The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake

The news cycle has pushed the earthquake in Japan off the headlines, but the immensity of the suffering is impossible to dismiss as we are told that the death toll of the tsunami exceeds 10,000. I keep being reminded of another major natural catastrophe: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It happened in the morning of the 1st of the November, the Catholic Feast of All Saints. Most of the city inhabitants were attending Mass in its many churches when the tremors were first felt.

Modern seismologists peg the Lisbon Earthquake at 9 on the Richter scale, in the same range as the recent one in Japan. Another similarity is that the epicenter of the quake was situated offshore. This triggered a tsunami that completely emptied the Lisbon harbor before rushing back, like a “mountain of water” to sweep the lower parts of the city. Earthquake survivors who had gathered in the port drowned, ships were overturned and broken like toys.

In other districts, fires, stoked by high winds, devastated whatever remained standing. Looters soon began their grisly work. Those who would get caught were hanged, and left to rot on scaffolds for the edification of the others. Aftershocks pursued the destruction of the city for months. The death toll remains impossible to establish with any certainty. It was at least in the tens of thousands (Lisbon was a city of 200,000) with some estimates as high as 100,000.

Here is an eyewitness account. Human resilience, as usual, carried the day. King Joseph I and his chief minister, the Marquis of Pombal, decided against restoring central Lisbon. Instead the ruins were pulled down and all new construction was engineered to newly-minted earthquake-proof standards. Typical of the 18th century, and its unquenchable thirst for scientific experiment and its practical applications.

The psychological impact was tremendous, in Portugal of course, but also throughout Europe when the news of the devastation reached the rest of the Continent. The King of Portugal himself refused to live again in a palace and installed his court in a sprawling tent city outside his capital. The current of philosophical optimism that had characterized the Elightenment was suddenly shaken, so to speak, to its core.

And let us not forget Marie-Antoinette, which would become Queen of France, was born on the day of the catastrophe, and the King and Queen of Portugal had been chosen as her godparents…

Lisbon earthquake 1755

Lisbon earthquake 1755




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9 Comments to “The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake”

  1. Andreia says:

    Hello Catherine, I started to read your blog because I was looking for Versailles stories and pictures, I’ve been there last week and I was simply amazed with the greatness of the place, it´s so beautiful. I´m also interested on the live of Marie-Antoinette, so I´ve enjoyed every moment spent on that place where she lived many years ago.
    I´m portuguese and I live in Lisbon, I did not know that the king an queen of Portugal were her godparents and I appreciate your review about the earthquake. It was a terrible event. The only good thing that came afterwards was the building style of “Marquês de Pombal”. Thanks to that we have beautifull big geometric avenues in the downtown and the buildings are in sintony making this city even more lovely.

  2. Kate, I know Japan is still in the news “thanks” to the uncertainty and disinformation regarding the nuclear plant at Fukushima, but in Europe the situation of Lybia (now Syria) is making the headlines. And then the great Liz Taylor died… Re: Voltaire, I agree with you.
    Ellen, thanks for the references! True, natural catastrophes do not happen in a societal vacuum. There is much anger in Japan right now.
    Lisa, it must be fascinating to compare the pre-earthquake manueline buildings with those built after the catastrophe.

  3. Lisa Yarde says:

    I was in Lisbon last month and our tour guide talked about the devastation that happened in 1755, in particular the height of the tsunami. Watching recent events in Japan as the water rushed in makes it easy to understand how terrified the people of Lisbon must have been. The buildings that survived are amazing beautiful.

  4. ellen moody says:

    I’ll add that four days of an Eastern Region ASECS meeting was devoted to papers on nothing but the Lisbon Earthquake. Some of them were published in a volume: The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, ed. JBRadner and TED Braun. Very expensive I’m afraid.

    What I remember best is the paper where someone showed that Rousseau’s essay on this event was spot on: Rousseau showed the worst damage done to people was not from the natural phenomenon but the human arrangements and behaviors that went on in reaction and the way the social structures of the town were set up. This came back to me at the time of the Katrina hurricane in the US which did not destroy New Orleans on its own.

    Here’s a review:

    Christoph Weber
    The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: Representations and Reactions (review)
    Monatshefte – Volume 100, Number 1, Spring 2008, pp. 139-141

    Ellen Moody

  5. Kate Warren says:

    In the U.S. the situation in Japan is still very much in our headlines, due mainly to the worsening situation with the nuclear reactors at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima.

    I cannot imagine how much worse it must have been before there were systems in place to help the survivors. Must have been hell for the people of Lisbon.

    As Candide was a satire, it is difficult to determine the author’s actual feelings versus what he was skewering.

  6. Penny, for those who went through it, it must have been sheer terror. Imagine the Lisbon harbor emptied of its water… Yes, an apocalyptic feeling. One of the things that strike me is the deep, lasting impression it made on people all over Europe. While the Japan earthquake, one gets the impression that it is already getting pushed aside by other news.

  7. Penny says:

    I had not known it was 9.0 on Richter scale. Catherine, do you know if people afterward thought the apocalypse was coming? just a thought because of today’s current events.

  8. Certainly, Ron. Or that God is not benevolent, or that all is not for the best in the best of worlds… Candide is a fun read, but rather limited in its philosophical outlook. It have trouble believing that Voltaire really thought there was nothing more to life than tending one’s garden.

  9. Ronald Dunning says:

    I dimly recall from my teenage readings of Voltaire that it was the cruel timing of the Lisbon earthquake that convinced him that God is not personally intervening in terrestrial events, and in people’s fates.

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