Earthquake in Lisbon changed history and led to reflections on God

“Never was a morning more beautiful than that of the 1st of November,” wrote the Reverend Charles Davy in 1755, one of the many foreigners who lived in Lisbon.

“It was a metropolis, the capital of a world colonial empire that stretched from Africa (with Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde), through Asia (with Goa and Macau), and, of course, to Latin America (with Brazil)” , said Vic Echegoyen, author of the historical novel resuscitate.

“Portugal was a very, very rich kingdom thanks to the riches of these colonies,” added the writer in conversation with BBC Reel.

“Lisbon was a very attractive sight for first-time visitors,” said Edward Paice, author of The Wrath of God – The Incredible Story of the Earthquake that Devastated Lisbon in 1755 (Record/2010), to BBC Witness.

“There were grandiose monasteries and large-scale palaces. Their architecture was heavily influenced by the East as well as Islamic architecture.”

“The sun was shining in all its splendor,” Reverend Davy continued.

“The whole face of heaven was perfectly still and clear; and there was not the slightest warning sign of that approaching event, which made this city, once flourishing, opulent, and populous, a scene of the greatest horror and desolation.”

It was one of the deadliest natural disasters the world has ever seen.

Tens of thousands of people died. Lisbon was destroyed, but from the ashes something incredible emerged: a new way of thinking and a new science.

the horror

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Praça do Comércio before the 1755 earthquake, depicted in tiles in the Italian Embassy, ​​18th century


It was All Saints’ Day, and by 9:30 am many of the city’s devout residents were in churches.

Suddenly, what several eyewitnesses, including the Reverend Davy, believed to be the noise of many carriages, began to be heard.

“I soon saw that I had been wrong, for I discovered that it was due to some strange and frightening noise beneath the earth, like the distant hollow rumble of thunder.”

The quake was a megaquake felt across much of Western Europe and off the northwest coast of Africa.

“It’s still one of the biggest quakes ever recorded. There were three quakes in total and the second was by far the biggest. It was later rated between 8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale,” Paice said.

Survivors of the first quake sought safety in a huge open square by the Tagus River, including Mr. Braddick, an English merchant.

“There I found a prodigious gathering of people of both sexes and of all classes and conditions, among whom I observed some of the leading canons of the patriarchal church in their purple and reddish robes, several priests who had fled from the altar in their sacred vestments in in the midst of the festive mass, half-naked ladies and others without shoes… all on their knees with the terrors of death on their faces, crying without ceasing ‘mercy, my God!’.”

“In the midst of the devotion came the second great shaking and completed the ruin of those buildings that had already been grievously destroyed.”

More horror was to come: the earthquake unleashed a tsunami in the Atlantic that then went upriver.

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The earthquake was followed by a tidal wave and a fire. The aftershocks were felt for many weeks afterwards


“He came frothing, roaring, and ran towards the bank with such energy that we immediately ran for our lives as fast as we could,” wrote Reverend Davy.

“You might think this dark event ends here, but nothing, the horrors of November 1st are enough to fill a volume.”

“As soon as it got dark, the whole city seemed to glow, with a light so bright you could read it. It can be said, without exaggeration, that there were fires in at least a hundred places at once, and it went on like that for six days without interruption. .”

For the religious celebration, all the candles in the churches and cathedrals had been lit, which, when they fell, multiplied their flames.

“There are no words to express the horror,” wrote another witness. “Such a situation is not easy to imagine for those who have not felt it, nor to describe for those who have felt it.”

“God forbid you never get an accurate idea of ​​this, because it can only be gained through experience.”

a new way of thinking

News of the disaster in a city as important as Lisbon spread quickly.

“It was the first global media catastrophe that attracted the attention of all the gazettes, newspapers and travelers across Europe,” said Echegoyen.

And it sounded more than an alarm.

The aftershocks of the earthquake shook the thinking of the time.

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Great procession to the auto da fé of those condemned by the Lisbon Inquisition, 18th century


The Church and its followers were looking for blame for the tragedy.

“After the earthquake that destroyed three quarters of Lisbon, the most effective means that the country’s sages invented to avoid total ruin was the celebration of a superb auto-da-fé [ritual de penitência pública]having the University of Coimbra decided that the spectacle of some people being burned in a slow fire with all solemnity is an infallible secret to avoid earthquakes”, wrote Voltaire in his polemical philosophical tale Candid (1759).

As the Inquisition went about its business, the great minds of the time, many of whom were beginning to see the world in a new way and whom we now associate with the Enlightenment, intensified their reflections.

