The 1755 Lisbon earthquake, also known as the Great Lisbon Earthquake, took place on November 1 1755 at around 9:40 in the morning. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami and fire, which caused near-total destruction of Lisbon, Portugal and adjoining areas. Geologists today estimate the Lisbon earthquake approached magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 km (120 mi) west-southwest of Cape St. Vincent. Estimates place the death toll between 60,000 to 100,000 people, making it one of the most destructive earthquakes in history.
The earthquake accentuated political tensions in Portugal and profoundly disrupted the country's eighteenth-century colonial ambitions. The event was widely discussed and dwelt upon by European Enlightenment philosophers, and inspired major developments in theodicy and in the philosophy of the sublime. As the first earthquake studied scientifically for its effects over a large area, it led to the birth of modern seismology.
Lisbon had been shaken by several important earthquakes before November 1755: eight in the 14th century, five in the 16th century (including the 1531 earthquake that destroyed 1,500 houses, and the 1597 earthquake when three streets vanished), and three in the 17th century. During the 18th century, two earthquakes were reported in 1724 and 1750. In 1755, the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November, the Catholic holiday of All Saints' Day. Contemporary reports state that the earthquake lasted between three-and-a-half and six minutes, causing gigantic fissures five-metres (15 ft) wide to appear in the city centre. Survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water receded, revealing a sea floor littered by lost cargo and old shipwrecks. Approximately forty minutes after the earthquake, an enormous tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown, rushing up the Tagus river. It was followed by two more waves. In the areas unaffected by the tsunami, fire quickly broke out, and flames raged for five days.
Lisbon was not the only Portuguese city affected by the catastrophe. Throughout the south of the country, in particular the Algarve, destruction was rampant. A tsunami destroyed some coastal fortresses in the Algarve and, in the lower levels, razed several houses. Almost all the coastal towns and villages of the Algarve were heavily damaged, except Faro, which was protected by the sandy banks of Ria Formosa. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. Other towns of different Portuguese regions, like Peniche, Cascais, and even Covilhã which is located near the Serra da Estrela mountain range in central inland Portugal, were affected. The shock waves of the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as Finland and North Africa. Tsunamis as tall as 20 metres (66 ft) swept the coast of North Africa, and struck Martinique and Barbados across the Atlantic. A three-metre (ten-foot) tsunami hit Cornwall on the southern English coast. Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, was also hit, resulting in partial destruction of the "Spanish Arch" section of the city wall.
Of Lisbon's population of 275,000, as manyas 90,000 were killed. Another 10,000 lost their lives in Morocco. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed, including famous palaces and libraries, as well as most examples of Portugal's distinctive 16th-century Manueline architecture. Several buildings that had suffered little earthquake damage were destroyed by the subsequent fire. The new Opera House, opened just six months before (named the Phoenix Opera), burned to the ground. The Royal Ribeira Palace, which stood just beside the Tagus river in the modern square of Terreiro do Paço, was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Inside, the 70,000-volume royal library as well as hundreds of works of art, including paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Correggio, were lost. The royal archives disappeared together with detailed historical records of explorations by Vasco da Gama and other early navigators. The earthquake also damaged major churches in Lisbon, namely the Lisbon Cathedral, the Basilicas of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, São Vicente de Fora, and the Misericordia Church. The Royal Hospital of All Saints (the largest public hospital at the time) in the Rossio square was consumed by fire and hundreds of patients burned to death. The tomb of national hero Nuno Álvares Pereira was also lost. Visitors to Lisbon may still walk the ruins of the Carmo Convent, which were preserved to remind Lisboners of the destruction.
The royal family escaped unharmed from the catastrophe; King Joseph I of Portugal and the court had left the city, after attending mass at sunrise, fulfilling the wish of one of the king's daughters to spend the holiday away from Lisbon. After the catastrophe, Joseph I developed a fear of living within walls, and the court was accommodated in a huge complex of tents and pavilions in the hills of Ajuda, then on the outskirts of Lisbon. The king's claustrophobia never waned, and it was only after Joseph's death that his daughter Maria I of Portugal began building the royal Ajuda Palace, which still stands on the site of the old tented camp. Like the king, the prime minister Sebastião de Melo (the Marquis of Pombal) survived the earthquake. When asked what was to be done, Pombal reportedly replied "Bury the dead and feed the living, and set upon organizing relief and rehabilitation efforts. Firefighters were sent to extinguish the raging flames, and teams of workers and ordinary citizens were ordered to remove the thousands of corpses before disease could spread. Contrary to custom and against the wishes of the Church, many corpses were loaded onto barges and buried at sea beyond the mouth of the Tagus. To prevent disorder in the ruined city, the Portuguese Army was deployed and gallows were constructed at high points around the city to deter looters; at least 34 people were publicly executed. The Army prevented many able-bodied citizens from fleeing, pressing them into relief and reconstruction work.
The king and the prime minister immediately launched efforts to rebuild the city, hiring architects, engineers and organizing labor. In less than a year, the city was cleared of debris. Keen to have a new and perfectly ordained city, the king commissioned the construction of big squares, rectilinear, large avenues and widened streets — the new mottos of Lisbon. When the Marquis of Pombal was asked about the need for such wide streets, he is said to have replied: "one day they will be small."
The Pombaline buildings are among the first seismically-protected constructions in the world. Small wooden models were built for testing, and earthquakes were simulated by marching troops around them. Lisbon's "new" downtown, known today as the Pombaline Downtown (Baixa Pombalina), is one of the city's famed attractions. Sections of other Portuguese cities, like the Vila Real de Santo António in Algarve, were also rebuilt along Pombaline principles.
The Casa Pia, a Portuguese institution founded by Mary I, known as "Pia" (Pious, in English), and organized by Police Intendant Pina Manique in 1780, was founded following the social disarray of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.
The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace and intelligentsia. The earthquake had struck on an important Catholic holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion amongst the citizens of a staunch and devout Catholic city and country, which had been a major patron of the Church. Theologians and philosophers would focus and speculate on the religious cause and message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of the anger of God. Some people thought the earthquake was a punishment for the massacre of thousands of armless indios and missionaries killed in South America (especially Paraguay). This massacre was ordered by the king of Portugal and made by Portuguese armies in 1754-1755.
The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia of the European Age of Enlightenment. The noted writer-philosopher Voltaire used the earthquake in Candide and in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ("Poem on the Lisbon disaster"). Voltaire's Candide attacks the notion that all is for the best in this, "the best of all possible worlds", a world closely supervised by a benevolent deity. The Lisbon disaster provided a salutary counterexample. As Theodor Adorno wrote, "[t]he earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz" (Negative Dialectics 361). In the later twentieth century, following Adorno, the 1755 earthquake has sometimes been compared to the Holocaust as a catastrophe that transformed European culture and philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also influenced by the devastation following the earthquake, whose severity he believed was due to too many people living within the close quarters of the city. Rousseau used the earthquake as an argument against cities as part of his desire for a more naturalistic way of life.
The concept of the sublime, though it existed before 1755, was developed in philosophy and elevated to greater importance by Immanuel Kant, in part as a result of his attempts to comprehend the enormity of the Lisbon quake and tsunami. Kant published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake. The young Kant, fascinated with the earthquake, collected all the information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to formulate a theory of the causes of earthquakes. Kant's theory, which involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases, was (though ultimately shown to be false) one of the first systematic modern attempts to explain earthquakes by positing natural, rather than supernatural, causes. According to Walter Benjamin, Kant's slim early book on the earthquake "probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany. And certainly the beginnings of seismology."
Werner Hamacher has claimed that the earthquake's consequences extended into the vocabulary of philosophy, making the common metaphor of firm "grounding" for philosophers' arguments shaky and uncertain: "Under the impression exerted by the Lisbon earthquake, which touched the European mind in one [of] its more sensitive epochs, the metaphor of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence; they were no longer merely figures of speech" (263). Hamacher claims that the foundational certainty of Descartes' philosophy began to shake following the Lisbon earthquake.
The earthquake had a major impact on Portuguese politics. The prime minister was the favorite of the king, but the aristocracy despised him as an upstart son of a country squire (although the Prime Minister Sebastião de Melo is known today as Marquis of Pombal, the title was only granted in 1770, fifteen years after the earthquake). The prime minister in turn disliked the old nobles, whom he considered corrupt and incapable of practical action. Before November 1, 1755 there was a constant struggle for power and royal favor, but the competent response of the Marquis of Pombal effectively severed the power of the old aristocratic factions. However, silent opposition and resentment of King Joseph I began to rise, which would culminate with the attempted assassination of the king, and the subsequent elimination of the powerful Duke of Aveiro and the Távora family.
The answers to these and other questions are still archived in the Torre do Tombo, the national historical archive. Studying and cross-referencing the priests' accounts, modern scientists were able to reconstruct the event from a scientific perspective. Without the query designed by the Marquis of Pombal, this would have been impossible. Because the marquis was the first to attempt an objective scientific description of the broad causes and consequences of an earthquake, he is regarded as a forerunner of modern seismological scientists.
The geological causes of this earthquake and the seismic activity in the region continue to be discussed and debated by contemporary scientists.