The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake: Marquis Pombal Uses Science to Rebuild
Some historians and some of his contemporaries see the Marquis Pombal as a ruthless dictator who imposed his reforms on Portugal. Some are grateful he did. Sebastiao de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal is remembered in Portugal for his Enlightenment reforms, architectural innovations, and his rebuilding of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake.
The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake Strikes on All Saints Day
The Great Lisbon earthquake struck Lisbon, the Kingdom of Portugal, around 10:24 on the morning of November 1, 1755, the day Catholics commemorated as All Saints Day. For nearly ten minutes the earth heaved and convulsed. The seismic waves ripped apart soil and buildings and swallowed people. Huge fires crackled and devoured everything in their paths and burned for days.One of the Deadliest Earthquakes in History
People rushed to the open docks for safety and stared in disbelief as the water from the harbor receded, giving them a panoramic view of the sea floor dotted with lost cargo and shipwrecks. About forty minutes after the earthquake, an enormous tsunami rushed up the Tagus River and engulfed the harbor and downtown Lisbon.
The death toll in Lisbon proper was about 90,000 people and another 10,000 people died in southwest Spain and Morocco. Seismologists estimate that the earthquake’s magnitude was 8.6 to 9.0 on the Richter scale and people in far away Finland and Barbados felt tremors.
The 1755 Earthquake Shakes Rational and Religious Thinkers
The 1755 earthquake physically destroyed most of Lisbon, and rocked the Europe of the Enlightenment to its core. Voltaire, who was the brightest star in the Enlightenment galaxy quickly published his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster.
Voltaire’s poem revealed his despair at the lack of reason or rationality behind the earthquake. Enlightenment thinkers believed that nature was a benign and understandable force that reflected the intelligence and skill of a designing God. The Lisbon earthquake represented an insane, out of control force. Where was God in the rubble of Lisbon?
Where is God in the Rubble of Lisbon?
The Christian people of Lisbon and of Portugal asked the same questions as the Enlightenment philosophes. The Kingdom of Portugal was a pious Roman Catholic country with the Catholic Church as its foundation. People pondered the why of the earthquake. The fact that the earthquake had happened on All Saints Day and that it had destroyed most of the churches in Lisbon made them think about divine retribution.
Many people felt that the destruction of Lisbon, and other regions of Portugal was an act of God, a divine revenge for the way that Portugal had conquered other countries like South America. Sebastiao de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal and minister to King Joseph I of Portugal had a more pragmatic attitude. According to legend, he said, “We bury the dead and heal the living,” and got to work.
Sebastiao de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal is in Control
At the time of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, Melo , Marquis Pombal, was the minister of the Kingdom, an equivalent to a prime minister today, in the government of Joseph I of Portugal. Born in Lisbon, Melo was the son of a country squire and he studied at the University of Coimbra. After serving briefly in the army, he moved to Lisbon and married.
Using his abilities and his connections with the Portuguese royal family Melo obtained a position as the Portuguese ambassador to Great Britain in 1738 and Portuguese ambassador to Austria in 1745. In 1750, Joseph I was crowned King of Portugal and he appointed Pombal Minister of Foreign affairs. The King’s confidence in Pombal grew, and he appointed him State Minister.
The Pombaline Reforms
Marquis Pombal instituted a series of reforms focused on making Portugal economically self-sufficient, commercially strong and less dependent on colonial Brazil and England. He created guilds to regulate economic activity. His reforms advanced secularization and stabilized Portugal, but some historians argue that the Marquis used his reforms as a means of enhancing autocracy over individual liberty. They argue that he was more interested in being a brutal dictator than in individual human rights.
“What Now? We Bury the Dead and Heal the Living”
The Marquis Pombal survived the earthquake and immediately set about rebuilding Lisbon. Lisbon suffered fires and tsunamis, but no epidemics and the rebuilding began immediately under Pombal’s guidance. He designed the central area of Lisbon to be earthquake resistant. He directed architectural models to be built for testing and simulated the effects of an earthquake by marching troops around the models.
The buildings and squares of the Pombaline Downtown of Lisbon are the world’s first earthquake proof buildings and remain a modern tourist attraction.. Marquis Pombal made a significant contribution to the study of seismology by designing a survey that he had sent to every parish in the country. The questionnaire asked about the behavior of animals before the earthquake, the water levels in wells, and the buildings that were destroyed. The answers to his questionnaire gave modern Portuguese scientists the data to precisely reconstruct the earthquake.
Marquis de Pombal and the Jesuits
The Jesuits were thoroughly woven into the fabric of Portuguese religion and culture and Marquis Pombal had never been happy with their influence. The way the Jesuits reacted to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake deepened his distrust and resentment of the Jesuits.
