Lisbon, Portugal, was struck by an earthquake on November 1, 1755, now known as the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The copper engraving shown above, forged that same year, shows the city in ruins and in flames in the aftermath of the earthquake. But what makes this piece all the more noteworthy is its depiction of the tsunamis rushing upon the shore, destroying the citys wharfs. It shows the highly disturbed waters in the harbor, which sank many ships and caused even greater destruction. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic in the chaos.
The Lisbon earthquake struck in mid-morning during a high religious holiday, All Souls Day or All Saints Day. According to reports from the earthquakes survivors and witnesses, the earthquake only lasted between three and a half to six minutes, but those few minutes brought unprecedented destruction to the city of Lisbon. It shook the area with great tremors that leveled buildings and destroyed infrastructure. But even as the tremors subsided, the threat was not over. Less than an hour after the earthquake, three large tsunami waves swept over the city's harbor and killed many more thousands of refugees. A week later, after untamable fires and unremitting aftershocks, essentially the whole city of Lisbon was in ashes, its people scattered, and perhaps half of its population dead. The eyewitness account of the Lisbon earthquake and its aftermath by Rev. Charles Davy makes horrifying reading. Historians and geologists note that only the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake is comparable in its economic and psychic impact.
The Impact of the Lisbon Earthquake
When the active threats ended, over three fourths of the city of Lisbons buildings were destroyed if not by the earths tremendous shaking, then by water or fire. In this second picture, the people of Lisbon are shown camping in the city ruins. Signs of crime, disorder, and disease are evident, and the authorities are shown dealing justice to criminals as priests attend. The devastating reach of these natural disasters were not limited to the coastal city of Lisbon as similar scenes occurred throughout Portugal, in southern Spain, and in Morocco following the earthquake and related natural disasters. Tsunamis struck territories as far away as England and Northern Africa and were detected across the Atlantic Ocean.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed a major cultural center of Europe, dealing a severe blow to the nation of Portugal and the rest of Europe. The earthquake and its destruction only underscored the existing political tensions in the region and brought the Kingdom of Portugals colonial aspirations to a halt. Its widespread physical effects aroused a wave of scientific interest and research into earthquakes. The Lisbon earthquake can be said to be the instigator behind the infant science of seismology. Today, the historical earthquake is thought to have had a magnitude well above 8.5 on the moment magnitude scale with an epicenter some 200 kilometers off the southwestern corner of Portugal. Studies of the written records are still yielding fresh hypotheses.