The Lisbon Earthquake in Modern Perspective
“Such a Spectacle of Terror and Amazement, as well as the Desolation to Beholders, as perhaps had not been equalled from the Foundation of the World.” Thus an English merchant writing from Lisbon to a friend on November 20, 1755, described the “Late dreadful Earthquake which laid the Capital of Portugal in Ruins…” More recently, philosopher Susan Neiman has called the Lisbon earthquake the first modern disaster. “The sharp distinction between natural and moral evil which now seems self-evident was born around the Lisbon earthquake and nourished by Rousseau.”
But if modern, how is it so? Portugal rarely, if ever, makes it into any general discussion of world history, and much less where “modernity” is concerned. So the debate about the Lisbon earthquake and its impact has become curiously disembodied, philosophical rather than historical, rooted in European thought rather than Portuguese documentation.
What was indeed new about the reaction to the Lisbon earthquake has not been recognized. For example, post-earthquake Portugal faced a virulent debate between those who saw the hand of God and attributed the disaster to retribution for past and present sins, and those who insisted earthquakes had natural causes.
In Portugal, the dispute over causality was exemplified on one side by the Italian-born Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida, a famous missionary to Brazil and a favorite of the Portuguese court, and on the other by António Nunes Ribeiro Sanches, a Paris-based Portuguese philosopher of Jewish ancestry. Portugal’s all-powerful first minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello (1699-1782), better known to history as the Marquês de Pombal, had published Ribeiro Sanches’ book on public health and, in the aftermath of the Lisbon catastrophe, ordered it to be distributed to all public and religious officials. Appended to this book were Ribeiro Sanches’ observations on the natural causes of earthquakes. Father Malagrida was outraged. He wrote to his friend, the German-based retired Father Ritter, theformer confessor to the Queen : “Do you wish to know my crime? Read the booklet you will receive with this letter and you will know all. They criminalize me for daring to oppose this booklet and the pernicious doctrine that is propagated in this Court and City, that one should not attribute the earthquake to our sins and the anger of a God, punisher of our crimes; but instead to purely physical and natural causes. It is for this that I am accused, sentenced and condemned without being heard…”
Malagrida argued that the cause of the fires and destruction of Lisbon “…are not comets, are not stars, are not vapors or exhalations, are not phenomena, they are not natural contingencies or causes; but they are solely our intolerable sins.” He continues: “I do not know how a Catholic subject dares to attribute the present calamity of this tragic earthquake to causes and natural contingencies. Do not these Catholics understand this world is not a house without an owner?”
Ribeiro Sanches, in his considerations about earthquakes, had written specifically about “the force of vapor and the exhalations of the interior of the earth” This was in fact the title of one of his chapters. It was precisely, therefore, about Ribeiro Sanches and his sponsor the Marquês de Pombal that Malagrida complained.
Pombal was not one to let such an overt challenge to his authority go unanswered. He was already engaged in an increasingly bitter dispute with the Jesuits, which eventually led to their suppression and expulsion from Portugal and its empire in 1759. Pombal personally denounced Malagrida to the Inquisition. The old Jesuit was found guilty of “heresy” and condemned. He was to be, in fact, the last person burned in Portugal. Soon thereafter, Pombal reformed and secularized the Inquisition and abolished the designation of “New Christian,” a designation that had been used to identify Portuguese Jews forcibly converted to Christianity.
Over the centuries, the Inquisition had investigated thousands of individuals on this basis, and those who were found “guilty” of practicing Judaism provided the human fodder for its fires. In drafting these new laws, Pombal had called on the advice of Ribeiro Sanches, a "New Christian" who had reasserted his Jewish identity in exile. It was a formidable historical irony: The Jew reforming the Inquisition, the Jesuit its last victim. Privately, Ribeiro Sanches was skeptical about what legislation could accomplish to change people’s prejudices. He wrote in his diary: “But can this law extinguish from the minds of a people ideas and thoughts they have acquired from their earlier years?”
Voltaire, who remained attentive to Portugal and Pombal’s activities, found the burning of Malagrida and its justification preposterous, finding it excessive in its absurdity and horror. Pombal was sufficiently concerned by the negative European reaction to publish the sentence against Malagrida and a justification for it in French.
Nevertheless, the burning of Malagrida helped to make Pombal’s name notorious in Europe. Europeans did not see the modern, commercial, and resurgent Portugal that Pombal had worked so hard to create after the earthquake. Rather unfairly, it was the old image of a land of irrational superstition that was reinforced. Voltaire led the pack in Candide: “…the [Portuguese] sages could not think of any better way of preventing total ruin than to treat the people to a splendid auto-da-fé.” He had, of course, totally missed the gruesome irony of the Malagrida’s death and the dispute with Ribeiro Sanches that lay behind it: a man of faith burnt in the name of reason.
Pombal boasted in his "Most Secret Observations," written on June 6, 1775, at the time Lisbon's grand new waterfront square was inaugurated:
"The sumptuous and well built edifices of Lisbon demonstrate the flourishing state of architecture. These things abundantly prove to foreigners that Portugal has no cause to envy them either their draughtsmen, or their painters, or their sculptors"
But he was mistaken. Very little attention was paid to the new city he had constructed. The philosophes remained more exercised by the earthquake itself than by the remarkable measures taken to deal with its consequences. And this was thanks in part to words of Voltaire and the fate of Father Malagrida.
Kenneth Maxwell teaches in Harvard's History Department and is director of the Brazil program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. He is completing a book on the Lisbon earthquake to be published by Harvard University Press.