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“Then the earth shook and quaked;
And the foundations of the mountains were trembling
And were shaken, because He was angry.”
—Psalm 18:7

The Great Lisbon Earthquake,
November 1, 1755

Some historians, theologians and insurance companies of the past attributed “natural disasters” to God’s control over His creation, “Acts of God,” but denied Him any role in the supposed life of free-will autonomous man. Theologians tend to speculate that God uses floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes to prune the human race for assumed transgressions against the Creator. Those who claim to know exactly what God’s ultimate purposes for particular “natural disasters” are, exhibit their own speculative ignorance. See the book of Job. Those who think God has no role in controlling the lives of men, see the 66 canonical books of the Bible.

An artist’s allegorical representation of the aftermath of the earthquake—angels of judgment bearing swords are seen flying about, as well as street preachers, priests, and people clinging to crosses, all signifying the perception of God’s judgment through the earthquake

On All Saints’ Day in 1755, an earthquake estimated at up to 9.2 magnitude struck Lisbon, Portugal and northwest Africa about 9:40 in the morning. It lasted about five minutes, opened five-foot-wide fissures in the ground, and caused numerous fires. The water in the bay rushed out to sea and thousands fled to the open docks for safety. Forty minutes later, a tsunami came roaring back landward, engulfing the harbor and all its ships and the downtown business center, as well as rushing up the Tagus River.

The Rossio Square (facing All Saints’ Royal Hospital, center) and St. George Castle, prior to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake

Thousands who had not been killed by the estimated 9,000 buildings that fell down were drowned by the sea or burned up by the fires started by thousands of upset candles in homes and churches. The conflagration created firestorms rarely seen before in history. The shock-wave destroyed villages along the coast and brought down homes and even castles, previously thought impregnable. Towns and villages of the Azores, including Mediera, were swamped up to five hundred feet inland. The shockwave and tsunamis were felt as far away as Finland and the Caribbean islands. In recent years, references to the effects of the earthquake have been discovered in the archives of Brazil.

A map showing the point of the quake (marked with a star) and the shockwaves across the world

An animation showing the initial quake, as well as tsunamis and the effects around the world for 24 hours afterwards

Of Lisbon’s population of about 200,000, estimates range from 30-40,000 dead and perhaps as many as 60,000. Another 10,000 died in North Africa. Famous palaces, churches, and libraries were swept away, along with hundreds of priceless art works by painters such as Titian, Reubens, and Correggio. Among the lost works in the Royal library and a private library of 18,000 books were the journals of Vasco de Gama. Hundreds were burned to death in the city’s largest hospital. Few buildings remained undamaged in some way.

The Ópera do Tejo or Real Casa da Ópera (Royal Opera House) was a luxurious opera house in Lisbon, Portugal. It was inaugurated on March 31, 1755, and destroyed by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake on November 1 of the same year.

Providentially the royal family and the court of King Joseph I, after attending morning mass on All Saints’ Day, acquiesced to the pleas of one of the princesses to celebrate the holiday away from the city. Afterward, the trauma of the event caused the King to suffer from a debilitating claustrophobia for the next twenty-two years. He constructed a Royal tent camp instead of rebuilding the palace, for fear of living indoors ever again. The rescue efforts went into high gear immediately as the firemen attacked the flames, and the injured were brought to safety where medical teams addressed their wounds. They deployed the army to construct gallows in several places, to hang looters. Thirty of them ended their light-fingered earthly sojourns on the gibbets.

King Joseph I of Portugal (1714-1777)

An engraving showing the chaotic tent camp in the foreground, and the ruins of Lisbon burning in the background

The Palácio da Ajuda, Lisbon, Portugal, built on the site of the former tent city

The troops stopped able-bodied men from fleeing and forced them to work in collecting the bodies and reconstructing living quarters. Many of the dead were loaded on barges and buried at sea, the town authorities ignoring the protests of the Catholic clergy. It took a year to clear all the rubble, and rebuilding the city took several years. Engineers developed ways to build “seismically”-resistant safer structures. The results of the Great Lisbon Earthquake affected all of Europe—and some would argue changed history—in important ways.

Model of an earthquake-resistant building frame developed for the reconstruction of Lisbon’s downtown after the 1755 earthquake

A three-year-old infant being rescued from the rubble of the Lisbon earthquake

As in every natural disaster, everyone sought answers to why such tragedy was visited upon them. The people of a particular religious tradition, in this case overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Portugal, were no different. The Portuguese people saw the disaster as God’s judgement, and the Protestants of Europe were in full agreement, arguing that the backward, superstitious Catholics brought it on themselves. Priests called for repentance and submission to the will of God, while “European Enlightenment” philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau weighed in, the first using the disaster to question the benevolence of God, and the latter using the example as an argument against living in cities, and the need to seek a more naturalistic way of life.

François-Marie Arouet, more commonly known by his nom de plume, Voltaire (1694-1778)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

The Minister of State, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo—known to history as the Marquis of Pombal—rose to the occasion and took control of Lisbon, with the approval of the king. He, in fact, ruled the country for the next twenty-two years, with the king sitting in his tent, a mere figurehead. Pombal’s two decades of authority brought “innovative reforms” in rebuilding the society, and advancing scientific inquiry into the causes of the damage and the behavior of tsunamis, as he crafted Europe’s “first modern city.” The church was not happy with the controversial Pombal, for he ignored what he considered their questionable explanations and resistance to his sometimes high-handed recovery orders.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782)

Marquis of Pombal and his counselors reviewing plans for the rebuilding Lisbon

The church was right that God judges sin and repentance is appropriate. Pombal was right that recovery of the city depended on innovation, creative thinking, hard work, and using the means God provided to recover from what is called today, the “first great modern natural disaster.” The people of Lisbon still talk about the quake and pass memorials that remind them of the tragedy. It was not the last one to be visited upon Portugal.

A deep fissure, likely caused by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, along the coast of Devon, UK

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