How One Earthquake Changed the Course of Human History

Amazon/iStock
Amazon/iStock

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."

12 Splendid Facts About Kensington Palace

Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace
Baloncici/iStock via Getty Images

Kensington Palace might not be quite as famous as Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II’s primary residence and the longstanding center of the British monarchy, but its history is every bit as important—and intriguing. From William and Mary’s original occupancy in 1689 to William and Kate’s more recent one, the opulent estate has teemed with royals of every station (and possibly even a few ghosts) for more than three centuries. Read on to find out 12 fascinating facts about the palace that Edward VIII once called the “aunt heap.”

1. King William III and Queen Mary II relocated to Kensington Palace because of William’s asthma.

In 1689, King William III and Queen Mary II kicked off their coregency at Whitehall Palace, the longstanding home of the crown along the Thames River in central London. But the dirty, damp air aggravated William’s asthma, so the couple immediately began searching for a more suburban location. They found it in Nottingham House, a modest villa just a couple of miles from the city, and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to expand the estate. The rulers moved in shortly before Christmas that same year, and the newly-christened Kensington Palace soon became the heart of the monarchy.

2. Kensington Palace was the location of Queen Anne’s final argument with childhood friend Sarah Churchill.

queen anne
A portrait of Queen Anne.
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Queen Anne, the eccentric, gout-ridden ruler played by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman in 2018’s The Favourite, split her time between Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace, overseeing renovations in both places. It was at Kensington that she financed the redecoration of Lady Abigail Masham’s apartments, an extravagant show of favoritism that further deteriorated the Queen's relationship with close childhood friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Kensington was also the setting for their final, friendship-ending argument in 1711, after which Anne stripped Sarah and her husband of their rankings and banished them from court.

3. Queen Victoria was born and raised in Kensington Palace.

queen victoria statue at kensington palace
A statue of Queen Victoria, sculpted by her daughter, Louise, outside Kensington Palace.
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In June 1837, less than a month after her 18th birthday, Princess Victoria was informed that her uncle, King William IV, had died, and she would soon be crowned queen. She had lived at Kensington Palace for her whole life, and many expected her to rule from there or relocate to St. James’s Palace, her uncle’s primary residence. Instead, she set up shop in Buckingham Palace, which has been the official home of Britain’s sovereign ever since.

4. The Duke of Windsor nicknamed Kensington Palace the “Aunt Heap.”

Starting with Queen Victoria’s daughters Beatrice and Louise, Kensington Palace became the go-to place for monarchs to house various—often peripheral—members of the royal family. This tradition continued through the early 20th century, prompting the Duke of Windsor (Queen Elizabeth II’s throne-abdicating uncle Edward) to dub it the “aunt heap.”

5. Kensington Palace is said to be haunted.

Unsurprisingly, the rumors of ghosts roaming the halls of Kensington Palace are largely unsubstantiated. That said, there are quite a few of them: King George II supposedly looms over the King’s Gallery uttering his alleged last words, “Why won’t they come?” and Princess Margaret’s housekeeper saw an unknown “woman in Regency dress” in the doorway of the drawing room. Caroline of Brunswick, Caroline of Ansbach, and Princess Sophia have all been seen hanging around the palace, too—and the nursery in William and Kate’s wing of the estate is reportedly a hotbed for paranormal activity.

6. J.M. Barrie installed a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens without permission.

peter pan statue at kensington gardens
Sir George Frampton's sculpture of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
icenando/iStock via Getty Images

Among J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan works was Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a 1906 novel in which Peter leaves his London home and takes up residence in Kensington Gardens, cavorting with fairies and sailing around in a bird’s nest. In 1912, Barrie commissioned Sir George Frampton to create a bronze statue of Peter and secretly installed it in the gardens without asking permission. His newspaper announcement about the statue explained that it was meant to be a surprise “May-day gift” for children.

7. Kensington Palace was damaged during a World War II bombing.

Between 1940 and 1941, the Luftwaffe—Germany’s air force—targeted London with a relentless, catastrophic series of bombings that came to be known as the Blitz (the German word for lightning). Kensington Palace didn’t emerge totally unscathed: Bombs damaged the northern side of the palace and the queen’s drawing room.

8. The Kensington Palace grounds were flooded with around 60 million flowers after Princess Diana’s death.

kensington palace lawn covered in flowers after princess diana's death
An aerial view of the flowers on the Kensington Palace lawn during the week after Princess Diana's death.
David Brauchli/Getty Images

After their marriage in 1981, Princess Diana and Prince Charles moved into Apartment 8 at Kensington Palace and eventually raised their sons, William and Harry, there. Following Diana’s fatal car crash in 1997, mourners covered the palace grounds with an estimated 60 million flowers, as well as stuffed animals, flags, photos, and notes. Some bouquets were later used to compost the surrounding gardens, while others were donated to hospitals and nursing homes.

