18th century

‘The earth trembled and shook’: The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 | Stephen Basdeo


On the evening of 31 October 1755 all of the animals in the beautiful city of Lisbon seemed rather agitated. Dogs began barking. Cats began yowling. Worms slithered up through the soil to the surface. Birds in their cages began chirping uncontrollably and mules could not be tamed. Wells began to dry up and in some places a sulphuric smell could be discerned in the air. These were bad omens and likely did little to assuage the anxious mind of Thomas Chase, an Anglo-Portuguese man who, just some months before, had heard a prophecy that the year 1755 would usher in some cataclysmic event.[1]

A recreation of Lisbon before the earthquake at the Terramoto Museum (Taken by Stephen Basdeo)

Thomas Chase was not the only Englishman in Lisbon in 1755. An eighteenth-century English traveller who desired to visit Lisbon could board a ship at Falmouth—one of the many destined for the famous Portuguese city—and reach it in under 80 hours.[2] Many an Englishman had a reason to visit Lisbon’s shores; it was a bustling port and the centre of a large maritime empire whose possessions spanned three four continents and included the countries of what is now Brazil, Angola, and the part of India centred upon the city of Goa.

For some, the climate promised health and recovery for a variety of ailments. Henry Fielding (1707–54), author and Magistrate of Westminster, retired to Lisbon when his health took a turn for the worse.[3] Merchants and aristocrats, with a wide array of business interests in Portugal and Brazil were likewise regular visitors to the nation’s capital and it was not unusual for up to 150 ships to be moored off the city’s coast.[4] Lisbon was a place where one could enjoy life and make some money.

Lisbon trembles (Wikimedia Commons)

All Saints’ Day

Anyone arriving into Lisbon in 1755, just like Thomas Chase, would find themselves on the brink of death, for the city was the epicentre of ‘possibly the largest historical earthquake ever described’.[5]

On the morning of 1 November, or All Saints Day, at about 10:30 a.m., in the Bairro Alto, Lord Drumlanrig was sitting in his lodgings penning a letter home to his parents in Great Britain when he felt a

‘violent shaking of the room’ as the house seemed to ‘swing from side to side’.[6]

Everyone in the city felt their house tremble. So did everyone in Portugal itself. Yet the shaking of the ground was not felt only in Portugal. Tremors were felt throughout Spain, France, Britain, Norway, Morocco, the northern coast of Brazil, and as far as the eastern coast of the Thirteen Colonies, or the future United States.

Recreation of the carnage after the quake at Lisbon’s Terramoto museum (Taken by Stephen Basdeo)

But Lisbon was the epicentre. The houses seemed to ‘dance’ upon the ground which rolled like the waves of the sea. The shoddily-built houses in the poorer quarters, many of which had survived since the medieval period, fell flat. The cries of those crushed beneath falling masonry and timber went up from the city in a chorus.

For with a sudden shock the solid ground,

In dreadful waves came rolling all around,


Earth’s womb was heard to groan with hollow roar,

The dwellings tumbled, but men trembled more.[7]

The tremors—for there were three of them—lasted a grand total of 15 minutes. But in that quarter of an hour a city, which was once described as second only to Constantinople for its beauty and wealth, was brought to ruins. The death toll was incalculable. They thought ‘the world was at an end’.[8] For those who survived—like the rather disorientated Thomas Chase whom the tremors had thrust out of his first floor balcony—new horrors were to come.

Fire engulfs the city of Lisbon (Terramoto Museum, taken by Stephen Basdeo)

The City Alight

This was an era in which the principal source of fuel and lighting was fire. In every house, candles and fires would have been ablaze when the shaking of the earth began. The flames caught the fallen timbers. The result was inevitable: Fire began to consume a great many of the fallen houses and some of those still standing were not spared—in at least 100 places the city was on fire. The situation was not helped by the fact that looters also busied themselves setting fire to other ruins. The strong winds felt on the aftermath of this quake on this November morning fanned the flames still further. Aftershocks brought more buildings tumbling down and further stoked the fires.

But then—another horror awaited…

1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbour (The Earthquake Engineering Archive, Wikimedia Commons)

‘A Horrible Cemetery of Floating Water’

The majority of houses were unstable. Survivors, understandably, sought refuge in parts of the city where they would safe from falling debris. For many, this meant that the safest place was the sea shore and it was to the harbour that many people took themselves. As some survivors gathered there they noticed that the sea began to recede. The water receded by about 3 miles… Suddenly, at a speed of almost 400 miles per hour, a wall of water, twelve metres high, surged towards the city. Those on the sea shore and in the lower parts of the city stood not a chance. The majority of the city was swamped in water and the city became

‘a horrible cemetery of floating water’.[9]

Similar tsunamis of lesser strength were felt at Penzance and Cadiz. As the waters at Lisbon receded the survivors found, on stepping out, that the streets were strewn with dead bodies. Darkness fell. Tremors continued throughout the night. Lawlessness and looting soon followed as the police abandoned their posts. Disease beckoned, as did hunger, while fires still flickered in many parts of the city where the Tsunami never reached, the wind carrying the noxious fumes into the mouths and noses of survivors who had difficulty breathing.

