Lisbon earthquake, also known as the Great
occurred in the
Kingdom of Portugal
Kingdom of Portugal on the morning of Saturday, 1
November, the holy day of All Saints' Day, at around 09:40 local
time. In combination with subsequent fires and a tsunami, the
earthquake almost totally destroyed
Lisbon and adjoining areas.
Seismologists today estimate the
Lisbon earthquake had a magnitude in
the range 8.5–9.0 on the moment magnitude scale, with its
epicentre in the
Atlantic Ocean about 200 km (120 mi)
west-southwest of Cape St. Vincent. Estimates place the death toll in
Lisbon alone between 10,000 and 100,000 people, making it one of
the deadliest earthquakes in history.
The earthquake accentuated political tensions in the Kingdom of
Portugal and profoundly disrupted the country's colonial ambitions.
The event was widely discussed and dwelt upon by European
Enlightenment philosophers, and inspired major developments in
theodicy. As the first earthquake studied scientifically for its
effects over a large area, it led to the birth of modern seismology
and earthquake engineering.
1 Earthquake and tsunami
2 Casualties and damage
3 Relief and reconstruction efforts
4 Effect on society, economy and philosophy
5 Development of seismology
6 See also
9 External links
Earthquake and tsunami
1755 copper engraving showing
Lisbon in flames and a tsunami
overwhelming the ships in the harbor
The earthquake struck on the morning of 1 November 1755, the holy day
of All Saints' Day. Contemporary reports state that the earthquake
lasted between three and a half and six minutes, causing fissures 5
metres (16 feet) wide to open in the city centre. Survivors rushed to
the open space of the docks for safety and watched as the water
receded, revealing a sea floor littered with lost cargo and
shipwrecks. Approximately 40 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami
engulfed the harbour and downtown area, rushing up the
"so fast that several people riding on horseback ... were forced
to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds for fear of being
carried away." It was followed by two more waves. Candles had been lit
all around the city, in homes and churches alike, for All Saints' Day,
and had then been knocked dangerously over in the earthquake's
commotion. As the tsunami waters receded, the city began to burn so
drastically a true firestorm burned for hours in the city,
asphyxiating people up to a hundred feet from the blaze.
A depiction of the 1755
Lisbon earthquake as seen from across the
Lisbon was not the only Portuguese city affected by the catastrophe.
Throughout the south of the country, in particular the Algarve,
destruction was rampant. The tsunami destroyed some coastal fortresses
Algarve and, in the lower levels, it razed several houses.
Almost all the coastal towns and villages of the
Algarve were heavily
damaged, except Faro, which was protected by the sandy banks of Ria
Formosa. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. Other
towns of different Portuguese regions, such as Peniche, Cascais, and
even Covilhã, which is located near the
Serra da Estrela
Serra da Estrela mountain
range in central inland Portugal, were affected. The shock waves of
the earthquake destroyed part of Covilhã's castle walls and its large
towers. On the island of Madeira,
Funchal and many smaller settlements
suffered significant damage. Almost all of the ports in the Azores
archipelago suffered most of their destruction from the tsunami, with
the sea penetrating about 150 m inland.
Calculated travel times for the tsunami waves of 1 November 1755
Shocks from the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as
Finland and North Africa, and according to some sources even in
Greenland, and the Caribbean. Tsunamis as tall as
20 metres (66 ft) swept the coast of North Africa, and
Barbados across the Atlantic. A three-metre
(ten-foot) tsunami hit
Cornwall on the southern English coast. Galway,
on the west coast of Ireland, was also hit, resulting in partial
destruction of the "Spanish Arch" section of the city wall. At
Kinsale, several vessels were whirled round in the harbor, and water
poured into the marketplace.
In 2015, it was revealed that the tsunami waves may have reached the
coast of Brazil, then a colony of Portugal. Such a hypothesis was
raised by reviewing letters sent by Brazilian authorities at the time
of the earthquake. These letters describe damage and destruction
caused by gigantic waves.
