Saturday 1 November 1755 was All Saint’s Day, one of the most important festivals in the religious calendar. In Lisbon, Europe’s fourth largest city and the opulent metropolis of the great Portugese empire, the day had dawned bright and warm. A few minutes after half past nine a terrible noise like the rattling of coaches on cobbles heralded one fo the most devastating catastrophes ever to hit a major city in the Western world.
The ten-minute duration of the Great Lisbon Earthquake has seldom been equalled. The largest of its three tremors measured 8.75-9 on the Richter scale, and the city was plunged into “an Egyptian darkness, a darkness such as might be felt”. Two massive aftershocks followed as well as a huge tidal wave. The destruction was completed by a fire which burned for a week, consuming a greater area that the Great Fire of London. Most of the vast riches of housed in Lisbon’s palaces, churches and warehouses were lost.
Thirty to forty thousand people were killed in Lisbon, and a further ten thousand elsewhere. Terrible destruction was wrought on the Portugese and Spanish coasts, and in North Africa. When the tidal wave swept in to the principal Spanish port of Cadiz it broke over the sixty-four foot parapet of the city walls and threw ten-ton boulders fifty feet. Later that day it reached the Caribbean. Inland waters were disturbed as far away as Scotland, Finland and today’s Czech Republic.
When news of the earthquake reached London, Paris and Rome three weeks later the impact on Western thought and religion was immediate and immense. Throughout Europe theologians and philosophers grappled with reconciling the infliction of such misery and destruction on Lisbon with their belief in the existence of a beneficient deity. Soon afterwards Voltaire used the disaster as the fulcrum for his famous assault on the prevailing philosophy of “optimism” and the belief that everything was for the best in “the best of all possible worlds”. The quake also gave birth to the eve science of seismology and, occurring on the eve of the Seven Years’ War, the first global war, it heralded the start of the “modern era2 in spectacular and terrifying fashion.
Drawing on primary sources, some of which have never been used before, Edward Paice paints a vivid picture of a city and society changed for ever in the space of a few minutes. WRATH OF GOD is a gripping account from a master writer of a natural disaster remembered a century later as “the most fearful catastrophe that history records”.