“1755 - That was the year when Lisbon town /Saw the earth open and gulp her down.”
On the morning of All Saints Day – the 1st of November, 1755 - the biggest earthquake in the history of Portugal hit Lisbon.
Its origins were oceanic and the first shock was felt in Lisbon at around 09:40 in the morning. At the time of the earthquake, Lisbon was preparing for one of the biggest celebrations in the religious calendar and the city was alive with activity in preparation for the forthcoming commemoration.
Lisbon Earthquake 1755
The initial shock of the Lisbon earthquake was relatively minimal, lasting perhaps around a minute. The streets rattled and dwellings vibrated. The shocks that caused the cataclysmic damage followed closely on it heels – approximately 30 seconds later.
The second shock lasted somewhere between two and eight minutes. The time span is at best, confusing. Seismic analysis and research wasn’t the science it is today and of course the events threw up a lot of confusion and conflicting accounts. Several minutes later, the third shock hit. This one caused the ground to violently shake – and some 12,000 buildings simply disintegrated.
Imagine by this stage the utter chaos and disorientation that the dwellers of Lisbon were experiencing. Panic reigned. People were either dead or dying. It’s reported that those that were able were either attempting to save those that could be saved – or they were simply fleeing the city. Fires blazed everywhere – some of which would rage on for five days. A huge cloud of dust and debris had shrouded much of Lisbon in a fog. The city of Lisbon was all but destroyed.
Lisbon In Ruins
Unfortunately, the worst wasn’t yet over. Unbeknown to the devastated inhabitants of Lisbon – nature wasn’t content with the havoc already wreaked upon the city. She had one final blow to deliver – and it came in the form of a tsunami.
Many of the surviving inhabitants had found their way down to the river and seafront – believing the location would afford them some measure of safety. Others boarded ships and boats – moored along the harbour - in their efforts to escape the desolation. Unfortunately, turning to the river and sea as a source of salvation was to prove to be a horrifying mistake.
After the last shock, the sea had withdrawn from the shore. The sandbars at the mouth of River Targus were exposed. Approximately thirty minutes after the last tremors had subsided – a tsunami engulfed the harbours of downtown Lisbon. The tsunami arrived in a series of three waves, the highest being over six meters in height. By the time the tsunami had subsided, the city was reduced to a vestige of its former splendour.
Lisbon – the city – was in ruins
"You may judge of the force of this shock, when I inform you it was so violent that I could scarce keep on my knees; but it was attended with some circumstances still more dreadful than the former. On a sudden I heard a general outcry, "The sea is coming in, we shall be all lost." - Small excerpt from the eye-witness account of the Rev. Charles Davy - a survivor ot the disaster.
Earthquake Video - The Aftermath
A Virtual Tsunami - What Causes Them
Modern seismologists have managed to determine the fact that not only was the Lisbon ‘quake of 1755 an earthquake of significant magnitude – it was potentially one of the most devastating in the history of earthquakes. The Richter Scale measurement system is fairly accurate in determining the size of an earthquake. Using facts, history and eyewitness accounts, the Lisbon quake is judged to have been somewhere between 8.6 and 9.0 on the Richter Scale.
Further, it is known that the earthquake – though centred on Lisbon – was felt across most of Europe and North Africa, an area of some 1,300,000 square miles. Both Morocco and Algeria suffered a significant loss of life as well as devastation. Algiers was, in fact, destroyed. Morocco itself is 400 miles south of Lisbon. For the earthquake to have caused as much damage as it did is a noteworthy indicator of just how powerful the shocks actually were.
It is widely believed that it was submarine in origin and there is adequate data to support this finding. The tsunami itself helps analysts determine the initial source of the earthquake. Tsunamis are simply a series of waves that begin due to a disturbance in large bodies of water. This could be an underground volcanic explosion, because a huge mass of some form or other has hit the waters’ surface (asteroid for e.g.) - or an earthquake.
The epicentre is thought to have been some 125 miles south-west of the Cape of St Vincent. What is clear is the fact that Lisbon is situated on the centre of a tectonic plate. Therefore the only explanation for it would be that the earthquakes origins were indeed at sea – the city of Lisbon was unfortunate enough to have borne the brunt of shifting tectonic plates quite some distance away.
Lisbon Earthquake Links
- Rev. Charles Davey
This is the contemporary eyewitness account of the Rev. Charles Davy - a survivor of the Lisbon earthquake - in it's entirety. Source: Internet Modern History Sourcebook: The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art
- Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake
Although this web site details the disaster, it also provides a source of information relating to the various pictorial depictions of the disaster. Worth looking at if you are interested in historical data.
