Great Lisbon Earthquake

An earthquake of exceptional magnitude devastated the port city of Lisbon, Portugal. The massive destruction wrought by the quake resulted in the systematic rebuilding and modernization of the city, making it the most modern and architecturally advanced capital in Europe. The earthquake also occasioned a critical reexamination throughout Enlightenment Europe of the role of reason in nature and human affairs.

Summary of Event

On November 1, 1755, one of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history struck Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon, Portugal Scientific measurement of earthquake magnitudes did not yet exist; however, based on historical evidence of the level of destruction, the quake’s magnitude was most likely between 8.5 and 9.0 on the modern Richter scale. The population of the kingdom of Portugal was then almost 3 million, and about 10 percent of the population resided in Lisbon. [kw]Great Lisbon Earthquake (Nov. 1, 1755)
[kw]Earthquake, Great Lisbon (Nov. 1, 1755)
[kw]Lisbon Earthquake, Great (Nov. 1, 1755)
Lisbon earthquake
[g]Portugal;Nov. 1, 1755: Great Lisbon Earthquake[1450]
[c]Natural disasters;Nov. 1, 1755: Great Lisbon Earthquake[1450]
[c]Architecture;Nov. 1, 1755: Great Lisbon Earthquake[1450]
[c]Engineering;Nov. 1, 1755: Great Lisbon Earthquake[1450]
Pombal, marquês de
Maia, Manuel de
Joseph I (1714-1777)

Located on the north bank of the Tagus River, the city lay where the river, flowing from the northeast, bent gradually to the west and entered the Atlantic Ocean. Shaped like an amphitheater, Lisbon was flat in its central area, which comprised the port district, the commercial district, and the seat of the royal government. Rising and arching around this center were low hills containing tens of thousands of houses and shops and many dozens of resplendent churches, monasteries, and convents. A magnet of global trade, especially because of its Brazilian gold, Lisbon housed a cosmopolitan population and was widely known for its wealth and opulence. Catholic clergy and religious orders composed an exceptionally large proportion of its inhabitants.

The earthquake began several hours after dawn on the Catholic holy day of All Saints. For about ten minutes during midmorning, the earth shook, rolled, and collapsed several times underneath the city. The epicenter of the earthquake was located many miles out to sea, and damage from shaking and tsunamis Tsunamis extended throughout southern Portugal and Spain and across Gibraltar into Morocco. The quake leveled numerous major buildings in the port area. The royal palace was destroyed, although the king was not in residence. Because of the holy day, churches were filled with morning worshipers, who were crushed under the weight of collapsing walls and roofs. Frequent aftershocks caused further damage.

Subsequent to the shocks, fires sprang up, and a wind from the northeast helped to blow the various blazes together into a general conflagration. Lasting for almost a week, the flames destroyed the rich contents of churches and palaces, consuming paintings, manuscripts, books, and tapestries. In a final assault, a sequence of tidal waves struck, some towering more than 20 feet. Within a few morning hours, quake, fire, and flood had destroyed one of the major ports of Europe.

In the hysteria of the immediate aftermath, the death toll was estimated to be as high as fifty thousand. Modern estimates now calculate that the number of fatalities was at most fifteen thousand. Not only death but also fear, hunger, and disease Diseases;and Lisbon earthquake[Lisbon earthquake] followed the destruction. Thousands fled the city, blocking roads and jamming passages. Prisoners escaped from jails, assaulting the living and the dead. Food could not enter the city, and countless of the injured languished without care.

Rebuilding Lisbon became the responsibility of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, the principal minister of King Joseph I and the future marquês de Pombal. Energetically taking control of recovery efforts, the minister gave his immediate attention to public health. Bodies not burned in fires were collected on boats and sunk in the Tagus River. The army put out fires, cleared streets and passages, immediately executed thieves, and mounted field tents for shelter and feeding. Prices for food and building materials were fixed.

In planning the city’s reconstruction, Carvalho e Mello paid particular attention to improving its layout. Lisbon’s old, twisting, narrow streets were eliminated, especially in the flat central part of the city, which was redesigned to have wide, straight streets that crossed at right angles in a grid pattern. Near the harbor area, a spacious plaza was built. Carvalho e Mello supervised a group of skilled military engineers, Engineering;civil
Civil engineering headed by the veteran officer Manuel de Maia, who organized the planning and rebuilding.

