The first of November 1755 a catastrophe shocked the world: the Lisbon earthquake. The monumental disaster inspired poets, interested philosophers, angered prophets and motivated politicians. The epicenter of the Portuguese Empire was reduced to the insignificance of human work: in one breath, all the wonders of technique and progress were destroyed as constructions for children.
The eighteenth century Lisbon was a medieval city, full of small, winding and dirty streets. Reports say that around 9:30 am, the city was shaken by a major earthquake.
The effect of the earthquake in a city in this condition was devastating, and reports say that the tremors lasted up to seven minutes, although there are reports that suggest it may have lasted for 15 minutes. The epicenter of this earthquake was about 200 km to 300 km from Lisbon, more precisely to the southwest of mainland Portugal, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Current studies estimate that the 1755 tremor reached 8.9 on the Richter scale (the scale goes up to 10).
The magnitude of this earthquake contributed to the total destruction of the city.
And as if it is not enough, as it was the day of all Saints, in the churches, prepared with candles for the day’s ceremonies, fires started that ended up burning in the city for five days.
Obviously, nobody got a scientific explanation for what was happening, and what they thought was divine wrath. The only possibility was to escape.
Many people in the midst of despair and fleeing the landslides and fires that hit other parts of the city fled to Baixa de Lisboa. There, these people were hit by three tsunami that affected the entire region.
Thus, many of those who did not die in the landslides and fires died as a result of the tsunami that flooded this part of Lisbon. Regarding the earthquake, historian João Lúcio de Azevedo narrated the following:
The images oscillate on the altars; the walls dance; beams and columns are desoldered; the walls collapse with the bald sound of churning chalk and crushed human bodies; on the ground where the dead rest, the caves, to swallow the living […]. The horror of hell in woes and torments. Disorganized escape with fatal accidents, and the continuous stumbling over stones and corpses […]. Ruins everywhere | 1 |.
At the time, Lisbon had about 200 thousand inhabitants and the death toll varies considerably, as there are those who point out about 10 thousand deaths, while others suggest more than 50 thousand deaths in the disaster.
In addition to human lives, material destruction was enormous. The Royal Library was destroyed with more than 70 thousand volumes of items stored there. The Tagus Opera House, which opened that year, was destroyed and the destruction of 35 churches, 55 palaces was listed and across the city it is believed that around 10,000 buildings have been reduced to ruins.
Reconstruction of Lisbon
The emergency actions after the earthquake were taken immediately through the action of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, future marquis of Pombal. The reconstruction works of the city extended until the middle of the 19th century.
The first major action taken was to prevent the proliferation of disease and, therefore, it was necessary to bury the dead. Most of the bodies were incinerated with the gigantic fires that spread through Lisbon, but many remained below the ruins. To get rid of the bodies, the dead were buried in mass graves and many were thrown into the sea with weights tied to make them sink.
One step taken to stem the proliferation of chaos brought on by the earthquake was to prevent looting. This was even part of a list of fourteen measures adopted by order of Carvalho e Melo. Those captured by looting a residence were hanged by Kingdom troops.
The buildings that were rebuilt had strict guidelines to be followed with a fine forecast for non-compliance.
Baixa de Lisboa, the most destroyed area, became known as Baixa Pombalina and received a great innovation for the time: the projected buildings received an anti-seismic structure. This structure became known as the “pombaline cage”. This technique consisted of incorporating a wooden structure close to the masonry walls.
The Portuguese king – d. José I – began to suffer the rest of his days with claustrophobia. He survived the disaster, because at the time of the earthquake he was on the outskirts of Lisbon, in Belém. The sight of the destruction and the reports of thousands of dead people buried there made the king afraid to live in closed places.
D. José I was king of Portugal until 1777 and until the end of his days he lived in a complex of tents built in a place in Lisbon called Alto da Ajuda. This place was chosen because it was elevated and suffered little destruction and the tents built there became known as Real Barraca da Ajuda. This complex existed until the end of the 18th century, when a fire destroyed it.
In the video below you can see a reconstruction of what happened that same day, 265 years ago.