- Lisbon Earthquake And Ensuing Tsunami
This is an analytical account of the 1755 earthquake, though it slants more towards the tsunami. In itself, the tsunami was a great natural disaster and does bear further scrutiny.
- Contemporary Lisbon
There are many pictures on this website as it's specifically dedicated to skyscrapers. However, the link takes you to a section that really demonstrates modern Lisbon and some of its contemporary archtitecture.
Earthquake After Effects
The earthquake after effects were almost as catastrophic as the earthquake itself. The fires that started as a result of the quake raged uncontrollably for five days. Due to the understandable confusion that followed the quake, the fires simply burned unabated. Buildings that weren’t destroyed in the earthquake and following tsunami were subsequently destroyed by fire. Both the Opera House and Carmo Convent were destroyed by fire- as well as the home of the monarchy - Royal Palace. Most of the downtown area – Rossio and Alafama for e.g. were reduced to ashes. Important archived documentation was destroyed – for example much of Portugal’s seafaring history was meticulously stored in historic buildings, all of which was lost either to the earthquake itself or the subsequent fires.
The social structure, based upon a staunch observation of the Catholic religion, was in ruins. Portugal was, at the time, a pious Roman Catholic country and the Church was its bastion. Many, in the confusing aftermath, felt that the destruction of Lisbon, as well as many other regions of the country, was an act of God. Devine retribution for the way that they (Portugal) had systematically conquered other countries, such as South America. There was, understandably for the time and its people, much conjecture as to the reasons behind the disaster. The fact that most places of worship had been destroyed – coupled with the fact that the earthquake struck on All Saints Day – only served to reinforce this collective supposition.
The earthquake had done more than just reduce the city to ruins. It had also shaken the beliefs and foundations upon which its society was built – leaving the surviving inhabitants uncertain and apprehensive. Eighteenth century concepts and philosophies were about to be reformed – along with the city of Lisbon itself.
Marque de Pombal
Earthquake Safety Measures
Due to the proportionate damage that Lisbon had suffered as a consequence of the disaster, much of it had to be reconstructed. Fortunately, the court of the then king, Joseph I of Portugal, was holidaying away from the city and was therefore unharmed. Along with the royal family, the prime minister of the time had also survived - Sebastião de Carvalho e Melo, otherwise known as the Marques de Pombal (Marquis of Pombal).
The Marquis of Pombal was an important figure at the time of the earthquake and became even more powerful as a result of his efforts to oversee the rebuilding of Lisbon. As the dust settled and the people of Lisbon looked for salvation, the Marquis is quoted as saying:
“What now? We bury the dead and feed the living”
And with that, Lisbon was reborn. The Marquis embarked upon a series of building works that remain a prominent aspect of Lisbon, over 250 years later. In less than 12 months, the city was starting to rise from the ashes. Although the Marquis initiated the rebuilding of Lisbon – it was the Portuguese people that made it happen. However, they rebuilt Lisbon according to the wishes of the Marquis. He insisted on having the city built in a grid fashion – sizeable squares, wider avenues and streets. When asked why he simply replied:
"One day they will be small."
The Marquis also thought about the possibility of another earthquake striking Lisbon in the future. He had his engineers and architects design buildings that he deemed to be earthquake proof. Models were built which were than subjected to soldiers marching around them – as a means of recreating the effects of an earthquake. Further, the Marquis embarked upon what is thought to be one of the first ever seismic investigations. He designed then sent out a questionnaire to every parish. The Marquis wanted information relating to animal behaviour prior to the earthquake, what buildings were destroyed and so on; he required data relating to the earthquake as a means of studying the disaster in more detail.
When you walk around the streets of downtown Lisbon today, you cannot help but think that the Marquis de Pombal was indeed a visionary of his time.
Praça do Comércio
The possibility of further earthquakes in Lisbon – or Portugal as a whole – remains likely. Due to the continued subduction of the tectonic plates thought to be responsible for the 1755 earthquake, seismologists are fairly certain that another earthquake will occur. However, due to the lack of chronological data, it’s extremely difficult to calculate when this will happen – or the magnitude.
However, Lisbon today is a vibrant, thriving and industrious city. You only have to take a walk through the commercial districts or downtown Lisbon to see that the city has recovered its former glory and remains the jewel in the crown of Portugal. It’s a culturally diverse and architecturally beautiful city – contemporary architecture and archaic design sit comfortably side by side. The population has grown, from the dark days of 1755, and now numbers in excess of three million residents.