Immanuel Kant published three separate texts on the disaster, becoming one of the first thinkers to try to explain earthquakes by natural rather than supernatural causes.

And Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a famous exchange of ideas.

The catastrophe had challenged the Enlightenment optimism articulated by German polymath Gottfried Leibniz and English poet Alexander Pope.

They proposed to solve the historical problem of what evil is by asserting that God’s goodness had secured all of Creation, and thus any appearance of evil was just that: an appearance, the product of humans’ inability to understand its function within. of the whole.

“The prevailing philosophy was that we lived in the best of all possible worlds, that even in these disasters there was divine providence. God was working out some plan and it was not for us to question,” Paice explained.

“Voltaire was already critical of the theological interpretation of nature, and many of his works mocked the idea that God somehow governed all human affairs,” historian André Canhoto Costa told BBC Reel.

A few weeks after the earthquake, Voltaire, in his “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” launched the first attack on what would become one of the greatest philosophical debates in history.

According to Paice, the philosopher questioned a God who could see something good in an event “as horrible as what happened”.

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Ex-voto image depicts the rescue of a three-year-old boy and Nossa Senhora da Estrela

Image: BBC

“Would you say, seeing that multitude of victims?: ‘God has avenged himself; their death is the price for their crimes.

What crime, what fault did those children, crushed and bloodied in their mother’s womb, commit?

Does Lisbon, which no longer exists, have more vices than London, than Paris, sunk in delights?

Lisbon is in pieces and people dance in Paris”

lines of Poem about the Lisbon Disaster of Voltaire

justify suffering

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon shook Voltaire more than the ground: it undermined the effort to justify suffering with reference to some greater good, opening up the possibility that some undeserved suffering could be attributed to God.

Rousseau rejected the idea and responded with a long letter in which he argued, among other things, that the source of the Lisbon people’s suffering was not God, but their own actions: the way they built the city and the residents’ social motivations.


The gothic Igreja do Carmo bears the marks of the 1755 earthquake


He argued that a morally neutral terrestrial occurrence was experienced as a disaster, due to the self-created susceptibility that the way of inhabiting that place produced.

“Nature did not build there 20,000 houses of six to seven floors, (…) if the inhabitants of this great city had lived more dispersed, with greater equality and modesty, the damage caused by the earthquake would have been less or perhaps non-existent” , wrote Rousseau.

He further argues that even after the danger revealed by the initial tremor, people refused to take the necessary measures.

“How many unfortunates perished because one wanted to redeem their clothes, others their papers, others their money?” asked Rousseau, insinuating that this reflected their values, showing that they preferred to maintain their social position over their lives.

And so, as the debate progressed, science emerged as a better way to explain the world and the way it worked.

“The Protestant Reformation had already taken place, but somehow it kept the line between man and nature intact. The earthquake contributed to a more violent break”, highlighted Costa.

“The Lisbon earthquake triggered a whole series of events, like when you throw a rock into a lake and the ripples get wider and stronger and affect everything around you,” Echegoyen said.

“The age of free thought, of questioning the omnipotent power of the Church and of kings, was already taking shape, but I believe that on that day humanity began to awaken and that the modern age was truly born.”

a new science

“Now the event is considered an important milestone in the scientific and philosophical fields,” Paice said.

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Portrait of the Marquis of Pombal

Image: BBC

“It was the most researched earthquake in history. We have a huge bank of first-hand accounts of the event and from them scientists began to analyze what had happened without mentioning God.”

“It can be said that November 1, 1755 is the birth date of seismology, which today is studied based on this event,” Maria João Marques, from Lisbon Earthquake Center, told BBC Reel.

And it is to the Marquis of Pombal that many attribute the birth of this new school of Science.

He was the king’s right-hand man and was in charge of the reconstruction of the city of Lisbon.

“He sent questionnaires to each parish to ask things like: how long did the earth shake? How hard? What damage did it cause? How many people died? Did you notice any strange signs before the earthquake?” said Echegoyen.

“With their team, they collected and analyzed the responses, compiling a kind of booklet of all matches everywhere, until a pattern began to emerge that became the foundation of seismological science as we know it today.”

The reconstruction of Lisbon was driven by science.

Trying to minimize deaths in future catastrophes, supporting the efforts to evacuate people and fight fires, the Marquês de Pombal made sure that the narrow, winding streets were replaced by wide avenues, and that the spaces were wide and ventilated.

In addition, innovative engineering methods were used, with flexible wooden structures on the walls of the buildings so that they would “shake but not fall”.

To test this and other earthquake measures, troops marched around buildings to simulate tremors, leading to the birth of seismic engineering.

– This text has been published in

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