakes are observed there. The cluster of Cabo Cruz
has an important epicentral error and the accuracy in
azimuth is about 15-30%. Using the mentioned Cuban
seismic data, Cotilla [1] presented the Figures 1(e) and
1(f) where appear the predominant depth range of earth-
quake occurrence.
The Cotilla et al. [22] results suggest that Cuba is a
seismotectonic province, composed of four units (Wes-
tern, Central-Eastern, Eastern, and Southeastern). Figure
2 shows the location of the two main units and their lim-
its, and the three crust types (wide transitional, fine tran-
sitional and oceanic) [27] in the region. According to
Makarov [28], the neotectonic structure of Eastern Cuba
(Figures 3(a), 3(b)) includes extremely diverse areas, dif-
fering in layout, morphology and historical development.
Development began in the Late Eocene, on a mixed bas-
ement and, in general, on crusts of various thicknesses
and types, ranging from sub continental to sub oceanic, as
Figure 1. a) Simplified tectonic map of the Caribbean. General view (Heavy black lines-main fault systems: MT = Muertos trough,
OT = Oriente trough; PBZ = Plate Boundary Zone; PRT = Puerto Rico trench, WP = Winward Passage); b) Main structures in the
Caribbean [Eastern Cuba–Puerto Rico]. (Heavy black arrows= sense of plate movements; black circles= epicentres [1]; black
lines = the main faults: CF = Camú, CNF = Cauto-Nipe, NCF = Nortecubana, NHF = North Haitian, OF = Oriente, SF = Septen-
trional, SSF = South Samaná, WPGEF = Walton-Platain Garden-Enriquillo; the drawing of the points outlines the structures BR =
Beata Ridge and HE = Hess Escarpment; passages: AP = Anegada, MP = Mona, WP = Windward; islands: Cuba, Hispaniola, Ja-
maica, Puerto Rico; microplates: GM = Gonave, HPRM = Hispaniola-Puerto Rico; troughs: MT = Muertos, OT = Oriente, PRT =
Puerto Rico; other structures: NR = Nicaragua Rise, PE = Pedro Escarpment; open rectangle (SA) = study area); c) Eastern Cuba
seismicity determined with a National network in 1979-1994 [1]; d) Selection of ten focal mechanism solutions in Oriente fault
zone. (1: 13.11.1978 [Ms = 5.1], 2: 01.09.1985 [Ms = 5.1], 3: 12.02.1989 [Ms = 5.2], 4: 22.05.1990 [Ms = 5.1], 5: 26.08.1990 [Ms =
5.9], 6: 04.09.1990 [Ms = 5.2], 7: 26.08.1991 [Ms = 5.2], 8: 25.05.1992 [Ms = 6.9], 9: 27.06.1992 [Ms = 5.3], 10: 27.06.1995 [Ms =
5.6]) [1]; e) Frequency distribution of hypocentres of Southeastern Cuba in 1979-1994; f) Frequency distribution of hypocen-
tres in Cabo Cruz in 1979-1994.
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
Table 1. The most significant earthquakes in southeastern Cuba.
Date/ Locality Coordinates/
Depth (km)
Intensity (MSK)
11.06.1766/S.Cuba 19.9N,-76.1W/25 6.8/IX 34/700
20.08.1852/S. Cuba 19.75N,-75.32W/30 6.4/VIII 2/200
03.02.1932/S. Cuba 19.75N,-75.58W/35-40 6.75/VIII 14/300
Figure 2. Cuban megablock according with Cotilla et al. [22]. (Heavy black line = faults: CNF = Cauto-Nipe, NCF = Nortecubana,
OF = Oriente, SCF = Surcubana; Neotectonic Unit: OC = Western, OR = Eastern; crust type: 1 = post-orogenic complex, 2 = oro-
genic complex, 3 = volcanic arc complex; localities: CC = Cabo Cruz, CS = Cabo de San Antonio, LH = La Habana, PM = Punta de
Maisí, SC = Santiago de Cuba).
established by Prol et al. [27]. The evolution of this
structure was associated with, and considerably influ-
enced by, deep-water troughs such as the Yucatan basin
in the southwest, the Old Bahamas Channel in the north-
east, and the Oriente trough in the south (Figure 1(a)).
Sierra Maestra Range (h = 1,974 m) (Figures 3(a),
3(b)) has a simple structure [21,29]. Overall, it is an
asymmetric swell, derived from an anticlinorium which
was formed in the concluding phase of sheet folding in
the Late Eocene. Its southern limb is cut off by a series
of stepped faults from a deep-water trench (the Oriente
trough) and is shifted eastward (Figure 3(b)). The relief
in this area has a range of up to 10 km, with an average
slope dip of up to 16º. On the northern limb the relief
varies by about 2 km and the slope, by 3º-5º. Some geo-
morphologic characteristics [30] indicate that the north-
ern limb is also deformed, and sub latitudinal uplift zones
successively decreasing in size from south to north can
be identified within it.
