The Lisbon Earthquake

Franck Fernández – Translator, interpreter and philologist

November 1, 1755, All Saints’ Day. Lisbon. Churches and chapels across the country are full of the very devoted Portuguese. At 9:40 in the morning the church bells began to ring alone. No one knew what was to come. So far the strongest earthquake in Europe with which seismology studies began. At that time it was not possible to make measurements on the Richter scale, but it is considered that it was a 9-degree earthquake and, of the 275,000 people who inhabited the capital, some 60,000 died. The earthquake lasted about 6 minutes, eternal minutes in which there were 3 shocks that destroyed many of the buildings in the city and opened cracks in the streets up to 5 meters wide. The great exponents of the rich Portuguese Gothic were lost forever.

The lisboetas who managed to save themselves from the rubble fled to the open spaces of the docks where in panic they could see how the sea retreated and a few minutes later a great wave of more than 20 meters in height arrived that swept with the survivors and entered great distance in the city. In total there were 3 big waves. As it was the Day of the Holy Dead, people and religious centers had lighted candles that were the start of large fires that destroyed what little the earthquake and tsunami had spared. As if that were not enough, the prisoners escaped and not a few dedicated themselves to theft, murder and rape.

José I, the richest king in Europe at that time, and his family were saved because after mass at dawn, one of the King’s daughters asked to go and eat in the fields outside the capital. Had it not been for this, his entire family would have died in the old royal palace. Sebastián de Carvalho e Mello, who was later named Marqués de Pombal, and at that time Prime Minister and in charge of the country’s government, was also saved. With their usual pragmatism, they say that they responded to someone who asked what to do in those moments: – “Collect the dead and attend to the living.” 85% of the city’s buildings were destroyed by the earthquake, tsunami, and fires. The city’s glittering new opera house, the Phoenix, burned to its foundations. The largest hospital in the world, the Royal Hospital of All Saints Dead, was destroyed by the flames and hundreds of patients were burned to death. Then the fire degenerated into a firestorm. Extraordinary books, documents and paintings by great painters were lost. What culture lost in this earthquake is said to be comparable only to the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

King José Primero had an atrocious fear for the rest of his life to sleep indoors, so from that moment until his death he and the court lived in elegant tents out in the open. It was his heir, Queen María Primera, who managed to start building the current Royal Palace of Ajuda.

In his practicality, the Marquis of Pombal commissioned all priests and scholars to ask the following questions: how long did the earthquake last? How many aftershocks did you feel? What kind of damage did it cause? Did the animals behave strangely? What happened to the water wells? These questions were the beginning of seismology as a science, as I have already said above. It should be noted that the animals “felt” the arrival of the shocks first and after the tsunami, fleeing to high places.

With almost the entire capital destroyed, the ingenuity of the Prime Minister, Marqués de Pombal, in less than a year, had already removed all the rubble. Reconstruction of a new Lisbon had begun with wide avenues, Europe’s first anti-seismic buildings and large green spaces. When they asked Pombal why they wanted such wide avenues, he replied: “Someday they will be narrow.” Who knows Lisbon and its traffic jams will understand its prophetic words.

Fun fact: While most of the city’s churches, convents, and chapels were damaged or destroyed, the brothels on the outskirts of the city suffered no damage.

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