More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755

As it turns out, Wikipedia has a substantive entry on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, an event that I have been using as a reference point for reflection on the Haiti instance:   Even cursory research into the Lisbon quake and its multiple impacts can provide some historical and practical context for the seemingly incomprehensible events unfolding in Haiti. 

Here are a few excerpts from the Wikipedia entry on “1755 Lisbon earthquake,” which includes endnotes and a list of references that are also of interest. 

Travel time map for the tsunami waves of 1 November 1755 

In 1755, the earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November, the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day.  Contemporary reports state that the earthquake lasted between three-and-a-half and six minutes, causing gigantic fissures five metres (15 ft) wide to appear in the city centre.  Survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water receded, revealing a sea floor littered by lost cargo and old shipwrecks.  Approximately forty minutes after the earthquake, an enormous tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown, rushing up the Tagus river, “so fast that several people riding on horseback…were forced to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds for fear of being carried away.”  It was followed by two more waves.  In the areas unaffected by the tsunami, fire quickly broke out, and flames raged for five days…. 

Shocks from the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as Finland and North Africa, and according to some sources even in Greenland and in the Caribbean.  Tsunamis as tall as 20 metres (66 ft) swept the coast of North Africa, and struck Martinique and Barbados across the Atlantic.  A three-metre (ten-foot) tsunami hit Cornwall on the southern English coast.  Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, was also hit, resulting in partial destruction of the “Spanish Arch” section of the city wall…. 

The royal family escaped unharmed from the catastrophe; King Joseph I of Portugal and the court had left the city, after attending mass at sunrise, fulfilling the wish of one of the king’s daughters to spend the holiday away from Lisbon.  After the catastrophe, Joseph I developed a fear of living within walls, and the court was accommodated in a huge complex of tents and pavilions in the hills of Ajuda, then on the outskirts of Lisbon.  The king’s claustrophobia never wanted, and it was only after Joseph’s death that his daughter Maria I of Portugal began rebuilding the royal Ajuda Palace, which still stands on the site of the old tented camp.  Like the king, the prime minister Sebastiao de Melo (the Marquis of Pombal) survived the earthquake.  When asked what was to be done, Pombal reportedly replied, “Bury the dead and heal the living,” and set upon organizing relief and rehabilitation efforts.  Firefighters were sent to extinguish the raging flames, and teams of workers and ordinary citizens were ordered to remove the thousands of corpses before disease could spread.  contrary to custom and against the wishes of the Church, many corpses were loaded onto barges and buried at sea beyond the mouth of the Tagus.  To prevent disorder in the ruined city, the Portuguese Army was deployed and gallows were constructed at high points around the city to deter looters; more than thirty people were publicly executed.  The Army prevented many able-bodied citizens from fleeing, pressing them into relief and construction work. 

Executions in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake. At least 34 looters were hanged in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster.

The king and the prime minister immediately launched efforts to rebuild the city, hiring architects, engineers and organizing labor.  In less than a year, the city was cleared of debris.  Keen to have a new and perfectly ordained city, the king commissioned the construction of big squares, rectilinear, large avenues and widened streets – the new mottos of Lisbon.  When the Marquis of Pombal was asked about the need for such wide streets, he is said to have replied:  “One day they will be small.”


Filed under Current events, Death, History and historiography, Reading and writing

2 responses to “More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. Here are some of my reflections on not only Voltaire, Rousseau, Lisbon, etc… but also on Haiti’s religious implications as well. See

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