Meeting Date: 31 May 2013

Prepared By: Susan Weaver

 

Cataclysm and Catalysis: Lisbon 1755

Lisbon, the site of this year's Rotary International Conference, has a long and fascinating history. Apart from it's importance as a port from which some of history's most famous explorers - Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan, to name but a few - launched their expeditions, it was also the site of a world changing cataclysmic and catalytic event.

The development of Lisbon dates from about 1000 BC. Through the early centuries, the city was conquered and ruled by a succession of invaders - the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and finally the Moors. The Moors, who conquered the city in 711, ruled for more than 400 years until they were driven out by Christian Crusaders in 1147.

The development of Lisbon dates from about 1000 BC. Through the early centuries, the city was conquered and ruled by a succession of invaders - the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths and finally the Moors. The Moors, who conquered the city in 711, ruled for more than 400 years until they were driven out by Christian Crusaders in 1147.

Lisbon was established as the de facto capital of Portugal in 1260 and has remained the region's principal city ever since. During the 15th century, Portugal's dominance of the spice trade and massive imports of gold from South America transformed Lisbon into one of Europe's preeminent cities. By the mid-18th century, Lisbon's population had reached approximately 250,000 people - nearly half its current size - and the city was noted for its impressive architecture, abundance of ornate churches and the opulent lifestyle of its nobility and wealthy merchant class.

Then on November 1st, 1755, Lisbon was nearly destroyed. An earthquake, estimated by modern seismologists as a magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, shook the city violently for 10 minutes. Fires broke out. People sought safety on boats in the harbor but the water proved no refuge. A tsunami approximately 100-feet high engulfed the city about 30 minutes after the temblor struck. A third of the city's population perished in the disaster, the worst Europe had seen since the destruction of Pompeii by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Today the tsunami is ranked as the third most devastating in history after the ones associated with the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and the Nankaido, Japan, quake in 1498.

 

 

 

Here is a video with artists' depictions of the earthquake:
1755 The Great Lisbon Earthquake: 2:47 min

As it turned out the Lisbon earthquake was as culturally cataclysmic as it was physically. The horrific scale of the destruction, death and misery exacted on Lisbon's residents made people question their basic religious beliefs. In an age when Europeans interpreted such natural phenomena as literal acts of a wrathful God, philosophers began to search for other explanations.

Among the eminent philosophical voices raised in response to the humanitarian crisis in Lisbon were those of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emmanuel Kant. Voltaire's initial response was his Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon, which elicited a written response from Rousseau, who decried the fatalism it expressed. The poem is seen today as a prelude to Voltaire's masterpiece Candide in which he extended his argument against the "best of all possible worlds" philosophy of Gottfried von Leibniz.

Oh, miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!
Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!
Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!
Deluded philosophers who cry, "All is well,"
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;
These women and children heaped on one another,
These scattered members under broken marble...

(The entire poem and Rousseau's response can be read here: http://geophysics-old.tau.ac.il/personal/shmulik/LisbonEq-letters.htm)

  

But it was Emmanuel Kant's pragmatic response that proved to be the more revolutionary, effective and humanitarian one. He dared to advance the idea that the devastation was the result of natural causes rather than a reflection of divine displeasure or vengeance, that there could be some human response that would help prevent such tragedies in the future. Though the geologic causes he conjectured proved incorrect, it is to Kant's writing on the Lisbon Earthquake that many trace the birth of the sciences of geology and seismology.

In the aftermath of the Lisbon temblor, the then Prime Minister of Portugal, the Marquis de Pombal, also took a revolutionary step. He conducted the first scientific study of a natural disaster composing and distributing a questionnaire that asked the districts to report, among other things, on the time they first felt the quake, how long the shaking lasted, which direction the motion emanated from, whether the sea water had risen or receded, and the number of lives lost and buildings destroyed. Records of many of the responses are preserved in Portugal's National Historical Archives and scholars still consult them in their efforts to advance their understanding of seismic events, devise ways of predicting them, and design structures to withstand them.

In essence on November 1st, 1755, the world experienced three tectonic shifts - one that felt like end-of-days to Lisbon's residents, one that shook the European world view to its core, and one that gave birth to the new scientific disciplines of geology and seismology.  As Rotarians gather in Lisbon in June this year and stand on one of her seven hills surveying the city that rose from the rubble, we might take a few moments to reflect on this world changing event and its impact on history.

Much of the information gathered for this program was gleaned from The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake 1755 by Nicholas Shrady, and an extensive discussion of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake as part of a conference entitled "Leibniz's Theodicy: Reception and Relevance," held in Lisbon in October of last year (2012), the video of which is available here to the insatiably curious (with an hour and a quarter to spare):

Panel on the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake (Part 1): 1:10:15 min

 
 
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