At about 9:30 a.m. on November 1.st 1755, south-western Europe experienced one of the largest earthquakes History has ever recorded. For 10 minutes the earth shook with a ferocity that geophysicists now estimate was around 9.0 on the Richter scale. Centred in the Atlantic 100 miles (160 km) west of Portugal, the earthquake was felt as far away as Finland, Italy, and England.
Lisbon was decimated, as were other cities in Portugal and North Africa. All the many medieval downtown churches were crowded to their fullest: it was All Saints' Day. Minutes after the quake, a tsunami hit. In Lisbon the height of the wave was 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 m). Farther south it was closer to 100 feet (30 m). By afternoon the wave had travelled across the Atlantic and reached the Caribbean where the sea was observed to rise 3 feet (about 1 m). Best estimates place the number of dead in Lisbon at 30,000 to 60,000 out of a population of 250,000. Unknown thousands died elsewhere in Portugal and North Africa. Collapsed buildings, the tsunami, and a huge fire that burned on for a couple of weeks were responsible for those appalling numbers and altered Lisbon's landscape forever.
The Great Lisbon Earthquake, as it came to be known, got everybody's attention, partly because of its magnitude but also for several other reasons: it was the first great natural disaster to strike "modern" Europe. With improving transportation and communications, word of the disaster spread quickly and artists' drawings of the devastation were widely reproduced. In the developing climate of analytical and scientific thinking, it was the first great disaster widely attributed to natural causes and not – as had been previously done – to the actions of a vengeful deity unhappy with the sinful ways of humanity.
It was the first great natural disaster following which the recovery and rebuilding was assumed to be the job of the state itself and not – as had previously been the case – the responsibility of the church and the aristocracy. The earthquake imprinted deeply on European consciousness. Culturally, however, the effects are harder to document. Times were changing fast, and the quake was generally viewed as the natural – if disastrous – phenomenon that it was.
Even 130 years later, the catastrophe was still sufficiently vivid in memory to produce this picture in a British encyclopaedia of 1887
Famously, Voltaire used the event in "Candide" to write fini to Leibniz's view of this as the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire's initial reaction, upon first hearing of the quake, on November 25.th 1755, just three weeks after it happened: "This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds – families all over Europe reduced to beggary, fortunes of a hundred merchants swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What will the preachers say – especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! [It wasn't!] I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike."
Natural philosophers – as scientists were then known – studied the widespread and fairly well documented behaviour and effects of the quake and were for the most part baffled. In a larger cultural sense, the Great Lisbon Earthquake became an unforgettable, perhaps a traumatic, reminder of the fragility of the planet and of our place on it, the first such reminder of "modern" Europe.
On October 31.st 1755, lots of seeds were already germinating which would produce the world we know. The formation of the modern nation-state was well underway; forces of repression and liberation were in place that would lead to the American and French revolutions; the codification of the scientific method and the attendant development of technology were proceeding nicely. Kant was 30 years old, Goethe was six; Mozart hadn't even been born; nor had Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Novalis, Hölderlin and that lot that would cause such ferment in the world of words, and would be known as the "Romantics". Was any of that changed or even accelerated by November 1.st?
The earth, though occasionally in its organic life causing us some problems – such as Lisbon –, has on the whole proved a beneficent parent, one which has given much and taken little. Line up all the natural disasters in recorded history and the total number of deaths would be minuscule compared to those resulting from our own, self-inflicted violence: 200,000,000 war dead in the 20th century alone! What has the planet done to us that might even approach that number?
Nothing yet. Not even close. Lisbon was – and is – a geo-reminder. On November 1.st 1755 the earth hiccupped. What will become of us and our vaunted culture when, finally, because of our mistreatment of its delicate balance, the planet vomits?