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Lisbon after the earthquake


In the year 1755, Lisbon, capital city of Portugal, sprawled over the slopes of seven hills, six miles from the mouth of the River Tagus. Lisbon was a fair city as seen from the river, with palaces of pink marble and 20,000 houses, mostly stone, of four or five stories. They enclosed narrow inclined medieval streets; many strewn with refuse and roamed at night by packs of feral dogs. There was a population of about 235,000, one in ten of whom were homeless, and most of whom seemed to be unemployed. Negro slaves did manual work, and foreign traders dominated business. Beggars gathered at the doors of the churches. In Lisbon almost every large building was a church or had some other religious function. Lisbon was a pious city, thronged with monks and friars, and abounding in processions bearing sacred objects and relics. The Holy Inquisition still burned its quota of Jews and heretics.

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Lisbon was also an earthquake city. Old records gave warning of what might happen there. The city's first earthquake was recorded in 1009. In 1344 there were 'many violent shocks' in Lisbon and along the sea coast. On August 24, 1356, an earthquake lasting 15 minutes threw down many of the city's buildings, and aftershocks continued for a year. On January 26, 1531, a monstrous earthquake shook all Portugal, Spain, North Africa, and was felt in Flanders and Switzerland. At Lisbon there was disaster. 1,500 houses and all the churches were destroyed. Sea waves rushed in, engulfing ships and driving the waters of the Tagus over its banks. In 1551, a shock threw down 200 houses in Lisbon, and on July 28, 1597, another caused the houses of three streets to collapse, 'and the hill of St. Katharine was cleft in two. ' Almost a year later, on July 22, 1598, a less severe earthquake was still strong enough to knock people in the streets off their feet.

For almost a century after this there seemed to be a lull; then, in 1699, earthquakes returned. The tremors, which began in October 27 of this year, lasted, with intervals, for three days. On October 12, 1724, two shocks, several hours apart, cracked many walls. In 1750 there was 'one violent shock'.

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These warnings went unheeded, for obvious reasons. Earthquakes were unpredictable, unstoppable, and inevitable. People did not think about them until they happened, and then forgot about them as quickly as possible. The disaster of 1531 might be repeated at any moment; but there were no precautions that might be taken. Even foresight and an evacuation of the city, were such a thing feasible, would not have availed against what was to come.

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The morning of All Saints' Day, November 1, 1755, was fine and clear in Lisbon. There was a light breeze from the north-east. The city had been cleaned and decorated for the greatest religious feast of the year. The bells of Lisbon's 40 churches and 90 convents rang to herald High Mass.

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The earthquake was submarine. It originated at a point estimated by the famous seismologist Charles Davison as being at latitude 39° North, longitude 11° West. A ship at latitude 40° North, longitude 25° West suddenly jerked up as if suspended from a rope, and a strange noise was heard. About a minute later, "three craggy pointed rocks throwing up water of various colours resembling liquid fire" were seen about a league away. After two minutes a heavy black cloud rose from the spot. The rocks disappeared, and the water subsided. At 9:45 a.m., the crew of a Dutch vessel a league and a half off Monte Zizambre, about 20 miles south of Lisbon, felt a violent shock. Landslides slid from the mountain into the sea. More shocks were felt on board this vessel towards sunset, and here too a mass of smoke was seen in the ENE, 7 or 8 leagues away. After dark a fire was visible, which illuminated the sky all night. A distant town was burning.

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The first shock reached Lisbon at about 9:40 a.m. It was enough to make houses tremble, and lasted about a minute. There was a sound like rattling wagons, which soon became like thunder. The sound and motion alarmed many people, and some wondered if it might be an earthquake.

The shocks which wrecked Lisbon came, thirty seconds later. The first lasted two minutes, although some said the duration was 8 or 10 minutes. A few minutes later an even more violent shock jerked the earth back and forth for two minutes. The waters of the River Tagus fell five or six feet in that time, "and an enormous quantity of gas escaped from them". 12,000 houses collapsed, and the dust of their fall rose to blot out the bright day.

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At the same time at Oporto, a shock preceded by a terrible noise like carriages rattling over a rough road caused all the houses in the town to tremble, and the walls of several churches cracked. The town of Setubal, 22 miles south-east of Lisbon, was "almost entirely swallowed up". 17 miles from Lisbon, near Colares, a thick column of smoke, accompanied by flames, were reported to have issued from the Alviras rocks, and, according to some, from the sea also, This smoke lasted several days.