The largest newly generated neotectonic element in
the structure of Eastern Cuba is the Cauto-Nipe syncli-
norium system. It developed in association with the Si-
erra Maestra Range, but is not a piedmont downward in
the strict sense of the term [21,30]. According to Mann
and Burke [25], the Cauto area constitutes a pull-apart
basin, and the city of Bayamo is located within it (Fig-
ures 3(a), 4(a)). The zone where it is located is charac-
terized by significant layers of sediments form the Cauto-
Nipe basin [21,30,31] (Figure 4(b)), something which
evidently favors the amplification of the ground oscilla-
Cabo Cruz, in the eastern end of Southeastern Cuba
(Figures 3(a), 3(b)), was discovered and named by
Cristóbal Colón on 3 May 1494, during his second jour-
ney. It is a coastal bar with marine terraces of up to 190 m
in altitude and approximately 120 km2 (Figure 3(c)) [29].
It is some 30 km from Niquero (Figure 3(d)). This latter
location and its surroundings, constitutes a region of
plains neighboring the Gulf of Guacanayabo, into which
the rivers of the northwest Sierra Maestra flow. The
Cabo Cruz submarine area was studied tectonically by
Calais and Mercier de Lèpinay [24], who concluded that
it is a narrow E-W trending depression, bordered to the
north and south by equal numbers of Oriente fault seg-
ments. These comprise a set of horst-grabens inside a
discontinuous trace of the Oriente fault system.
3. Some General Cuban Data
Cuba was discovered in 1492 by Cristóbal Colón; how-
ever it was not until 1512 that the Spanish became estab-
lished there. To understand the importance of the earth-
quake under discussion and the information contained in
contemporary documents, the historical and demographic
situation of Cuba, and in particular of Bayamo, must be
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
taken into account. Table 2 shows the different cities and
towns founded in Cuba by Don Diego Velázquez de Cu-
ellar, all of them endowed with a church [6]. By the year
1544, more than forty churches and five hospitals existed
on the island-Bayamo (in 1518), Santiago de Cuba (in
1520), La Habana (in 1521), Puerto Príncipe (in 1523),
and Sancti Spíritus (in 1523)-. All of them had barbers,
medical assistants, or itinerant quacks, but no doctors
[32]. Population data appear in Table 3 [6]. All these
structures have enabled an evaluation to be made of the
damage produced by the earthquake, and consequently,
an estimation of seismic intensity.
Figure 3. a) Eastern Cuba. Localities (B = Bayamo, CC = Cabo Cruz, CR = Cauto river, CAR = Cautillo river, G = Guantánamo,
GG = Guacanayabo Gulf, GI = Gibara, GP = Gran Piedra Mountains, H = Holguín, J = Jiguaní, JM = Jobabo Mines, M = Manzanillo,
N = Niquero, P = Pilón, PM = Punta de Maisí, SC = Santiago de Cuba, SMR = Sierra Maestra Range, Y = Yara); b) Main struc-
tures of Eastern Cuba. (1 = Sierra Maestra Range, 2 = Cauto basin, 3 = Holguín Heights, 4 = Nipe-Cristal-Sagua-Baracoa Moun-
tains, 5 = Cabo Cruz basin, 6 = Santiago de Cuba deformed belt; faults: BF = Baconao, CNF = Cauto-Nipe, OF = Oriente); c) Photo
of Cabo Cruz area and the Jaimanitas Formation in the marine terraces (karst); d) Relief and red soil type in Níquero area.
Table 2. Data of the population census.
Year Data
1527 Only Spaniards: Baracoa = 12, Puerto Príncipe = 20, Sancti Spíritus = 26, Santiago de Cuba =
20, Trinidad = 12, Bayamo, La Habana and in other localities = 300 (Total = 390)
3,000 Spaniards on the island: Santiago de Cuba = 450, La Habana = 360, Bayamo = 300,
Sancti. Spíritus = 200, Puerto Príncipe = 200, Trinidad = 150, Baracoa = 120, Tunas = 100,
Cienfuegos = 60, Remedios = 60, Guantánamo = 50, Holguín = 50, Matanzas = 50, San
Cristóbal = 30, Consolación del Norte = 30, and in other localities = 790
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
Table 3. First villages and its dates of foundation.
Date First denomination Actually Date First denomination Actually
03.10.1512Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de BaracoaBaracoa 19.01.1514Sancti Spíritus Sancti Spíritus
05.11.1513San Salvador de Bayamo Bayamo 31.01.1514Santa María de Puerto PríncipeCamagüey
04.12.1513San Juan de los Remedios Remedios06.07.1515Santiago de Cuba Santiago de Cuba
04.01.1514 Trinidad Trinidad 16.09.1519San Cristóbal de La Habana La Habana
The Governor of Cuba initially lived in Bayamo city.
