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Modern History Sourcebook:
Rev. Charles Davy:
The Earthquake at Lisbon, 1755

[Tappan Introduction] In 1755 Portugal was visited by a terrible earthquake. As Holmes puts it,---

"That was the year when Lisbon town /Saw the earth open and gulp her down."

THERE never was a finer morning seen than the 1st of November; the sun shone out in its full luster; the whole face of the sky was perfectly serene and clear; and not the least signal of warning of that approaching event, which has made this once flourishing, opulent, and,populous city, a scene of the utmost horror and desolation, except only such as served to alarm, but scarcely left a moment's time to fly from the general destruction.

It was on the morning of this fatal day, between the hours of nine and ten, that I was set down in my apartment, just finishing a letter, when the papers and table I was writing on began to tremble with a gentle motion, which rather surprised me, as I could not perceive a breath of wind stirring. Whilst I was reflecting with myself what this could be owing to, but without having the least apprehension of the real cause, the whole house began to shake from the very foundation, which at first I imputed to the rattling of several coaches in the main street, which usually passed that way, at this time, from Belem to the palace; but on hearkeningmore attentively, I was soon undeceived, as I found it was owing to a strange frightful kind of noise under ground, resembling the hollow distant rumbling of thunder. All this passed in less than a minute, and I must confess I now began to be alarmed, as it naturally occurred to me that this noise might possibly be the forerunner of an earthquake, as one I remembered, which had happened about six or seven years ago, in the island of Madeira, commenced in the same manner, though it did little or no damage.

Upon this I threw down my pen---and started upon my feet, remaining a moment in suspense, whether I should stay in the apartment or run into the street, as the danger in both places seemed equal; and still flattering myself that this tremor might produce no other effects than such inconsiderable ones as had been felt at Madeira; but in a moment I was roused from my dream, being instantly stunned with a most horrid crash, as if every edifice in the city had tumbled down at once. The house I was in shook with such violence, that the upper stories immediately fell; and though my apartment (which was the first floor) did not then share the same fate, yet everything was thrown out of its place in such a manner that it was with no small difficulty I kept my feet, and expected nothing less than to be soon crushed to death, as the walls continued rocking to and fro in the frightfulest manner, opening in several places; large stones falling down on every side from the cracks, and the ends of most of the rafters starting out from the roof. To add to this terrifying scene, the sky in a moment became so gloomy that I could now distinguish no particular object; it was an Egyptian darkness indeed, such as might be felt; owing, no doubt, to the prodigious clouds of dust and lime raised from so violent a concussion, and, as some reported, to sulphureous exhalations, but this I cannot affirm; however, it is certain I found myself almost choked for near ten minutes.

I hastened out of the house and through the narrow streets, where the buildings either were down or were continually falling, and climbed over the ruins of St. Paul's Church to get to the river's side, where I thought I might find safety. Here I found a prodigious concourse of people of both sexes, and of all ranks and conditions, among whom I observed some of the principal canons of the patriarchal church, in their purple robes and rochets, as these all go in the habit of bishops; several priests who had run from the altars in their sacerdotal vestments in the midst of their celebrating Mass; ladies half dressed, and some without shoes; all these, whom their mutual dangers had here assembled as to a place of safety, were on their knees at prayers, with the terrors of death in their countenances, every one striking his breast and crying out incessantly, Miserecordia meu Dios! . . . In the midst of our devotions, the second great shock came on, little less violent than the first, and completed the ruin of those buildings which had been already much shattered. The consternation now became so universal that the shrieks and cries of Miserecordia could be distinctly heard from the top of St. Catherine's Hill, at a considerable distance off, whither a vast number of people had likewise retreated; at the same time we could hear the fall of the parish church there, whereby many persons were killed on the spot, and others mortally wounded.

You may judge of the force of this shock, when I inform you it was so violent that I could scarce keep on my knees; but it was attended with some circumstances still more dreadful than the former. On a sudden I heard a general outcry, "The sea is coming in, we shall be all lost." Upon this, turning my eyes towards the river, which in that place is nearly four miles broad, I could perceive it heaving and swelling in the most unaccountable manner, as no wind was stirring. In an instant there appeared, at some small distance, a large body of water, rising as it were like a mountain. It came on foaming and roaring, and rushed towards the shore with such impetuosity, that we all immediately ran for our lives as fast as possible; many were actually swept away, and the rest above their waist in water at a good distance from the banks. For my own part I had the narrowest escape, and should certainly have been lost, had I not grasped a large beam that lay on the ground, till the water returned to its channel, which it did almost at the same instant, with equal rapidity. As there now appeared at least as much danger from the sea as the land, and I scarce knew whither to retire for shelter, I took a sudden resolution of returning back, with my clothes all dripping, to the area of St. Paul's. Here I stood some time, and observed the ships tumbling and tossing about as in a violent storm; some had broken their cables, and were carried to the other side of the Tagus; others were whirled around with incredible swiftness; several large boats were turned keel upwards; and all this without any wind, which seemed the more astonishing. It was at the time of which I am now speaking, that the fine new quay, built entirely of rough marble, at an immense expense, was entirely swallowed up, with all the people on it, who had fled thither for safety, and had reason to think themselves out of danger in such a place: at the same time, a great number of boats and small vessels, anchored near it (all likewise full of people, who had retired thither for the same purpose), were all swallowed up, as in a whirlpool, and nevermore appeared.

This last dreadful incident I did not see with my own eyes, as it passed three or four stones' throws from the spot where I then was; but I had the account as here given from several masters of ships, who were anchored within two or three hundred yards of the quay, and saw the whole catastrophe. One of them in particular informed me that when the second shock came on, he could perceive the whole city waving backwards and forwards, like the sea when the wind first begins to rise; that the agitation of the earth was so great even under the river, that it threw up his large anchor from the mooring, which swam, as he termed it, on the surface of the water: that immediately upon this extraordinary concussion, the river rose at once near twenty feet, and in a moment subsided; at which instant he saw the quay, with the whole concourse of people upon it, sink down, and at the same time every one of the boats and vessels that were near it was drawn into the cavity, which he supposed instantly closed upon them, inasmuch as not the least sign of a wreck was ever seen afterwards. This account you may give full credit to, for as to the loss of the vessels, it is confirmed by everybody; and with regard to the quay, I went myself a few days after to convince myself of the truth, and could not find even the ruins of a place where I had taken so many agreeable walks, as this was the common rendezvous of the factory in the cool of the evening. I found it all deep water, and in some parts scarcely to be fathomed.

This is the only place I could learn which was swallowed up in or about Lisbon, though I saw many large cracks and fissures in different parts; and one odd phenomenon I must not omit, which was communicated to me by a friendùwho has a house and wine-cellars on the other side of the river, viz., that the dwelling-house being first terribly shaken, which made all the family run out, there presently fell down a vast high rock near it; that upon this the river rose and subsided in the manner already mentioned, and immediately a great number of small fissures appeared in several contiguous pieces of ground, from whence there spouted out, like a jet stream, a large quantity of fine white sand to a prodigious height. It is not to be doubted the bowels of the earth must have been excessively agitated to cause these surprising effects; but whether the shocks were owing to any sudden explosion of various minerals mixing together, or to air pent up, and struggling for vent, or to a collection of subterranean waters forcing a passage, God only knows. As to the fiery eruptions then talked of, I believe they are without foundation, though it is certain I heard several complaining of strong sulphureous smells, a dizziness in their heads, a sickness in their stomachs, and difficulty of respiration, not that I felt any such symptoms myself.

I had not been long in the area of St. Paul's when I felt the third shock, somewhat less violent than the two former, after which the sea rushed in again, and retired with the same rapidity, and I remained up to my knees in water, though I had gotten upon a small eminence at some distance from the river, with the ruins of several intervening houses to break its force. At this time I took notice the waters retired so impetuously, that some vessels were left quite dry, which rode in seven fathom water; the river thus continued alternately rushing on and retiring several times together, in such sort that it was justly dreaded Lisbon would now meet the same fate which a few years before had befallen the city of Lima; and no doubt had this place lain open to the sea, and the force of the waves not been somewhat broken by the winding of the bay, the lower parts of it at least would have been totally destroyed.

The master of a vessel which arrived here just after the 1st of November, assured me that he really concluded he had struck upon a rock, till he threw out the lead, and could find no bottom, nor could he possibly guess at the cause, till the melancholy sight of this desolate city left him no room to doubt of it. The two first shocks, in fine, were so violent that several pilots were of opinion the situation of the bar at the mouth of the Tagus was changed. Certain it is that one vessel, attempting to pass through the usual channel, foundered, and another struck on the sands, and was at first given over for lost, but at length got through. There was another great shock after this, which pretty much affected the river, but I think not so violently as the preceding; though several persons assured me that as they were riding on horseback in the great road leading to Belem, one side of which lies open to the river, the waves rushed in with so much rapidity that they were obliged to gallop as fast as possible to the upper grounds, for fear of being carried away.

I was now in such a situation that I knew not which way to turn myself: if I remained there, I was in danger from the sea; if I retired farther from the shore, the houses threatened certain destruction; and at last, I resolved to go to the Mint, which being a low and very strong building, had received no considerable damage, except in some of the apartments towards the river. The party of soldiers, which is every day set there on guard, had all deserted the place, and the only person that remained was the commanding oflicer, a nobleman's son, of about seventeen or eighteen years of age, whom I found standing at the gate. As there was still a continued tremor of the earth, and the place where we now stood (being within twenty or thirty feet of the opposite houses, which were all tottering) appeared too dangerous, the courtyard being likewise full of water, we both retired inward to a hillock of stones and rubbish: here I entered into conversation with him, and having expressed my admiration that one so young should have the courage to keep his post, when every one of his soldiers had deserted theirs, the answer he made was, though he were sure the earth would open and swallow him up, he scorned to think of flying from his post. In short, it was owing to the magnanimity of this young man that the Mint, which at this time had upwards of two millions of money in it, was not robbed; and indeed I do him no more than justice in saying that I never saw any one behave with equal serenity and composure on occasions much less dreadful than the present....

Perhaps you may think the present doleful subject here concluded; but alas! the horrors of the 1st of November are sufficient to fill a volume. As soon as it grew dark, another scene presented itself little less shocking than those already described: the whole city appeared in a blaze, which was so bright that I could easily see to read by it. It may be said without exaggeration, it was on fire at least in a hundred different places at once, and thus continued burning for six days together, without intermission, or the least attempt being made to stop its progress.

It went on consuming everything the earthquake had spared, and the people were so dejected and terrified that few or none had courage enough to venture down to save any part of their substance; every one had his eyes turned towards the flames, and stood looking on with silent grief, which was only interrupted by the cries and shrieks of women and children calling on the saints and angels for succor, whenever the earth began to tremble, which was so often this night, and indeed I may say ever since, that the tremors, more or less, did not cease for a quarter of an hour together. I could never learn that this terrible fire was owing to any subterranean eruption, as some reported, but to three causes, which all concurring at the same time, will naturally account for the prodigious havoc it made. The 1st of November being All Saints' Day, a high festival among the Portuguese, every altar in every church and chapel (some of which have more than twenty) was illuminated with a number of wax tapers and lamps as customary; these setting fire to the curtains and timber-work that fell with the shock, the conflagration soon spread to the neighboring houses, and being there joined with the fires in the kitchen chimneys, increased to such a degree that it might easily have destroyed the whole city though no other cause had concurred, especially as it met with no interruption.

But what would appear incredible to you, were the fact less public and notorious, is that a gang of hardened villains, who had been confined and got out of prison when the wall fell, at the first shock, were busily employed in setting fire to those buildings which stood some chance of escaping the general destruction. I cannot conceive what could have induced them to this hellish work, except to add to the horror and confusion that they might, by this means, have the better opportunity of plundering with security. But there was no necessity for taking this trouble, as they might certainly have done their business without it, since the whole city was so deserted before night that I believe not a soul remained in it except those execrable villains and others of the same stamp. It is possible some among them might have had other motives besides robbing, as one in particular being apprehended (they say he was a Moor, condemned to the galleys), confessed at the gallows, that he had set fire to the king's palace with his own hand; at the same time glorying in the action, and declaring with his last breath that he hoped to have burnt all the royal family. It is likewise generally believed that Mr. Bristow's house, which was an exceedingly strong edifice, built on vast stone arches, and had stood the shocks without any great damage further than what I have mentioned, was consumed in the same manner. The fire, in short, by some means or other, may be said to have destroyed the whole city, at least everything that was grand or valuable in it.

With regard to the buildings, it was observed that the solidest in general fell the first. Every parish church, convent, nunnery, palace, and public edifice, with an infinite number of private houses, were either thrown down or so miserably shattered that it was rendered dangerous to pass by them.

The whole number of persons that perished, including those who were burnt or afterwards crushed to death whilst digging in the ruins, is supposed, on the lowest calculation, to amount to more than sixty thousand; and though the damage in other resptects cannot be computed, yet you may form some idea of it when I assure you that this extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins; that the rich and the poor are at present upon a level; some thousands of families which but the day before had been easy in their circumstances, being now scattered about in the fields, wanting every conveniency of life, and finding none able to relieve them.


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. V: Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, pp. 618-628.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu