The Lisbon earthquake of 1755: the catastrophe and its European repercussions

Published in Economia Global e Gestão (Global Economics and Management Review), Lisboa, vol. 10 (2004), p. 79-99.

This paper is based on a section of the author’s PhD thesis: A Place for Lisbon in Eighteenth Century Europe: Lisbon, London and Edinburgh a town-planning comparative study (PhD in Architecture, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Edinburgh, 2004).

Helena Murteira

In November 2005, Lisbon will recall a momentous event in its history: two hundred and fifty years before, a powerful earthquake (estimated magnitude of 9 using the Mercali scale) ruined most of its city centre, killed a significant number of its inhabitants and curtailed its wealth and its historical legacy. The scale of the seismic shocks and the damage it caused in the capital city were cause of bewilderment and astonishment not only in Portugal but also everywhere in Europe. Newspapers rapidly developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries benefiting from an increasing number of readers interested in what was happening all over Europe as well as in other regions of the recently “discovered” world (which had gradually been incorporated in the “known world” by the imperial expansion of the European nations). Apart from being a source of wide-ranging information at a time when the means were scarce and the demand was rising, the most renowned newspapers were used to swiftly and thoroughly assist the cultural and scientific European elite and, more specifically, to keep the European commercial and financial network up to date. The Lisbon earthquake made the European newspapers’ headlines for several months not only due to its dramatic consequences but also because of its commercial and political implications.

Let us examine the catastrophe and its repercussions on European society at the time in greater detail.

The earthquake

A major earthquake shook Lisbon in the morning of November 1, 1755. According to various accounts, the city had wakened up to a bright and warm day and the citizens’ mood on All Saints’ Day was, on the whole, cheerful.

The first shock was felt at approximately 9.40 a.m. when most of the people were gathered in the city churches attending All Saints’ Day mass. The ruin of these large stone buildings was responsible for the death of a great number of people. At 10 a.m. and noon two other shocks were felt reducing most of the city to ruins. The vast number of candles burning at the time in churches and house chapels were the main cause of the raging fire that followed the earthquake.

Lisbon burnt for a whole week. The fire was kept active by strong winds, which blew for several days, rendering it almost impossible to rescue the people and salvage the goods trapped in the ruins. This fire was even more devastating than the earthquake itself. At the time, some estimates indicated that in Lisbon alone between 30,000 and 70,000 people died. The first attempts to calculate the number of victims are in the main not reliable: the destruction of almost all of the city records, the general confusion that took place after the earthquake and the lack of information about visitors and other people from out of the city made this task extremely difficult (1). However, some more trustworthy sources reduced the number to approximately 10,000 (2). This latter estimate has been used in recent studies on the subject (3). According to the same source, roughly 10% of the buildings were ruined and two thirds suffered such destruction that they were unsafe for habitation. Only twelve of the seventy-two convents of the city were spared and all the hospitals and thirty-three palaces were destroyed. The material loss was huge and the foreign traders lost approximately twelve million pounds sterling, of which, more than half represented British losses(4).

Downtown Lisbon, the large valley extending between the two main city squares, Terreiro do Paço and Rossio, suffered the most. S. Paulo, the area to the west alongside the river was also severely damaged. There the tidal waves, which followed the first shocks, were a powerful force of destruction. The hill to the west up to the gates of Santa Catarina, the Chiado area where the large convent of S.Francisco was located, was also badly damaged.  The eastern area of the city, the oldest part of Lisbon, resisted diversely to the earthquake; the area near the Tejo (Tagus) river and the Castle Hill suffered some destruction, whilst Alfama, the medieval neighbourhood to the East of the Cerca Moura (Muslim Wall) seems to have resisted the earthquake shocks better. The vast survey of the destroyed city, ordered by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (b.1699 – d.1782), Secretary of State of the new king D.José (1750 – 1777, b. 1714) is the best document of the extensive devastation caused by the earthquake to Lisbon. It is a thorough measurement of the city centre properties, also providing information about the extension and type of damage suffered by each one, the layout and name of all of the streets, alleys and squares of the areas destroyed by the earthquake. This vast survey, known as the Tombo da Cidade de Lisboa (Survey of the City of Lisbon) is kept in the National Archives (Torre do Tombo) in Lisbon. There is a concise copy of this survey made by Valentim de Freitas in the nineteenth century, which is kept in the National Library in Lisbon (Biblioteca Nacional). The book by Joaquim Moreira de Mendonça is also a valuable source of information (5). In 1909, the engineer Luís Pereira de Sousa published a detailed study of the effects of the earthquake on the buildings of Lisbon: using the Mercalli scale as the basis of his own measuring system, he mapped Lisbon according to the different levels of destruction (6).

The Terreiro do Paço was completely destroyed vanishing in the flames of the Royal Palace and all of the other important adjacent buildings: the New Cathedral (Patriarcal), the Opera House, the Custom House, the City Hall and the Tribunal. The Quay (Cais das Pedras) near the Royal Palace was engulfed by the tidal waves, killing approximately a hundred people who were seeking refuge from the fire. The Rossio also suffered severe destruction, as did the whole area between the two main squares. All the waterfront districts were also ruined and the effects of the earthquake reached most of the nearby areas from the Castle Hill to the west of Bairro Alto. The earthquake and, more specifically, the fire that followed consumed not only part of the city and its inhabitants but also truncated its history as it destroyed city records, monuments and other noble buildings, magnificent libraries and artistic and scientific collections: “The palace of the Marquês of Louriçal stood well clear to the north of the main area of the fire; but the rich contents of his home, all destroyed, show the kind of thing this loss of property meant: 200 pictures, including works by Titian, Correggio and Rubens, a library of 18,000 printed books, 1,000 manuscripts, including a history written by the Emperor Charles V in his own hand, a herbal formerly belonging to King Matthias Hunyadi (1440-90) of Hungary, a huge family archive, and a great collection of maps and charts relating to the Portuguese voyages of discovery and colonization in the East and in the New World” (7).