Although seismologists and geologists have always agreed that the
epicentre was in the Atlantic to the West of the Iberian Peninsula,
its exact location has been a subject of considerable debate. Early
hypotheses had proposed the
Gorringe Ridge until simulations showed
that a source closer to the shore of
Portugal was required to comply
with the observed effects of the tsunami. A seismic reflection survey
of the ocean floor along the
Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault
Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault has
revealed a 50 km-long thrust structure southwest of Cape St.
Vincent, with a dip-slip throw of more than 1 km. This structure
may have created the primary tectonic event.
Casualties and damage
The ruins of the Carmo Convent, which was destroyed in the Lisbon
Economic historian Álvaro Pereira estimated that of Lisbon's
population at the time, of approximately 200,000 people, some
30,000–40,000 were killed; another 10,000 may have lost their lives
in Morocco. However, a 2009 study of contemporary reports relating to
the 1 November event found them vague and difficult to separate from
reports of another local series of earthquakes on 18–19
November. Pereira estimated the total death toll in Portugal,
Morocco from the earthquake and the resulting fires and
tsunami at 40,000 to 50,000 people.
Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed, including
famous palaces and libraries, as well as most examples of Portugal's
Manueline architecture. Several buildings
that had suffered little earthquake damage were destroyed by the
subsequent fire. The new
Lisbon opera house (the "Ópera do Tejo"),
opened just six months before, burned to the ground. The Royal Ribeira
Palace, which stood just beside the
Tagus river in the modern square
of Terreiro do Paço, was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.
Inside, the 70,000-volume royal library as well as hundreds of works
of art, including paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Correggio, were
lost. The royal archives disappeared together with detailed historical
records of explorations by
Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama and other early navigators.
The palace of Henrique de Meneses, 3rd Marquis of Louriçal, which
housed an invaluable library of 18,000 books, was also destroyed.
The earthquake damaged several major churches in Lisbon, namely the
Lisbon Cathedral, the Basilicas of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, São
Vicente de Fora, and the Misericórdia Church. The Royal Hospital of
All Saints (the largest public hospital at the time) in the Rossio
square was consumed by fire and hundreds of patients burned to death.
The tomb of national hero
Nuno Álvares Pereira
Nuno Álvares Pereira was also lost.
Lisbon may still walk the ruins of the Carmo Convent,
which were preserved to remind Lisboners of the destruction.
Relief and reconstruction efforts
Further information: Pombaline style
Detail from above: Executions in the aftermath of the Lisbon
earthquake. At least 34 looters were hanged in the chaotic aftermath
of the disaster. As a warning against looting, King Joseph I of
Portugal ordered gallows to be constructed in several parts of the
The royal family escaped unharmed from the catastrophe: King Joseph I
Portugal and the court had left the city, after attending mass at
sunrise, fulfilling the wish of one of the king's daughters to spend
the holiday away from Lisbon. After the catastrophe, Joseph I
developed a fear of living within walls, and the court was
accommodated in a huge complex of tents and pavilions in the hills of
Ajuda, then on the outskirts of Lisbon. The king's claustrophobia
never waned, and it was only after Joseph's death that his daughter
Maria I of
Portugal began building the royal
Ajuda Palace, which still
stands on the site of the old tented camp. Like the king, the prime
minister Sebastião de Melo (1st Marquis of Pombal) survived the
earthquake. When asked what was to be done, Pombal reportedly replied
"Bury the dead and heal the living", and set about organizing
relief and rehabilitation efforts. Firefighters were sent to
extinguish the raging flames, and teams of workers and ordinary
citizens were ordered to remove the thousands of corpses before
disease could spread. Contrary to custom and against the wishes of the
Church, many corpses were loaded onto barges and buried at sea beyond
the mouth of the Tagus. To prevent disorder in the ruined city, the
Portuguese Army was deployed and gallows were constructed at high
points around the city to deter looters; more than thirty people were
publicly executed. The army prevented many able-bodied citizens
from fleeing, pressing them into relief and reconstruction work.
The king and the prime minister immediately launched efforts to
rebuild the city. On 4 December 1755, little more than a month after
the earthquake, Manuel da Maia, chief engineer to the realm, presented
his plans for the re-building of Lisbon. Maia presented four options
Lisbon to building a completely new city. The first
plan was to rebuild the old city using re-cycled materials; this was
the cheapest option. The second and third plans proposed widening
certain streets. The fourth option boldly proposed razing the entire
Baixa quarter and "laying out new streets without restraint". This
last option was chosen by the king and his minister.
