Tag Archives: Lisbon earthquake

More context for Haiti: the Lisbon earthquake, 1755 (part 2)

More excerpts from Wikipedia‘s substantive entry on “1755 Lisbon earthquake,” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake   

Effect on society and philosophy   

The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace and intelligentsia.  The earthquake had struck on an important church holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in the city, causing anxiety and confusion among the citizens of a staunch and devout Roman Catholic city and country, which had been a major patron of the Church.  Theologians and philosophers would focus and speculate on the religious cause and message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of the anger of God.   

The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia of the European Age of Enlightenment. [Cf the recent posts on Voltaire and Rousseau in response to the Lisbon event, which brings us to another, oft-cited thinker on Makurrah’s Blog.  You guessed it.] …. The concept of the sublime, though it existed before 1755, was developed in philosophy and elevated to greater importance by Immanuel Kant, in part as a result of his attempts to comprehend the enormity of the Lisbon quake and tsunami.  Kant published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake.  The young Kant, fascinated with the earthquake, collected all the information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to formulate a theory of the causes of earthquakes.  Kant’s theory, which involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases, was (though ultimately shown to be false) one of the first systematic modern attempts to explain earthquakes by positing natural, rather than supernatural, causes.  According to Walter Benjamin, Kant’s slim early book on the earthquake “probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany.  And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”   

Werner Hamacher has claimed that the earthquake’s consequences extended into the vocabulary of philosophy, making the common metaphor of firm “grounding” for philosopher’s arguments shaky and uncertain:  “Under the impression exerted by the Lisbon earthquake, which touched the European mind in one [of] its more sensitive epochs, the metaphor of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence; they were no longer merely figures of speech” [Hamacher, Premises, 263].  Hamacher claims that the foundational certainty of Descartes’ philosophy began to shake following the Lisbon earthquake.   

Hamacher’s “The Quaking of Presentation” in Premises:  Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan is among the most authoritative and reliable sources I know on these matters.

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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:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake   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.”

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Rousseau on the Lisbon earthquake

“A Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or:  An Examination of that Axiom ‘All is Well'” had an uneven reception.  Most prominent among the critics of Voltaire’s effort was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in 1756 sent a letter to Voltaire that spelled out his objections.  Below is an unverified (and at times infelicitous) translation of Rousseau’s French, taken from http://geophysics-old.tau.ac.il/personal/shmulik/LisbonEq-letters.htm

All my complaints are…against your poem on the Lisbon disaster, because I expected from it evidence more worthy of the humanity which apparently inspired you to write it.  You reproach Alexander Pope and Leibnitz with belittling our misfortunes by affirming that all is well, but you so burden the list of our miseries that you further disparage our condition.  Instead of the consolations that I expected, you only vex me.  It might be said that you fear that I don’t feel my unhappiness enough, and that you are trying to soothe me by proving that all is bad.

Do not be mistaken,  Monsieur, it happens that everything is contrary to what you propose.  This optimism which you find so cruel consoles me still in the same woes that you force on me as unbearable.  Pope’s poem alleviates my difficulties and inclines me to patience; yours makes my afflictions worse, prompts me to grumble, and, leading me beyond a shattered hope, reduces me to despair…. 

“Have patience, man,” Pope and Leibnitz tell me, “your woes are a necessary effect of your nature and of the constitution of the universe.  The eternal and beneficent Being who governs the universe wished to protect you.  Of all the possible plans, he chose that combining the minimum evil and the maximum good.  If it is necessary to say the same thing more bluntly, God has done no better for mankind because (He) can do no better.”

Now what does your poem tell me?  “Suffer forever unfortunate one.  If a God created you, He is doubtlessly all powerful, and could have prevented all your woes.  Don’t ever hope that your woes will end, because you would never know why you exist, if it is not to suffer and die….”

I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man….  Moreover…the majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work.  Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories.  If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all.  Everyone would have fled at the first shock.  but many obstinately remained…to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away.  How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money?…

There are often events that afflict us…that lose a lot of their horror when we examine them closely.  I learned in Zadig , and nature daily confirms my lesson, that a rapid death is not always a true misfortune, and that it can sometimes be considered a relative blessingOf the many persons crushed under Lisbon’s ruins, some without doubt escaped greater misfortunes, and…it is not certain that a single one of these unfortunates suffered more than if, in the normal course of events, he had awaited [a more normal] death to overtake him after long agonies.  Was death [in the ruins] a sadder end than that of a dying person overburdened with useless treatments, whose notary and heirs do not allow him a respite, whom the doctors kill in his own bed at their leisure, and whom the barbarous priests artfully try to make relish death?  For me, I see everywhere that the misfortunes nature imposes upon us are less cruel than those which we add to them…. 

I cannot prevent myself, Monsieur, from noting…a strange contrast between you and me as regards the subject of this letter.  Satiated with glory…you live free in the midst of affluence.  Certain of your immortality, you peacefully philosophize on the nature of the soul, and, if your body or heart suffer, you have Tronchin as doctor and friend.  You however find only evil on earth.  And I, an obscure and poor man tormented with an incurable illness, meditate with pleasure in my seclusion and find that all is well.  What is the source of this apparent contradiction?  You explained it yourself:  you revel but I hope, and hope beautifies everything.