A network of information: letters, newspapers and illustrations

Abraham Castres, the British special Envoy to the King of Portugal, survived the catastrophe and wrote the following account: “You will, in all likelihood, have heard before this of the inexpressible calamity befallen the whole maritime coast and in particular this opulent city, now reduced to a heap of rubbish and ruins, by a tremendous earthquake on the 1st of this month, followed by a conflagration, which has done ten times more mischief than the earthquake itself. I gave a short account of our misfortune to Sir Benjamin Keene, by a Spaniard, who promised, as all intercourse by post was at a stand, to carry my letter, as far as Badajoz, and see it safe put into the post-house. It was merely to acquaint his excellency, that, God be praised, my house stood out the shocks, tho’ greatly damaged; and that happening to be out of the reach of the flames, several of my friends, burnt out of their houses, had taken refuge with me, where I have accommodated them, as well as I could, under tents in my large garden” (8).

The first news of the earthquake in Lisbon were confusing and, sometimes, contradictory. The Caledonian Mercury reports an earthquake in Madrid in its edition of November 27, 1755 and publishes soon after (on December 2) some letters written just after the earthquake stating that the news of the earthquake was only a French fabrication: “These letters further add, that the whole Story was invented at Paris, to disconcert the London Merchants, and that by this time it is looked upon there as a Piece of French Finesse” (9). By this time the first reliable news of the earthquake in Lisbon had already reached British soil. Sir Benjamin Keene, at the time at the Court of Madrid, received the first news of the catastrophe. Keene wrote then to his friend Sir T. Robinson in London. According to Sir Richard Lodge, this letter, dated November 10, 1755, first informed England of the terrible events in Lisbon (10).

Keene’s letter seems in fact to be the source of the news published by The London Gazette on November 29, 1755. It refers to a letter dating from November 10 which reveals information issued by the Spanish Embassy at Lisbon: “On the 8th Instant, a Messenger dispatched by the Secretary of the Spanish Embassy at Lisbon, with Letters of the 4th Instant, brought an Account of the terrible Effects of the Earthquake which happened there, on the 1st, (the same day we felt it here, but without any considerable Damage) between the Hours of Nine and Ten, and which in five Minutes, destroyed the Palace, Churches, and most of the stately buildings; and that the Flames were still destroying the Remains of the City, from one extremity of it to the other, when the Courier came away”. The Caledonian Mercury also published this same news (11). According to The Scots Magazine: ”No accounts of the earthquake at Lisbon arrived at London till the 24th. By these people’s hopes and fears were greatly affected; we shall therefore give them without interruption” (12). The Gentleman’s Magazine issued the following news dating from November 29, 1755: “A confirmation has been received of a most dreadful earthquake at Lisbon on the Ist inst. at 9 in the morning that continued about eight hours, by which the greatest part of the publick edifices and houses of that superb capital were destroyed, and upwards of 100,000 persons were buried in the ruins: To add to the horror of this scene, the remains of the city was set on fire, in several places, … and continued burning from one extremity to the other, at the departure of the couriers to the cours of France and Spain” (13).

These first reports of the earthquake in Lisbon were followed by several descriptions of the event, which were published in Britain up until April 1756. The British accounts of the earthquake, found in the many letters addressed to their families in Britain, are the source of some of the most important and picturesque testimonies of the occurrence. They are particularly interesting as they give us a rich and diversified picture not only of the event but also of the city that disappeared on that day. Despite some occasional and understandable confusion with regard to street names, significance and function of some city areas and overstated estimates of the general human and material loss, these accounts are always very lively and therefore they represent an extraordinary source of information. From all these we choose to quote an extract from a letter sent by a British merchant to his brother in London: “On Saturday the 1st instant, about half an hour past 9 o’ clock, I was retired to my room after breakfast, when I perceived the house begin to shake, but did not apprehend the cause, but as I saw the neighbours about me all running down stairs, I also made the best of my way, and by the time I had crossed the street, and got under the piazzas of some low houses, it was darker than the darkest night I ever saw, and continued so for about a minute, occasioned by the clouds of dust from the falling of houses on all sides. After it cleared up, I ran into a large square adjoining [the Terreiro do Paço], the palace to the west, the street I lived in to the north, the river to the south, and the custom house and warehouses to the east. But this dismal earthquake had such an influence upon the sea and river, that the water rose, in about ten minutes, several yards perpendicular; in that time I ran up into my room, got my hat and wig, and cloak, locked up the doors, and returned; but being alarmed with a cry that the sea was coming in, all people crowded forward to run to the hills, I among the rest, with Mr. Wood and family. We went near two miles through the streets, climbing over ruins of churches, houses, &c., stepping over hundreds of dead and dying people, killed by the falling of buildings; carriages, chaises and mules, lying all crushed to pieces …” (14).

Eighteenth century Europe was discovering the powerful unifying force of information: newspapers offered Europeans the opportunity to directly follow what was happening all over the world. The Lisbon earthquake was perhaps the first event to become major news. In Britain, Lisbon was suddenly catapulted to the first pages of the newspapers: its history, its location and chief urban features were the subject of extensive reports. During the first few weeks after the catastrophe more than twenty accounts of the earthquake in Lisbon were published in London (15). At the time, Lisbon was mostly known for its active role in the maritime trade network, its colonial riches and the extreme religious character of its society: “But Lisbon itself was justly famous for its wealth, and because of its commercial activity it was one of the best-known cities in the world. (…) Wealth, the Inquisition, and the worship of images: to an appreciably large section of the outside world Lisbon was famous for these three things” (16). The Scots Magazine pictured Lisbon as following: “Lisbon, one of the richest and best situated cities in the world, contained, with its environs, about 500,000 inhabitants, till the fatal 1st of November …” (17). In his text regarding the earthquake in Lisbon, Ponce-Dénis Écouchard le Brun wrote: “Lisbon was full of pride; but now Lisbon, Queen of the seas, is not anymore …” (18).

