Portugal - Lisbon Earthquake 1755 Facts
“1755 - That was the year when Lisbon town /Saw the earth open and gulp her down.”
On the morning of All Saints Day – the 1st of November, 1755 - the biggest earthquake in the history of Portugal hit Lisbon.
Its origins were oceanic and the first shock was felt in Lisbon at around 09:40 in the morning. At the time of the earthquake, Lisbon was preparing for one of the biggest celebrations in the religious calendar and the city was alive with activity in preparation for the forthcoming commemoration.
Lisbon Earthquake 1755
The initial shock of the Lisbon earthquake was relatively minimal, lasting perhaps around a minute. The streets rattled and dwellings vibrated. The shocks that caused the cataclysmic damage followed closely on it heels – approximately 30 seconds later.
The second shock lasted somewhere between two and eight minutes. The time span is at best, confusing. Seismic analysis and research wasn’t the science it is today and of course the events threw up a lot of confusion and conflicting accounts. Several minutes later, the third shock hit. This one caused the ground to violently shake – and some 12,000 buildings simply disintegrated.
Imagine by this stage the utter chaos and disorientation that the dwellers of Lisbon were experiencing. Panic reigned. People were either dead or dying. It’s reported that those that were able were either attempting to save those that could be saved – or they were simply fleeing the city. Fires blazed everywhere – some of which would rage on for five days. A huge cloud of dust and debris had shrouded much of Lisbon in a fog. The city of Lisbon was all but destroyed.
Lisbon In Ruins
Unfortunately, the worst wasn’t yet over. Unbeknown to the devastated inhabitants of Lisbon – nature wasn’t content with the havoc already wreaked upon the city. She had one final blow to deliver – and it came in the form of a tsunami.
Many of the surviving inhabitants had found their way down to the river and seafront – believing the location would afford them some measure of safety. Others boarded ships and boats – moored along the harbour - in their efforts to escape the desolation. Unfortunately, turning to the river and sea as a source of salvation was to prove to be a horrifying mistake.
After the last shock, the sea had withdrawn from the shore. The sandbars at the mouth of River Targus were exposed. Approximately thirty minutes after the last tremors had subsided – a tsunami engulfed the harbours of downtown Lisbon. The tsunami arrived in a series of three waves, the highest being over six meters in height. By the time the tsunami had subsided, the city was reduced to a vestige of its former splendour.
Lisbon – the city – was in ruins
"You may judge of the force of this shock, when I inform you it was so violent that I could scarce keep on my knees; but it was attended with some circumstances still more dreadful than the former. On a sudden I heard a general outcry, "The sea is coming in, we shall be all lost." - Small excerpt from the eye-witness account of the Rev. Charles Davy - a survivor ot the disaster.
Earthquake Video - The Aftermath
A Virtual Tsunami - What Causes Them
Modern seismologists have managed to determine the fact that not only was the Lisbon ‘quake of 1755 an earthquake of significant magnitude – it was potentially one of the most devastating in the history of earthquakes. The Richter Scale measurement system is fairly accurate in determining the size of an earthquake. Using facts, history and eyewitness accounts, the Lisbon quake is judged to have been somewhere between 8.6 and 9.0 on the Richter Scale.
Further, it is known that the earthquake – though centred on Lisbon – was felt across most of Europe and North Africa, an area of some 1,300,000 square miles. Both Morocco and Algeria suffered a significant loss of life as well as devastation. Algiers was, in fact, destroyed. Morocco itself is 400 miles south of Lisbon. For the earthquake to have caused as much damage as it did is a noteworthy indicator of just how powerful the shocks actually were.
It is widely believed that it was submarine in origin and there is adequate data to support this finding. The tsunami itself helps analysts determine the initial source of the earthquake. Tsunamis are simply a series of waves that begin due to a disturbance in large bodies of water. This could be an underground volcanic explosion, because a huge mass of some form or other has hit the waters’ surface (asteroid for e.g.) - or an earthquake.
The epicentre is thought to have been some 125 miles south-west of the Cape of St Vincent. What is clear is the fact that Lisbon is situated on the centre of a tectonic plate. Therefore the only explanation for it would be that the earthquakes origins were indeed at sea – the city of Lisbon was unfortunate enough to have borne the brunt of shifting tectonic plates quite some distance away.
Lisbon Earthquake Links
- Rev. Charles Davey
This is the contemporary eyewitness account of the Rev. Charles Davy - a survivor of the Lisbon earthquake - in it's entirety. Source: Internet Modern History Sourcebook: The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art
- Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
Although this web site details the disaster, it also provides a source of information relating to the various pictorial depictions of the disaster. Worth looking at if you are interested in historical data.
- Lisbon Earthquake And Ensuing Tsunami
This is an analytical account of the 1755 earthquake, though it slants more towards the tsunami. In itself, the tsunami was a great natural disaster and does bear further scrutiny.
