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Debating disaster

Touristy Lisbon sits on the ruins left by the earthquake that killed up to 40,000 residents and cost Portugal in 1755 half of its gross national product. But the biggest change was religious

Debating disaster

Lisbon today. (iStock)

Sixth (and last) in a series on changing cities

In March 31, 1755, the curtain rose for the first time at Lisbon’s Casa da Opera, said to surpass “in magnitude and decorations all that modern times can boast,” with spectators gaping at “the richness of the house and all the gilded decorations.” Its stage was 180 feet long, twice the length of a modern NBA basketball court. King José had assembled “the greatest singers then existing”: Domenico Luciani, Giuseppi Morelli, Gaetano Majorano, and more. 

The opera house was only one jewel of Lisbon, Portugal, then known as Queen of the Seas and the world’s most ostentatiously wealthy city. Mark Molesky notes in This Gulf of Fire (Knopf, 2015) that residents of Lisbon (Lisboetas) imported pepper from India, nutmeg from Indonesia, silks from China and Japan, and huge amounts of gold and precious gems from the Gold Coast of Ghana and the mines of central Brazil. In 1755 Portugal, which had pioneered in African slave kidnapping and trading, observed the 300th anniversary of the dire day when Pope Nicholas V blessed its slave trade. 

Lisbon was a very religious city. Its churches had at least 20 images of Jesus that priests claimed had healing powers. Many Lisbon homes had wooden shrines with purported strands of Christ’s hair, splinters from the crucifixion cross, and teeth of ancient martyrs. Almost-daily processions featured acolytes carrying through the streets statues of their favorite saint. The royal family had just completed construction of a 1,000-room palace that included a convent from which King José took nuns as mistresses.

Noblemen imitated their monarch to such an extent that a French observer called nuns “cloistered prostitutes,” midwives called newborn babies “little canons of the Patriarchal Church,” and gourmands called a bulging pastry “a nun’s belly.” Venereal disease was rampant. Lisbon, in short, was a pit of corruption, but so were other European capitals: Near London, for instance, Chancellor of the Exchequer Francis Dashwood hosted parties at a former abbey where he and other cabinet members, dressed as monks, drank wine poured by naked women.

In Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755, many who had frolicked the night before were in churches lighting candles as offerings to the santos and santas whom they hoped would intercede for them. At about 9:45 a.m., a “horrible subterranean noise” arose. The sound soon became like that of “the loudest cannon.” Then the walls came tumbling down. British merchant Thomas Chase wrote to his mother of “every stone in the walls separating each from the other.” Falling ceilings and walls crushed worshippers, and “death in every shape soon grew familiar to the eye!” 

Thousands died within the tall, collapsing churches and cathedrals. Survivors, like New Yorkers close to the fall of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, were covered in dust. Some deaths were grotesque: One observer saw “the Palace of the Inquisition falling to the ground and with it the President of that institution caught in the ironwork of a window, where he died a miserable death.” 

Historian Molesky has dug up varied reactions. One merchant “saw shops … with the shopkeepers buried with them, some alive crying out from under the ruins, others half buried, others with broken limbs, in vain begging for help.” Some trapped under rubble offered “great sums of money to whomever would liberate them.” Many wandered through the streets “crying out their sins and asking God repeatedly for mercy.” Some embraced their “worst enemies” and “asked for forgiveness … swearing from this day forward to be faithful friends.”


Ruins of the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. (iStock)

BUT THE EARTHQUAKE WAS ONLY THE FIRST DISASTER of the day. Many survivors scurried to the safety of the waterfront—and were drowned by a tsunami wave. Others retreated inland, leaving behind votive and altar candles that set ablaze curtains and containers of holy oil. Strong winds spread the burning. One eyewitness wrote, “It was a tremendous sight. One saw merchants throwing their riches from the windows in order to save them from the flames.” Those trapped in rubble usually did not burn to death, though: They died of smoke inhalation first.

King José’s new opera house survived the earthquake but burned to the ground in the fire: Molesky writes, “Of all the losses suffered in the disaster, few were more heartbreaking for the king.” Tens of thousands of deaths broke other hearts. Across Europe and the Americas, news of the disaster made ears tingle and minds ask questions. Don Antonio de Barroeta, the archbishop of Lima, Peru, gave one answer: “Divine Justice. Our crimes are the true causes of earthquakes and the destruction of churches.” 

De Barroeta was not a know-nothing. He knew one cause was “subterranean volcanic eruptions and fires,” but he said “the true subterranean force is the lascivious burning in men’s hearts.” The London Evening Post agreed that “Earthquakes are Effects of natural Causes,” but God is “the Author and the Lord of Nature, all these Causes are in his Hands, and his Providence is over all his Works.” 

That idea insulted Enlightenment progressives. The Lisbon earthquake came at a time when Europe seemed finally on its way out of grinding poverty. In the 1600s, during the “Little Ice Age,” normally free-flowing rivers like the Thames froze over and food production fell—but 18th-century global warming along with farming improvements helped many escape poverty. Yet in 1755 “blind Nature,” as David Hume labeled it, seemed to be striking back.

François-Marie Arouet, who wrote under the name Voltaire, particularly questioned the idea of earthquake as God’s judgment: “Why had Lisbon been leveled? Was she more vicious than London [or] Paris, plunged in pleasures? Lisbon is shattered, and Paris dances.” Of course, Jesus more than 1,700 years earlier had answered in advance Voltaire’s question when some onlookers asked Him about residents of Galilee whom Pontius Pilate has slaughtered: Jesus said they weren’t worse sinners than others, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus drove that point home with His comment on another news event: “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Methodist founder John Wesley reflected Biblical thinking in a book he quickly published, Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Earthquake at Lisbon: It urged readers to repent “before London is as Lisbon.”