The effect of the calamity on European commerce was a fundamental element of concern for all involved. The most enterprising commercial nations felt the Lisbon earthquake as a very close disaster: “This dreadful calamity befallen this city, next to the miserable inhabitants, the Brasilians and the English may probably be the greatest sufferers; next to them, the Genovese, and merchants of Leghorn, who supplied this city and the Brasils, with silks, velvets, &c. The French, Dutch, Hamburghers, and indeed most commercial nations, were concerned in the trade here, and must needs be affected by a calamity which extends itself to all Europe” (19).

Apart from the written accounts of the event, a considerable number of views and plans of Lisbon was printed trying to portray the city before the destruction and the earthquake itself. Despite the fantasist character of most of these images, especially with regard to the pictures of the earthquake, they represent another interesting element of its impact on eighteenth century thought (20).

A city with a seismic history

Lisbon is situated on a seismic area and had suffered before the devastating effects of earthquakes. There are some accounts of other strong seismic episodes in the thirteen and fifteen hundreds. However, none had the impact of the 1755 earthquake. Based on the works of Robert Mallet and Perry Byerly, Charles Davison displays a list of the most damaging earthquakes known to have struck Lisbon before 1755 (21). According to this list, from 1009 to 1750 there were fourteen earthquake shocks worthy of mention. Of special notice was the earthquake of January 26, 1531, which, following the same sources, ruined approximately 1500 houses and all of the churches in the city and was accompanied by the rising of the Tagus’ waters. There are, in fact, some accounts of this earthquake, which seems to have been the most destructive to take place before the earthquake of 1755 (22).

The area directly struck by the 1755 earthquake was very extensive: “The first great shock was felt over an area of between 1,200,000 and 1,400,000 sq. miles” (23). The earthquake was felt across Portugal and Spain, especially in the south and in the north of Africa. Apart from some cities in the south of Portugal, namely Setúbal and Évora, some areas in the south of Spain and in the north of Africa were also considerably affected: Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Cadiz, Algiers, and Mequinez (24). This could only have happened if we were in presence of more than one earthquake: “Over this vast area, there was no gradual decline in the intensity of the shock from some central point. There seems rather to have been a succession of earthquakes, in what order they occurred we cannot now say, the principal earthquake no doubt in the Lisbon centre, another of less but still great strength near Mequinez, and perhaps a third near Algiers” (25). According to the same author, all these seismic centres are independent and have since had their own specific seismic history.  More difficult to establish is the link between these shocks and similar disturbances felt at the time all over Europe. Several seismic phenomena were reported in different areas of Europe when the earthquake took place in Lisbon and during the following days (26). The London Gazette, when first reporting the earthquake in Lisbon, states the following: “… the terrible effects of the Earthquake which happened there, on the 1st, (the same Day we felt it here, but without any considerable damage)…” (27). Again according to Davison, it is very difficult today to establish the accuracy of all of these accounts: their connection with the Lisbon earthquake does not seem credible. However, other phenomena were reported at the time: the unusual rising of waters in lakes and rivers across Europe (28).

The impact on European thought

All these related incidents gave the 1755 earthquake both an important scientific dimension and also added to its sensationalist impact, which was well documented at the time. The intensity of the earthquake shocked European public opinion. The first reports were often inaccurate and understandably fantasist: “To add to the horror of this scene, the remains of the city was set on fire, in several places, by flames which issued from the bowels of the earth, and continued burning from one extremity to the other, at the departure of the couriers to the cours of France and Spain” (29).

An array of philosophical and literary texts was published all across Europe aiming to find an explanation for the event. Most of them were of a religious nature: “Of all divine Visitations, this is the most terrible Vindictive. The Whirlwind is flow in its Progress; War is gentle in its Assaults; even the raging Pestilence is a mild Rebuke, compared with the inevitable, the all-overwhelming Fury of an Earthquake. When it begins it also makes an End; puts a Period in a few Minutes to the Work of Ages; ruins all, without Distinction; and there is no Defence from its destructive Stroke” (30). Superstition had a prominent role in the extensive religious reaction to the event. In Portugal, on the very day of the earthquake, priests and monks were walking around the ruined city exhorting people to confess their sins in order to pacify God’s assumed anger against Lisbon. These individuals increased the hysterical mood of the earthquake’s suffering survivors.

Most of these texts pointed out the alleged sinful life of Lisbon’s population as the cause of the catastrophe. According to these publications, the earthquake was a sign of God’s rage against the freethinkers and atheists living in the Portuguese capital city. Obviously, the British and other Protestant foreigners were targeted in these texts. All over Europe texts were issued following this type of argumentation. It was, precisely, this atmosphere of religious hate and persecution that the future Marquis of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, wanted to avoid. In Britain some were published naming, in turn, the non-Christians and the Catholic and Inquisitorial Portuguese church as the cause of God’s supposed wrath: ”Surely so extensive a signal from the king of heaven, and so wide-wasting a devastation amongst our unhappy neighbours, and so levelling a stroke in the ranks of mankind, on the European Idolaters and the false prophets too on the coast of Africa, makes this affair so very remarkable (…) that I would charitably hope it could not fail to work is due and proper effect on the minds of all the reformed part, at least, of the Christian world …” (31).