To expedite construction, buildings were prefabricated, and the sizes of doors, windows, and walls were standardized. To protect against future earthquakes, building frames were made of wood that could sway under pressure without breaking. The style of these new structures, a kind of simplified or plain Baroque, came to be known as Pombaline. Pombaline building style


As a result of the earthquake, Lisbon came to be among the best-planned and best-constructed cities in eighteenth century Europe. The modernized port imported a high volume of manufactured goods, most of them from Great Britain, which had already begun to industrialize. Much of the wealth that Portugal received in the form of Brazilian gold was therefore funneled from Lisbon’s docks straight into Britain’s coffers, helping to capitalize the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The consequences of the earthquake, however, were not all physical or concrete: The abstract arenas of theology Christianity;and Lisbon earthquake[Lisbon earthquake] and philosophy were affected as well. In fact, it was in precisely these areas that the quake had its most resonant social effects. No sooner had the quake struck than the numerous clergy of Lisbon began declaring it the wrath of God striking against a sinful populace. This preaching roused many into paroxysms of fear, and such hysteria made it extremely difficult to deal with the crisis in an organized, rational manner. The civil authorities begged the clergy not to preach such fear, but their admonitions were only somewhat successful.

News of the extraordinary disaster rolled through Europe in a matter of weeks, its horrors growing with the chain of narrative. Western Europe as a whole was in the midst of an intellectual period known as the Enlightenment, Enlightenment;Portugal the Age of Reason. Carvalho e Mello, with his rational, utilitarian views of government, was representative of this movement. In the face of religious hysteria, reasonable thinkers of the Enlightenment argued that the Lisbon earthquake needed to be studied not as a supernatural event but as a natural one. The quake thus prompted a great debate between the emerging rational forces of the modern, scientific age and the declining religiosity of the medieval era.

Philosophers and other thinkers also debated about the quake’s effects. Many of those who believed in a reasoned and organized world felt also that every event was for the best. Thus, they argued that while the earthquake in Lisbon was a horrible disaster, it resulted in a rebuilt and modernized city. Others replied that one could not be so sanguine and optimistic about the world. Among the leading voices of this contrary point of view was the French philosopher and poet Voltaire. Voltaire In a long poem written immediately after the earthquake and in a later famous novel, Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, Candide (Voltaire) 1759; also as Candide: Or, The Optimist, 1762; also as Candide: Or, Optimism, 1947), he argued that the Lisbon tragedy proved the existence of irrational evil in the world.

Voltaire maintained that it was naive and self-serving to say that evil was always balanced by good. There were people everywhere who suffered for no reason and who would never personally benefit from their suffering. He argued that those who believed that everything that happened was for the best were those who wanted to keep things as they were, who wanted acceptance of the status quo. Such an attitude ignored those who suffered under present conditions, and it failed to respond effectively by alleviating their suffering. If ignored over a long period, such suffering could prove unbearable, rendering the sufferers violent. In relation to these arguments, it should be noted that less than half a century after the Lisbon earthquake, the suffering and outrage of the French masses burst forth against the Old Regime in the French Revolution.

The Lisbon earthquake, therefore, resounded in Europe not only as a physical event but also as a psychological and cultural one. Its force shook not only the earth but also people’s minds, accelerating the process of replacing old traditions with new ones.

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Charles B. Disaster at Lisbon: The Great Earthquake of 1755. Long Beach, Calif.: Shangton Longley Press, 1994. A reassessment of the Lisbon earthquake based on modern scientific findings.
  • Davison, Charles. Great Earthquakes: With 122 Illustrations. London: Thomas Murby, 1936. Includes vivid black-and-white illustrations of the Lisbon earthquake and its aftermath.
  • Dynes, Russell Rowe. The Lisbon Earthquake in 1755: Contested Meanings of the First Modern Disaster. Newark: Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware, 1997. Analyzes the Lisbon earthquake in terms of how relief was organized, comparing such relief to modern strategies and conditions.
  • Kendrick, T. D. The Lisbon Earthquake. London: Methuen, 1956. Classic account, concisely describing the physical nature and social consequences of the quake.
  • Laidlar, John, comp. Lisbon. Oxford, England: ABC-Clio, 1997. Provides brief summaries of publications on Lisbon, with extensive entries for the earthquake of 1755.
  • Maxwell, Kenneth. Pombal: Paradox of the Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Study by a leading scholar of Portugal places Pombal and policies regarding the Lisbon earthquake within the context of the minister’s principles and objectives for government and society.
  • Ockman, Joan. Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention. New York: Prestel, 2002. Details architectural and engineering strategies of recovery for urban disasters worldwide over the past three centuries. Chapter 1 addresses the Lisbon earthquake.

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