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The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755
On the morning of the 1st of November 1755 one of Europe's most powerful earthquakes struck Lisbon. By the end of the week 75,000 people in Lisbon had died as a direct result of the earthquake, making the earthquake of 1755 one of the most deadly natural disasters the world has ever experienced.
The devastation caused many Portuguese to question their religious beliefs and the horrific event has shaped Lisbon's history ever since. The earthquake struck on the 1st of November 1755 and this is the Catholic holy feast day of All Saints. On the day the deeply religious Portuguese packed Lisbon's churches and cathedrals to celebrate the important feast day. The old construction methods were not designed to withstand violent movements of the earth and many unfortunately worshippers died as the roofs of the religious buildings collapsed.
The ruins of the Igreja do Carmo Church in Lisbon
As part of the religious celebrations every possible candle was lit and the churches were decorated with flowers and flammable decorations. As the tremors rocked the churches the candles tumbled and ignited the flowers. These fires ravaged Lisbon for five further days after the earthquake. The first tremor of the massive earthquake occurred partway through the long Latin church service at 10:24am. There has been much discussion on the estimated size of the earthquake but it is believed to be between a magnitude 8.5-9.0. The strength was enough to bring down the solid stone walls of the Ribeira Palace and roofs of dozens of churches across Lisbon.
The destruction included the Se Cathedral, the Igreja de Carmo, the grand library and the royal palace (Ribeira Palace). The roof of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos in Belem surprisingly did not collapse as spindly stone columns seem unnaturally to small to support the vast roof. The Igreja de Carmo remained part destroyed as a permanent reminder to all Portuguese of the destruction which befell their city. The quake shock Lisbon for a devastating 3 and a half minutes in this time 2 meter wide cracks developed in the streets and people feared the end of the world. The petrified inhabitants of Lisbon evacuated the destruction of the churches for the relative safety of the open dock lands unaware of the impending tsunami.
The epicentre of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was 200 Km from Cape Vicente in the Atlantic Ocean. This massive slip of the Azores-Gibraltar transform fault generated one of the largest tsunamis to hit Europe. The tsunami struck Lisbon 45 minutes after the earthquake had subsided. Prior to the tsunami the water drained from the Rio Tejo estuary revealing ship wrecks loaded with treasures. Thousands of people raced into the muddy river base to claim the riches but no person of that era could predict what was about to be unleashed upon the city of Lisbon.....
The tsunami resulting from the 1755 earthquake was 9 meters high when it hit Lisbon. Prior to the first of the three tsunamis the water drained from the Rio Tejo estuary and revealed ship wrecks loaded with treasures.
Many of the survivors of the earthquake rushed to pillage the ships but stood no chance as the waters rushed in.The destructive wave was funneled up the River Tagus estuary rapidly flooding all low lying land which included the present day areas of Baixa and Belem. A quote of the time reads "(the tsunami) arrived so fast that several people riding on horseback ... were forced to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds for fear of being carried away"
There were two further 2 tsunami waves to strike Lisbon in the following 3 hours that proceeded the earthquake. Thousands who had escaped the destruction of the earthquake were either drowned, killed by debris or dragged out as the currents receded.
The higher ground areas of Lisbon which which escaped the torrents of water were ravaged by fire. Many of these fires originated from the churches that had lit the candles as part of the religious festival of All Saints. As the candles toppled the flames ignited the cut flowers and flammable decorations. These fires raged for 5 days after the earthquake. A week after the earthquake over 90% of the buildings in Lisbon had either collapsed by the earth quake, flooded by the tsunami or burnt by the fires. The destruction included, the 70,000-volume royal library, the royal Ribeira Palace and the whole of Baixa. The poor district of Alfama was the least effect area as it is constructed on a large rock hill that shock less in the quake and was high enough to avoid the tsunami.
The rebuilding of Lisbon under the guidance of Marquis of Pombal
King Joseph I of Portugal survived the earthquake due to his daughter wishing to spend the public holiday at the coast. The royal court attended an earlier church service and relocated to the Cascais for the day. King Joseph I became excessively paranoid after the quake and refused to live in walled buildings. The entire royal court was transferred to a giant tented complex outside of Lisbon where he remained until his death.
The prime minister Sebastião de Melo, who history cane to know as the Marquis of Pombal, proved to be an adept leader in the face of such a catastrophe. When asked what to do immediately after the quake, Pombal replied "Bury the dead and heal the living". He overruled the church and prevented an epidemic of diseases by load the dead onto damaged ships and burning the bodies out to sea.
In just over a month on the 4th December 1755 the chief engineer Manuel da Maia had designed 5 plans for the rebuilding of Lisbon. Pombal choose the complete redesign of Rossio and Baixa and implement the first grid system which was copied the world over. The plan included the reconstruction of the Carmo Convent, but Pombal wished to remain a ruin so that the earth quake would always be remembered by Lisbon. The statue of the Marquis of Pombal stands at the top of the Avenida da Liberdade over looking his mater piece of Rossio.