The earthquake also occupied Enlightened European minds. There was the search for a scientific explanation for the catastrophe. Pombal supported this approach, both as a means to calm down a terrified population, and as a statement of his own ideas and attitude. He sent a questionnaire to each parish in Portugal in an attempt at an overall estimate of the human losses and property damage throughout the country and to record specific information relating to the earthquake: “In addition to its great strength and its varied phenomena, the Lisbon earthquake is remarkable as the first to be investigated on modern scientific lines. By order of the Marquez of Pombal, a list of questions was sent to every parish in the country. If it had been drawn up at the present day, it could hardly have been more complete. The questions refer to the time at which the earthquake began and the duration of the shock, its direction, the effects of the earthquake on the sea, on springs and rivers, the height of the seawaves and the time for which they lasted, fissures in the ground, and even the times and intensities of the after-shocks” (32). The Prime Minister’s attitude conforms to the pragmatic actions he undertook just after the earthquake and the promptitude with which they were taken: the punishment of thieves and other criminals, the installation of tents and other facilities for the homeless, the fixation of prices for essential goods and the redirection of fleeing citizens to the city (33).

In this way, a few cultured Portuguese tried to see the earthquake from the enlightened point of view of science. Amongst them we name the Doctor José Alvares da Silva (34), the army officer Miguel Tibério Pedegache Brandão Ivo (35), the brothers Veríssimo António Moreira de Mendonça and Joaquim Moreira de Mendonça, author of an important book on earthquakes (36) and the estrangeirado António Nunes Ribeiro Sanches (37). Their approaches may differ but all of them had in common the search for an explanation based on natural causes rather than on superstitious beliefs.

Kendrick points out the attention that the Portuguese authorities gave to medical matter: “They dreaded the outbreak of a plague, a calamity well-known to Lisbon, and their frantic concern about getting rid of the corpses and restoring some sort of drainage system was a sensible expression of this fear. The medical men available in Lisbon were no doubt far too few in numbers and were not properly trained to deal with this emergency; but they did their best and understood the danger that threatened the city” (38).

But the 1755 earthquake also stimulated a European scientific research of seismic phenomena. Soon after some important studies were published giving a special mention to the earthquake in Lisbon: “…an important series of papers or letters was read before the Royal Society [in London], and a number of accounts written by residents in Lisbon and elsewhere were published in the Gentleman’s Magazine and others. Many of these notices were collected by John Bevis in ‘The History and Philosophy of Earthquakes’, a series of memoirs edited by him in 1757: the last chapter of this work is entitled ‘Phaenomena of the great earthquake of November I, 1755, in various parts of the globe” (39). Immanuel Kant also wrote a small pamphlet on the causes of earthquakes, mentioning in particular the earthquake of Lisbon:

“The first observation to be immediately made is that the ground above which we live has to be hollow and that the vaults that form it are linked together, even beneath the sea. (…) For example, Lisbon and Iceland, which are distanced more than four hundred and a half German miles, suffered an earthquake on the same day. (…) the ruins of Lisbon should remind us that no building should be erected along the Tagus, as the river points in the direction that, naturally, the earthquakes will follow in this country” (40).

The fact that such a wealthy and populated city of the “civilised world” could be destroyed within two hours without possibility of defence made the optimistic enlightened Europe shiver. Enlightenment reacted to this event with shock but also promptly tried to find some comforting answers: its scientific causes, as already mentioned above, and solutions to minimize its impact on urban structures. Apart from all of the efforts of the Portuguese military engineers in conceiving an architectural structure able to resist the destructive effect of seismic forces, some texts published at the time reveal this concern: e. g., Ribeiro Sanches’s work Consideraçoins sobre os Terremotos, com a noticia dos mais consideraveis, de que faz mençaõ a Historia, e dos ultimos que se sintiraõ na Europa desde o 1 de Novembro 1755 (41) and a letter published in the Gentleman’s Magazine by a reader giving advice on the subject:

“1st. Let the new city be built upon as even ground as possible, and the seven hills, mentioned in a late description, …left free from all kinds of buildings, and entirely open, as to many areas, instead of those squares, which the people ran to, as the street from danger; because they will not only secure the fugitives from falling houses, but from the overflowing of the water upon the swell of the sea.

2dly, Let the houses be built low and broad, for it is evident, that a low and broad house will bear more shaking than a high one, and that the centre of gravity will be longer preserved within the walls.

3dly, Let the streets be three times as wide as the houses are high; that supposing the houses to be thrown down on both sides, the materials of which they are built may not meet in the middle of the street.

4thly, Let the roofs be flat, and the diminishings of the walls in the different stories all on the outside, that they may be perpendicular within from top to bottom” (42).

The 1755 earthquake also contributed to the change of perspective with regard to Optimism, which characterized late eighteenth century thought. The enlightened formula “All’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds” was suddenly shaken by Nature’s potential of destruction and Man’s fragility in these circumstances. Voltaire produced two important texts on this subject: Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne ou examen de cet axiome: tout est bien and Candide ou l’Optimisme. Both works reveal the extent of the effect of this catastrophe on Voltaire’s thought:

“Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!

Affrighted gathering of human Kind!

Eternal lingering of useless pain!

Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well’,

And contemplate this ruin of a world” (43).