…I have suffered too much in this life not to look forward to another.  No metaphysical subtleties cause me to doubt a time of immortality for the soul and a beneficent providence.  I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp….

I am, with respect, Monsieur,

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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Voltaire: “A Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”

Finding myself, for the time being, without access to my library, I reproduce here an unverified English translation of Voltaire’s “A Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or:  An Examination of that Axiom ‘All Is Well,'” which dates from 1755.  The text can be found at http://geophysics-old.tau.ac.il/personal/shmulik/LisbonEq-letters.htm

Oh, miserable mortals!  Oh wretched earth!

Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!

Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!

Deluded philosophers who cry, “All is well,”

Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,

This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;

These women and children heaped on one another,

These scattered members under broken marble;

One hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth

Who, bleeding, lacerated, and still alive,

Buried under their roofs without aid in their anguish,

End their sad days!

In answer to the half-formed cries of their dying voices,

At the frightful sight of their smoking ashes,

Will you say:  “This is result of eternal laws

Directing the acts of a free and good God!”

Will you say, in seeing this mass of victims:

“God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?”

What crime, what error did these children,

Crushed and bloody on their mothers’ breasts, commit?

Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices

Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?

Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!

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Historical context: the Lisbon earthquake of 1755

The following summary of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is from a travel guide to Lisbon:  http://www.lisbon-guide.info/about/lisbon_earthquake.  As time allows I will return to the Lisbon example as refracted through the writings of Rousseau, Kant, and Kleist.

Lisbon Earthquake

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake took place on November 1, 1755, at 9:20 in the morning. It was one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in history, killing well over 100,000 people. The quake was followed by a tsunami and fire, resulting in the near total destruction of Lisbon. The earthquake accelerated political tensions in Portugal and profoundly disrupted the country’s 18th century colonial ambitions. The event was widely discussed by European Enlightenment philosophers, and inspired major developments in theodicy and in the philosophy of the sublime. The first to be studied scientifically for its effects over a large area, the quake signalled the birth of modern seismology. Geologists today estimate the Lisbon earthquake approached magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 km west-southwest of Cape St. Vincent.

The earthquake

Lisbon in flames, and a tsunami

The earthquake struck on the morning of November 1, the All Saints Day Catholic holiday. Contemporary reports state that the earthquake lasted between three-and-a-half and six minutes, causing gigantic fissures five meters wide to rip apart the city center. The 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. Several tens of minutes after the earthquake, an enormous tsunami engulfed the harbor and downtown, rushing up the Tagus river. It was followed by two more waves. In the areas unaffected by the tsunami, fire quickly broke out, and flames raged for five days.

Lisbon was not the only Portuguese city affected by the catastrophe. Throughout the south of the country, in particular the Algarve, destruction was generalized. The shockwaves of the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as Finland and North Africa. Tsunamis up to twenty meters in height swept the coast of North Africa, and struck Martinique and Barbados across the Atlantic. A three meter tsunami hit the Southern English coast.

Of a Lisbon population of 275,000, up to 90,000 were killed. Another 10,000 were killed across the Mediterranean in Morocco. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed, including its famous palaces and libraries, as well as most examples of Portugal’s distinctive 16th century Manueline architecture. Several buildings which had suffered little damage due to the earthquake were destroyed by the fire. The brand new Opera House, opened only six months before (under the ill-fated name Phoenix Opera), was burned to the ground. The Royal Palace, which stood just beside the Tagus river in the modern square of Terreiro do Paço, was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. Inside, the 70,000-volume royal library as well as hundreds of works of art, including paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Correggio, were lost. The precious royal archives disappeared together with detailed historical records of explorations by Vasco da Gama and other early navigators. The earthquake also destroyed major churches in Lisbon, namely the Cathedral of Santa Maria, the Basilicas of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, São Vicente de Fora, and the Misericordia Church. The Royal Hospital of All-Saints (the biggest public hospital at the time) was consumed by fire and hundreds of patients burned to death. The tomb of national hero Nuno Alvares Pereira was also lost. Visitors to Lisbon may still walk the ruins of the Carmo convent, which were preserved to remind Lisboners of the destruction.

Many animals sensed danger and fled to higher ground before the water arrived. The Lisbon quake is the first documented case of such a phenomenon in Europe.

The day after

Due to a stroke of luck, 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 waned, and it was only after Joseph’s death that his daughter Maria I of Portugal began building the royal Palace of Ajuda, which still stands on the site of the old tented camp.

The Ruins of Lisbon

Like the King, the Prime Minister Sebastião de Melo (the Marquis of Pombal) survived the earthquake. Now? Bury the dead and feed the living, he is reported to have said, and with the pragmatism that characterized his coming rule, the Prime Minister immediately began organizing the recovery and reconstruction. He sent firefighters into the city to extinguish the flames, and ordered teams to remove the thousands of corpses. Time was short to dispose of the corpses before disease spread. Contrary to custom and against the wishes of representatives 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, and, in particular, as a deterrant against looting, gallows were constructed as high points around the city and at least 34 were executed. The Portuguese Army was mobilised to surround the city to prevent the able-bodied from fleeing, so that they could be pressed into clearing the ruins.