And - Lisbon continues to pay tribute to the Marquis of Pombal, by way of a stunning statue, erected in his honour and situated in the middle of an area aptly named ‘Marques de Pombal’. The statue itself is 45m in height, made up of a 36m pillar, with the statue of the Marquis sited atop. He is purposely placed so as to face downtown – towards the portion of Lisbon that most bears his stamp to this day - Baixa. A fitting tribute to the man that raised Lisbon from the ashes.
Marques de Pombal
Kameron on October 07, 2017:
Is there ever goring to be one again?
Kate on November 28, 2013:
The. New. Madrid. Fault. Line. Had. A 9.0. earthquake In. Side. Of. Me
Trollkid on March 26, 2012:
What caused the earthquake to happen? What were the plates movements?
Chris Leather from Cornwall UK on November 11, 2011:
Nice hub. Dropped you a link from here: https://hubpages.com/travel/Lisbon-Photo-Tour-Port... - 3rd to last paragraph.
Interstingly, Penzance in Cornwall, where I live now, was affected by a 6 foot tsunami resulting from this same earthquake
ruasesamo from Portugal on September 21, 2011:
This earthquake was considered the first great natural disaster of the modern world and deserved the attention of the most prominent thinkers at the time, like Descartes, Rousseau or Voltaire.
A concerning thing is the fact that even though a disaster like this might happen again, Lisbon still isn't properly equipped against earthquakes.
Our politicians should be aware of that...
dfgjh on August 01, 2011:
Etienne Luu from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States on June 11, 2011:
This is soooo cool!
Nicolas Simons from San Francisco on March 09, 2011:
Wow, I've never heard that there was such a devastating earthquake in that part of Europe before. Thank you for the great article.
Andria (author) on February 11, 2011:
Thanks Arthur - I wasn't aware of that, so good to know :)
arthurchappell from Manchester, England on February 10, 2011:
Great essay. The Lisbon earthquake plays a key part in Voltaire's brilliant satirical novel Candide.
David from Lisbon on December 13, 2010:
I´ve spent the past 30 years in Lisbon and haven`t felt the slightest shake! ( OK I have a heavy sleep)
Great Hub anyway;
Tim Blackstone on December 04, 2010:
I had no idea Lisbon was a city subject to Earthquakes as severe as this one was. A fascinating hub and a great read.
hankthetank on November 11, 2010:
i fought this website was amazinig i am gonna copy it (jokes)
poop on November 11, 2010:
this website is cool :L
Noor Basha Murtuza on July 12, 2010:
I really appreciate the people and mostly the rulers of Lisbon at their time. Bcoz if anything like this happens in these days a very few leaders will think of reconstruction and public welfare and a bunch of political idiots will ever be ready with their dirty politics and cheap brains which will always be thinking of some bloody politics which can get them to power and ruin the fame or even bring down the ruling party. the are even least bothered about the safety and comfort of the public. . .
Lita C. Malicdem from Philippines on January 18, 2010:
The best thing that ever happened to almost every nation wrecked by earthquake, and by any tragic disaster for that matter, is the will to survive and rise up again from the ruins. Lisbon did it and looks like the new Lisbon now shown in the pictures, is much better than her old self. Great search.
Andria (author) on November 11, 2009:
That's reaaly interesting. Can you also prevent rainfall? If so, could you switch off precipitation over Yorkshire, in the UK? Thankyou in advance :)
Messenger_of_god8 from The New Israel on November 11, 2009:
i honestly have the power to make natural disaster happen if i wanted too
Andria (author) on October 05, 2009:
Claudia - I'm glad that this helped. I enjoyed writing it and it seems that it does it's job of informing others :)
claudia on October 05, 2009:
that was awesome you wrote down a lot of facts you helped me a lot thanks
Andria (author) on June 01, 2009:
AE - Goodness! Not that was traumatic! I'm sorry to hear you've experienced earthquakes first hand. I imagine it's terrifying - and would've been the same for the Lisbon inhabitants in 1755 ...
Julianna from SomeWhere Out There on May 31, 2009:
Interesting old video and earthquakes have always struck a nerve in me ever since I was in the S.F. earthquake in 1989 I had been visiting friends even though I was young it seriously has scared me to death. When I lived in LA we had a few tremors and I suffered anxiety over it, your hub was very interesting as I could not imagine what the people were thinking in Lisbon as it is the most disheartening feeling. :)
Andria (author) on May 23, 2009:
Candie - I'm with you on the tunnel. Would be the last place you'd want to be! And ooofff! Ground zero ...
A hub about Oz would be fab - it's a beautiful country!