Later, in 1517, the residence was moved to Santiago de
Cuba (Figures 1(b), 2, 3(a) ), and finally, from 1550 on-
wards, the Governor-then Don Gonzalo Pérez de Ángulo
(1548-1553)-established his residence on a permanent
basis in La Habana (Figure 2), given the importance of
this port as a point of control for all ships and fleets on
their way to the metropolis or to the mainland. However,
by 1600 Cuba was under the jurisdiction of Santo Do-
mingo (Hispaniola) (Figures 1(a), 1(b), 1( c) ) by a Real
Order of the Spanish King Carlos I (1516-1556). On the
8 October 1607, the Spanish King-Felipe II (1598-1621)-
divided the island of Cuba into two Governmental ad-
ministrations, namely, Santiago de Cuba and La Habana
(the second one subordinate to the first up until 1628).
These administrative elements have subsequently en-
abled a literature search on historic earthquakes to be
carried out successfully.
4. The 1551 Earthquake
4.1. Initial Data
Various authors have referred to the 1551 earthquake in
Bayamo, including Álvarez et al. [10,11], Bacardí [33],
Cotilla [4,6,14], Cotilla and Udías [5], de la Pezuela
[34,35], Grases [36], Herrera [37], Montelieu [38], Poey
[7-9], Salteraín y Legarra [39], Somohano [40], and
Tomblin and Robson [41], but Poey [8] was the first to
write about it, “Tremblement de terre à Bayamo”. Shor-
tly after, he reaffirmed his previous work about “1551
earthquake Cuba (Bayamo)” [7]. However, he did not
provide data concerning the time, the day, or the month.
Later authors refer only to the information provided by
Poey, without contributing anything new with regard to
this matter.
The earthquake occurred 59 years after the discovery
of Cuba, and 39 years after the founding of the Bayamo
city (1512). At that time (1551), the economic and social
development of Bayamo had been equal to, or slightly
inferior to, that of La Habana and Santiago de Cuba (site
of the island Government), because up to 1517, when
Santiago de Cuba was named the capital, it had been the
capital city of Cuba. As a capital city, it had a coat of
arms, and the official residences of both the Governor
and of the Bishop of the Diocese, among others, were
located there. In 1616, the Cauto River (the most impor-
tant in Cuba) was navigable as far as the Cautillo River
(Figure 3(a)). This enabled the movement of goods,
principally between Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba.
However, its course was modified by a hurricane, bring-
ing a definitive halt to the economic activity, and result-
ing in the impoverishment of the region. The fluvial
course of the Cauto River has subsequently been modi-
fied at least twice by tropical cyclones, in 1964 and
Bayamo and its surroundings formed a center of
smuggling activities in Eastern Cuba. In fact this was the
main source of discontent among the authorities of the
metropolis, and contributed to the war in the XIXth cen-
tury. The town received resources and goods that were
then re-distributed throughout the Eastern District (Hol-
guín, Gibara, Mayarí, Minas de Jobabo, Puerto Príncipe,
etc.) (Figures 3(a), 3(b)). Although the area was fre-
quently attacked by pirates and corsairs, the wealth of
financial resources available favored significant devel-
opment of both the town and the surrounding area (Yara,
Niquero, Manzanillo, Jiguaní, etc.) (Figures 3(a), 3(b),
4(a)). In addition to the town of the same name, the ju-
risdiction of Bayamo included the nearby localities men-
tioned above, the farms in the area, and those coastal
sites that were also inhabited, principally by soldiers,
miners, farmers and fishermen. Cuba’s first public school
and first cemetery were in Bayamo. The first church in
Bayamo was originally built (in 1514) in the style of a
thatched hut (“bohío”) typical to the region, being re-
placed shortly after by a stone construction built with
blocks of limestone (in 1522), in order to welcome the
scores of faithful devotees of San Salvador. This was
destroyed during the earthquake of 1551, and recon-
structed in 1613; however, it was in ruins again follow-
ing the seism of October 1624 [7-9]. Although Poey
mentions “Tremblement à Bayamo” in his work, but the
authors have not located any other document which con-
firms this. The event of 1624 will be commented later
In La Ilustración Española y Americana [42] the fol-
lowing report appears: “In November 1518, the famous
Spanish conqueror Diego Velázquez laid the first foun-
dations of Bayamo” (this detail is incorrect; it was on the
5 November 1513), “and at first, the task of colonization
was taken very seriously. However this undertaking was
soon to be paralyzed by emigration to Mexico and other
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
parts of the American continent, leaving Bayamo with
scarcely 100 inhabitants (erroneous, there were ~200
inhabitants) “when an earthquake destroyed both hous-
ing and the first church” (imprecise; neither the day nor
month of the earthquake in which the earthquake took
place are mentioned, and the report only indicates that
the first church was destroyed).
Population census data for Bayamo, given in Table 2,
for the years 1527 and 1556, mention ~200 and 300 Spa-
niards, respectively (an increase of ~100 people in 29
years, a significant number for the time). This increase
can be accounted for by the economic status of the town
(church, Government House, Archiepiscopal House, etc.,
all of them built with limestone blocks), the fertile lands,
the favorable position for fishing in the Gulf of Guaca-
nayabo (Figures 3(a), 4(a)), the navigability of the
Cauto River at that time, smuggling, etc.