To Voltaire, Lisbon’s devastation was the evidence that Optimism, as presented by Alexander Pope, could no longer serve its intent. He used the events in Lisbon to support his ideas on Nature’s imperfections, stating that evil, as a fundamental part of it, would sometimes prevail: “The author of the poem on The Disaster of Lisbon is not an adversary of the illustrious Pope, whom he has always admired and loved: he thinks like him on practically all matters; but, pierced to the heart by the misfortunes of mankind, he wishes to attack the abuse that can be made of that ancient axiom ‘All is for the best’. He adopts in its place that sad and more ancient truth, recognised by all men, that ‘There is evil upon the earth’; he declares that the phrase ‘All is for the best’, taken in a strict sense and without hope of a future life, is merely an insult to the miseries of our existence” (44). In Candide ou L’Optimisme, Voltaire voices his disbelief in Enlightenment Optimism through Candide’s reactions to his misfortunes. After being struck by the earthquake in Lisbon, Candide exclaims – “Si c’est ici le meilleur des mondes possibles, que sont donc les autres?” (“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are then the others?)” (45).

The 1755 earthquake represented an important argument for the detractors of Pope’s optimistic vision of the world. Voltaire’s works were not the sole early attacks on Optimism. In 1757, Samuel Johnson published “A Review of Soame Jenyns’s: A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil”, supporting the same perspective with regard to the Enlightenment concept of perfection. Johnson writes: “Life must be seen before it can be known. This author [Soame Jenyns] and Pope perhaps never saw the miseries which they imagine thus easy to be borne” (46). Rousseau, on the other hand, remained faithful to Pope’s theory. He criticised Voltaire’s poem in a letter written on August 18, 1756: “Do not be deceived, Sir. For quite the opposite has occurred. The optimism which you find so cruel, nevertheless consoles me in the very suffering that you depict for me as insupportable. Pope’s poem softens the pain and leads me to patience. Your poem aggravates my suffering and incites me to complain and, by taking away everything – outside of shattered hope – reduces me to despair” (47).

Lisbon’s catastrophe took place at a crucial moment for eighteenth–century thought as it shook the confidence in some of the soundest postulates of the Enlightenment. The controversy on the pursuit of perfection and happiness, which was inevitable, gained a more genuine dimension with the events in Lisbon: “After the earthquake pessimism became a more familiar and understandable mood, while the undefeatably hopeful minds occupied themselves more and more with the idea of perfectibility, a gradual progress by man under God’s providence towards a full happiness and perfection. In effecting this change, the influence of Candide played a significant part (…) ” (48).

A web of solidarity

A strong network of aid was established between Portugal and its European counterparts. From Spain, France, Great Britain and the German States help was sent in the shape of currency, food, building supplies, human expertise and labour force. Benjamin Keene informs Castres in a letter sent from Madrid on November 10, 1755: “Their Catholic Majesties have been affected with this news as souls like [theirs] should be affected in such terrible calamities. They send as much ready money every day as a messenger can carry, and the King’s letter to his sister offers all her King can ask and he can send. The douanes are open on the frontiers for all necessaries to pass free without duties, and the administrator general for the customs at Badajoz will send you whatever you write for” (49).

The London Gazette reports that from Hamburg and Danzig building materials were sent for the rebuilding of Lisbon: “Dantzick, March 10 – Within these few Days part, a great Quantity of Timber, for building Houses, &c. has been shipped off from this Port to Lisbon” (50). The same newspaper informs of the arrival in Lisbon on March 30 of “The two ships from Dublin, which have been so long detained by contrary Winds … and have brought the Remainder of the whole Quantity of Provisions for the Court of Portugal, which were expected from Ireland” (51).

British aid was swift and very significant: it included apart from food and money, the sending of artisans and builders (52). The message sent from king George II (1727-1760; b. 1683) to the House of Commons, on November 28, regarding the earthquake in Lisbon was soon published in the British newspapers: “His Majesty having received, from his ambassador at Madrid, ascertain account of the fatal and deplorable event …and his Majesty, being moved with the greatest concern for so good and faithful an ally the King of Portugal, … recommends his faithful Commons the consideration of this dreadful and extensive calamity…; and desires to be enabled by the house of Commons to send such speedy and effectual relief, as may be suitable to so afflicting and pressing exigency. G.R.” (53). The Portuguese king expressed his sincere gratitude for the prompt British aid but offered it first to the British citizens residing in Lisbon. The British newspapers reported the occurrence: “Lisbon, Feb. 11. Five of the Irish transports are arrived. Dispositions are making for the distribution of the beef and butter among the poor, but this court has insisted upon the English subjects being first served” (54).

Restoring normality: the first measures

Several earthquake shocks were felt in Lisbon and Portugal on the days following the catastrophe; this was also extensively reported in the British newspapers. The population fled the ruined city and settled on the other bank of the river and in the outskirts of the city. Pombal and his office promptly set up a plan of action in order to prevent chaos in Lisbon after the earthquake. Obviously, the first aim was to renew the confidence of the citizens in their city, in order to restart its regular activities and proceed swiftly to the rebuilding. Therefore, it was vital to reinstall civic order in Lisbon. To this end, Pombal’s first task was the severe punishment of all thieves and other outlaws operating in the deserted city. Again, these events were news all over Europe. The Gentleman’s Magazine published the following report: “Lisbon, Nov. 20. Several villains have been apprehended and executed, mostly foreigners, and to our reproach, among other nations, some English sailors, for robbing and plundering the palace and king’s chapel of a great deal of rich plate. The others were French and Spanish deserters, and some from the common prisons, which, in the general havock, let forth their contents in common with other edifices” (55).