Model of the seismically protective wooden structure called "gaiola
pombalina" (pombaline cage), developed for the reconstruction of
Pombaline Lower Town
In less than a year, the city was cleared of debris. Keen to have a
new and perfectly ordered city, the king commissioned the construction
of big squares, rectilinear, large avenues and widened
streets – the new mottos of Lisbon.
The Pombaline buildings are among the earliest seismically protected
constructions in Europe. Small wooden models were built for testing,
and earthquakes were simulated by marching troops around them.
Lisbon's "new" Lower Town, known today as the Pombaline Lower Town
(Baixa Pombalina), is one of the city's famed attractions. Sections of
other Portuguese cities, such as the Vila Real de Santo António in
Algarve, were also rebuilt along Pombaline principles.
The Casa Pia, a Portuguese institution founded by Maria I (known as A
Pia, "Maria the Pious"), and organized by Police Intendant Pina
Manique in 1780, was founded following the social disarray of the 1755
Effect on society, economy and philosophy
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The earthquake had wide-ranging effects on the lives of the populace
and intelligentsia. The earthquake had struck on an important
religious holiday and had destroyed almost every important church in
the city, causing anxiety and confusion amongst the citizens of a
staunch and devout
Roman Catholic country. Theologians and
philosophers focused and speculated on the religious cause and
message, seeing the earthquake as a manifestation of divine
A 2009 study estimated that the earthquake cost between 32 and 48
percent of Portugal's GDP. Also, "in spite of strict controls,
prices and wages remained volatile in the years after the tragedy. The
recovery from the earthquake also led to a rise in the wage premium of
construction workers. More significantly, the earthquake became an
opportunity to reform the economy and to reduce the economic
semi-dependency vis-à-vis Britain."
Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake, by João Glama Strobërle (who
depicted himself standing on a pile of rubble on the lower-right
corner). The painting depicts, on the upper-left corner, an angel
holding a fiery sword (a personification of divine judgement).
The earthquake and its fallout strongly influenced the intelligentsia
of the European Age of Enlightenment. The noted writer-philosopher
Voltaire used the earthquake in
Candide and in his Poème sur le
désastre de Lisbonne ("Poem on the
Lisbon disaster"). Voltaire's
Candide attacks the notion that all is for the best in this, "the best
of all possible worlds", a world closely supervised by a benevolent
Lisbon disaster provided a counterexample. As Theodor
Adorno wrote, "[t]he earthquake of
Lisbon sufficed to cure
the theodicy of Leibniz" (
Negative Dialectics 361). In the later
twentieth century, following Adorno, the 1755 earthquake has sometimes
been compared to the
Holocaust as a catastrophe that transformed
European culture and philosophy.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also
influenced by the devastation following the earthquake, whose severity
he believed was due to too many people living within the close
quarters of the city. Rousseau used the earthquake as an argument
against cities as part of his desire for a more naturalistic way of
Immanuel Kant published three separate texts on the
As a younger man, fascinated with the earthquake, he collected all the
information available to him in news pamphlets, and used it to
formulate a theory of the causes of earthquakes. Kant's theory, which
involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot
gases, was (though ultimately shown to be incorrect) one of the first
systematic modern attempts to explain earthquakes by positing natural,
rather than supernatural, causes. According to Walter Benjamin, Kant's
slim early book on the earthquake "probably represents the beginnings
of scientific geography in Germany. And certainly the beginnings of
Werner Hamacher has claimed that the earthquake's consequences
extended into the vocabulary of philosophy, making the common metaphor
of firm "grounding" for philosophers' arguments shaky and uncertain:
"Under the impression exerted by the
Lisbon earthquake, which touched
the European mind in one [of] its more sensitive epochs, the metaphor
of ground and tremor completely lost their apparent innocence; they
were no longer merely figures of speech" (263). Hamacher claims that
the foundational certainty of Descartes' philosophy began to shake
Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal
The earthquake had a major impact on Portuguese politics. The prime
Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo
Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (better known today by
the title of Marquis of Pombal, which was only granted in 1770,
fifteen years after the earthquake), was the favorite of the king, but
the aristocracy despised him as an upstart son of a country squire.