4.2. New Data
In the present study, new documentation has been un-
covered in the AI. Among the contemporary documents
there are some sketches and maps of Cuba and Bayamo.
We following types should be mentioned: 1) a topog-
raphic map of Bayamo and its surroundings (SANTO
DOMINGO 582-AI denomination-) from the year 1548
(Figure 4(a)); 2) a map of Cuba (SANTO DOMINGO
574-AI denomination-) from the year 1600; and, 3) a
sketch of Middle Eastern Cuba (SANTO DOMINGO
608-AI denomination-) from the year 1640 (Figure 5(a)).
A joint assessment of these documents make it possible
to: 1) estimate the level of territorial occupation and the
spatial distribution of Spanish towns on the island in its
eastern part; 2) establish the names of population centers
at that time; and, 3) determine the true position of the
main towns and villages. Thus it has been possible to
establish that the town of Bayamo, founded by Velásq-
uez, was located very near to the coast on the Gulf of
Guacanayabo, south of the Cauto River, on the eastern
bank of the Bayamo River (which flows into the Cauto
River (Figures 3(a), 4(a), 5(a)). In other words, it was
located on the same site it occupies today, and not, as
some authors have suggested, on the site of the town of
Yara (where Spaniards fought a fierce battle in 1513
against the natives led by their chief Hatüey, who was
eventually burnt alive). In addition, the map of Bayamo
clearly shows the existence of the church and the Gov-
ernor’s House, as well as their respective dimensions.
Figure 4. a) Topographic scheme of Bayamo [SANTO DOMINGO 582 of 1548 (-AI denomination-)]. (AR = Almacén del Rey,
B = Bayamo, B1 = Cathedral, B2 = Hospital, B3 = Government House, B4 = Cuartel, B5 = Archiepiscopal House, BR = Bayamo
river, CE = Cauto Embarcadero, CH = Iron Chain, CR = Cauto river, DS = Deep sea, GG = Guacanayabo Gulf, LM = La Merced, LS
= Low sea, M = Manzanillo, MJ = Jobabo mines, N = Niquero, YA = Yara, farms = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5); b) Panoramic view of the north-
ern Sierra Maestra Range from Bayamo; c) Segment of Cauto River near Bayamo.
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
Figure 5. a) Map of the Eastern Cuba [SANTO DOMINGO 608 of 1640 (-AI denomination-)]. See Figure 3(a). (B= Bayamo,
BA = Baracoa, BC= Baconao, CAS= Cascorro, CC= Cabo Cruz, CO = El Cobre, G= Guantánamo, GG= Guacanayabo Gulf, H=
Holguín, J= Jiguaní, M= Manzanillo, MA= Mayarí, MJ= Jobabo mines, N= Niquero, PP= Puerto Príncipe= Camagüey, PPA= Puerto
Padre, SC= Santiago de Cuba, SL= San Luis, SMR= Sierra Maestra Range, SS= Sancti Spiritus, ST= Sagua de Tánamo, Y= Yara); b)
Photo of the relief and rock types in San Luis area; c) View of Manzanillo and Guacanayabo Gulf areas; d) View from Las
Mercedes to northern of Sierra Maestra Range; e) Photo of a mountain river in Jiguaní.
The map of 1548 (SANTO DOMINGO 582) (Figure
4(a)) shows, among other things: 1) the dimension of the
Cauto River and its navigability upstream, including be-
yond the town of Bayamo; 2) the town of Bayamo, to-
gether with the Cathedral, the Governor’s House, and the
residential neighborhoods; 3) the river port (today Cauto
Embarcadero); 4) the King’s Storehouse; and, 5) five
farms; etc. This geographic position for Bayamo is sup-
ported by the fact that the town would thus have had di-
rect access to the sea (the Gulf of Guacanayabo) close to
the mouth of the Cauto River, making navigation inland
feasible even as far as Jiguaní (Figures 3(a), 5(a)), and
from there the journey to Santiago de Cuba by road was
relatively flat and straightforward, continuing as far as
San Luis (Figures 5(a), 5(b)).
It should be mentioned that between the XVIth and
XIXth centuries, at least 10 maps that include the island
of Cuba have been edited [43], and the scientific works
of the following authors can be cited: 1) Juan de la Cosa
(in 1500); 2) Abraham Ortelieus (in 1580); 3) Heyro-
nymi Benzoni (in 1594); 4) Guiljelmus Blaen (in 1638);
5) N. Sanson d’Abbuille (in 1656); 6) Pieter Vander A.
A. (in 1728); and 7) Esteban Pichardo (in 1855). In gen-
eral the cartography of these maps improves with suc-
cessive editions. However, the map of 1728 has serious
errors still, for example: 1) placing Bayamo city in Hol-
guín area (Figures 3(a), 5(a)); 2) denominating the
Cauto River as the Zaza River (which is in the Central
region of the island). Even at that time, Guantánamo
(Figures 3(a), 5(a)) was being called Puerto Grande. In
the year 1638, the Cauto River was designated on the
map as the Bahamas River, and on the same map, the
town of Manzanillo (Figures 3(a), 4(a), 5(a), 5(c)) ap-
pears for the first time. With regard to the cartographic
deficiencies in the maps of Cuba, Pichardo [44] com-
mented: “many earlier and current maps have been
compiled by people who have not so much as stepped on
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
Cuban territory…” Such comment explains all deficien-
cies in the mentioned Cuban maps.
The three maps located by the authors in the AI were
drawn up in 1548-1640 and it can be seen that the con-
tents are similar to those of maps 2-4 mentioned above.
However, the geographic position of Cuban localities
given in the materials located in the AI is considerably
more accurate than that given in map number 7 (by Pich-
ardo). We are of the opinion that this is due to the fact
that they were the work of specialists who were familiar
with the territory that they represented, and are therefore
reliable. In addition four contemporary hand-written
documents relating to the earthquake of 1551 have been
located in the AI. A summary of these materials follows:
(Document 1.-) GOVERNMENT PAPERS: 1492-
1511, 1512-1858 [-AI denomination-]. (Correspondence
of Don Juan de Hiniestrosa, Governor of the village of
San Salvador de Bayamo, with Don Gonzalo Pérez de
Ángulo, Governor of Cuba)
San Salvador de Bayamo, 28 Octubre 1551
His Excellency, Don Gonzalo Pérez de Ángulo
General Governor of Cuba
It is my duty to inform your Excellency of the events
which took place on the 18th (according to the date in the
wording of the document, October 1551) in San Salvador
de Bayamo. Close to midday (11-12 o’clock), work was
interrupted by a dreadful shake (the main earthquake).
Many have been injured, and the town has suffered seri-
ous damage… (There were no deaths)… The principal
and most severe damage was sustained by the solid and
regal barracks, which collapsed, with one person being
injured. The Parochial Church which adjoins the bar-
racks, and the hospital (Figure 4(a)), were completely
destroyedall the farms (according to the 1548 map,
there were farms to the south and north of the Cauto
River, in the area around Bayamo) suffered severe dam-
age as a result of the violence of the movements of the
earth… (Destruction)… in the town, on the 18th day at
midday, terror struck in the hearts of the men and women
laboring in the fields. Beasts fled, sixteen houses in the
village collapsed, and another three, although still stand-
ing, have huge cracks in their wallstwo wounded were
foundthe Embarcadero (on the south bank of the
River Cauto, today called Cauto Embarcadero, Figure
4(a)) was destroyed, causing damage to four ships and
injuring two people the Church, built of solid stone,
has been completely destroyed, the central pillars hang
by a miracle the barracks collapsed, and one person
was injured the stables fell the prison and the hos-
pital are in ruins the well in the Square has col-
lapsed five houses on the riverside (Bayamo) were
overturned and sank into the mud (liquefaction)…
muddy, stinking water flowed from the banks of the
river beasts sprawled on the groundThe King’s
Storehouse (on the southern bank of the Cauto River and
to the east of the Embarcadero, Figure 4(a)) has been
destroyed. All the merchandise and goods were lost
three canons and the defensive line of heavy iron chain
(an army obstacle in the Cauto River which impeded the
entry of enemy ships) have sunk into the mud… (lique-
faction)… the land is fertile and flat, and the hills only
rise in the distance, to the south as an enormous mass,
the Gran Sierra (nowadays known as the Sierra Maestra
Range [Figures 1(c), 3( a), 3(b), 4(b), 5(a)])… the oldest
inhabitants here say that the plain here is different to
that of Cuba (at that time, Santiago de Cuba was fre-
quently referred to as Cuba, and vice versa), always
jerking and shaking the danger was not felt in Cuba
(Santiago de Cuba seismicity was perfectly well known,
but in Bayamo any report)… the night was pitiful and
cold...people kept vigil and there were sudden shocks
(aftershocks)… a procession carried a statue of the
Saintly and Divine Patron Saint (San Salvador) in their
arms the sub-lieutenant Fernando Rodríguez de Cas-
tro returned from patrolling the hills to the south (Sierra
Maestra Range) and from the coastal posts of Cabo Cruz,
Niquero and La Costa (today Manzanillo) (Figures 3(a),
3(c), 5(a), 5(c)), with the garrison detachment. He re-
ports that at midday on the 18th October, they noted the
ground moving beneath their feet, and heard noises like
thunder emanating from beneath the ground the noises
came from the south (Cabo Cruz), and huge, solid rocks
could be seen strewn across the road to La Merced (in
the mountainous part of the Sierra Maestra range, on the
northern side, today Las Mercedes) (Figures 4(a),
5(d))… the beasts of burden refused to advancethe
cracks in the road were 12 varas (~9 m) wide (1 Castil-
lian vara = 0.8359 m)… two soldiers fell in their saddles
to the groundin Yara, all the houses, around twenty or
more, were in ruins the timbers and pillars scat-
tered (This town is on a low alluvial plain well irri-
gated by fluvial currents from the Sierra Maestra. There-
fore, it is highly probable that liquefaction occurred)…
the sub-lieutenant ordered two soldiers to return at a
gallop to the coastal posts (Cabo Cruz and Níquero
[Figures 3(a), 3(d), 4(a), 5(d)]) in order to acquaint
themselves of the situation there, whilst the rest marched
to La Costa (Manzanillo)… they informed him that Cabo
Cruz was in ruinstwo canons were overturned but
that there had been no injuriesthe posts at Níquero
and La Costa (Manzanillo)… lost everything, and a sol-
dier received a heavy blow when he fell all canons
were overturnedJiguaní ([Figures 3(a), 5(a), 5(e)]
town on the western bank of the Cautillo River) was
fiercely and brutally shaken, and the houses ruined, the
church and the heavy wood barracks destroyed (the
above-mentioned towns appear in Figure 3(a))
on the night of the 16 th and the morning of the 17th,
short, strong earth tremors had been noticed (fore-
shocks)… the ground collapsed and moved like an angry
seanever before has such an event been heard of
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
(Document 2.-) CUBA 2007 [-AI denomination-]
San Salvador de Bayamo, 19 December 1551
His Excellency, Don Gonzalo Pérez de Ángulo
General Governor of Cuba
with regard to the inspection of the barracks in this
town of San Salvador de Bayamo, the captain Don Bar-
tolomé Quesada de Castro was very surprised and sad-
dened to see the serious damage caused to the town and
the destruction of the barracks. He reports that in Sancti
Spiritus and Jobabo Mines (Figures 3(a), 4(a), 5(a)) a
strong earth tremor was felt at mid-morning (12 hours)
on the 18th day (October) in the barracks. And in the
neighboring town of Santa María de Puerto Príncipe
(now Camagüey, [Figures 3(a), 5(a)]), the Garrison
officer in command assured him that three strong earth
tremors had been felt on the 18th and 19th at dinner time
and at night (The authors can confirm the occurrence
on 18 October of an earthquake and of some aftershocks.
In addition, information on perceptibility was gathered in
Sancti Spíritus and Camagüey but any subterranean noise
was perceptible [Figure 5(a)]).
(Document 3.-) CUBA 2027 [-AI denomination-]
San Salvador de Bayamo, 20 December 1551
His Excellency, Don Gonzalo Pérez de Ángulo
General Governor of Cuba
I can report with pride of the Crown’s loyal troops,
who have undertaken the repair of the coastal posts
[Cabo Cruz, Niquero and Manzanillo]
(Document 4.-) CUBA 2070 [-AI denomination-]
San Salvador de Bayamo, 14 February 1552
His Excellency, Don Gonzalo Pérez de Ángulo
General Governor of Cuba
the town’s barracks have been rebuilt with timber,
and one part serves as a jail. The troops are in good
humor, and the terror is fading
4.3. Earthquake Parameters and Intensity
Values Identify the Headings
Using these data (Documents 1-4) the authors have es-
tablished that the town of San Salvador of Bayamo was
located on the present site of Bayamo and not at Yara
(Figures 3(a), 4(a), 5( a)) and since the foundation of the
town in 1513, earthquakes had never previously been
reported. In addition, it can be stated that: 1) the exact
date of the occurrence of this earthquake was the 18 Oc-
tober 1551; 2) the approximate time of the seismic event
was around midday (11-12 hours); 3) there were at least
two foreshocks, on the 16 and 17 October; 4) there were
three aftershocks on the 18 October; 5) subterranean
noises originating from the south-southwest, Cabo Cruz,
were heard up to Bayamo city; 6) there were only seven
persons injured, but no deaths; 7) there was panic among
the population of Bayamo and alarm and nervousness
among the beasts of burden in everywhere; 8) the army
post at Cabo Cruz was destroyed and the two heavy
cannons overturned, severe subterranean noises [I = 9
degrees, MSK]; 9) the greatest damage to the ground
(cracks and large block rocks) was in the surrounding
area of the Sierra Maestra Range (La Merced) and sol-
diers were shaken in their saddles and two fell to the
ground together with the saddles [I = 9-8 degrees, MSK];
10) other two army posts in Niquero and Manzanillo
were heavy damaged and all cannons overturned [I = 9-8
degrees, MSK]; 11) the church in Bayamo (built of solid
limestone blocks) was totally destroyed, along with the
residential neighborhood, the hospital, the jail, the store-
house, and the dock [I = 8 degrees, MSK]; 12) the town
at Cauto Embarcadero and four ships were totally de-
stroyed (liquefaction) [I = 8 degrees, MSK]; 13) 21
houses were destroyed and 3 were severely damaged in
Bayamo [I = 8 degrees, MSK]; 14) the farms (outside of
Bayamo on the southern and northern banks of the Cauto
River, but near to the town) were destroyed [I = 8-7 de-
grees, MSK]; 15) over 20 robust houses (heavy woods)
were destroyed in Yara (probably due to liquefaction) [I
= 8-7 degrees, MSK]; 16) there were several houses de-
stroyed in Jiguaní [I = 6 degrees, MSK]; 17) Puerto Prín-
cipe village (Camagüey) was very strong shacked [I = 5
degrees, MSK]; 18) in Sancti Spíritus the earthquake was
perceptible [I = 3 degrees, MSK].
We must comment that the intensity values of 8 and
9-8 degrees (MSK scale) in Bayamo, Cauto Embarcad-
ero, and Niquero (and it can be assumed also in the
King’s Storehouse) is explained by the liquefaction phe-
nomena and site effects. That means there are uncon-
solidated soils in a large fluvial basin (Cauto-Nipe). This
is not the case of Cabo Cruz area.
Using these references, it is possible to construct an
isoseismal scheme (Figure 6(a)), and to estimate a per-
ceptibility area of 40,000 km2. Then taking the area of
greatest value as the central point and as the starting poi-
nt for a line extending offshore to the south, the ap-
proximate epicentral location can be estimated as 19.6 N
-77.8 W, which is situated on the knot of faults previ-
ously mentioned (Figure 2). In addition, this location has
a cluster of low magnitude earthquakes with a predomi-
nant depth of 15 km (Figures 1(e), 1(f)) [1,14]. But there
were also strong earthquakes in the surrounding area in
October 1624 and on the 03.08.1926 [12]; more re-
cently, other five strong earthquakes have been regis-
tered [19.02.1976 (Pilón, M = 5.7), 12.02.1989 (M = 5.1),
26.08.1990 (M = 5.1), 25.05.1992 (M = 6.9), and
04.02.2007 (M = 6.2), h~15 km] [6]. These earthquakes,
except the one in Pilón (Figure 6(b)), are delimited by
crossing active faults (Oriente and Cauto-Nipe) in the
marine area. This is to the NE of the Cabo Cruz basin (in
the marine area).
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
Figure 6. a) Epicentre and isoseismals scheme of the 18
October 1551. (B= Bayamo [I = 8], CC= Cabo Cruz [I = 9],
CE = Cauto Embarcadero [I = 9-8], J = Jiguaní [I = 6], LM =
Las Mercedes [I = 9-8], M= Manzanillo [I = 8-7], MJ = Jobabo
Mines [I = 7], N= Niquero [I = 8], PP = Puerto Príncipe =
Camagüey [I = 5], Y = Yara [I = 8-7]; Intensity values [MSK
scale] = 6); b) Photo of Pilón area from the eastern side of
the Sierra Maestra Range.
The maximum intensity value of 1551 earthquake was
found in Cabo Cruz, falling off 9-6 degrees (MSK scale)
mainly toward the NE (Bayamo). That strike coincides
with the direction of the Cauto-Nipe fault [45]. Mean-
while, a study of the latest strong earthquakes which
have occurred in the same region (for example, on the 25
May 1992, in Cabo Cruz [46]) shows that the intensity,
although decreasing towards the NE (Bayamo), did not
exceed 7-5 degrees (MSK scale) [1,47]. Furthermore, the
seism of 1992 was noticeable in Sancti Spíritus, just as it
was in 1551 [46]. Therefore, we consider the focal region
to be in Cabo Cruz area.
The epicenter of the 1551 earthquake has been propo-
sed previously by other authors: 1) Morales y Pedroso
[48]; 2) Álvarez et al. [11]; 3) Chuy [47]; and 4) Álvarez
et al. [10]. The locations they identified differ from our
proposal and this difference will be discussed. In the first
place, these four works have been based exclusively on
the seismic event reported by Poey [7-9]. Such data did
not include information concerning the month, the day,
or the time, of the event, or information on the places
where perceptibility was reported. It was simply known
that a church in Bayamo had been affected. For this rea-
son, in Cotilla and Udías [5] considered that these identi-
fications were inadequate for being used in seismic haz-
ard situation.
Morales y Pedroso [48] presented an interesting hy-
pothesis of the occurrence of strong earthquakes in
Southeastern Cuba. However, we do not share their view,
and argue that the 1551 earthquake data fails to support it.
For the above author, the epicenter was in the southern
marine area of the Sierra Maestra Range, but on the me-
ridian that passes through Bayamo, almost equidistant
between Santiago de Cuba and Cabo Cruz. This epicen-
ter location is approximately the same as that for the
earthquake of 16 February 1976 in Pilón [12]; however,
this last event only produced intensities of 5 degrees
(MSK scale) in Bayamo. The other works are more re-
cent. Álvarez et al. [11] presented the following data for
the earthquake of 1551: 20.40 N-76.60 W, h = 15 km, M
= 5.8, Imax = 8 degrees (MSK scale). Álvarez et al. [11]
reported different data for the seism: 19.75 N-75.32 W, h
= 30 km, Ms = 7.3, Imax = 8 degrees (MSK scale). With
respect to these works, that the following should be ob-
served: 1) the data is not consistent; 2) there are no dis-
cussions about such changes. An ample discussion re-
garding similar problems can be found in Cotilla’s work
[1,14], among other issues. Thus, we also reject these
In order to estimate the magnitude, we started with the
experience and results of Cotilla [14], whereby based on
the maximum intensity of 9 degrees (MSK scale) at Cabo
Cruz, using the Sponheuer [49] relation (Ms = 0.66 Io +
1.7 log h – 1.4), while assuming a depth of 15 km [14],
we obtain a value of 6.6. Álvarez et al. [12] and Cotilla
[14] determined that the seismogenetic deep of the Ori-
ente fault is of 15-20 km. Figures 1(e) and 1(f) show the
main values of hypocentres. Another expression relating
magnitude and intensity was used (Ms = 1 + 2/3 Io [See:
Karnik [50]]). This relation gives a magnitude value of
7.0. Also, using Shebalins’ relation [51] [I0 = bM – slog
h + c; I0 – Ii = slog (C 2 + h2)1/2] we obtained M = 6.7
and h = 17 km. This last value (h) is very similar to our
estimation. Consequently, it is our belief that the 18 Oc-
tober 1551 earthquake reached a magnitude rank of
6.6-7.0, and most probably value was 6.6. The fact that
there were no deaths and only seven wounded in this
earthquake can be explained as being the result of two
main factors: 1) foreshocks (alerting the population to
the danger); 2) time of the event, at midday (11-12
hours), when the inhabitants were working in the fields.
Finally, we shall briefly refer to the aforementioned
October 1624 earthquake in Bayamo. This earthquake
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. IJG
happened 73 years after the event of 1551 and 8 years
after closing the Cauto River to the navigation as a con-
sequence of the damages by a strong tropical hurricane.
Regardless of the scarce amount of data contributed by
Poey, it is possible to assert the following concerning the
earthquake: 1) the important intensity value of the seismic
event; 2) the repetition of large earthquakes in the Cauto
zone; 3) Bayamo’s cost-reducing decrease and in conse-
quence the low interest of the authorities, once the mi-
gration had started toward Santiago de Cuba and La Ha-
bana, and the Governor Residence had changed to La
Habana. Likewise, it can be assumed that: 1) the dam-
ages at the Cathedral of Bayamo were due to the combi-
nation of two adverse factors, soil type and soil condi-
tions; 2) the earthquake focus was located in the same
region at 1551.
5. Conclusions
Eastern Cuba suffered a strong earthquake at midday on
the 18 October 1551. It has been possible to confirm this
data based on a collection of unpublished documents and
others in the Archivo General de Indias, thus improving
knowledge on the seismicity of this territory. An analysis
of historical sources has shown that documents need to
be judged very critically, establishing which ones pro-
vide first hand information and which more generalized
literary accounts are. In addition, awareness of the so-
cioeconomic situation, demographic conditions, building
characteristics, etc. is necessary in order to reach a cor-
rect damage assessment. Failure to take these considera-
tions into account can lead to significant errors in inten-
sity estimations with the consequent effect on seismic
risk assessment.
From the foregoing it appears that the 1551 earthquake
was of a greater magnitude than believed until now. Ma-
ximum damage was experienced along the Cauto-Nipe
fault. There is conclusive field evidence to show that this
earthquake was associated with surface faulting. As a
result of the shocks, some areas surrounding Bayamo, as
well as others at some distance away were intensely da-
maged. From the description of the effects of the earth-
quake, it is clear that liquefaction of the ground had a
significant effect on damage and on the intensities as-
signed to the Bayamo area.
According to the information found in the documents,
the damage caused by this earthquake may be summa-
rized as follows (locality = Intensity, MSK scale): Cabo
Cruz = 9, Sierra Maestra (Las Mercedes) = 9-8, Bayamo
= 8, Cauto Embarcadero = 8, Niquero = 8, Yara = 8-7,
Manzanillo = 8-7, Jobabo Mines = 7, Jiguaní = 6, Puerto
Príncipe = 5, and Sancti Spíritus = 3. The earthquake
reached a magnitude of 6.6 and the epicenter was situ-
ated at 19.6 N-77.8 W.
6. Acknowledgements
The authors wish to thank the Archivo General de Indias
for providing important information and data. The effort
and help by the responsible of the reading rooms and the
specialists of the AI were decisive to culminate this work.
Observations and suggestions made by Agustín Udías
and Armando Cisternas allowed us to improve the man-
uscript. This work has been partially funded by the
REN2003-08520-C02-02, REN2002-12494E/RIES and
CGL2005-25012-E. Access to facilities and information
technology resources was made available to the authors
by the Departamento de Física de la Tierra y Astrofísica
1, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas, Universidad Complute-
nse de Madrid.
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