09 February 2016

The destruction of Lisbon, 1755

In 1755, an earthquake of magnitude 8.5 -9.0 or greater struck in the Atlantic just west of Lisbon.  Three separate quakes caused many of the great buildings in Lisbon to collapse to the ground.  Shortly thereafter a set of three tsunamis crashed ashore and destroyed the shipping in the Tagus river.  After the waters receded, fires from candles and furnaces in damaged churches and workshops broke out and spread uncontrollably throughout the city. 
“One of the first structures to catch fire was the stately palace of the Marques de Lourical… it was a repository of countless treasures, including a collection of over two hundred paintings by such masters as Titian, Correggio, and Rubens, and a renowned library of eighteen thousand books, which contained a history composed by the Emperor Charles V in his own hand, a collection of preserved plants (a herbarium) once owned by King Matthias Hunyadi of Hungary, and a priceless assemblage of original manuscripts, maps, and charts from the Portuguese Age of Exploration

[at the Riverside Palace] “The fire burned all of the galleries, halls, rooms, antechambers, and offices of the palace, with all of its rich decorations and furniture covered in gold, silver, and rich jewels of inestimable value,” wrote Portal. (p. 155)

Gone forever were all the singular and extraordinary objects collected by the kings of Portugal over the centuries. Gone, too, was the Royal Library, “the most excellent in Europe” added Portal. The pride of the late Joao V, and indeed all of Portugal, the entire library and its seventy thousand volumes, reams of priceless manuscripts, including many of the original travel logs of Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese explorers, rare tapestries, oil paintings, and engravings were incinerated (though a few objects may have been pilfered by thieves and subsequently lost). In terms of cultural harm, the destruction of Portugal’s Biblioteca dos Reis (Library of the Kings) ranks as one of the great tragedies in the history of the West and can be likened to the burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. (p. 165)

 “… the court in Lisbon was the richest in Europe in precious stones and it lost all of them, except those that the royal family had with them at the time of the disaster.” Indeed, “the two streets, where the richest goldsmiths and diamond setters lived, were those that suffered the most in the earthquake and the fire. In Goudar’s estimation,"two hundred diamond shops were completely buried under the ruins.”

Also “lost were priceless suits of armor,” wrote Father Portal, “especially those from the Royal Treasury belonging to his Majesty, jewels of incomparable value, diamonds, pearls, emeralds, [and] every kind of precious stone, [as well as] gold, silver, paintings, and statues.” (p. 272-3)

“As to diamonds, “11 to 12 million [cruzados’ worth of] diamonds” were lost in the India House alone… (about 1/3 of the official value of all the diamonds extracted from Brazil between 1740 and 1755.) 
Prior to this tragedy, Portugal had been one of the maritime powers of the world; for centuries it had been harvesting the mineral wealth of Brazil and other colonies.  The tragedy also destroyed all the public records of baptisms, births, burials, genealogy, the account books of merchants, treaties, contracts, rents, receipts, financial and economic legislation, and much of the paper money.

I've transcribed the text excerpts above from This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, by Mark Molesky. 

See also this post from last month: The Library of John V of Portugal.


  1. i guess that's why they recommend backing up files?

    p.s. have any of those lost riches ever been dug up?


  2. After I wrote this post I sent the link to a fellow blogger who moved from Oregon to Portugal. His reply contains some information and insight that I thought would be worth sharing with readers here:

    "Hi, Stan! Great to hear from you. I have indeed read about the Great Quake, and am fascinated not just because of its historical significance but also because of its ramifications for the future. Portugal lies right on the massive fault line between the African and Eurasian plates; it is only a matter of time before there is another big slip.

    I’m also fascinated because, as a long-term Oregon coast resident and student of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, I can’t help but compare the 1700 Oregon quake with the 1755 Portugal quake. The one in Oregon was even bigger but did almost no structural damage because there were barely any structures, just the wooden villages of coastal tribes. Fifty-five years later, southern Portugal gets hit and the lesser quake essentially wipes out an entire nation — setting off a religious, economic, and governmental crisis, and kick-starting an entirely new philosophy. I’m sure your book pointed out the fact that the timing of the quake could not have been worse — early in the morning on All Saints’ Day, when most of the population was sitting in churches for mass. Churches were some of the worst places to be; the death toll was horrific. And so the inevitable questions arose — why was such a God-fearing nation, whose kings had made gigantic (and nationally debilitating) gifts to Popes, struck down to the ground even as its pious citizens sat in church?

    The Algarve, where I live, was hit extremely hard but doesn’t get the same historical coverage because it isn’t Lisbon. But the vast majority of the Algarvean population lived in fishing villages right on the coast, and they were slammed by the tsunami. The easternmost town in the Algarve, Vila Real de Santo António, is now famous for having been completely rebuilt and redesigned by the Marquis de Pombal in the new “Pombaline” style, with streets laid out in a grid pattern. (Americans find it very comforting — it might be the only town in Portugal that is easy to get around in.)

    And yes, the Marquis de Pombal was a ruthless, awful, vicious man who stepped right into the power vacuum (thanks to the wussy king fleeing the city) and promptly shanghaied the remaining population of Lisboa into cleaning up and rebuilding. He struck fear into the hearts of the nobles (and many an average citizen), but he is also responsible for the birth of modern earthquake science and the salvaging and rebirth of Portugal. Nowadays he is considered a great hero; the largest roundabout in Lisboa is named after him and features a statue of him on a high plinth in the center.

    One of the things that struck me when I read about the quake was the description of how lost the Lisboetas were immediately afterward. Imagine losing all of your landmarks — the church spires, castle towers, street intersections — and then losing all visibility, since the entire city was smothered under a cloud of rock dust. No one knew where they were or where to go…but they knew the river lay downhill and there must surely lie safety...

    To this day, one of the features of the central Lisboa skyline is the arched ribs of the Convento do Carmo. Its roof collapsed on top of the congregation, and was never repaired. The lower building now houses the Association of Archaeology — so ironic, no?


    Fletcher's blog is Oregon Expat: https://oregonexpat.wordpress.com/


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