The prime minister in turn disliked the old nobles, whom he considered
corrupt and incapable of practical action. Before 1 November 1755
there was a constant struggle for power and royal favor, but the
competent response of the
Marquis of Pombal
Marquis of Pombal effectively severed the
power of the old aristocratic factions. However, silent opposition and
resentment of King Joseph I began to rise, which would culminate with
the attempted assassination of the king in 1758 and the subsequent
elimination of the powerful
Duke of Aveiro
Duke of Aveiro and the Távora
Development of seismology
Main article: Parochial Memories of 1758
The prime minister's response was not limited to the practicalities of
reconstruction. He ordered a query sent to all parishes of the country
regarding the earthquake and its effects. Questions included:
At what time did the earthquake begin, and how long did the earthquake
Did you perceive the shock to be greater from one direction than
another? Example, from north to south? Did buildings seem to fall more
to one side than the other?
How many people died and were any of them distinguished?
Did the sea rise or fall first, and how many hands did it rise above
If fire broke out, how long did it last and what damage did it
The answers to these and other questions are still archived in the
Torre do Tombo, the national historical archive. Studying and
cross-referencing the priests' accounts, modern scientists were able
to reconstruct the event from a scientific perspective. Without the
questionnaire designed by the Marquis of Pombal, this would have been
impossible. Because the marquis was the first to attempt an objective
scientific description of the broad causes and consequences of an
earthquake, he is regarded as a forerunner of modern seismological
The geological causes of this earthquake and the seismic activity in
the region continue to be discussed and debated by contemporary
1755 Cape Ann earthquake
Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault
List of historical earthquakes
List of historical tsunamis
Southwest Iberian Margin
List of earthquakes in Portugal (pt)
National Geophysical Data Center / World Data Service (NGDC/WDS),
Significant Earthquake Database, National Geophysical Data Center,
^ Between History and Periodicity: Printed and Hand-Written News in
^ Gutscher, M.-A.; Baptista M.A. & Miranda J.M.; Miranda, J.M.
(2006). "The Gibraltar Arc seismogenic zone (part 2): Constraints on a
shallow east dipping fault plane source for the 1755
provided by tsunami modeling and seismic intensity". Tectonophysics.
426: 153–166. Bibcode:2006Tectp.426..153G.
^ "Historic Earthquakes – Lisbon, Portugal." U.S. Geological Survey,
October 26, 2009. Estimate: 8.7
^ Pereira (2006), page 5.
^ Viana-Baptista MA, Soares PM.
Tsunami propagation along Tagus
estuary (Lisbon, Portugal) preliminary results. Science of Tsunami
Hazards 2006; 24(5):329 Online PDF. Accessed 2009-05-23. Archived 27
May 2009 at
^ "'This Gulf Of Fire' Examines The Lisbon, Portugal, Earthquake In
1755". NPR. 2015-11-02.
^ An Extraordinary and Surprising Agitation of the Waters, ...,
Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 49, (1755–1756), pp. 351–398, 
^ Memoirs of Jacques Casanova,
Book 2, Ch. XXVI;
noted feeling the shocks when he was imprisoned in "The Leads" in
Venice and specifically states they were the same ones that destroyed
^ Brockhaus' Konversations-Lexikon. 14th ed., Leipzig, Berlin and
Vienna 1894; Vol. 6, p. 248
^ a b Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. 1830. Vol. 1, chapter 25,
p. 439 Online electronic edition. Accessed 2009-05-19. Archived 21 May
^ Losekann, Marcos (18 October 2015). "Documentos mostram que tsunami
atingiu costa brasileira século XVIII".
Fantástico (in Portuguese).
Rede Globo. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
^ Zitellini N. et al., The tectonic source of the 1755 Lisbon
earthquake and tsunami. Anali di Geofisica 1999; 42(1): 49. Online
PDF. Accessed 2009-05-23. Archived 27 May 2009 at
^ Blanc P.-L. (2009) Earthquakes and tsunami in November 1755 in
Morocco: a different reading of contemporaneous documentary sources.