Map showing the areas of the globe where the tsunami travelled (Wikimedia Commons)

Humanitarian Response

While All Saints Day witnessed the major earthquake, there were aftershocks and slight tremors on several days afterwards, the last being felt on 21 December. By then the full extent of the damage had begun to be assessed. The historical waterfront of the city was completely ruined. The palatial mansions of the rich nobles were destroyed and with them some priceless treasures. Destroyed in the home of the Marquês de Louriçal, for instance, were over 200 paintings—a collection which included works by Titian, Corregio, and Rubens.[10] Also contained in Louriçal’s collection were 18,000 early modern printed books and nearly 1,000 medieval manuscripts including a history written by Emperor Charles V’s own hand.

The custom house had been destroyed which severely hampered any hope of a quick economic recovery. The old royal palace was destroyed beyond repair and the king, José I, was reduced to living in a tent on the outskirts of the city. He never recovered from the mental shock of being inside a palace when the quake struck. He lived the rest of his life in a tent for fear of falling masonry. In terms of accommodation, the general population fared no better. One observer commented that

I assure you that this extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins; the rich and the poor are at present upon a level; some thousand of families which but the day before had been easy in their circumstances, being now scattered about the fields, wanting every conveniency of life, and finding none able to relieve them.[11]

One year later, as much of the debris was being cleared and the nobility was rebuilding their stone dwellings, shanty towns appeared on the edges of the city where crime, disease, and hunger ran rampant. Luckily, aid was quickly forthcoming from Britain, Brazil, France, and Spain in what was perhaps the world’s first international humanitarian relief effort. Britain’s efforts, coordinated by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, included the sending of 6,000 barrels of beef, 4,000 firkins of butter, an immense quantity of food and shoes, as well as £50,000 in cash.[12] Great quantities of spades and picks were also packed on to British ships and made their way to Portugal.[13]

At the time, Portugal was England’s closest European ally (and the two countries have maintained this alliance since 1386). Consequently, English and Scottish merchants were a significant presence in the city of Lisbon, from where they conducted trade with Portugal and Spain’s South American colonies. By 1750, Britain exported over £1 million of goods to Portugal. The wealth of Portugal’s Brazilian mines in Minas Gerais was said by some to be stored in the Bank of England, with the gold merely ‘passing through’ Lisbon. Thus, it was not without some justification that one eighteenth-century French traveller regarded Portugal as

‘little more than a colony of a country [England] which had secured the privilege of supplying [her] with almost all the articles of luxury, of utility, and even of necessity’.[14]

Coupled, therefore, with an outpouring of humanitarian sentiment in England were also anxieties, on the part of the mercantile and governing classes, about the amount of wealth which Britain’s lost in the earthquake. The Archbishop of York, to take just one example, held significant investments in Lisbon; in just one day his family lost £7,000 in damaged goods and property which they held in Lisbon and his story was not atypical.[15] If merchants’ goods were not crushed in the quake then the fire had got to them. Nor were English merchants the only ones to suffer; Lisbon was the gateway to the South Atlantic and some of the richest merchants in Europe faced an uncertain future.

The newspaper reaction

Even in a world of sailing ships, then, news travelled fast. As well as the politically-coordinated humanitarian response, the earthquake became an international media ‘event’ provoking articles and poems. Some poets sought to explain the events of the earthquake in terms of God’s divine plan; this was an act of God which, though horrific, had some deeper meaning which mere mortals could not comprehend. The following poem, from the English Universal Register, is typical of many such which appeared in the Anglophone press:

All hail! Th’Almighty’s justest ire!

Welcome earthquakes, welcome fire:

We’re born to bear, but not repine:

Jehovah, nature’s works are Thine.

It was Thou that gave us thought,

And we’ll use it as we ought:

Lord of all eternity,

Spare us, for we’re parts of Thee.