Candie V from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure! on May 22, 2009:
We also live in the shadow of 3 volcanos, Mt. St. Helens erupted several years ago. It just is something you live with. However they want to build part of the freeway as a tunnel.. I can't think of why, being earthquake country, we want to drive in a long tunnel!? Also, my community has 3 major military facilities, nuke submarines..so we are ground zero if there's ever an attack. On the plus side is the amazing beauty so I shall do a hub on "Oz".
Andria (author) on May 22, 2009:
LGirl - ha! Yes ;)
Candie - that's a bit worrying ... I remember a small earthquake hitting the UK a couple of years ago. Was the weirdest thing. Nothing devastating. Some ground shaking, no damage. No idea how people cope with or address the possibility of high magnitude 'quakes.
Candie V from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure! on May 21, 2009:
Lesley, I live just outside of Seattle. Similar fault lines/tectonics plates..
LondonGirl from London on May 21, 2009:
Better than swine flu (-:
Andria (author) on May 21, 2009:
LGirl - thankyou :) The nation was lucky in that it had adequate resources and of course the ingenuity of the Marquis. He was, in fact, an interesting character in his own right.
I can't help my history quirk. And Portugal has a rich and varied history. I know much of ours (UK) through education and personal reading choices I've made over the years.
And - my partner is a native and has a wonderful memory for the history of Portugal. I've caught a bug ...
LondonGirl from London on May 21, 2009:
What a wonderful hub! I love the way you write, it's most engaging.
I knew of the earthquake and tidal wave, but not of the re-building. Sounds as if Lisbon was lucky in its leadership after being so terribly unlucky geologically.
Andria (author) on May 20, 2009:
lxxy & naz - yes ... was a bad one for sure.
Haunty - you can google Marques de Pombal - he led an interesting life. He was a man that pretty much usurped King Jospeh I simply because the king was a fairly weak individual. The one I know of ruins wise is the convent - it's been left as it is purposely, as a reminder of 1755.
Janetta - thankyou! I do live in a beautiful place :)
Janetta on May 20, 2009:
very interesting hub, Frog. You're doing great with the informative hubs these days!! :) That picture of the Carmo Convent is gorgeous...you live in a very beautiful place :)
Haunty from Hungary on May 20, 2009:
Very nice engaging hub, frogdropping. In fact, one can't help but wonder who the man is that stands atop that impressive pillar. I'm pleased to learn that he's actually someone who did so much about Lisbon and it's people. I may be stupid, but I'd never thought this was possible in Europe. If I'd heard about one such disasterous earthquake in Portugal happening today, I would've certainly been astounded. Are there many ruins from the time of the earthquake in Lisbon today?
lxxy from Beneath, Between, Beyond on May 19, 2009:
Sheesh, I thought the Frisco quake was bad...this sounds slightly more devastating.
nazishnasim on May 19, 2009:
Loved the hub. Never heard about this place and its tragedy before. An 8 must have wreaked much more havoc and devastation than what's reported by generations. Thanks for sharing!
Andria (author) on May 19, 2009:
Lgali - thankyou very much :)
Teresa - hey! I wish my lovely English language teacher has told me that many years ago!
Sheila from The Other Bangor on May 19, 2009:
Great hub -- informative and very well written. You have a great writing style that is engaging and eloquent. Thanks!
Lgali on May 19, 2009:
frogdropping -incredible hub again you love to write very different
Andria (author) on May 19, 2009:
All - thankyou very much. I enjoyed writing this. I always did like history and had a scant awareness of the 1755 disaster anyway. I'm happy it turned out so well :)
TheLesleyShow from US on May 19, 2009:
What an incredible hub! I really learned a lot. I love reading about old natural disasters. Crazy but it's kind of like the one that Indonesia (spelling?).
Hey Candie V - where do you live? I live in California and I consider this to be earthquake country?
Candie V from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure! on May 19, 2009:
I live in earthquake country, but haven't been in one over a 6.2. Can't even imagine an 8. The last one we had here was incredible. Sounded like a truck coming towards us, then the parking lot started rolling and a full size semi truck parked out there started bouncing, up off the ground, all 18 wheels. Incrediblely scary. Thank you for a great hub!
Elisabeth Sowerbutts from New Zealand on May 19, 2009:
Nice hub - I hadn't realised that there was a tsunami as well. Although it was a dreadful disaster it also gave birth to great beauty - the centre of Liston is one of the most attractive central city area in all of Europe - and that is saying quite a lot! In fact the story doesn't sount dissimilar to what happened to Aceh in Sumatra after the 2004 Tsunami
CommerceCat from Australia on May 19, 2009:
This is a really interesting, indepth hub - learnt a lot! thanks!