Two hundred and sixty-three years ago today, a natural disaster of biblical proportions befell the city of Lisbon. It shaped the second half of 18th century as much as the Holocaust shaped the second half of the 20th century. “Lisbon” was the 18th-century West’s “9/11”, and the modern world we live in is unthinkable without it.
The initial earthquake occurred at around 9:40 a.m. on November 1st, 1755. It was a Saturday, a high holiday, All Saints Day. Thousands were crushed to death instantly when the buildings they were in came crashing down on top of them. But eyewitnesses counted these victims among the lucky, because what lay in store for many of the survivors was far worse.
Most houses had kitchen fires burning 24/7 in 18th-century Europe, and most of these houses were made of wood, so, by 10:00 a.m., densely populated Lisbon was engulfed in flames. It was an incredibly hot fire which raged on and on for more than five days. Many of those who survived the initial earthquake were, quite literally, burned alive. Their screams and shouts were still audible to many of those who fled to the safety of the sandy beaches below the city. But even for these poor souls, the horror was far from over.
What they didn’t know, what they couldn’t have known, was that the earthquake’s epicenter was out at sea, in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 km from the coast. Forty minutes after the initial earthquake, a giant tsunami hit the coast and rushed up the Tagus River. It drowned many of those who managed to survive the earthquake and the fire. Between 10,000 and 100,000 people died that day. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, and, arguably, one of the most horrific.
Death by earthquake. Death by fire. Death by tsunami. You didn’t have to be particularly devout to see the hand of an angry God in these events. Many leading theologians were quick to blame the victims of the Lisbon Earthquake, much as the American evangelist Pat Robertson blamed the victims of the Haitian Earthquake in 2009. But this simply didn’t ring true to worldly 18th-century Europeans. After all, Lisbon wasn’t an especially sinful place. London and Paris were far more fun, far more deserving of fire and brimstone. And besides, numerous eyewitness accounts attested to the fact that some of Lisbon’s whorehouses and gambling dens remained standing after the earthquake, untouched and unscathed, whilst nearby nunneries and churches were reduced to rubble and ruin.
The death and destruction defied definition. It didn’t seem to make any sense, not in any simplistic Christian sense: which is precisely why alternate explanations for natural disasters like earthquakes, explanations based on science—explanations that removed God from the equation (via deism or even atheism)—took off in the late 18th century. If the worldview of the ancient Hebrews was shaped by a Great Flood, the worldview of the modern West was shaped by a Great Earthquake.
One of modernity’s greatest achievements is the realization that natural disasters like earthquakes have nothing to do with us, that we need not see the wrath of Zeus in every thunderclap, the displeasure of Poseidon in every menacing wave. The origins of that realization are to be found in the smoldering ashes of Lisbon.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2018)