Thou are great, and good, and just,

We admire, adore, and trust:

Our crimes, and passions, are our own;

But mercy, mercy’s Thine alone.[16]

The Portuguese population which was then, just as nowadays, deeply Catholic would have keenly felt the loss of over 60 convents and monasteries the length and breadth of the country.[17] A popular idiom in Portuguese, which can be heard even now, goes ‘Cai o Carmo e a Trinidade’. Uttered during any seeming disaster, it can be roughly translated as ‘Thus Carmo and the Trinity fall down’. It truly seemed as if the judgment of God had been visited upon the city of Lisbon. Religious fanatics began to turn on minorities, blaming Jews, Muslims, and Protestants—many of whom felt compelled to flee the city for fear of persecution—for brining God’s displeasure. Meanwhile, the Inquisition soon set to work and began placing the blame for the earthquake upon the poor inhabitants for being sinful.

Who was responsible for the event—God or man?

The ruins of Carmo as seen from Castelo de S. Jorge (Taken by Stephen Basdeo)

The Philosophical Revolution

In some sense, the Lisbon earthquake was the first disaster event in the modern world which ‘killed’ God. Occurring during the era of the Enlightenment, already prior to 1755 had thinkers begun to grapple with and question ideas such as divine intervention and the ‘will of God’. Voltaire was one of the first to set pen to paper and, in 1756, he published Poeme sur le desastre de Lisbonne which was a riposte to the Pope who said essentially, that though there will be always be individual disasters, the wages of sin are always death and through the Lisbon earthquake ‘God is avenged’. In the Pope’s and indeed some other philosophers’ views, ‘providential balance’ had been restored. Voltaire was having none of it and asked them to

Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,

The child and mother heaped in common wreck,

The scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—

A hundred thousand whom the earth devours.[18]

François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), known as Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher (Wikimedia Commons)

Could anyone stand over the mangled corpses of the dead and really say: This is all part of God’s plan and providential balance? Was the all-loving and omnipotent father of humankind really the author of this event and, if so, why would he do such a thing? This was simply a tragic event, arising out of natural causes, and neither God nor man was responsible.

Immanuel Kant by Johann Gottlieb Becker (Wikimedia Commons)

The event also caused the philosopher Immanuel Kant to turn towards empiricism and reject any explanation of the world which hinged upon the divine. This he did in three essays written in 1756: ‘History and Natural Description of the Most Noteworthy Occurrences of the Earthquake’, ‘Of the Causes of the Earthquake’, and ‘Continued Observations on the Earthquake’. The Lisbon Earthquake had truly marked a turning point in European intellectual history. No longer would God be assumed to be taking an active hand in world affairs.

The “Quake” Centre; or Centro do Terramoto Experience in Lisbon (Taken by Stephen Basdeo)

A New City Rises

Yet amid the death and destruction of Lisbon in 1755 there is a story of hope. All the major powers of Europe as well as Brazil immediately sent humanitarian aid the inhabitants of the city. And out of the ashes, under the guiding hand of Portugal’s Prime Minister José Carvalho, the Marques of Pombal, a new city rose up.

The new city was the perfect expression of neoclassical finery and rationalism: the old rickety winding streets of medieval Lisbon had gone forever and in their place were carefully ordered square blocks with all major buildings built according to anti-earthquake designs. God may have abandoned Lisbon, but the new city that arose was a testament to the fact that humans could come together, help each other, and create something marvellous: The current splendid city of Lisbon.

Lisbon today (Taken by Stephen Basdeo)


[1] Edward Paice, The Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (London: Quercus, 2008),

[2] Paice,1.

[3] Henry Fielding, ‘Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon’, in The Works of Henry Fielding, ed. by Leslie Stephen, 10 vols (London: Smith, Elder, 1882), VII, 1.

[4] Paice, 47.

[5] M.A. Baptista et al. ‘The 1755 Lisbon Tsunami: Evaluation of the tsunami parameters’, Journal of Geodynamics, 25: 2 (1998), 713–21.

[6] Paice, 67.

[7] ‘A poem on the EARTHQUAKE at Lisbon’, The Scots Magazine, December (1755), 596.

[8] Paice, 83.

[9] Paice, 99.

[10] Barry Hatton, The Queen of the Sea: A History of Lisbon (London: Hurst, 2018), 133.

[11] Hatton, 133.

[12] Paice, 151.

[13] David Birmingham, A Concise History of Portugal (Cambridge University Press, 2018), 81.

[14] Pierre Desouteux de Cormatin, Travels of the Duke de Chatelet in Portugal (London, 1809), 16.

[15] Birmingham, 81.

[16] ‘Extempore LINES, spoken on the late melancholy Event of Lisbon’, Universal visitor and memorialist, January 1756: 91-91.

[17] Hatton, 132.

[18] Robert K. Weininger, Sublime Conclusions: Last Man Narratives from Apocalypse to Death of God (Cambridge: Legenda, 2017), 12.

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