9. Nicky Hilton was married in Kensington Palace’s Orangery.

kensington palace orangery
The Kensington Palace Orangery.
Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Queen Anne’s largest contribution to Kensington Palace was the construction of the Orangery, an expansive greenhouse built in 1704 with enough room for her to house exotic plants and also host lavish summer parties. It’s used for similarly extravagant events today—Nicky Hilton got married there in 2015.

10. Prince William and Kate Middleton live at Kensington Palace with their family—and several other royals.

william, kate, harry, and the obamas at kensington palace
Prince William and Kate Middleton host Michelle and Barack Obama in the drawing room of Apartment 1A in 2016.
Dominic Lipinski, WPA Pool/Getty Images

William and Kate live in Kensington Palace’s expansive 20-room Apartment 1A with their three children, but they’re not the only royals currently posted up in various corners of the estate. Princess Eugenie and her husband, Jack Brooksbank, live in Ivy Cottage; the Queen’s cousin Prince Michael of Kent and his wife, Marie Christine von Reibnitz, occupy Apartment 10; and Michael’s older brother, the Duke of Kent, lives with his wife in Wren House.

11. Kensington Palace is staging its first theater production in 2020.

Throughout February and March of this year, acclaimed theater group Les Enfants Terribles is performing an immersive show called “United Queendom,” which explores the relationship between King George II’s wife, Queen Caroline, and his mistress, Henrietta Howard, in 1734. It’s Kensington Palace’s very first theatrical event to date, and it promises “political intrigue, court games, high drama, scandalous gossip, and smiling through gritted teeth.”

12. The design of Billy Porter’s 2020 Oscars gown was inspired by Kensington Palace.

billy porter oscars 2020 dress
Billy Porter stunts in his Kensington Palace-inspired gown at the 92nd Oscars ceremony on February 9, 2020.
Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Inspired by a tour of Kensington Palace, Billy Porter’s stylist, Sam Ratelle, enlisted British fashion designer Giles Deacon—perhaps best known for designing Pippa Middleton’s wedding dress—to craft an Oscar gown for Porter using design elements from the royal estate. The final product featured a high-necked, gold-leaf bodice and a full, billowing skirt bearing images of Roman statues from Kensington’s Cupola Room.

The Scottish Play: Why Actors Won’t Call Macbeth by Its Title

Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you see someone burst from the doors of a theater, spin around three times, spit over their left shoulder, and shout out a Shakespearean phrase or curse word, it’s likely they just uttered “Macbeth” inside the building and are trying to keep a very famous curse at bay.

As the story goes, saying “Macbeth” in a theater when you’re not rehearsing or performing the play can cause disaster to befall the production. Instead, actors commonly refer to it as “the Bard’s play” or “the Scottish play.”

According to History.com, the curse of Macbeth originated after a string of freak accidents occurred during early performances of Shakespeare’s 1606 play. In the very first show, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare himself had to take over the role. In a later one, an actor stabbed King Duncan with an actual dagger rather than a prop knife, killing him on stage.

Macbeth has continued to cause calamity after calamity throughout its four centuries of existence. Harold Norman died from stab wounds sustained during a fight scene while playing Macbeth in 1947, and there have been several high-profile audience riots at various performances, too—the worst was at New York’s Astor Place Opera House in 1849, when fans of British actor William Charles Macready clashed with those of American actor Edwin Forrest. Twenty-two people died, and more than 100 others were injured.

Since Macbeth has been around for so long and performed so often, it’s not exactly surprising its history contains some tragic moments. But many believe these accidents are the result of a curse actual witches cast on the play when Shakespeare first debuted it.

As the Royal Shakespeare Company explains, Shakespeare really did his research when creating the three witches in Macbeth: “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “eye of newt and toe of frog,” and other lines from the “Song of the Witches” were supposedly taken from “real” witches’ spells from the time. According to legend, a coven of witches decided to punish him for using their magic by cursing his play.

For skeptics, Christopher Eccleston—who played Macbeth in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2018—offers a slightly more believable theory about the origin of the curse. In the interview below, he explains how theater companies that were struggling financially would stage Macbeth, a crowd favorite, to guarantee ticket sales. Therefore, saying “Macbeth” in a theater was an admission that things weren’t going well for your company.

[h/t History.com]

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