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.

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.

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June 2017
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