- Contemporary Lisbon
There are many pictures on this website as it's specifically dedicated to skyscrapers. However, the link takes you to a section that really demonstrates modern Lisbon and some of its contemporary archtitecture.
Earthquake After Effects
The earthquake after effects were almost as catastrophic as the earthquake itself. The fires that started as a result of the quake raged uncontrollably for five days. Due to the understandable confusion that followed the quake, the fires simply burned unabated. Buildings that weren’t destroyed in the earthquake and following tsunami were subsequently destroyed by fire. Both the Opera House and Carmo Convent were destroyed by fire- as well as the home of the monarchy - Royal Palace. Most of the downtown area – Rossio and Alafama for e.g. were reduced to ashes. Important archived documentation was destroyed – for example much of Portugal’s seafaring history was meticulously stored in historic buildings, all of which was lost either to the earthquake itself or the subsequent fires.
The social structure, based upon a staunch observation of the Catholic religion, was in ruins. Portugal was, at the time, a pious Roman Catholic country and the Church was its bastion. Many, in the confusing aftermath, felt that the destruction of Lisbon, as well as many other regions of the country, was an act of God. Devine retribution for the way that they (Portugal) had systematically conquered other countries, such as South America. There was, understandably for the time and its people, much conjecture as to the reasons behind the disaster. The fact that most places of worship had been destroyed – coupled with the fact that the earthquake struck on All Saints Day – only served to reinforce this collective supposition.
The earthquake had done more than just reduce the city to ruins. It had also shaken the beliefs and foundations upon which its society was built – leaving the surviving inhabitants uncertain and apprehensive. Eighteenth century concepts and philosophies were about to be reformed – along with the city of Lisbon itself.
Marque de Pombal
Earthquake Safety Measures
Due to the proportionate damage that Lisbon had suffered as a consequence of the disaster, much of it had to be reconstructed. Fortunately, the court of the then king, Joseph I of Portugal, was holidaying away from the city and was therefore unharmed. Along with the royal family, the prime minister of the time had also survived - Sebastião de Carvalho e Melo, otherwise known as the Marques de Pombal (Marquis of Pombal).
The Marquis of Pombal was an important figure at the time of the earthquake and became even more powerful as a result of his efforts to oversee the rebuilding of Lisbon. As the dust settled and the people of Lisbon looked for salvation, the Marquis is quoted as saying:
“What now? We bury the dead and feed the living”
And with that, Lisbon was reborn. The Marquis embarked upon a series of building works that remain a prominent aspect of Lisbon, over 250 years later. In less than 12 months, the city was starting to rise from the ashes. Although the Marquis initiated the rebuilding of Lisbon – it was the Portuguese people that made it happen. However, they rebuilt Lisbon according to the wishes of the Marquis. He insisted on having the city built in a grid fashion – sizeable squares, wider avenues and streets. When asked why he simply replied:
"One day they will be small."
The Marquis also thought about the possibility of another earthquake striking Lisbon in the future. He had his engineers and architects design buildings that he deemed to be earthquake proof. Models were built which were than subjected to soldiers marching around them – as a means of recreating the effects of an earthquake. Further, the Marquis embarked upon what is thought to be one of the first ever seismic investigations. He designed then sent out a questionnaire to every parish. The Marquis wanted information relating to animal behaviour prior to the earthquake, what buildings were destroyed and so on; he required data relating to the earthquake as a means of studying the disaster in more detail.
When you walk around the streets of downtown Lisbon today, you cannot help but think that the Marquis de Pombal was indeed a visionary of his time.
Praça do Comércio
The possibility of further earthquakes in Lisbon – or Portugal as a whole – remains likely. Due to the continued subduction of the tectonic plates thought to be responsible for the 1755 earthquake, seismologists are fairly certain that another earthquake will occur. However, due to the lack of chronological data, it’s extremely difficult to calculate when this will happen – or the magnitude.
However, Lisbon today is a vibrant, thriving and industrious city. You only have to take a walk through the commercial districts or downtown Lisbon to see that the city has recovered its former glory and remains the jewel in the crown of Portugal. It’s a culturally diverse and architecturally beautiful city – contemporary architecture and archaic design sit comfortably side by side. The population has grown, from the dark days of 1755, and now numbers in excess of three million residents.
And - Lisbon continues to pay tribute to the Marquis of Pombal, by way of a stunning statue, erected in his honour and situated in the middle of an area aptly named ‘Marques de Pombal’. The statue itself is 45m in height, made up of a 36m pillar, with the statue of the Marquis sited atop. He is purposely placed so as to face downtown – towards the portion of Lisbon that most bears his stamp to this day - Baixa. A fitting tribute to the man that raised Lisbon from the ashes.