Pombal wanted to re-establish the normal city activities as soon as possible in order to prevent a further social and economic disaster. At the beginning of the new year, the first steps were taken to start an efficient and controlled rebuilding process: the survey of the ruined city was decided, the first legislation on the reconstruction was issued and a strong team of military engineers led by Manuel da Maia (b. 1672 – d. 1768) began to consider a plan for the new city. If the process of creating the technical and legal basis for the rebuilding was expeditious, the reconstruction itself was somewhat slow. Also, in the years after the catastrophe, the fear of a new earthquake led the population to prefer living in wooden buildings, following the example of the royal family. However, Pombal’s first purpose was achieved: the quick reanimation of Lisbon’s economic activities following a clear and determined project of reconstruction on the same site. The first resolutions with regard to this matter were also news at the time: “Lisbon, Jan. 25. The King and Royal Family are still obliged to reside in Tents, notwithstanding the Severity of the Weather, as do most of the Inhabitants; but his Majesty has declared his Intention of having the City rebuilt on the same Spot it stood before our late Misfortune, and the same will be begun in the Spring, …” (56). Although these reports did not have the same sensationalist impact as the accounts of the earthquake, they would certainly have been of interest to the cultured European society. However, apart from some concern in preventing the effects of earthquakes on architectural structures and the sketches of the famous Scottish architect, Robert Adam, for the new Lisbon, the rebuilding of Lisbon did not deserve the same widespread attention as the catastrophe itself. The foreign accounts of Lisbon after 1755 probably represented the only source of information (57).

The dream of a Scottish architect

Robert Adam (b.1728 – d.1792) was only a promising young architect, travelling in Italy, when the Earthquake struck Lisbon in 1755 (he was in Rome, at the time). The impact of the news and the auspicious opportunity of creating a newly planned city, made Robert Adam fantasize about the possibility of performing such a task: “And now let me descant a little on my private incitements to a scheme which is a thousand chances to one never will take place. The being called by a Prince as the prosperest person in the universe to build a whole city is no unflattering idea, but still more so when one considers the éclat, the elevated appearance and the fortune that may be made in a few years by it (…)” (58).

Robert Adam was immediately aware of the magnitude and importance of the rebuilding enterprise in Lisbon. His interest in the matter went beyond the mere dream. In April 1756, when the first news regarding the plans for Lisbon reached Europe, Robert Adam made an attempt to be appointed as the architect of the new city: “The report spreading of my being candidate for an affair of that consequence would be of infinite service to me even though I should be too late of applying and not chosen to put it in practice” (59).

Adam’s enthusiasm about this enterprise balanced between hope and true commitment. He even considered the advantages of being in such position and the possibility of having his family in Lisbon with him with some detail and confidence: “I should, if things succeeded, be made noble by the King and have money to support the dignity of it without competition or rival and after a few years spent in an honourable way, in a fine climate and where reside many of our countrymen, return to England with all these honours on my head (…). I don’t suppose any of you would object to passing the seas and finishing my happiness by my having you all about me?” (60).

In his letter, Adam reveals some knowledge of the importance of Lisbon in eighteenth century Europe: he shared the illusory European belief that pictured the Portuguese king D.José – “as the properest person in the universe”; he was informed of the importance of Lisbon in the British trade network – “where reside many of our countrymen”. Also, he seems to be aware of Lisbon’s most caricatured image: “the stinking Lisbon”, as this city was pictured by the many foreign accounts written from the seventeenth century. It is interesting to note that in this judgement, Robert Adam traces a parallel with Edinburgh, revealing thus his own opinions on the deficiencies of his hometown.

Robert Adam’s letters to his family in Edinburgh portray a very confident individual who was clearly struck by the emergent fascination for Antiquity, expressed in the various Romantic views of ancient monuments and cities. He sees in the rebuilding of Lisbon a privileged opportunity to exercise his skills and his newly acquired taste as an urban planner (61).

Robert Adam’s sketches for Lisbon are today kept at the Sir John Soane Museum in London: they represent a plan for a new city (with an explanation in French) and a bird’s eye view of the same project (62). The city proposed by Robert Adam is firmly structured on a symmetric and monumental composition following an architectural and spatial approach, which combines baroque and neo-classical elements. The urban space is divided according to specific functions: residential area, religious and political areas, commercial area and leisure area. The residential area is also divided according to a social hierarchy: the Nobility and the Bourgeoisie quarters. This compartmentalization of space is reinforced by the use of different geometrical shapes (triangle, square, semicircle, circle, quadrant and octagon) and is organised as a spatial movement that extends from the river, which is connected to the city by a Grand Basin, to the semicircular residential plaza at the end of the city. A hierarchy of architectural forms marks the hierarchy of space: Adam chooses formal baroque elements for the great public square near the river and the nearby public gardens and uses the classical contribution of Antiquity for the private royal residential area (63). Worthy of mention is the original use of the triangle in the religious areas at each end of the residential quarter. The highly elaborated geometric design gives the plan an ultimate utopian character. In fact, Adam’s sketches seem more an exercise of architectural shapes than of a town planning program. As such, he disregards vital features of a capital city with the political, social and commercial importance of Lisbon: the royal palace and the State headquarters.


For a brief but significant moment, Lisbon was the centre of attention of Enlightenment Europe: newspapers gathered and issued a variety of accounts portraying Lisbon as more than merely a busy trade centre. The Portuguese fifteenth century maritime enterprise was remembered and Lisbon was pictured as a cosmopolitan, wealthy and magnificent city. However, soon after, the Lisbon earthquake was replaced by other news coming from various parts of the world in the newspapers’ headlines.

Portugal did not stand still. Lisbon’s city centre was rebuilt by the Portuguese military engineers (Manuel da Maia, Eugénio dos Santos and Carlos Mardel, amongst others) whose town planning ideas were consonant with Pombal’s projects for Lisbon: a city built for the convenience of citizens and commerce. The rebuilding of the city centre gave shape to an innovative spatial and architectural setting, whilst irrevocably burying an important area of the old city. The image of Lisbon changed. As such, the earthquake and the rebuilding can be considered as the embodiment of a transitional period: the physical passage to a new era. The new city centre, known to Lisbon’s citizens today as the Pombaline downtown (Baixa Pombalina), was used as the headquarters for the development of a vast program of reforms carried out by Pombal. This program of reforms irreversibly changed the course of Portuguese ancien-régime society.


