The great earthquake of 1755 wasn’t exclusive to Lisbon. In fact, the epicentre was calculated to have been out in the Atlantic some 200 km south-west of the Algarve. It was a peaceful Sunday morning when the earthquake violently struck Lisbon three times, causing the River Tagus to rise on each occasion to assault the shattered city.
Fire broke out everywhere at once, in houses as well as packed churches, and for five days and nights it spread and raged, destroying some 15,000 buildings, 300 palaces and 110 churches in the process.
The whole world was stricken with horror and according to the French writer Voltaire, the catastrophe claimed over 30,000 victims.
In the words of an anonymous Englishman who lived in Lisbon at the time, the “buildings tumbled down and the streets of the city became flooded. On her knees, the entire city could only utter one word – mercy”.
These words of desperation are an excerpt from Testemunhos Britânicos (British Eye-witness Accounts) which goes on to describe in shocking detail the events that followed the initial quake on the morning of Sunday the 1st of November (All Saints’ Day).
Candles were alight inside the houses and Mass was being celebrated inside the city’s churches. “At the time the earthquake began, I was writing inside a study at the top of a flight of stairs. I felt a startling tremor and, unable to tell what was happening, I ran at once to the window and the first thing that caught my attention was the corner of a house falling onto two passers-by.
“This was terrible, but less than a minute later I saw my wife and daughter (who had ran out into the street when they felt the first tremor) being crushed to death when the remainder of the same house collapsed. I rushed at once to the site with a fond hope that I might be able to help them, but alas it was too late.
“Then I hurried as fast as I could to the large square which, since it was an open space, I thought would be the safest place to go. As I ran towards it I saw one of the finest streets of Lisbon being engulfed by the earth and all the people in it must have consequently died.
“The buildings on one of the sides of the street where I used to live vanished completely. One family was buried underneath the ruins, another neighbour suffered a broken leg when a large stone fell from a house and a young relative of my wife was so badly injured that we fear she will never recover.
“In short, Lisbon has been reduced to a pile of rubble and its inhabitants became the most unfortunate wretches on earth. We have no beds to sleep on and hardly anything to eat. Now many people live in tents in the fields.
“His Majesty has placed an embargo on all ships hoping that their provisions may, to some extent, meet the needs of the inhabitants of the “place that used to be, but which no longer is Lisbon.
“This timely precaution will relieve our sufferings to a great degree and prevent the addition of famine to the calamities already suffered by this truly unfortunate city.”
It’s interesting to note that had the Richter Scale been invented then, the earthquake would have registered a massive 8.9. The first of the three major shocks was at 9.40 am and lasted between 6 and 7 minutes. An estimated thirty to forty thousand people perished during the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis and according to reports its impact disturbed the surfaces of the lochs of Scotland and the fjords of Norway.
The city’s amazing recovery is largely due to one man, the Marquês de Pombal (1699-1782), who as prime minister at the time of the quake directed the rebuilding of the city. His simple architectural design (now known as Pombaline) can be seen in the parallel streets of the Baixa district and along Avenida da Liberdade, which leads all the way up to his statue at Praça Marquês de Pombal.
Courageously and firmly, he ensured that Lisbon rose from its ruins and with a new street plan and its façades expertly aligned, the Marquês de Pombal led the way in contemporary town-planning in the wake of the city’s forced modernization.
Pombal’s Lisbon had well-drawn streets, regular perspectives created by fine uniform frontages, decorated with balconies and lanterns in wrought iron, many of which are still preserved today.
Near the top of the Santa Justa Elevator, the 14th-century Carmelite Carmo Convent known as the Igreja do Carmo (indicated on the map below) is the most striking monument to the great Lisbon earthquake. The church was crammed with worhippers when the roof fell in on that fateful morning, and that’s the way it still stands today with its huge Gothic arches wide open to the sky.