domingo, 24 de janeiro de 2010

The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake

In the aftermath of the recent Haiti Earthquake of 12 Jan 2009, many of my thoughts have been with the victims of this devastating catastrophe and I can't help but compare it to the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake that wrecked the Portuguese capital.

On Saturday 1 November 1755, around 10.30 am, a violent earthquake scoring around 9 in the Richter scale (that is roughly 1000 times stronger in the epicentre than the recent Haiti quake) rocked Lisbon, followed by a powerful tsunami.

It is thought that the fact that it was All Saints Day, a religious holiday highly celebrated by Catholics with burning candles, was a major contribution to the massive fires that blazed throughout Lisbon.

At the time Lisbon had probably around 250 000 inhabitants and it is thought that up to 100 000 people died. Around 85% percent of the buildings in the city were destroyed together with several cultural treasures. This included the Phoenix Opera which was only a few months old and was totally burnt down, The Royal Ribeira Palace and several historical records of explorations by Vasco da Gama and other early navigators.

But more than all this worldly damage, one can imagine the devastating humanitarian crisis it must have created. If with today's globalised aid and technical developments we still have major humanitarian tragedies such as the Indic Tsunami or Haiti, it must have been much worse back in the eighteenth century. Epidemics, Hunger, Wounded, Lootings, ...

This crisis scenario also had huge impact in the economy and was a major blow to the portuguese colonial empire. It greatly contributed to its decline, as it forced authorities to focus on the reconstruction of Lisbon, neglecting their overseas regions and ultimately leading to legitimate generalised unhappiness abroad.

By the late eighteenth century, Portugal had lost control of most of it's colonies in Asia, and the fragile status of the Economy turned Portugal into an easy target of Napoleon and the Peninsular War was in the origin of the Independence of Brazil.

It would be unfair to finish this post without mentioning the Marquis of Pombal (full name Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo), then prime minister of King Joseph I, who greatly contributed to the reconstruction of Lisbon and is behind the concept of the Pombaline Downtown that replaced the destroyed medieval downtown and still stands as the heart of Lisbon. He also was associated with the development of Seismology, fostering statistical enquiries and studies of anti-seismic structures.

Today's Pombaline Downtown in Lisbon

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782),
the 1st Marquis of Pombal

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