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Twenty minutes later, as survivors in Lisbon struggled over the ruins, sought escape, or tried to help victims, another shock came. All Portugal and Spain were shaken. North-West Africa was stricken with disaster as severely as Portugal. Near the capital of Morocco an oasis or a village with a population of 8,000 or 10,000 ' disappeared'; it was said to have been swallowed up by the opening of a mountain. The whole of Switzerland quivered; the south and west of France felt the tremors, which reached to Normandy, Holland, and Germany. Parts of Denmark trembled, and shocks were 'distinctly perceived' in Sweden and Norway. Even Iceland and Greenland felt it, according to some authorities. At Milan in Italy the lamps of the churches swung and water was thrown out of canals. A cloud of smoke rising above Vesuvius was withdrawn into the crater at the moment of the earthquake. In Lisbon there was slaughter as buildings which had survived the first shocks collapsed into streets thronged with survivors.

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At Cadiz in Spain a strong shock was felt at 10 a.m., but only a few old houses fell. At 11:10 a.m., a tsunami or seismic sea wave nearly 60 feet high flooded the town, sweeping away part of the ramparts and carrying masses of earth and masonry weighing many tons for a quarter of a mile. The sea returned three times during the day, with lesser force, and remained turbulent for 24 hours. At Funchal in the island of Madeira a violent shock was felt at about 9. 30 am. At 11:45 a.m.. the sea suddenly withdrew for a distance of 100 paces, then returned as a wave 15 feet higher than the highest tide, flooding Funchal and doing much damage.

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At Lisbon too the sea was withdrawing. The bar at the mouth of the River Tagus was exposed. The river itself, here four miles wide, seethed and churned. Then, beyond the bar, a mass of water like a mountain appeared. A seismic sea wave was roaring towards the stricken city. Vessels on the river were swept away, overturned, or crushed together. This was the moment when a new marble quay, Cays de Prada, crowded with survivors, was engulfed in something like a whirlpool and disappeared below the surface of the river together with every boat near it. No trace of quay, boats, or victims, was ever found. The story of the sinking quay has been doubted, but the Rev. Charles Davy, who survived the earthquake and the sea wave (but did not see the quay disappear himself), said, "This account you may give full credit to, for as to the loss of the vessels, it is confirmed by everybody; and with regard to the quay, I went myself a few days after to convince myself of the truth, and could not find even the ruins of a place where I had taken so many agreeable walks…I found it all deep water, and in some parts scarcely to be fathomed. "

The wave inundated the lower part of Lisbon. Many people clung to wreckage and survived when the water withdrew a few minutes later. Many more were swept to their deaths, or drowned when the boats in which they were seeking to flee the city were overwhelmed, although according to some observers, the size or convolutions of the bay broke the first force of the wave and prevented an even greater disaster.

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Another violent earthquake shook the wreckage of Lisbon at noon. Fires, which had been smouldering since the first shock, were fanned by a strong north-easterly wind which sprang up after this tremor. While Lisbon burned, most of Europe felt the outspreading effects of the convulsion. Madrid in Spain was shaken at the same time as Lisbon. The Pyrenees were disturbed, and a crevice 15 miles long opened near Angoulême. Many houses fell at Brigg in Switzerland. At Bordeaux in France, 610 miles from Lisbon, a shock was felt for some minutes and the water of the river boiled. In the Scilly Isles, 785 miles distant, several people ran out of their houses as the earth shook. A 19th Century French writer, Arnold Boscowitz, claimed that "great loss of life and property occurred upon the coasts of Cornwall, owing to the sudden rise of the waters of the sea 8 or 10 feet above their usual level. " At Dartmouth, 850 miles distant, boats broke their cables as a wave rushed up the river. 895 miles away in Reading, a gardener felt a violent trembling of the earth lasting 30 seconds and saw pond water vibrating. Several ponds at Tenterden in Kent, 975 miles away, had water slopped violently onto the banks, while in others whirling eddies formed. The earth shook at Eyam Edge in Derbyshire, 995 miles distant; chunks of plaster fell from the walls of a room, and a crack 150 yards long and a foot deep opened in a field. The water in the rivers, canals and washing tubs of Haarlem, 1,150 miles distant, were dashed over the sides, and the canals of Amsterdam, 1,160 miles distant, were agitated so that boats broke their cables. A wave over 4 feet high moved up the River Oich at Loch Ness, 1,305 miles distant, and broke over the bank for 30 feet. The River Dal in Sweden, 1,820 miles distant, overflowed, then swiftly retired.

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The waters of Europe slopped as if shaken in a bucket. The lake of Neuchatel in the Alps overflowed its banks, and the smaller nearby lake of Murbner fell twenty feet, and remained at that level. The hot springs of Töplitz in Germany ceased to flow, then burst out in a flood which inundated part of the town. Loch Lomond surged to and fro for 45 minutes, rising to a height of over two feet in five minutes, then sinking again for the same period.

Not only fresh water was disturbed. The sea wave that had flooded Lisbon and Cadiz raced across the Atlantic Ocean. At Gibraltar the sea rose 7 feet higher than usual, then retreated to an 'extraordinarily low' level, ebbing and flowing at a progressively weaker level all day. The wave at Tangier was said to be 50 feet high, and the sea rose and fell eighteen times before evening. At Kinsale in Ireland, a wave at 2 pm broke over the quay with sufficient force to throw many people off their feet. Less than ten hours after the earthquake, at about 3 p.m. local time (7 p.m. Lisbon time) the wave reached the West Indies. At Barbados, 3,585 miles from Lisbon, water 6 feet high flowed into the streets and ebbed and flowed every five minutes for 8 hours. At Antigua, 3,540 miles distant, the sea rose 12 feet several times. No wave was visible; the sea merely rose beyond its usual boundaries, then retreated. At Barbados it did this 64 times.

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The ruins of Lisbon burned for six days. 15,000 people, or 70,000, or 100,000, had died by earthquake, flood or fire; no-one would ever know for certain. The city, according to one observer, was reduced to "hills and mountains of rubbish still smoking". A Mr Braddock, seeking higher ground after experiencing a sea wave that accompanied the noon shock, described victims with "their backs or thighs broken, others vast stones on their breasts, some lay in the rubbish and crying out in vain…for succour". Streams of refugees were fleeing the city, and the earth was not yet quiet. On November 8th a submarine earthquake was felt at sea, 60 leagues from the Portuguese coast, as great as that of the 1st. In Lisbon some buildings which had survived All Saints' Day were overthrown. On December 9th, the greatest shock since the 1st was felt in Lisbon, and once again France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy quivered.

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By this time, Senhor de Carvalho, later the Marquis de Pombal, Portugal's Secretary of State and a relentless organiser, had taken charge of things in Lisbon. He set up office in his carriage amid the ruins. Troops were mobilized to drive able-bodied refugees back into the city to clear paths through the rubble, a task completed by November 6th. Water, once supplied by now broken aqueducts, was transported into the city; ships in port were ordered to sell their surplus food at October 31st prices. Tents and huts were erected for the homeless, and the Royal Family lived in tents for nine months before moving into a wooden palace. Looters and arsonists were hanged. The bodies of thousands of earthquake dead were loaded into barges, towed out to sea, and sunk at the mouth of the Tagus. All European countries sent aid and money, and the English parliament voted the sum of £100,000 for the relief of Lisbon.

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200,000 homeless survivors now began to spread rumours and ask the inevitable question, "Why us?" The earthquake had been foreseen, some said. A nun had told her confessor in 1752 that there would be a terrible event on All Saints' Day, and had only been wrong by three years. The corpses of priests killed in their churches were found miraculously preserved. The islands of the Azores and Madeira had been swallowed up. Most Portuguese believed that God's wrath had smitten their city, but there were conflicting opinions as to what had inspired His anger. King José, huddling under a tent with his family, was persecuted by priests who told him that the disaster was the result of his own many sins. He was compelled to lead a penitential procession with his Queen and daughters, all barefoot. Others, especially foreigners, were prepared to spread the sin more widely. One told the Portuguese to think of "the millions of poor Indians" they and the Spanish had slaughtered in their lust for New World gold. Others said the shock was requital for the horrors of the Inquisition, pointing out with satisfaction that the Inquisitional Palace, consumed by fire, had suffered the fate it had dealt out to so many victims. Some, including the Marquis de Pombal and the Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to stay the excesses of moral judgement, but the earthquake was a great spiritual shock to Europe. Some thought that the civilised world had never suffered such a disaster before, although ancient history gave many examples of cities levelled by earthquake and fire with appalling loss of life. One commentator gritted his teeth and pointed out that the earthquake had been an accident, "like an accident in the street. God may be the ultimate cause, but that does not mean the earthquake dead had been…executed on official Divine instructions". The fact of the matter was that Lisbon had been in the way. The shock and sea wave would have assaulted with equal fury an uninhabited coast. However, the notion that the earth was indifferent to the concerns of the human race was (and is) unpopular.

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Lisbon was rebuilt. The work took fifteen years. While it progressed, the Marquis de Pombal investigated the earthquake. Questionnaires were sent to every parish in Portugal requesting details of shocks, landslides, fissures, the behaviour of springs, and sea waves. The Marquis personally investigated the extent of the damage and mapped fissures, consulting also Japanese scholars sent by the Tokugawa Shogun.

Meanwhile, earthquakes continued. Aftershocks were incessant, and every now and then a more violent tremor caused death and destruction. Over 300 people were killed on December 21 when houses collapsed and the River Tagus overflowed. On February 18, 1756, much of Europe was shaken again, and in Lisbon the tremors lasted nearly three minutes. The city quivered constantly during March of 1756, and on the 11th more houses were thrown down. On March 31, 1761, a submarine earthquake greater than any since All Saints' Day shook Portugal, Spain, North Africa, France, Holland, Ireland, Madeira and the Azores. At Lisbon the earth movement lasted five minutes, but there was little damage. Thereafter things settled down, with only, every year or so, a tremor for remembrance.

LISBON EARTHQUAKE

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