Great Lisbon Earthquake: What Happened at the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake

Written By Lara Silva

On the morning of November 1st, 1755 at 9:40, the Great Lisbon earthquake hit Portugal, as well as other parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Northwest Africa with its epicenter offshore. Seismologists estimate the Lisbon earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 to 9, making it the largest known earthquake to impact Europe and northern Africa.

Reports state that the earthquake lasted anywhere from three to six minutes and that it caused fissures 5 meters wide in the center of Lisbon. 40 minutes after the Lisbon earthquake, a 6-meter-high tsunami occurred in the harbor and downtown area, causing many to drown. The force of the tsunami knocked over candlelit homes and churches, leading to large fires that burned for hours all over the city and asphyxiated thousands.

The natural disaster resulted in the almost complete destruction of the city of Lisbon and nearby areas, even places in the Algarve and Madeira. Due to the tsunami, almost all coastal towns in the Algarve were damaged, except Faro which was protected by the banks of the Rio Formosa. In the Azores archipelago, almost all ports were destroyed by the tsunami as the sea reach 150 meters inland. The rest of Europe also felt the earthquake, such as Finland, as well as North Africa. It was later discovered in 2015 that there were reports of damage caused by gigantic waves off the coast of Brazil. 

The earthquake did not just destroy the city of Lisbon, but also increased the political mentions at the time. The Lisbon earthquake was widely discussed by philosophers of the European Enlightenment and studied by major scientists, making a mark on future European society, as well as the development of seismology.

Lisbon Earthquake Damage & Death Toll

The Lisbon earthquake killed between 30,000 and 60,000 people, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. The city of Lisbon’s population at the time was around 200,000. It has been reported that 70% of buildings in Lisbon were destroyed, including iconic buildings such as palaces and libraries of 16th-century Manueline architecture. This included the Royal Ribeira Palace which had over 70,00 books and artworks, the Palace of Henrique de Meneses, the Lisbon Cathedral, and much more. The royal family was able to escape without being harmed, with King Joseph I of Portugal actually having left the city after attending mass at sunrise to spend a holiday away. 

The Aftermath of the Lisbon Earthquake: Politics & Rebuilding Lisbon

A study by Alvaro Pereira in 2009 found that the Lisbon earthquake had direct costs of between 32% and 48% of the Portuguese GDP. Prices and wages remained volatile for years after the tragedy. The earthquake also directly impacted Portuguese politics. Although the King favored him, the aristocracy disliked the Prime Minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal. However, after the Lisbon earthquake, the Marquis of Pombal had a competent response that consolidated his power and stature in Portuguese politics.

After the Lisbon earthquake, the Marquis of Pombal reconstructed Lisbon immediately with his Pombalina Architecture that remains today in the capital. The reconstruction was planned methodically, with techniques that were earthquake-proof and walls in between houses to stop the flames of fires. Streets were made wider and paved with the Portuguese calçada, and buildings were built at the same rights, even churches. A new area of Lisbon was born: the Baixa Pombalina. This is downtown Baixa, the historical center of Lisbon that was constructed after the earthquake. The Lisbon you see today was mostly constructed by the Marquis of Pombal.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake: The Enlightenment & Seismology

The Great Lisbon earthquake was discussed by European Enlightenment philosophers and inspired developments in theodicy, an attempt to justify why God permits the manifestation of evil. The earthquake had such an impact on philosophy that the iconic writer Voltaire even wrong a poem on the disaster. Jean-Jacques Rosseau even used the disaster to make the argument against cities in favor of a more naturalistic society, stating that the severity of the earthquake was caused by too many people living in a city. Moreover, Immanuel Kant published three pieces on the Lisbon earthquake, formulating a theory of the causes of the earthquakes about shifts in huge caverns filled with hot gases. This theory was one of the first to explain earthquakes without supernatural explanations but was incorrect.

The Great Lisbon earthquake also led to the development of seismology. This was the first earthquake to be studied scientifically as it impacted such a large area, leading to the birth of modern seismology and earthquake engineering and paving the way to what we know today about earthquakes. This started with Marquis of Pombal sending a list of questions to all parishes in the country about the earthquake, such as the time of the earthquake, the deaths, whether the sea rose or fell first, etc. These are archived in a national historical archive and have allowed modern scientists to reconstruct the disaster from a scientific perspective. Essentially, he attempted to collect data to formulate an objective scientific description of the earthquake.

References of the Lisbon Earthquake in Popular Culture

If you are into gaming, you might have heard of the Lisbon earthquake from the 2014 video game Assasin’s Creed Rogue as it featured as a main plot element. In the game, the earthquake was triggered by the character Shay Cormac who retrieved the Piece of Eden from within the Seismic Temple, causing the earthquake. Moreover, the album 1755 by the Portuguese metal band Moonspell dedicated its album to the story of the Lisbon earthquake and its impact on Portuguese society. The Lisbon earthquake also features in Avram Davidson’s Masters of the Maze, a science fiction novel published in 1965. More recently, in 2017, Vital Lacerda released a board game where players reconstruct Lisbon after the earthquake. 

Travel Guide to Lisbon

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the Lisbon Earthquake

Lisbon Earthquake Magnitude: How big was the Lisbon earthquake?

Seismologists estimate the Lisbon earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 to 9, making it the largest known earthquake to impact Europe and northern Africa. The largest earthquake ever recorded in the world was the Great Chilean earthquake that hit on May 22, 1960, with a magnitude of 9.5.

Where was the Lisbon earthquake epicenter?

Various studies have located the epicenter at somewhere between 300 to 400 kilometers southwest of Lisbon, along the Africa-Eurasia plate boundary.

Could the Lisbon earthquake happen again?

It is estimated that an earthquake of the magnitude of the one in 1755 only happens every 3,000 to 4,000 years in the same place. Still, there is a possibility of an earthquake of more moderate magnitude but closer to the capital, but this still “has the potential to produce losses as high, or even higher than the occurrence of a much larger earthquake offshore”, according to Dr. Guillermo Franco and Dr. Bingming Shen-Tu. However, studies have found that Lisbon has a significantly improved resistance to earthquakes due to the advancement in structural engineering and seismic building design in the past centuries.

What caused the Lisbon earthquake?

Modern science showed that the Lisbon earthquake was caused by a “faulting of the seafloor along the tectonic plate boundaries of the mid-Atlantic”, according to Britannica. 

Are there earthquakes in Portugal?

The Great Lisbon Earthquake might have got you wondering: does Portugal get earthquakes? Earthquakes that can be felt are not very common in Portugal, but they occasionally happen. More recently, between March 29 and the end of April 2022, there were 30,00 earthquakes recorded on the São Jorge island in the Azores. Most of these were not even felt, however, but led to a volcanic alert being raised to 5, meaning there is a threat of volcanic eruption on the island.

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