Not long after the initial crisis, the prime minister and the King quickly hired architects and engineers, and less than a year later, Lisbon was already free from debris and undergoing reconstruction. The King was keen to have a new, perfectly ordained city. Big squares and rectilinear, large avenues were the mottos of the new Lisbon. At the time, somebody asked the Marquis of Pombal the need of such wide streets. The Marquis answered: one day they will be small. Indeed, the chaotic traffic of Lisbon reflects the wisdom of the reply.

Pombaline buildings are among the first seismically-protected constructions in the world. Small wooden models were built for testing, and earthquakes were simulated by marching troops around them. Lisbon’s “new” downtown, known today as the Pombaline Downtown (Baixa Pombalina), is one of the city’s famed attractions. Sections of other Portuguese cities, like the Vila Real de Santo António in Algarve, were also rebuilt along Pombaline principles.

Social and philosophical implications

The earthquake shook much more than cities and buildings. Lisbon was the capital of a devout Catholic country, with a history of investments in the church and evangelisation in the colonies. Moreover, the catastrophe struck on a Catholic holiday and destroyed almost every important church. For 18th century theology and philosophy, this manifestation of the anger of God was difficult to explain.

The earthquake strongly influenced many thinkers of the European Enlightenment. Many contemporary philosophers mentioned or alluded to the earthquake in their writings, notably Voltaire in Candide and in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (Poem on the Lisbon disaster). The arbitrariness of survival motivated Voltaire’s Candide and its satire of the idea that this was “the best of all possible worlds”; as Theodor Adorno wrote, “[t]he earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz” (Negative Dialectics 361). In the later twentieth century, following Adorno, the 1755 earthquake has sometimes been analogized to the Holocaust as a catastrophe so tremendous as to have a transformative impact on European culture and philosophy.

The concept of the sublime, though it existed before 1755, was developed in philosophy and elevated to greater importance by Immanuel Kant, in part as a result of his attempts to comprehend the enormity of the Lisbon quake and tsunami. Kant published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake. (Through the broad later influence of theories of the sublime, the Lisbon earthquake was one factor in a sea change in European aesthetic thought, with an effect which would not be fully appreciated until the late 19th century.) The young Kant, fascinated with the earthquake, collected all the information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to formulate a theory of the causes of quakes. Kant’s theory, which involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases, was (though ultimately shown to be false) one of the first systematic modern attempts to explain earthquakes by positing natural, rather than supernatural, causes. According to Walter Benjamin, Kant’s slim early book on the earthquake “probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany. And certainly the beginnings of seismology.”

Werner Hamacher has claimed that the earthquake’s consequences extended into the vocabulary of philosophy, making the common metaphor of firm “grounding” for philosophers’ arguments shaky and uncertain: “Under the impression exerted by the Lisbon earthquake, which touched the European mind in one [of] its more sensitive epochs, the metaphorics of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence; they were no longer merely figures of speech” (263). Hamacher claims that the foundational certainty of Descartes’ philosophy began to shake following the Lisbon earthquake.

In Portuguese internal politics, the earthquake was devastating. The Prime Minister was the favorite of the King, but the aristocracy despised him as an upstart son of a country squire. (Although the Prime Minister Sebastião de Melo is known today as Marquis of Pombal, the title was only granted in 1770). The Prime Minister in turn disliked the old nobles, whom he considered corrupt and incable of practical action. Before November 1, 1755 there was a constant struggle for power and royal favour, but afterwards, the competent response of the Marquis of Pombal effectively severed the power of the old aristocratic factions. Silent opposition and resentment of King Joseph I began to rise. This would culminate in an attempted assassination of the King, and the elimination of the powerful Duke of Aveiro and the Távora family.

The birth of seismology

The Prime Minister’s response was not limited to the practicalities of reconstruction. The Marquis ordered a query sent to all parishes of the country regarding the earthquake and its effects. Questions included:

  • how long did the earthquake last?
  • how many aftershocks were felt?
  • what kind of damage was caused?
  • did animals behave strangely? (this question anticipated studies by Chinese seismologists in the 1960s)
  • what happened in wells and water holes?

The answers to these and other questions are still archived in the Tower of Tombo, the national historical archive. Studying and cross-referencing the priests’ accounts, modern scientists were able to reconstruct the event from a scientific perspective. Without the query designed by the Marquis of Pombal, this would have been impossible. Because the Marquis was the first to attempt an objective scientific description of the broad causes and consequences of an earthquake, he is regarded as a forerunner of modern seismological scientists.

The geological causes of this earthquake and the seismic activity in the region continue to be discussed and debated by contemporary scientists. Since Lisbon is located in a centre of a tectonic plate, there are no obvious reasons for the event, since almost all tectonic events occur at plate borders. Some geologists have suggested that the earthquake may indicate the early development of an Atlantic subduction zone, and the beginning of the closure of the Atlantic ocean.

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