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci.
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci. 2009; 9: 725–738.
^ Pereira (2006), pages 8–9.
^ pages 33–9921.
^ "A Comprehensive Report of the Great
Lisbon Earthquake". Retrieved
^ T. D. Kendrick. The
Lisbon Earthquake. p. 75. Kendrick
writes that the remark is apocryphal and is attributed to other
sources in anti-Pombal literature.
^ Gunn (2008), page 77.
^ Shrady, The Last Day pp. 152–155.
Lisbon Earthquake". Archive.org. Retrieved 2014-05-07.
^ a b Pereira, Alvaro S. (2009-06-01). "The Opportunity of a Disaster:
The Economic Impact of the 1755
Lisbon Earthquake". The Journal of
Economic History. 69 (2): 466–499. doi:10.1017/S0022050709000850.
^ "Japan tsunami is small compared to five of world's biggest
tsunamis". Retrieved 2014-05-07.
^ Shrady, The Last Day, pp.145–146
Benjamin, Walter. "The
Lisbon Earthquake." In Selected Writings vol.
2. Belknap, 1999. ISBN 0-674-94586-7. The often abstruse critic
Benjamin gave a series of radio broadcasts for children in the early
1930s; this one, from 1931, discusses the
Lisbon earthquake and
summarizes some of its impact on European thought.
Braun, Theodore E. D., and John B. Radner, eds. The
of 1755: Representations and Reactions (SVEC 2005:02). Oxford:
Voltaire Foundation, 2005. ISBN 0-7294-0857-4. Recent scholarly
essays on the earthquake and its representations in art, with a focus
on Voltaire. (In English and French.)
Brooks, Charles B. Disaster at Lisbon: The Great Earthquake of 1755.
Long Beach: Shangton Longley Press, 1994. (No apparent ISBN.) A
Chase, J. "The Great Earthquake At
Lisbon (1755)". Colliers Magazine,
Dynes, Russell Rowe. "The dialogue between
Voltaire and Rousseau on
Lisbon earthquake: The emergence of a social science view."
University of Delaware, Disaster Research Center, 1999.
Fonseca, J. D. 1755, O Terramoto de Lisboa, The
Argumentum, Lisbon, 2004.
Gunn, A.M. "Encyclopedia of Disasters". Westport, Connecticut:
Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008. ISBN 0-313-34002-1.
Hamacher, Werner. "The Quaking of Presentation." In Premises: Essays
Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, pp. 261–293.
Stanford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8047-3620-0.
Kendrick, T.D. The
Lisbon Earthquake. Philadelphia and New York: J. B.
Molesky, Mark. This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or
Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason. New York: Knopf, 2015.
Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of
Modern Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 2002. This book centers
on philosophical reaction to the earthquake, arguing that the
earthquake was responsible for modern conceptions of evil.
Paice, Edward. Wrath of God: The Great
Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.
London: Quercus, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84724-623-3
Pereira, A.S. "The Opportunity of a Disaster: The Economic Impact of
Lisbon Earthquake". Discussion Paper 06/03, Centre for
Historical Economics and Related Research at York, York University,
Quenet, Grégory. Les tremblements de terre en France aux XVIIe et
XVIIIe siècles. La naissance d'un risque. Seyssel: Champ Vallon,
Ray, Gene. "Reading the
Lisbon Earthquake: Adorno, Lyotard, and the
Contemporary Sublime." Yale Journal of Criticism 17.1 (2004):
Seco e Pinto, P.S. (Editor). Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering:
Proceedings of the Second International Conference, Lisbon, Portugal,
21–25 June, 1999. ISBN 90-5809-116-3
Shrady, Nicholas. The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin & Reason in The Great
Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Penguin, 2008, ISBN 978-0-14-311460-4
Weinrich, Harald. "Literaturgeschichte eines Weltereignisses: Das
Erdbeben von Lissabon." In Literatur für Leser, pp. 64–76.
Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1971. ISBN 3-17-087225-7. In German. Cited
by Hamacher as a broad survey of philosophical and literary reactions
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