Nature Can't Conquer Human Spirit
The tragic consequences of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean boggle the mind
and unleash waves of sorrow. They also recall a similar natural disaster
during the 18th century that had far-reaching social and political
consequences. An earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Portugal in
1755 caused horrific loss of life, reshaped the balance of power in
Europe and reduced to rubble one of the world's grandest cities.
the early 18th century, Lisbon rivaled Paris, London and Rome as the
most powerful and extravagant city in Europe. A vibrant center of
culture and learning nestled among seven terraced hills and boasting a
quarter-million people, Lisbon was renowned for its fabulous cathedrals,
museums and libraries. It was also the nation's capital as well as the
seat of the sprawling Portuguese Empire, which governed far-flung
colonies in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
of the great Lisbon earthquake could not have been worse. Sunday, Nov.
1, 1755, was All Saints' Day, a major Catholic holiday. By 9 a.m. on the
sunlit day, most of the residents of the devoutly Catholic city were
attending Mass at one of six magnificent cathedrals or dozens of
Around 9:40 a.m., a sudden, thunderous rumbling
startled parishioners. The huge chandeliers in the cathedrals began to
swing violently. The deafening roar of the quaking earth drowned out
pipe organs and silenced choruses. Panic set in.
Those near the
church doors rushed outside to witness the first of three ground-jolting
quakes. The city's narrow streets heaved and cracked. Gaping crevices
five-feet wide opened throughout the city as towering cathedrals
crumbled, entombing thousands. Clouds of dust filled the air and blotted
out the morning sun. By 9:45, when the earthquake's tremors had ended,
the once-splendid city lay in a ruinous heap.
unwittingly scrambled to the Mar de Palha, a great inland bay, to seek
refuge from the devastation. There they witnessed an eerie scene: the
sea had receded, revealing a bay floor littered with lost cargo and old
shipwrecks. Then disaster struck again.
Around 11 o'clock, the
first of three tsunamis measuring as much as 50 feet high raced up
the mouth of the Tagus River and crashed into Lisbon's waterfront
storehouses and docks. The colossal waves tore ships from their anchors
and dashed them against the fleeing crowds that had congregated on the
quay. Many of those who survived the initial crush of the first wave
were swept out to sea as the churning waters receded.
tsunamis followed shortly thereafter. The riverside Royal Palace was
destroyed, along with its 70,000-volume library and priceless works of
art, including masterpieces by Titian, Rubens and Coreggio. Also lost
were the records of the initial explorations of the Western Hemisphere.
noon, Lisbon's remaining citizens assumed that the worst was over. But
they were wrong. Scattered fires, ignited by shattered oil lamps and
overturned stoves and candles, were whipped into a major conflagration
by the afternoon's high winds. The brand new Opera House was gutted.
Flames also enveloped the Royal Hospital of All-Saints; hundreds of
patients burned to death. Desperate residents fled to the surrounding
hills, where for the next four days they watched Lisbon burn.
witness coldly reported that the fire "was not altogether a misfortune.
It consumed the thousands of corpses, which would otherwise have
tainted the air, adding pestilence to the other misfortunes of the
The grim tally of nature's assault on Lisbon was
staggering: nearly 90 percent of the city was destroyed, and officials
at the time estimated that as many as 70,000 (a quarter) of its citizens
had perished. The massive earthquake and the radiating tsunamis spread
additional death and destruction along the coasts of Iberia and North
Africa, killing another10,000 people.
Chaos reigned in the days
following the earthquake. The catastrophe sent a seismic shock through
intellectual and religious life. The destruction of Lisbon caused many,
including the French philosopher Voltaire, to question the optimistic
faith of the Enlightenment in perpetual societal progress. It also
stimulated a wave of scientific research into the natural forces causing
At the same time, many Christians were convinced
that the earthquake was not a natural disaster but a vengeful act of God
against a sinful city. A Franciscan preacher argued that the quake was a
form of divine mercy.
After all, he explained, Portugal deserved
much worse. In the turbulent days after the terrible events, priests
roamed the streets, hanging heretics on sight. Looting was rampant. With
food supplies washed away or contaminated, disease and starvation were
widespread. Inflation soared. A pound of bread was worth an ounce of
Yet no sooner had the tremors abated than the prime
minister, the Marquis of Pombal, systematically set about rebuilding the
city. His first order was to "bury the dead and feed the living." He
organized teams of firefighters to extinguish the flames and groups of
soldiers to remove the thousands of corpses.
eventually rebuilt through an outpouring of international aid, most of
which arrived from England. The new Lisbon was remarkable for its large
public squares and broad crisscrossing boulevards. Today, Lisbon
testifies to the resilience of the human spirit. Such resilience is
already on display among the peoples of the Indian Ocean.