1. See Kendrick, The Lisbon Earthquake, Methuen & Co. Ltd. (1956), p. 34.

2. Mendonça, Joaquim Moreira de, História Universal dos Terremotos (Lisboa,1758).

3. See França, José-Augusto, Lisboa Pombalina e o Iluminismo, Bertrand Editora (Lisboa, 1983)

4. Kendrick, op. cit., p. 32.

5. Mendonça, Joaquim Moreira de, op. cit.

6. See Sousa, Luís Pereira, Efeitos do terramoto de 1755 nas construções de Lisboa (Lisboa, 1909) and O terramoto do 1º de Novembro de 1755 em Portugal e um estudo demográfico (Lisboa, 1919-1932), 4 vols. and Kendrick, Idem, pp. 29-32: “The area of severe shock that included Lisbon, as mapped by Pereira de Sousa …, extended along the north shore of the Tagus at the Lisbon bend from a point close to the present Santos station on the Cascais line to Braço de Prata, half-way between Lisbon and Sacavem, and is a belt of country six or seven miles long extending inland to a depth of about one and a half miles. Inside this area there were districts in which shocks were of greater intensity and did more damage than elsewhere”.

7. Kendrick, Idem, p. 32.

8.Lisbon, Nov. 6, 1755 – Castres, Abraham “Letter from Abr. Castres, Esq; Envoy Extraordinary to the King of Portugal”, The Gentleman’s Magazine, London, November 1755, vol. XXV, pp. 556-558.

9. The Caledonian Mercury, Numb. 5302, December 2, 1755.

10. Lodge, Sir Richard (edit.), The Private Correspondence of Sir Benjamin Keene (1933), p. 435, n.1.

11. 4 December 1755, nº 5303.

12.The Scots Magazine, Nov. 1755, vol. 17, p. 554.

13.The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1755, p. 521.

14. The Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1755, vol. XXV, pp. 558-559. The British accounts of the earthquake were published soon after the event by the various contemporary British newspapers. The British Historical Society of Portugal compiled some of these accounts in two publications: The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, (Lisbon, 1987) and An account by an eye-witness of the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, (Lisbon, 1985).

15. Cheke, Marcus, Dictator of Portugal: A life of the Marquis of Pombal 1699-1782 (London, 1938), p. 73.

16. Kendrick, Ibidem, p. 29.

17. The Scots Magazine – A letter from a merchant at Lisbon, February 1756, vol. 18.

18. Le Brun, Ponce-Denis Écouchard, Odes sur Lisbonne et sur les causes physiques des tremblements de terre de 1755, par M. le Brun, suivies d’un Examen physique adressé à l’auteur sur les mêmes revolutions, 2nd edition, La Haye (Paris, 1756).

19. The Scots Magazine, vol. 17 November 1755, p. 563.

20. Probably the most impressive of all of these illustrations and also the most accurate are the engravings by Jacques Philippe Le Bas, chief engraver to King Louis XV of France, based on the drawings of M.M. Paris and Pedegache, which picture the ruins of some of the most significant Lisbon buildings.

21. Davison, Charles, Great Earthquakes, Thomas Murby & Co (London, 1936), p. 2.

22. Throughout its history, Lisbon suffered numerous earthquakes. From the fourteenth century there are records of these events. On the 7 January 1531, a violent earthquake shook Portugal. Nineteen days later, Lisbon suffered another earthquake which seems to have caused destruction parallel to that of 1755: more than one thousand five hundred houses were destroyed and many people were buried underneath the debris. In 1551, another earthquake killed two thousand people in Lisbon. There are records of earthquakes in Portugal and in Lisbon dating from 1575, 1597, 1598 and 1722 (a severe earthquake was also felt in the seventeenth century): see Serrão, Joel (direction), Dicionário de História de Portugal, Livraria Figueirinhas (Porto, 1985), vol. VI.

23. Davison, Charles, op. cit., p. 5.

24. See Davidson, Idem, p. 6: “The distance that separates Lisbon from Mequinez is 400 miles, Mequinez from Algiers 690 miles, and Lisbon from Granada 317 miles”.

25. Davison, Charles, Ibidem, p. 6.

26. See Davison, Ibidem, p. 3. The author gives us an important bibliography on this matter, namely, Bevis, John, The History and Philosophy of Earthquakes (1757).

27. The London Gazette, 29 November 1755.

28. Goethe, who was six years old at the time of the earthquake of 1755, recalls this occurrence in his autobiography: Dichtung und Wahrheit.

29. The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1755, p. 521.

30. Extract of Mr. Harvey’s speech with regard to the earthquake published in The Caledonian Mercury, Num. 5310, Saturday, December 20, 1755.

31.The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1756, p. 68.

32. Davison, Ibidem, p. 3. See also Sousa, Luís Pereira de, Efeitos do terramoto de 1755… (1909) and O terramoto do 1º de Novembro de 1755 em Portugal e um estudo demográfico (1919 -1932), 4 vols. In this work, Pereira de Sousa bases his analysis on the parish survey of Portugal.

33.  “For several days he lived in his carriage, scribbling proclamations and orders, despatching and receiving courtiers, reassuring the populace, and exhorting them to the work of rescue” – Quoted in Boxer, Charles, “Pombal’s Dictartoship and the Great Lisbon Earthquake, 1755” History Today, vol. 1, November (1955), p. 732.

34. Investigação das causas proximas do Terremoto, succedido em Lisboa no anno de 17 11/1 55 (Lisboa, 1756) and Precauções Medicas contra algumas remotas consequencias, que se podem excitar do Terremoto de 17  11/1  55 (Lisboa, 1756).