The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake is the Catalyst for Reform
The earthquake shook Lisbon in midmorning of All Saints Day, November 1, 1755 while many people were in church and it destroyed 35 of the 40 churches in Lisbon. Even though Enlightenment ideas had reached Portugal, Portuguese culture had been established on the foundation of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits told survivors that God had sent the earthquake as a punishment for their sins and that they must spend many years atoning for these sins. Many people believed them.
Marquis Pombal Dislikes and Distrusts the Jesuits
Marquis Pombal believed in Enlightenment ideas of reason and had a rational, scientific nature and he attributed the earthquake to natural causes. In the weeks after the earthquake, he did his best to counter the Jesuit preaching. He wanted the people of Lisbon to focus their time and money on rebuilding and reforming Portugal instead of spending their time and efforts repenting of their sins.
The Marquis had other reasons to dislike the Jesuits. The Jesuits were opposed to the Portuguese policy of attempting to assimilate the Indians of Brazil into European culture and they also opposed economic and territorial treaties that Portugal had made with Spain and England.
Gabriel Malagrida Publishes a Pamphlet
A Jesuit priest named Gabriel Malagrida brought matters to a crisis when he published his sermons in a pamphlet he called Juzio da verdadeira causa doterremoto- An Opinion on the true cause of the earthquake. His pamphlet preached that the people of Lisbon had caused the earthquake by the number and severity of their sins. The Marquis Pombal eventually convinced King Joseph I to banish Malagrida.
King Joseph I is Almost Assassinated
In September 1758, King Joseph I was returning to Belem from the Palace of the Marques and Marquesa de Tabora with his valet. Three masked horsemen stopped their carriage in the dead of the night, fired a musket, ad wounded the King in the arm and shoulder. Marquis Pombal’s spies quickly identified two of the horsemen and arrested and tortured them. Their confessions implicated the Marques and Marquesa de Tavora and Marquis Pombal had the Tavora family followed and their messages intercepted. By December, Marquis Pombal had arrested Malagrida who had returned from exile and he was found guilty of being involved in the assassination plot.
Marquis Pombal Convinces King Joseph I to Expel the Jesuits
Gabriel Malagrida was found guilty of High Treason and imprisoned in the dungeon under the Tower of Belem with other Jesuits who were also implicated in the plot.
In 1759, Marquis Pombal convinced King Joseph I to banish had the Jesuits from Portugal to the Papal States. The Marquise felt that the Jesuits were constantly undermining his authority.
Gabriel Malagrida is Executed
In 1761, he had Malagrida, aged 72, brought before the Inquisition with his brother acting as Inquisitor General. They found Malagrida guilty of obscenity and blasphemy and condemned him to death. On September 21, 1761, Malagrida was garroted in Rossio Square, and then his corpse was burned on a bonfire and his ashes thrown in the Tagus River.
Marquis Pombal Reforms Portugese Society
The expulsion of the Jesuits created a vacuum in the Portuguese educational system because Jesuits had been the primary teachers. This is exactly what Marquis Pombal wanted, because now he had the power to rebuild the primary, secondary, and college educational systems.
Reforming the education system also enabled Pombal to secularize Portugal and dilute the power of the church. His actions were initially unpopular in Europe, but eventually other European leaders who wanted change used Portugal’s example to purge their governments of religious influence.
Historian Kenneth Maxwell says, “The Portuguese were the first to begin a movement which would bring about the expulsion of the Jesuits from all of Catholic Europe…” (Maxwell, Kenneth, Pombal – Paradox of the Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Marquis Pombal used the 1755 Lisbon earthquake as a lever for promoting reforms, and even though his reforms were tinged with self-interest, they set a precedent for other European countries to follow.
The Legacy of the Marquis Pombal
Queen Maria I of Portugal, successor to King Joseph, hated Pombal and vowed to destroy him. She withdrew his political offices, and issued a royal decree, the equivalent of a modern restraining order, that did not allow him closer than 20 miles from her presence.
Melo, the Marques Pombal, built a villa that he named Oeiras and died peacefully there in 1782. Modern Lisbon’s most important square is named Marques de Pombal and a statue of him stands in the square overlooking the city that he helped resurrect after one of the world’s most destructive earthquakes.
Alden, Dauril, Royal Government in Colonial Brazil with Special Reference to the Administration of the Marquês of Lavradio, Viceroy, 1769–1779, University of California Press, 1968; Pombal’s colonial policy.
Cheke, Marcus Dictator of Portugal: A Life of the Marquês of Pombal, 1699–1782 (1938, reprinted 1969) is the standard biography in English.
Jack, Malcoln, Lisbon, City of the Sea: A History, I.B. Teuris & Co. Ltd., 2007
Maxwell, Kenneth, Pombal – Paradox of the Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Paice, Edward, Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Quereus Publishing, 2008
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