DEADLY

The Earthquake That Brought an Empire to Its Knees

In the 18th century, the Portuguese empire was enjoying the wealth of its second Golden Age. Mother Nature, however, had other plans.

12.27.15 6:15 AM ET

It was a calamity of Biblical proportions, akin to Sodom and Gomorrah or Egypt in Exodus.

In 1755, Lisbon, the capital of the extensive Portuguese empire and the third-busiest port in the world, was in the midst of its second golden age. The seemingly endless supply of gold from Brazil had catapulted the tiny nation back into the high echelons it had occupied two centuries before with its colonies in Africa and Asia. 

On All Saints Day of that year, all of this came to a calamitous halt when an earthquake, a tsunami, and a fire destroyed Lisbon and relegated the Portuguese empire, more often than not, to the status of a mere footnote in history.

“Of that global emporium / Where Neptune raised his trident / And all the Orient, America, and the most distant provinces / Bestowed their treasures in continuous fleets / There is nothing more, except a pitiable memory,” wrote Francisco de Pine e de Mello in 1756, who is quoted in the superb new narrative of the cataclysm by Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon. In the end, according to his calculations, 40,000 people perished (20 percent of the city’s population) and the empire lost “54 to 59 percent” of GDP.

Molesky’s gripping portrait of the destruction and carnage—and the concurrent rise of one of 18th-century dictator the Marques de Pombal—is gleaned from a seemingly endless number of firsthand accounts. His tale is a welcome resurrection of an epic tragedy that captured the imaginations of thinkers including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant. 

The earthquake that rattled Europe and Africa started somewhere a few hundred kilometers southwest of Lisbon along a fault from “the boundary separating the African and Eurasian continental plates.” It is believed to have been somewhere between an 8.5 and 9.1 Mw. “The energy released was staggering: the equivalent of 475 megatons of TNT or 32,000 Hiroshima bombs. It was at least three times more powerful than the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa,” writes Molesky. It would be felt as far away as Turku, Finland. 

By 9:45 a.m., the first tremor hit Lisbon. What started as something akin to “the rattling of several carriages in the main street,” writes Molesky, turned into “the loudest cannon.”

Most of Lisbon’s population was in church for the 10 a.m. Mass on one of the holiest days of the year. The tremor immediately “turned Lisbon’s churches into death traps, their arched ceilings toppling down upon thousands of terrified worshippers.” It lasted for two minutes. It was followed by a pause of one minute, and then a second tremor of two and a half minutes. After another pause of one minute, the third and final major tremor hit the city and lasted three to four minutes. “For comparison,” writes Molesky, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 “lasted just thirty-five seconds.” Despite the end of the major tremors, aftershocks would roil Lisbon for months.

After the last tremor, “a great cloud of dust” covered the city, suffocating some and fueling confusion among the already hysterical survivors. 

Then came the second disaster—the tsunamis. The tsunami traveled along the open ocean at speeds of 500 to 600 mph and hit Lisbon in three waves, washing away many who had crowded onto the docks and destroying much of the waterfront.

But the final and most destructive disaster had yet to come—fire. 

“It began in a hundred places throughout the city,” writes Molesky, in churches, as well as private homes. Ash scattered by a strong wind spread the flames even farther. More than one and a half square kilometers were destroyed. 

Molesky’s book is engrossing, not only because of the subject matter he has chosen, but also because of the overwhelming number of firsthand accounts he has compiled to weave together a narrative that transports you to the midst of this horror.

The sheer carnage conveyed in the book leaves its pages virtually blood-soaked. 

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“I could hardly step without treading on the dead or dying. In some places … mothers with infants in their arms … ladies richly dressed … Some had their backs or thighs broken; others vast stones on their breasts,” according to one account cited by Molesky.

The second tremor brought down “two palace walls on top of the Marquesa de Lourical as she knelt to thank God for sparing her young daughter and herself during the first shock.”

A principal of one of the colleges was trapped under rubble, and suffocated to death after 24 hours.

“Spain’s ambassador … died in his nightgown when the coat of arms above his front door fell on top of him as he attempted to escape into the street,” he writes.

One priest was “so thoroughly crushed in the collapse of the dining hall ceiling that ‘only a few fragments of his bones’ were ever recovered,” writes Molesky.

Thousands of horses, dogs, and other livestock perished as well.

Portugal’s government was also devastated—amongst the dead were the secretary of war and the king’s counselor. 

But Lisbon’s destruction was not only a tragedy for its loss of human life, it was also a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for the destruction of property. Dozens of churches, monasteries, schools, and convents with all their riches were obliterated. So too were many palaces.

For instance, the palace of the Marques de Lourical was destroyed, along with its contents—“over two hundred paintings by such masters as Titian, Correggio, and Rubens, and a renowned library of eighteen thousand books, which contained a history composed by the Emperor Charles V in his own hand, a collection of preserved plants once owned by King Matthias Hunyadi of Hungary,” and a major collection of Portuguese maps and charts.

Also completely gone was the Riverside Palace of the Portuguese royal family. With it went all its treasure, as well as its paintings, but most importantly, its Biblioteca dos Reis with its 70,000 books including the original travel logs of Vasco de Gama. It “ranks as one of the great tragedies in the history of the West and can be likened to the burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria,” writes Molesky.

Add to that the riches of many of the palaces of the Portuguese nobility, which were for the most part obliterated, as well as the storehouses of diamonds from India, gold from Brazil, and spices from Asia and Africa, and the amount of wealth lost is staggering.

“The situation cried out for a savior,” declares Molesky.

Into this void stepped one of the 18th century’s more interesting political figures, the Marques de Pombal.

Molesky picks up Pombal’s story when this relatively obscure figure is made Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for King Dom Jose in 1750. (The one big flaw in this otherwise comprehensive narrative is that it leaves the reader craving more details about Pombal’s childhood as well as his rise to power through various ambassadorial postings.) With a massive power vacuum in the aftermath of the earthquake, Pombal effectively seizes power. His rule, which would last for 22 years, was characterized by both far-reaching cruelty as well as modernizing reforms. He pushed Portugal into the modern age with his Enlightenment ideas, shifted power to the mercantile class, and rebuilt Lisbon to sustain earthquakes. He also expelled the Jesuits, executed and imprisoned thousands, and took revenge on those who had wronged him at various points of his life.

At a time in the developed world when so much of our lives seem removed from the whims of Mother Nature, there is perhaps no better reminder of just how vicious those whims can be than the story of Lisbon’s near total destruction in 1755.