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Quetta: The Earthquake That Should Shake the Teaching of the British Empire

How can an event that led to the mass loss of human life, help create life elsewhere? For if it hadn't happened, I would not be here. And for students of Empire the same question is asked, if the empire hadn't happened, would we be here?

Image by quettabalochistan

30 May, 1935, Quetta, British India (present day Pakistan)- On the edges of British Empire lay the city of Quetta, one of the last settlements within the British Raj and within eyesight of the 'untameable' Afghanistan. Quetta was far from the great epicentres of British India, for urbanites in Delhi, Mumbai and Lahore, the idea of Quetta conjures up images not to dissimilar of the Wild West. But contrary the images of the Wild West would suggest, Quetta was a vibrant commercial centre and well known for its fruit gardens and lush greenery. However, despite the inherent beauty of the area, a dark truth overshadows this beauty, and that is the city lies on top of the most active fault lines in the region. But as the sunset on the evening of 30 May this would have been the last thing on the minds of the residence of Quetta.

It was a hot Thursday evening, Quetta is known for its bitterly cold winters as the city is nearly 6, 000 feet above sea level, but on the eve of summer the place turns hot. One Quetta resident left his shop, a moderately successful tailor and businessman; he employed staff who would sleep on the shop floor after lights out. A common practise back then, especially for poor people who immigrated into the city looking for work. The man headed home and was looking forward to a much deserved rest after a long day. However, the evening did not go as planned, instead of a relaxing winding down, he quarrelled with his wife and a huge argument ensued. A fateful decision was made, by who we do not know, but the man does not sleep in his bed that night and instead chose to sleep on the balcony.

A serene and quiet night welcomed 31 May in- but beneath the surface all was not well in the fruit garden city. Somewhere between 2:30 to 3:40 am, when most of the city was asleep, the peace of the city was interrupted by a sudden violent eruption of shaking. The Earth was moving, cracks began appearing in the streets and buildings began collapsing. The gates of hell had opened and the air was thick with the smell of death. The initial earthquake lasted only three minutes with continuous aftershock, but the damage had been done, a once thriving commercial city had been reduced to a wasteland. The earthquake measured anywhere between 7.8 to 8.1, and out of an estimated population of 45, 000- 20, 000 souls perished (an estimated 60, 000 in total died if we include surrounding settlements) in the space of just three minutes.

The man who was asleep on the balcony awoke to witness the roof of his house collapsing. His wife was trapped, cries and scream rang out and a desperate attempt to rescue those trapped ensued amid the aftershocks. Sadly, it was too late for the man, his wife had survived but she had lost both her legs. When it was safe enough to do so, he went to see what fate had befallen his employees and shop. The shop had collapsed too and all the workmen were dead. In three minutes his entire life's work had been lost, in three minutes his loved ones, friends and family, had been lost. The man later left Quetta for good, he returned his wife to her family, and re-married and had my grandfather.

I grew up with this story; it has been passed down the generations. An event so terrible that it defies understanding, the earthquake was a seminal moment for British rule in India, one of the largest and most complex relief operations followed. James Johnston was a British army and medical officer and because of the role he played during the relief of Quetta, 10-years later, he was put in-charge of British medical relief efforts in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated from the Nazis. However, like much of imperial and colonial history the connection between Quetta and Belsen is scarcely understood today. Some of the most important stories of the British past barely exist in school text books- if at all- but they do live within families of former subjects.

In an age of uncertain identities, questionable values and globalisation, the history taught in our schools is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of our age. It's not that the Tudors or Dad's army are not important, they are, it's that teaching the Empire and the connection between events and the Empire in its full majesty, is arguably of greater global consequence. How can we deal with the rest of the world without knowing the roots of it? Surely, a better understanding of the Empire will create a more informed discourse in-which identities can be formed? As for me, on this 80th anniversary of the Quetta Earthquake, I am left to ponder over existential questions. How can an event that led to the mass loss of human life, help create life elsewhere? For if it hadn't happened, I would not be here. And for students of Empire the same question is asked, if the empire hadn't happened, would we be here?

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