Enlightenment leaders minimized the need for repentance and emphasized the importance of new building codes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who lived in a small house north of Paris with his domestic partner Marie-Thérèse and sent all five of his children to the high-fatality Paris Foundling Hospital soon after their birth, argued that small is beautiful: He blamed Lisbon’s six-story houses and said if residents “had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all.” Those last few words were factually inaccurate, but Immanuel Kant, in “On the Usefulness of Earthquakes,” also criticized tall buildings.


Commerce Square features a statue of King José. (iStock)

THAT ARCHITECTURAL ARGUMENT won the day: Downtown Lisbon’s skyline lacks the skyscrapers typical in other large cities. Buildings are often four stories. Still, an engineering study in 2009 noted that Lisbon has some reinforced concrete buildings but many masonry structures. Mortar decays over time and many Lisbon buildings are poorly maintained, so insurers expect another big earthquake—seismically possible—could lead to a 15 percent loss of masonry structures: That means many would be unscathed but some would collapse. 

Ego also triumphed. Lisbon’s front door is Praça do Comércio, Commerce Square. Its biggest feature is a 45-foot-high statue of King José that he commissioned following the earthquake to honor himself. The statue—the first cast bronze one in Portugal—depicts José on his horse, along with a crowned woman (representing “Royal Generosity”) and a winged boy (indicating “Love of Virtue”). Flanking the pediment are sculptures depicting Fame and Triumph: The latter shows a horse (representing Portugal) rearing over and almost trampling a man (representing America).

Another big winner was governmental corruption. It started right away. The German city of Hamburg, then an independent trading republic, sent four free shiploads of lumber, tools, and casks of salted beef and pork. Historian Molesky notes that when the ships arrived in Lisbon, King José announced the supplies would be used for the construction of his new palace. 

Temporary housing (in those days before FEMA trailers) included 9,000 barracas (wooden huts) that proved inadequate in winter temperatures. Some of the wealthy showed compassion, but King José used much of the skilled labor to build an enormous, low-slung Real Barraca (Royal Hut). The Inquisition also did well: One priest noted that its barraca is “beautifully made, very spacious.”

Today, many leading government officials work in Commerce Square’s symmetrical, arcaded buildings, now repainted in their original yellow color. Some of these public servants serve themselves first. José Sócrates, Portugal’s socialist prime minister from 2005 to 2011, was indicted in 2017 on corruption charges including bribery, money laundering, and tax fraud, and accused of pocketing $39 million. He may soon be going on trial.

Architecture, ego, corruption—but the biggest post-earthquake victor was Voltaire. Some historians have called Candide, the earthquake-based satire he published simultaneously in five countries in 1759, one of the world’s 100 most influential books. Voltaire’s main character, young Candide, initially believes in God but experiences random disasters, particularly the Lisbon earthquake where “whirlwinds of fire and ashes covered the streets and public places.” He loses his faith—thinking disasters disprove the existence of God, eventually giving up his belief that life makes sense—and so, eventually, do millions of Europeans.

ime Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Tsunami waves crash into Lisbon harbor after the earthquake. (ime Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Lisbon from the sea now looks like an urban fairyland of gold, peach, sky blue, and other pastel-colored buildings, with windows marching across their façades.

Close-up looks at street level, though, reveal graffiti, some colorful and others ugly both in verbiage and execution. Some wall messages, in English for the benefit of tourists, consist of two words about a sexual act followed by an exclamation point. One building contains both a boutique showing new fashions and an office of the Partido Comunista Português.

From a distance all looks peaceful, but those lumps in front of the shorefront Military Museum are homeless men in sleeping bags. A pocket park overlooking the National Pantheon, formerly a church, displays the strong smell of marijuana. An old immigrant begging for money that will help her gain legal status proclaims on a sign, “I just want peace. A decent life like yours.”

Much of post-Voltaire Europe has become a spiritual wasteland, and journalistic accounts indicate that Lisbon is no exception. Forbes last year described Lisbon as a “breathtakingly bonkers city” filled with “merriment and mayhem.” Big, mostly empty churches make ends meet by renting out their space for concerts, and a big sign at the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception emphasizes the desire of its priests to raise 45,250 euros (about $50,000) for three altars, altarpieces, and statues: “Choose the altar you wish to restore.”

The one clear physical reminder of the 1755 earthquake is the skeleton of the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The stone roof of the Gothic structure collapsed and was never rebuilt. Only the pointed arches between the pillars have survived. In the ruins sit some tombs and archaeological objects, but I saw no exhibits reminding Lisboetas and visitors of how close we might be to disaster and death on any given day. As Puritan Increase Mather once preached and WORLD has headlined some obituaries, “Man knows not his time.”

This lack of thought would sadden but not surprise the Boston Gazette writer who on Dec. 29, 1755, saw Lisbon’s earthquake as a warning to all: “The whole World is grown very corrupt. … Earthquakes and Desolations … ought to be looked upon as powerful Remonstrances against the Wickedness of Mankind, but whether we have not so long accustomed ourselves to our sins, as to become deaf to every voice that would call off our Attention from them, is a Question that Time only can determine.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.