Nov. 1, 2022

The Great Lisbon Earthquake

The Great Lisbon Earthquake

November 1st, 1755. A massive earthquake hits Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, reducing half the city to rubble and killing over 50,000 people.


Cold Open

It’s November 1st, 1755, in Lisbon, Portugal.

A 12-year-old boy, Francisco, scampers down a narrow alleyway. Francisco shimmies past market stalls and crates filled with fruit and vegetables. Clutched in his hand is an unlit candle - given to him moments ago by his mother. Francisco holds the candle close to his chest as if he’s sheltering an invisible flame. 

Today is All Saints’ Day, a religious festival when Catholics commemorate the lives of saints. It’s traditional on this day to leave a lighted candle at the altar of a church. Francisco’s mother is a devout Catholic, but she recently fell ill with typhoid. Too sick to light her own candle, she has told her son, Francisco, to light one for her.

Eventually, Francisco arrives at the arched entrance of Lisbon Cathedral.

He steps into the church’s cool, gloomy interior, where the pews are crowded with worshippers kneeling in quiet supplication. Francisco hurries down the aisle to the altar. He lights his candle and mutters a quick prayer, asking God to restore his mother to full health. But as Francisco turns to leave the church… a strange sound makes him hesitate. It’s a low, ominous rumble - like a peel of distant thunder - but coming from underneath him. Then Francisco feels the floor beneath his feet start to tremble.

The other churchgoers look around in fear and confusion as the walls of the cathedral start to shake. Francisco lifts his gaze to the stone arches crisscrossing the cathedral ceiling…

He jumps back as a section of roof falls and crashes to the ground. The tremors have become violent now; the cathedral walls sway and flex as if they’re made of paper, not stone. Francisco realizes that if he does not get out now, he’ll be crushed.

So the young boy sprints toward the door, ducking and weaving through the panicked crowd, but the trembling ground makes it hard to stay upright…

One powerful tremor sends Francisco sprawling to the floor. He tries to scramble to his feet, but before he can, something heavy lands on his right leg. It’s a chunk of stone, a piece of the cathedral’s ceiling has him pinned. Francisco tries to push it off, but it’s no use. Then there’s a terrifying surge of noise, wind, and dust as all the walls give way, the roof caves in, and the cathedral comes crashing down.

On November 1st, 1755, a powerful earthquake inflicts ruin on the Portuguese city of Lisbon, destroying its famous cathedral and other buildings, and killing more than 50,000 of its citizens. The earthquake sparks a crisis of faith in Europe, as many begin to question how God allowed this tragedy to happen. But while many lament this loss of piety, others see the catastrophe as a wake-up call – an opportunity to turn away from religion, and toward a future guided by reason and science, as a new Age of Enlightenment springs from the rubble of the earthquake which struck Lisbon on November 1st, 1755.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 1st, 1755: The Great Lisbon Earthquake.

Act One: All Saints Day

It’s just after sunrise on November 1st, 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal.

A group of nuns attend Morning Mass. The sisters kneel before the altar, their hands clasped tightly, their faces concealed by the shroud of their gray habits. A young English nun named Catherine Witham seems to be praying with an especially focused intensity. Catherine’s eyes are clenched shut, and her brow furrowed in concentration.

Today, on All Saint’s Day, Catherine mutters words of reverence to the patron saint of her order, Saint Bridget. She reaffirms her commitment to the church and repeats her solemn vows of obedience and chastity. Finally, she lifts her eyes to Heaven and asks God for help and guidance in all things.

Two years ago, Catherine left home to join this convent in Lisbon because Catholicism is frowned upon in Britain. Catherine is committed to serving God. But recently, she’s started to feel pangs of homesickness. She misses her family back in England, and although she wouldn’t dare confess this to any of her fellow nuns, her unhappiness has caused her to question her decision to join the convent in the first place. So today, Catherine bows her head and begs God to give her strength.

After Mass, the nuns return to the Convent of the Most Holy Savior.

The sisters there are expected to complete their chores after the morning service. But while the other nuns begin sweeping the cloisters or tending to the garden, Sister Catherine sneaks off. She hurries to the dormitories, where she keeps her precious writing paper and ivory quill. Catherine wants to write a letter to her aunt Agnes back in England, and she knows she won’t get another chance all day.

Catherine is close with her aunt, who is the only one of her mother’s five sisters who hasn’t forsaken marriage and children for a life in a convent. For this reason, her aunt Agnes has become something of a pariah in the family. But she has also become a confidant to Catherine, a person she can always turn to for advice.

Catherine settles down at her desk and starts to write, confiding in her aunt about her doubts and her desire to return to England. She is so engrossed in her correspondence that she barely notices when a shadow falls across the page. When Catherine does look up, she is confronted by the stern face of the Mother Superior. Catherine jumps to her feet and tries to hide the letter.

But it’s too late.

