Monday, 4 February 2019

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Did the earth move for you? Tis no good asking Mrs S as she is firm a sleep when I come to a shuddering end…. Anyway, and moving on, the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 certainly had ramifications which shuddered throughout Portuguese society and transformed aspects of Western European society at a particularly vibrant and intellectually progressive time.

On the 1st November 1755 at approximately 9.40 am (local time) a massive earthquake rocked the Portuguese city of Lisbon. It has been estimated that the earthquake was the most severe to hit Europe in 10,000 years. The earthquake, together with the subsequent fire storm and tsunami, completely devastated the city. A total of 90,000 people died out of Lisbon’s 275,000 population and the disaster had grave knock on effects for Portugal’s economic and political stability. The earthquake also caused significant damage elsewhere in Portugal, in parts of Europe and in parts of North Africa.

The prime minister, Sebastiao de Melo, (aka Marquis of Pombal) acted vigorously and the army was called in to fight the fires that raged for five days and to dispose of the dead. Contrary to Catholic religious practice and against the wishes of religious leaders, thousands of bodies were loaded onto barges and sunk out at sea at the mouth of the Tagus river. Gallows were erected at prominent sites and 33 people were publicly executed for looting. Within a month plans had been submitted for a complete rebuild of the city and reconstruction began soon after.

It is likely that the Lisbon earthquake resulted in the birth of Seismology. Objective surveys were conducted throughout Portugal to gain information about the earthquake. Experimentation was conducted and structural earthquake proofing of buildings was undertaken. Economically the quake was devastating to the economy. It has been estimated that 40% of Portugal’s GDP was squandered during and immediately after the event. And in spite of attempts at control, the economy and wages remained volatile for years. In addition, Portugal’s further colonial ambitions were thwarted and largely curtailed resulting in the loss of the Brazilian colony. Politically, tensions mounted between the king and various noble families culminating in the attempted assassination of the king in 1758. Investigations implicated the wealthy and politically influential Tavora family culminating in the confiscation of the families’ wealth and land. The men of the family were publicly tortured and executed.  Whether the family was actually involved is a matter of debate and the controversy continues to this day. However, and regardless, the king took the opportunity to rid this highly influential family from the political arena.The money extracted must have come as a most welcome addition to the royal coffers; political expediency is a great social leveller.    

The disaster occurred on ‘Feast of All Saint’s’, a major religious Catholic festival. Many of the cities’ inhabitants were attending church and were killed when the church walls collapsed. Those of a superstitious nature considered the earthquake retribution and a manifest sign of the ‘Wrath of God’. The Jesuits were particularly vocal in this regard. It was noted that while all the churches had been destroyed the cities’ brothels had been spared. Mayhap God was expressing his genuine love for sinners. Or perhaps he had a sense of humour, after all. I’ll leave my gentle readers to judge.

The earthquake occurred during Europe’s period of enlightenment. A time of great intellectual advance and a time where great minds were probing for natural, not supernatural explanations for world phenomenon. The event was widely discussed among the Savants of the time resulting in a great out pouring of written material questioning God’s providence and even the very existence of supernatural deities. The philosophical concept of theodicy was further developed after the quake. Thinkers invented convoluted theories to explain how an all-powerful and loving God could allow such an event. This is not something new as the Ancient Greeks had also pondered deeply on the subject. Theodicy, as theology, has always been a doomed project as intellectually and morally it is impossible to reconcile the traditional concept of the Christian deity with evil (natural and man made) which patently exists in this world. The promise of redress in the ‘next world’ is a particularly repellent and a futile attempt to justify divine evil in our organic existence. I have dealt with theodicy in a previous post.

Emanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, wrote several tracts on the subject. He put forward a theory of earthquakes based on the accumulation of gases in the earth’s crust. Subsequent research has shown Kant’s hypothesis to be in error. However, as a first attempt at an objective scientific explanation it was a credible attempt and represents a faltering step into the science of seismology.
Prominent academics and philosophers of the time wrote about the moral and theological dilemma posed by the quake resulting in a great surge of mental anguish and hand wringing amongst thoughtful, educated Europeans. Voltaire waxed lyrical and composed a poem, "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne,". Here is a direct quote from the poem (perhaps):   

“The shaking comes and the earth trembles a bit,
And all the houses fall down a bit,
And people get squished a bit.
Except Signor Filipe Mugumbo,
As he was abed with a whore in a bawdy house having a bit,
He escaped unscathed except for a nasty case of the brothel sprouts.”

Is dat Candide enough for you?   

I suspect that something becomes lost in translation from the original French, but I’m sure ya get da drift. Here is a more sensible passage from the dramatic work:

“What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother's breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers' wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood”.

Methinks my interpretation has more poetic ambiance/licence. Tis just a matter of autistic taste, after all?    

A ponce in repose


  1. Can't believe I didn't know about it - but now I'm going to find out more. Thanks for a particularly informative & amusing entry.

    The 'Enlightenment Gallery' at the BM in London is one of my favourite ports of call. An amazing time with amazing people. I do wonder what they would make of our world, full of its pseudoscience, twaddle & woo. It's comforting to imagine that they would question today's nonsense as courageously as when they took on the Catholics & Jesuits.


    1. Indeed, an amazing time with amazing intellects wrestling with the world of natural phenomenon. The power of the church, after 1,200, had been broken and their baleful secular influence lifted for ever.

  2. Poetry? From a true Son of Tipton? You great big Jessie!

    1. As you can see Ted, I'm a poet of note and singular talent. My muse will out. My initial inspiration came from watching my old 'Alma Mata' aka Tipton Secondary Modern, burn to the ground the day after I left. O the inhumanity!

    2. MY old Alma Mater disapproved of my sensitive poetry:-

      An earnest young curate named Bings
      Used to think about women and things
      But the height of his joy
      Was a small choirboy
      With a bottom like jelly on springs

      Eat yer heart out, Keats...

    3. At least you can spell, 'Alma Mater'. Arse.

      There's brotherly love and motherly love
      And love for a child for its mother.
      But the purest of love, the sweetest of love
      Is one drunken sod for another.

  3. "...the day after I left ... an incendiary device on a timer" perhaps?

    1. Scurrilous, Ep P! Even the famed 'Mugumbo of the Yard' couldn't pin the caper on me.