Saturday, April 09, 2016

What We're Reading: The Great Lisbon Earthquake

This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reasonby Mark Molesky

The huge earthquake that destroyed the city of Lisbon, Portugal on November 1, 1755 (All Saints Day) was an event that had a profound impact on 18th-century Europe and the Age of Enlightenment. It is not an event that many educated people know about today.  Most people who have heard of the earthquake know about it from passages in Voltaire’s dark novella, Candide. Molesky’s title, “This Gulf of Fire” comes from a line in a poem written by Voltaire that he composed shortly after learning about the disaster.

A view of the city of Lisbon made a few years before the 
Books have been written about the impact of the quake on 18th-century thought and intellectual history, and while Molesky discusses this aspect of the tragedy in one of the chapters of his book, this is not the central focus of This Gulf of Fire. The centerpiece of this book is an account of the earth-quake itself, the extent of damage caused by the original quake and the ensuing tsunami and fire. Molesky’s account of these events is based on his research from original sources, and it is remarkably detailed.
This vivid and horrific account may well be the definitive account of the quake. For the faithful citizens of Lisbon, the quake seemed to bring to life the apocalyptic events described in the Bible, in the Book of Revelations. Many believed that this was the prophesied Apocalypse, that they were indeed experiencing the end of times, as one phase of the cruel disaster followed another. Eighty percent or more of the buildings in Lisbon were either completely destroyed or significantly damaged. For most people in Lisbon, the earthquake was seen as an act of God, an expression of his anger for the sins of the city. Molesky holds us in some suspense about the actual loss of life (he doesn’t speculate on a figure until late in the narrative). When he addresses the subject he gives us a judicious estimate, putting the figure at more than 40,000 in Lisbon, less than some of the unfounded speculations of the time, but still a loss that represented a large percentage of the city's population.

A view of the port at Lisbon on the Tagus River
The author sets the scene for this disaster with a colorful overview of the city of Lisbon in the mid-18th century. Lisbon had become a major world city as a result of Portugal’s first Golden Age in the 16th century, as Portugal was enriched by its seafaring adventures and far-flung acquisitions of key trading centers around the world. (For those seeking to know more about this period, the library has Roger Crowley’s newly published book Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire.) In the 17th century, Portugal’s fortunes declined as it faced competition from other European powers, but in the final decade of the 17th century vast quantities of gold as well as precious gemstones were discovered in Portugal’s overseas possession, Brazil. Portugal's fortunes were revived. Lisbon became an incredibly rich city of more than 200,000. Molesky gives us a portrait  of a unique and in many ways bizarre city, one in which one in six of its citizens were in holy orders, but where lasciviousness and corruption were rampant.  Some “Enlightenment” ideas and interests were current, but at the same time religious idolatry and superstition were prevalent and the Inquisition remained active.  It was a city filled with the goods of a a cosmopolitan trade, yet in many ways it remained culturally insular and provincial. Huge opulent baroque churches and palaces were built everywhere in a city that was still medieval in its municipal design.

A wonderfully turbulent engraving depicting the quake damage,
tsunami and fire in a single plate.

 Lisbon was hit by three huge tsunami waves, one following
 another at distinct intervals
The brilliantly recounted central events of the disaster are supplemented by chapters that give us a rounded understanding of the earthquake's impact in all its reverberations. The author includes current scientific thinking about the size, location, and causes of the earthquake. He looks at the political implications of the quake, describing the rebuilding efforts and the shift in power from the crown, church, and nobility to the state ministers and the wealthy merchant class. In explaining the efforts of foreign powers to aid Portugal, he places those impulses in the context of European trade and economic alliances and the diplomatic landscape of the period. The destruction of the earthquake was not confined to just Lisbon, and Molesky gives us an account of the destruction elsewhere in Portugal and in Spain and Morocco, and tells us how the quake was felt and observed in England and in other parts of the European continent.

At least 34 looters were hung in the wake of the earthquake,
as authorities tried to restore civil order
For contemporary readers, it is not the 18th-century struggle over the causes and meaning of the earthquake that will affect them most about This Gulf of Fire. We take a rather condescending view of the scientific ignorance that made such dire philosophical and religious speculations possible, and have little patience for it. What will impress readers, and perhaps moderate our contemporary hubris, is the picture Molesky gives us of what happens to the social order in an unprecedented disaster. He shows us how selfish and self-focused individuals became, and also how many people took advantage of the tragedy and the breakdown in order to engage in theft and more dastardly crimes. It is an unsettling portrait that shows us the fragility of human order and civility, one that hints at the shallow debts of our altruism and humanity. We want to believe we would act differently than the citizens of Lisbon. Perhaps our suspicion that we would not is our connection to the poor citizens of Lisbon on that fateful day.

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