The Mother Superior snatches the parchment from Catherine’s hand and reads it carefully. As she does, the elderly nun’s eyes blaze with rage. She folds the letter up tightly and pockets it. Then she slaps Catherine across the face with the back of her hand. Catherine gasps clutching her burning cheek. In a voice that’s barely above a whisper, the Mother Superior sends Catherine to the kitchen, where she is to spend all day cleaning dishes. Catherine hurries out of the dormitory, her eyes brimming with tears.

One hour later, Catherine is scrubbing dishes at the kitchen sink, wondering what further punishments are headed her way when suddenly, there’s a loud crash. A plate has fallen onto the floor and smashed. Catherine sighs and thinks she'll be blamed for it, yet another crime to add to her growing tally. But when another plate falls, then another, Catherine’s misery turns to confusion…

All around the kitchen, crockery, cups, and utensils rattle and quake. The walls themselves start to shudder, and the room fills with dust shaken from the cracks around the bricks. Catherine is frozen with fear. But when a chunk of masonry falls and lands near her feet, she turns and runs from the kitchen.

She clambers up a flight of stairs and emerges in the courtyard, where the ground is heaving and convulsing like the surface of a storm-tossed sea. Most of the other nuns are upstairs, in the library. And Catherine can hear their frightened wails as the building collapses around them. Catherine races for the exit. She emerges into the alleyway outside the convent, which is located on one of Lisbon’s many hills. This provides an unobstructed view of the whole city, where a terrifying spectacle is unfolding… 

Enormous, jagged cracks have appeared in the earth’s surface as if the Gates of Hell have opened and Lisbon is being sucked inside. Churches and palaces collapse in billowing clouds of debris and rubble. Raging fires also engulf buildings, and the air is filled with the screams of the poor souls trapped inside.

Catherine watches on in horror. A terrible thought enters her mind. Could this be God’s punishment for her doubt? Has her sacrilege brought this calamity upon the innocent people of Lisbon? Catherine falls to her knees and begs God for mercy and forgiveness.

But Catherine’s prayers will go unanswered. The fires caused by the earthquake will continue to burn until the city is reduced to ashes. Soon, the eyes of the entire country will turn to Portugal’s King, only to find that the monarch fled Lisbon during the earthquake, an act of cowardice that will spark outrage. But the King’s departure will provide an opportunity for one man, a formerly unpopular politician, who will soon find himself center stage in the effort to rebuild the ruined city.

Act Two: Bury the Dead, Heal the Living

It’s November 1st, 1755, only hours after the earthquake.

On the outskirts of Lisbon, the door of a partially demolished mansion swings open and a 56-year-old politician staggers out, wiping dust from his velvet frock coat. The Marquis of Pombal is Portugal’s Secretary of State for Internal Affairs - a powerful position in the government, and a job that comes with considerable benefits. Pombal’s mansion is one of the finest in Lisbon. Right now, however, it’s little more than rubble.

By some miracle, Pombal managed to survive the earthquake. Now he needs to reach the court of King Joseph I, to consult with the monarch and find out what the next steps are. Pombal knows there’s no time to waste, so he rushes to the stables and mounts his finest steed. Then he cracks the reins and takes off at a furious gallop.

As he rides through the broken city, the scale of the catastrophe becomes clear. For centuries, Portugal has been one of Europe’s great powers. Since the late 1400s, Portuguese navigators have traversed the globe, discovering new territories to incorporate into the vast Portuguese empire. But the jewel in the crown of that empire is still the capital city of Lisbon. Built along the coast overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon stands as a symbol of Portugal’s mastery of the sea. With its opulent palaces, libraries, cathedrals, and parks, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals, a city renowned for its splendor and majesty, until today.

Pombal rides through the destruction. He passes the remains of Lisbon Cathedral, reduced to smoldering rubble. He sees the scorched earth where the Opera House and Library once stood. He finds a group of bandits looting demolished houses. And on street corners, he hears priests proclaiming that God has punished the people of Lisbon for their greedy, and sinful ways…

Pombal also notices that the ground beneath his horse’s hooves is wet as if following a torrential downpour. He will later find out that during the earthquake, many rushed to the seafront to escape the falling buildings. But shortly after the earthquake stopped, a huge aftershock sent a tsunami surging toward the coast. The giant wave killed thousands and demolished any buildings left standing. As Pombal rides through the streets, far too many dead bodies are scattered among the rubble.

Finally, Pombal reaches the Royal Palace, where he hopes to find the King. But the monarch is nowhere to be found. Pombal learns that King Joseph fled the city as soon as it was safe to do so. Pombal shakes his head bitterly, wondering what sort of leader runs away when his subjects need him most.

But Pombal also recognizes that this could be an opportunity. With the King out of the picture, responsibility will fall on himto lead the recovery effort. And for Pombal, this is his chance to bring Portugal into the modern world…

For all her former glories, Portugal’s greatness has faded. By the 1750s, the country is considered an economic backwater, resting on the laurels of her distant imperial past. Britain has long since superseded Portuguese commercial dominance in the east, leaving Brazil as Portugal’s last remaining colonial stronghold.

