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1755 Lisbon Earthquake

History of Portugal: 1755 Lisbon Earthquake

1755 Lisbon Earthquake

It began like the rattleing of Coaches, and the things before me danst up and downe upon the table. All falling rownd us, and the lime and dust so thick there was no seeing...We layde under a pair tree, covered over with a Carpett, for Eight days, eyewitness Sister Catherine Witham.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake (Sismo de Lisboa de 1755) was one of the most powerful earthquakes ever to affect Europe. The huge earthquake measuring 8.5–9.0 on the moment magnitude scale was followed by a tsunami ranging from 5-15m in height. Further destruction followed in Lisbon as fires broke out all over the city and then merged into a huge conflagration.

The epicenter of the earthquake was around 200km south west of Lisbon in the Atlantic Ocean.

The earthquake not only caused massive death and destruction in Lisbon but also wreaked havoc along the Algarve coast destroying many houses, churches and public buildings. The islands of Madeira and The Azores were also affected, particularly by the tidal wave.

Lisbon Earthquake 1755.
Lisbon Earthquake 1755
Lisbon Earthquake 1755.
Lisbon Earthquake 1755

The Events

The earthquake struck at 9.40am on November 1, on All Saints' Day, a Saturday, when many people would have been attending mass in one of the many churches in Lisbon.

The earthquake is reported to have lasted about 3-6 minutes opening up wide fissures in the city streets and many buildings to collapse on their inhabitants. Survivors rushed to the open space on the bank of the River Tagus which they saw withdraw - the warning signal that a tsunami was about to come which it did about 40 minutes later, followed by two further tidal waves.

Convento do Carmo, Chiado district, Lisbon.
Convento do Carmo, Chiado, Lisbon
Lisbon Earthquake 1755.
Lisbon Earthquake 1755

Fires then started which were to reduce much of the city to ashes after they had burned for up to 5 days. Following the initial shock of the disaster, the city plunged into anarchy and chaos as Lisbon's prisons emptied and their occupants went on an orgy of looting, rape and murder.

Estimates for the number of casualties caused by the earthquake range from 10,000 - 100,000 in Lisbon alone. Around 85% of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed and countless art treasures lost. Buildings that survived but suffered damage included Lisbon Cathedral, São Vicente de Fora and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição. The Convento do Carmo was left in its damaged state as a striking reminder of the disaster.

Aftermath & Rebuilding

The job of rebuilding Lisbon was given to chief minister Marques de Pombal by King José I. Pombal first brought in the army to restore order and tall gallows were built at prominent points in the city to deter looting. Around 30 people were executed for various crimes committed during the anarchy following the earthquake. To prevent outbreaks of the plague, bodies were placed on barges, taken out to sea and sunk.

Pombal's new Lisbon was to see the city rebuilt with wider streets and broader squares. The entire Baixa quarter was cleared of rubble and the new Praça do Comércio with the Arco da Rua Augusta at its northern end, rose from the ruins.

These new buildings were some of first in Europe to have some sort of protection from earthquakes, using a wooden frame known as the (Pombaline cage). Vila Real de Santo António in the Algarve was also rebuilt on the lines of the new Baixa.

The Lisbon earthquake strengthened the voices of the European Enlightenment. The earthquake is used in Voltaire's Candide and stimulated research into the causes of the earthquake as something other than divine agency. The science of seismology can be said to have begun after the 1755 earthquake. Pombal ordered a questionnaire on the earthquake sent to parish priests all around the country, the results of which can still be read in the Instituto dos Arquivos Nacionais (National Archives).

The earthquake also strengthened the hand of Pombal and weakened the clergy and old nobility in Portugal. Just three years later in 1758 the Távora affair (a plot supposed to assassinate the king) gave Pombal the chance to eliminate the Távora family and the Duke of Aveiro, some of his bitterest enemies. The Jesuits were also expelled in 1759.

The monetary effects of the disaster were also severe for Portugal. The costs of rebuilding were enormous and Portugal was to go into financial decline exasperated by the Peninsular War in the early years of the next century. At first prices were fixed to prevent profiteering, some taxes were suspended to be replaced by a 4% levy to cover the cost of rebuilding and emergency hospitals were opened.

Books on the Lisbon Earthquake

Books on the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 include:

The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 by Nicholas Shrady

Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 Paperback by Edward Paice

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