At its height, the Portuguese empire spanned four continents, with territory everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Macau. The first global empire, Portugal's mastery of the seas began in earnest in the 1400s, when the relatively small and isolated country sought to find new trade routes with Europe and the rest of the world. Its first major success came in 1488, when Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama reached India. The ensuing centuries would witness Portuguese navigators establishing relations and trade with countries as far as Japan.
By the middle of the 18th century, Portugal's capital of Lisbon was the fifth-most populous city in Europe, its port the third-busiest. It was one of, if not the, wealthiest cities in the world. It might still be, as Mark Molesky reveals in This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, if not for an unspeakable catastrophe in 1755 that would leave the city leveled, the empire crippled, and the course of Western civilization forever altered.
WHAT HAPPENED IN LISBON
Just before 10 a.m. on November 1, 1755—All Saints' Day—a fault line 200 miles or so off the Iberian Coast ruptured, releasing the energy equivalent of 32,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. So powerful was the earthquake that its effects were felt from the Azores to Sweden. Lisbon suffered the worst of it. "It began as a slight tremor, followed by a dull and persistent roar," writes Molesky. "Over the course of the next few minutes—and the arrival of two additional tremors—[the earthquake] would bring one of the greatest cities of Europe to its knees." It is thought to have measured up to a 9.2 on the Richter scale.
The city was obliterated. Ten thousand people were dead beneath the ruins of churches, houses, and markets. As the dust settled, the survivors pulled themselves free and gathered to witness and mourn what, even today, must have felt like the apocalypse. Then the tsunami hit.
The Atlantic Ocean rarely produces tsunamis, so the people of Lisbon would have been as unprepared for the tidal wave as they were for the earthquake. It seemed to come from nowhere, this wall of water, and so terrible was the tsunami that people as far away as Brazil were killed. Hundreds of the Lisbon earthquake's survivors emerged from rubble only to be pulled into the Tagus river and sucked into the Atlantic Ocean. This was a mere 30 minutes after the earthquake.
Then the fires came. There was no electricity in 1755, but there were an awful lot of candles, and they were all lit to celebrate All Saints' Day. Likewise, stoves and hearths had been primed with strong fires to celebrate the feast day. When the earthquake first hit, those candles and stoves were knocked to the ground, causing hundreds of small fires across the city. With the entirety of the city now reduced to kindling, not only did the fires spread, but they joined to create a literal firestorm that was so powerful in its thirst for oxygen that it could asphyxiate people 100 feet from the blaze—before incinerating them. Thousands of people trapped in rubble—people who had just survived the worst earthquake in European history, and who then survived a rare and terrible tsunami—were burned alive. The firestorm raged for a week, and smaller fires lingered for weeks after. In all, up to 40,000 people were killed in what the day before was the richest, most opulent city in Europe. The city would lay in ruin for years.
OUT OF CHAOS, A TYRANT
So sudden and catastrophic was the earthquake that the ruling state ground to a halt. The monarchy was paralyzed with fright, and other government officials had absconded, were dead, or were indisposed. This left a conspicuous vacuum of power soon to be filled by Portugal's secretary of foreign affairs, Marquês de Pombal. He seized the initiative in the chaos, and "dashed off orders and proclamations with great gusto." He took control of the recovery effort, and with the king's blessing, assumed the role of a dictator. As Molesky writes, "One might say he was the earthquake's fourth tremor, so swift and violent was his rise in the weeks after disaster."
To be sure, his actions in the earthquake's aftermath were decisive and oftentimes beneficial. Bodies had to be buried lest disease flourish, and the border and coast had to be secured from invaders and pirates who might take advantage of the chaos. His policies of conscripting vagabonds into forced labor were less favorable, however, as were his price controls on all food and goods, which prevented price gouging but ultimately discouraged vendors "from assuming the substantial risks of transporting their wares into a disaster zone."
As generally happens when one is made dictator, scores with old enemies were soon settled, freedoms were curtailed, and criticisms suppressed. Enemies who rose up were brutally crushed. (Featured were beheadings, limbs broken before executions, and burnings at the stake.) This "emergency rule" continued for more than 20 years, until 1777, when Queen Maria I assumed the throne of Portugal and exiled Pombal.
Portugal would never again see its former glory. Weak leadership, wars, revolutions abroad, and invasions at home—all of which might have gone differently or been averted entirely had Lisbon not been destroyed—slowly decomposed the empire and eventually ended the country's global ambitions. "Portugal was never the same after the earthquake," writes Molesky. With the existing order annihilated—the nobility, the church, commercial interests, and the military—the Portuguese empire would begin a decline from which it would never recover. "The earthquake, in short, had brought about a revolution."
THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
The effects of the catastrophe were felt in other ways across Europe. Paradoxically, it both strengthened and weakened Enlightenment thinking, which was then in full force. Scientists around the world put forth explanations for the earthquake, establishing the fields of seismology and scientific geology in the process. Because scientists were unable to give a compelling reason for all that had transpired, however, the clergy were able to point to the Enlightenment as flawed, and suggest that maybe it was a vengeful God expressing his wrath at a decadent city.
The earthquake inspired artists as well—most notably Voltaire, who was then in exile in Switzerland. So infuriated was he at philosophers of the age who, even after the earthquake, called ours "the best of all possible worlds," that he wrote a novel savaging the philosophy of optimism, the church, and the ruling class. In Candide, the destruction of Lisbon is featured.
After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.
This Gulf of Fire reminds us what true devastation looks like, and that it needs no motivation or incitement. Our own nature might lead to our doom, but nature itself is unimpressed with our arguments and unmoved by our cries. "What a game of chance human life is!" Voltaire wrote. "[Lisbon] ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike."