The Destruction of Messina and the Italian Exodus

Fascinating post by toritto about the 1908 earthquake that destroyed Messina, Sicily. You might also like to read about the experiences of my great-grandparents who were travelling from Algiers to Florence by sea at the time: Sicilian Earthquake 28 December 1908.



On December 28, 1908 at about 5:30 in the morning the greatest earthquake to ever strike the European continent in modern times struck Messina in Sicily.

Messina was home to about 180,000 at the time. It was Italy’s 3rd largest port of trade and the commercial center of Sicily.

Sicily was far away from the “new” Italy. In the Piedmont, birthplace of the Italian royal family people spoke of “going to Italy” when they had to leave their provincial home. Turin would become the industrial capital with Agnelli building cars and Gramsci leading the Italian Communist Party. Socialism was on the rise.

The intellectuals of Milan viewed Rome as a “city of waiters and prostitutes”, catering to German and English tourists who disdained them. Venice was considered a “tomb” which “should be shelled into the sea”; it represented only the past and not the future of a greater Italy. The…

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Sicilian Earthquake 28 December 1908

At 5.20am on 28th December, 1908, an earthquake of a 7.5-magnitude struck the coast of Sicily and shattered thousands of lives.

Two photo reporters among the ruins after the earthquake in Messina (december 1908).

Two photo reporters among the ruins after the earthquake in Messina (december 1908).

The death toll of over 100,00 people comprised Sicilians and mainland Italians, and destroyed several towns, most notably, Messina, a city of 158,000, where ‘about one in every three perished‘. As with so many disasters in the last hundred years, and doubtless before, it was the quality of construction work that proved Messina’s downfall. And while new codes were put in place to make sure buildings would no longer collapse so easily, it is horrifying to note that by the end of the 50s, there were families still living in temporary accommodation that had been built soon after. The quake was felt throughout the mainland, and as far as Montenegro, Albania and the Ionian Islands.

Clearing away the ruins on route to Catania, Sicily (after the 1908 Messina earthquake)

Clearing away the ruins on route to Catania, Sicily (after the 1908 Messina earthquake).

The tsunami that followed saw waves almost as high as 40 feet, which crashed ashore at Reggio di Calabria on the mainland before hitting the island of Malta.

‘Experts long surmised that the tsunami resulted from seafloor displacement caused by the earthquake. However, research completed in the early 21st century suggested that an underwater landslide, unrelated to the earthquake, triggered the ensuing tsunami.’

It was this tsunami that affected the ship that was taking my great grandparents, Dora and Benedict Hoskyns, from Algiers to Florence. In a letter to her mother, Dora describes the journey.

Villa Medici

[December/January 1908]


Darling Angel,

We have just got here & at present still feel so stupified by all we have gone through that I hardly know how to write. As you know we left Algiers on Sunday night last at 11, & were timed to get to Genoa on Tues. morning at 3 in the morning.

Everything went well till Mon. morning when at about 10, the wind began to cut up & got worse & worse so that by the time it was dark it was blowing a hurricane. I can never describe to you that awful night. The groaning & straining of the ship, the crack of breaking things, the screaming tearing wind & the great terrible waves thundering against the ship & the sea racing up & down past our port-hole. Our luggage was hurled down & tore backwards & forwards across our cabin all night. Darling it was the only time one had ever been face to face with what might have been the end of everything & the horror of it was simply appalling.

We were 24 hrs. in the Gulf of Lyons, instead of 10 & were 18 hrs. late in getting to Genoa where there was intense anxiety as to our fate. Of course we knew nothing then of the terrible catastrophe at Messina, but it was all at the same time & was evidently part of the same fearful under the sea convulsion.

Dear Ben was in the berth above me & whenever it was more than usually terrifying I saw his hand come down to hold mine & I said to him at last “well anyhow we are together.” We felt calm on the whole but I was terribly terribly frightened, but it was the next day when things had got better that we felt utterly worn out & shattered.

The bodies of victims in Messina

The bodies of victims in Messina

I hear that the Lord Mayor has started a fund & as it may be closed before we get back wd. you send £3.3.0 from “D.K.H.” “a Thanksoffering”. I shd. like to give something & Ben is going to, but I want to at once & I will give you the cheque as soon as we get home.

Half-way through the night we cd. tell by the way the waves broke that the Capt. had altered the course of the ship & he let her run before the storm or I don’t think she cd. have lived. He was on the bridge all night & it was a wonderful thing to think of, the safety of the whole ship in the hands of one or two men.

People on board who had been through typhoons, terrible Atlantic storms, said they had never had such an experience. I simply lay & said my prayers & all the hymns & psalms I cd. think of & we do feel more than thankful & grateful to have been brought safely through it all. I shall never as long as I live forget it. Looking back only makes it seem worse.

The joy of getting to this dear place [Villa Medici] was immense. The quiet & peace & stillness is beautiful & we are just going to sit still & recover. Poor Ben is dreadfully tired of course but I think he will sleep well & need do nothing but rest & try to forget. Will you let Moley & Geraldine see this. I can’t write often of it all.

Goodbye my precious darling. How how thankful I am to think we shall see you all again.

Fondest dearest of love,

Yr. own most loving grateful child,


View of Florence from Fiesole

View of Florence from Fiesole

Sarah Vernon © 2 June 2014