35. Nova e Fiel relação do terremoto que experimentou Lisboa e todo Portugal no 1 de Novembro 1755, com algumas observações curiosas e a explicação das suas causas (Lisboa, 1756).

36. História Universal dos Terremotos (Lisboa, 1758).

37. See Kendrick, Ibidem, pp. 58 -118.

38. Kendrick, Ibidem, p. 59.

39. Davison, Ibidem, p. 3. The author also names the study by E. Bertrand “Mémoires Historiques et Physiques sur les tremblements de Terre”, published in 1757; John Michell’s memoir “Conjectures concerning the cause and observations upon the phenomena of earthquakes …” and the works of Alexis Perrey and Sir Charles Lyell which also consider in detail the earthquake of 1755.

40. Silveira, Luís (translation), Ensaios de Kant a propósito do terremoto de 1755, Câmara Municipal de Lisboa (Lisboa, 1955).

41. Published in Paris (1756).

42. The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1756, p. 71.

43. Voltaire, Poéme sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Paris, 1756) (extract).

44. Voltaire, op. cit., Preface.

45. Voltaire, Candide ou l’Optimisme, electronic version: (1st edition: Paris, 1759) chap. V.

46. Johnson, Samuel, “On Optimism – Review of Soame Jenyns’s: A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil”, Literary Magazine, May, June and July 1757; Lynam, Robert (edit.) The Works of Samuel Johnson, George Cowie and Co. (London, 1825), vol. 5, p.113. See also Eliot, Simon and Stern, Beverley(edit.), The Age of Enlightenment, The Open University (London, 1979), vol. I, pp. 108-120.

47. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Lettre à Monsieur de Voltaire (Sur la Providence), August 18, 1756, and – “Ne vous y trompez pas, Monsieur, il arrive tout le contraire de ce que vous proposez. Cet optimisme que vous trouvez si cruel me console pourtant dans les mêmes douleurs que vous me peignez comme insupportables. Le Poëme de Pope adoucit mes maux & me porte à la patiente; le vôtre aigrit mês peines, m’excite au murmure, & m’ôtant tout hors une espérance ébranlée, il me réduit au désespoir”.

48. Kendrick, Ibidem, p. 139.

49. Lodge, Sir Richard, op. cit., p. 434. The sister of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VI, was Queen Mariana de Bourbon wife of the Portuguese king D.José I. However, according to contemporary sources, the Portuguese king declined the Spanish aid: see França, José-Augusto, op. cit.

50. The London Gazette, Sat. January 31 to Tuesday February 3 1756, numb. Numb. 9566, “From Tuesday March 23, to Saturday March 27, 1756”.

51. The London Gazette, Numb. 9574, “From Tuesday April 13, to Saturday April 17, 1756”.

52. See Cheke, op. cit., Estorninho, Carlos, O Terramoto de Lisboa e a sua repercussão nas Relações Luso-Britânicas (Lisboa, 1956) and Kendrick, Ibidem.

53. The Scots Magazine, vol. 17, November 1755, p. 557. This news also refers to Sir Benjamin Keene’s letter of 10 November which was read, the 28 November, in the House of Lords. Boxer states that the House of Commons agreed to send to Portugal £ 100,000 distributed equally in specie and goods – “Pombal’s Dictatorship …”, p. 734.

54. The Scots Magazine, vol. 18, March 1756, p. 138. “Lisbon, Feb. 22. On the 19th Instant, his Britannick Majesty’s Ships the Hampton Court and the Greyhound arrived here with several Merchantmen under their Convoy. There are now ten Ships with Provisions arrived from London, one from Dartmouth, and five from Ireland”. – The London Gazette, numb. 9562, “From Tuesday March 9, to Saturday March 13, 1756”. See also Boxer, Charles, “Pombal Dictactorship …” and “Some contemporary reactions to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755”: “Offers of help came from all over Western Europe, but the most substantial relief came from Britain and Spain”, p. 11.

55. The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1755, p. 593.

56. The London Gazette, numb.9556, “From Tuesday February 17, to Saturday February 21, 1756”.

57. See França, José-Augusto, Idem, p. 58.

58. Letter to his sister in Edinburgh. Fleming, Robert, Robert Adam and his Circle (1978), p. 205.

59. Quoted in Fleming, Robert, op. cit., pp. 204-205. According to the author, Robert Adam was hoping for the support of Lord Hopetoun and Sir William Stanhope. Allan Ramsay proposed to write to the Duke of Argyll “to see what step he would take in it”.

60. Quoted in Fleming, Idem.

61. See Fleming, Ibidem, pp. 230-231.

62. Sir John Soane Museum, London, vol. 9, nos. 56 and 60.

63. See Delaforce, Angela, “The Dream of a young Architect. Robert Adam and a Project for the rebuilding of Lisbon in 1755”, Portugal e o Reino Unido: A Aliança Revisitada (1994) and

Pimentel, António Filipe, “O laboratório da reconstrução: reflexões em torno do pensamento e da prática do urbanismo português” Propaganda e Poder – Congresso Peninsular de História da Arte (1999), pp. 347-364.

2 thoughts on “The Lisbon earthquake of 1755: the catastrophe and its European repercussions

  1. Olá,
    Eu sou portuguesa mas estou actualmente na Australia a estudar.
    Currentemente, estou a fazer um trabalho de historia sobre o terramoto de Lisboa 1755.
    Este artigo é muito informativo e extremamente bem estruturado.
    Adorava saber se você/s me podiam recomendar outros trabalhos (vosso/s ou de outros autores que você/s admiram) sobre o terramoto. Especialmente, trabalhos que destacam como o terramote afetou a cultura portuguesa e como de uma maneira ou outra até ajudou a moldar a nossa cultura moderna.



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