And it’s not just economically that Portugal is falling behind; she is also struggling to compete intellectually. Elsewhere in Europe, the Age of Enlightenment is well underway, an intellectual movement that emphasizes science and reason over tradition and superstition. The central values of the Enlightenment are individual liberty and religious tolerance. All religions except Catholicism are discriminated against, and the enslavement of her colonial subjects violates Enlightenment principles.

The Marquis of Pombal is a firm believer in the Enlightenment. He wants Portugal to become a force of progress, not a crumbling relic. But not everyone supports Pombal’s liberal reforms. He faces plenty of opposition in parliament from members of the old establishment, aristocrats who fear “progress” could jeopardize their power and status. But in the wake of this terrible earthquake, Pombal hopes that some good could arise out of the tragedy.

When asked by a fellow minister what the plan is, Pombal replies: “to bury the dead, and heal the living.” In the days after the earthquake, Pombal quickly establishes order. He deploys troops to crack down on looting. He orders firefighters to collect the dead and burn the bodies at sea - a measure to prevent any outbreaks of disease.

Pombal also lays out an ambitious rebuilding program. He assembles a team of architects to redesign Lisbon’s city center, with added features to safeguard against any future earthquakes. The team invents a system called “caging” - where a wooden framework is added at an early stage of construction, providing the building with improved flexibility. Pombal personally approves these designs and allocates government funds for a widespread re-building effort. Soon, a new and improved city starts to rise from the rubble, reshaped by Pombal’s vision. 

Pombal will also promote the idea that the earthquake was caused by seismic events beneath the earth’s surface - a scientific explanation for what many believe was God’s divine retribution against the sinful. This explanation will lead many to question God’s role in natural disasters, triggering a crisis of faith in Portugal, and ushering many into a new age of Enlightenment.

Act Three: The Enlightenment

It’s late November 1755 in Geneva, Switzerland; a few weeks after the Great Lisbon Earthquake.

A sixty-year-old man in a white powdered wig sits behind his desk, gazing thoughtfully out of the window. Francois-Marie Arouet is a celebrated French writer and philosopher, better known by his pseudonym, Voltaire.

Voltaire is famous for his scathing critiques of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church. He is a prominent figure in the Age of Enlightenment, an advocate for individual liberty, and an impassioned critic of tyrannical governments. Voltaire’s enlightened thinking has earned him a reputation as a dangerous troublemaker in the eyes of the repressive French authorities. And so, fearing prosecution in his home country, Voltaire is currently living in exile, where he is working on his next book.

Like many thinkers of the age, Voltaire is preoccupied with the “problem of evil” - the question of how to reconcile suffering with the notion of a benevolent God. Many Christian philosophers subscribe to the view that whatever happens in the world, it must be for the best because God has planned and God is always good. Voltaire though disagrees. He believes that such thinking absolves human beings of the responsibility to strive for positive change. If humans are already living in “the best of all possible worlds”, there is no room for any improvement, and thus no room for human progress.

But Voltaire has been struggling to find examples to support his argument. Recently, however, reports emerged from Portugal about a terrible earthquake that struck the city of Lisbon. The more Voltaire read about the disaster, the more he realized that it could support his view against God’s universal benevolence. The earthquake killed as many as 60,000 people. It sparked fires which decimated the city and then caused a tsunami that demolished all buildings left standing.

Some Catholic thinkers have argued that this catastrophe was all part of God’s plan, and that mere mortals shouldn’t question it. But Voltaire maintains that humanity must take control of its condition. In his mind, humans should not passively accept natural disasters as “part of God’s plan”. Humanity must claim agency and responsibility, and by furthering knowledge of the scientific laws that govern the universe, and learn how to defend against future calamity.

Voltaire begins writing immediately. And four years later, Candide is published - in which Voltaire lays out his argument about evil and suffering and uses the Lisbon earthquake to strengthen his claims. The publishing of Candidecreates a storm of controversy. French authorities ban the book, accusing its author of contradicting official church doctrine. Nevertheless, the novella will quickly become a bestseller, spreading its enlightened ideas about science and reason making Candide one of the most celebrated texts of the era.

Voltaire was inspired by the earthquake to write Candidein support of his theory. But in Lisbon, the people of that demolished city had to fight to recover and rebuild. Some held to their faith but most looked elsewhere. Thanks in large part to the leadership of the Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, the city will bounce back, equipped with a more enlightened approach to urban planning and disaster prevention, a positive outcome of the catastrophic earthquake that devastated Lisbon on November 1st, 1755.


Next onHistory Daily.November 2nd, 1899: The Boers begin a 118-day siege of the British-held city Ladysmith during the Second Boer War.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser