Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Fig.1: Lisbon and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Natural disasters happen practically everyday; things like hurricanes, volcanoes, forest fires, and Doritos Locos Taco shortages have all left their mark on individuals around the world. But sometimes Mother Nature gets so worked up that she just has to make a profound impact on history as well. This certainly happened in 1755, when an earthquake off the southwest corner of Europe pretty much destroyed Portugal's capital of Lisbon, as well as much of the rest of the country. Not only did this disaster alter the political and colonial aspirations of Portugal, but it also affected the philosophical and religious foundations of Europe as a whole, not to mention ruined the Domino Toppling Convention being held in Lisbon that year. In addition, this earthquake caused people to actually start figuring out why the earth quakes to begin with, giving rise to seismology (yet another college degree that pays better than history).

Fig.2: Red jagged lines are frightening
 enough without the seismic activity!
Portugal was certainly no virgin when it came to earthquakes (unlike the eastern U.S. in 2011). With something as scary sounding as the Azores-Gibraltar Transform Fault (fig.2) to the south to them, the country had experienced such tremors before; in fact, one earthquake in 1597 caused three streets within Lisbon to cave in, creating havoc during the subsequent 5K organized on behalf of the earthquake victims. Seismic activity is particularly dangerous with this fault due to a process called subduction, where one tectonic plate slowly slides under another. Without getting too sciency here (that's the job of my cousin, Sima Jude, the Science Dude), all this subductioning builds up tension like an arrow in a bow or a middle school substitute teacher, creating a burst of energy when the fault can't take anymore (like when my middle school substitute teacher threw a garbage can at me).

This is exactly what happened just before 10am on November 1, 1755 about 200 kilometers southwest off the Portuguese coast. Records state the duration of the earthquake to have been between three and six minutes, or an average commercial break on TNT. Since it was All Saints' Day, and Portugal was classified as a CCC during this time ("Crazy Catholic Country"), most people were in church when the quake began. One of the few folks who wasn't was the Reverend Charles Davy, who made up for it by recording his thoughts and actions during the event:
It was on the morning of this fatal day, between the hours of nine and ten, that I was set down in my apartment, just finishing a letter, when the papers and table I was writing on began to tremble with a gentle motion, which rather surprised me, as I could not perceive a breath of wind stirring. Whilst I was reflecting with myself what this could be owing to, but without having the least apprehension of the real cause, the whole house began to shake from the very foundation, which at first I imputed to the rattling of several coaches in the main street, which usually passed that way, at this time, from Belem to the palace; but on hearkening more attentively, I was soon undeceived, as I found it was owing to a strange frightful kind of noise under ground, resembling the hollow distant rumbling of thunder.
Man, an earthquake would be necessary to wake me up after reading that! Davy later recounted how many survivors fled the churches and made to the docks, thinking that the open water would be safer than the crumbling city. But about a half-hour after the tremors ended, a giant wave at least twenty meters high swept away thousands of people in an event that was even less pleasant than a "polar bear plunge." With the earthquake and the tsunami and the fire that soon broke out (poor 100-year-old Henriqueta didn't get the chance to make a wish on her birthday candles), over four-fifths of Lisbon was destroyed, and at least 30,000 out of a population of 200,000 died. And all because of that crazy middle school sub.

Fig.3: 18th century surfers are on record
of saying that the earthquake was more
"bodacious" than calamitous.
Lisbon wasn't the only place that was affected by the quake. In the southern Portuguese region of the Algarve, ports and villages were completely destroyed, and the difficulty of its world-renowned golf courses increased severalfold with the addition of many new water hazards. The Portuguese islands of the Azores were heavily flooded, most likely as punishment for putting the first and last letters of the alphabet so close together (watch out, Azerbaijan!). Another 10,000 died in Spain and another 10,000 in Morocco, who still resent Portugal getting all the attention. Huge waves were reported in the Caribbean within hours after after the earthquake (fig.3), and the tremors themselves could have been felt as far away as Finland (though they might just be saying that in order to feel included). With a magnitude estimated to be around 8.7, it ranks among the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, but isn't as popular since there wasn't a baseball game going on at the time.

Luckily for monarchists, Portuguese King Joseph was out of town, and he and his royal family survived the earthquake. However, seeing his subjects crushed under the weight of fallen buildings caused Joseph to develop a debilitating claustrophobia that prevented him from ever setting foot in a walled room; he even constructed a set of tents that served as a "palace" until his death in 1777, and even then he had to be wrapped in that colorful parachute thing from gym class instead of a coffin. Instead, the relief effort was organized by the Secretary of State, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who is thankfully better known by his shorter title, the Marquis of Pombal. Reportedly when someone asked what should be done with the ruined city, Pombal simply stated, "We bury the dead and heal the living," even though doing the opposite might have been more exciting. He ordered for the removal of corpses to prevent the spread of disease, rebuilt many homes, churches, and businesses, punished those who were convicted of looting, and keep the flow of hair gel coming into the city (so vital for those suave Portuguese men). Because of his success, his authority increased within the government, and he virtually ruled like the king for the next few decades. But hey, he rebuilt the rec center, so he deserved the extra power.

Fig.4: Wooden poles within walls give Pombaline buildings
their "bend but don't break" mentality, unlike that of the
Philadelphia Eagles defense.
Pombal is also considered one of the founders of seismology, the study of earthquakes, mostly because he began research efforts to figure out why those stupid things happen to begin with. Questions he asked that contributed to a greater understanding of earthquakes include, "Was the shock greater from one direction than another?" "Did the sea rise or fall first?" and "Did the weeble wooble but not fall down?" His findings led to the development of the Pombaline style of architecture, complete with wider streets and flexible wooden structures within buildings that are believed to be the world's first attempt in seismic protection (fig.4). Pombal's research paid off, as many of the 18th century buildings in Lisbon have withstood subsequent earthquakes and continue to stand today, much to the dismay of 21st century Portuguese contractors.

Of course, the majority of opinion within the CCC was that natural disasters happen when God wants to punish people for their sins. Still, even the most pious of churchgoers began to question their faith after the earthquake since it took place on a holy day, especially since the Alfama section of town, known for its brothels, gambling houses, and 24-hour pancake restaurants, pretty much survived the quake unscathed. This led to the further development of theodicy, a belief that God was still a pretty good god even though he sometimes allowed bad things to happen when he took a bathroom break. Other philosophers disagreed, adding more fuel to the pro-reason/anti-religion fire that's known as the Enlightenment. Writers such as Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the singularly named Voltaire (the Madonna of his day) argued that the death and destruction caused by the quake proved there wasn't any benevolent deity watching over them. Voltaire used the event in his epic satire, Candide, to demonstrate how people's blind faith and optimism led to a stagnant world where there was no hope of intellectual or technological progress (he just wanted somebody to invent Netflix, ASAP). These ideas would soon flourish throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to its colonies, spreading like the seismic waves that started them.

Of course not everything about a catastrophic earthquake that killed tens of thousands was positive (or maybe that was the only thing). The funds that Portugal needed to rebuild their kingdom meant that their colonial endeavors would have to be placed on the backburner. Owners of rich territories in Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa (where they were engaged in the most reputable of business practices, don't you worry), Portugal was one of the more successful nations overseas since the 16th century. After the earthquake, however, the Portuguese lost interest in many of their possessions, and the native peoples started to believe they could get their much needed attention from other powers, such as the Dutch, French, and British. Without the earthquake, it's possible that Portugal could have taken more of India, colonized Australia, opened up Japan, and hula danced over to Hawaii and even the western coast of North America. Maybe the earthquake spared us of more Crazy Catholicness in the world, which can't be too much of a bad thing.

Fig.5: The Roman, Mongol, and British Empires have all taken turns to laugh at the Portuguese Empire.
As your annoying friends out in California will tell you, earthquakes happen all the time. However, sometimes an earthquake makes such a profound impact that the course of history is altered altogether. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake undoubtedly ranks as one of those; it upset the power structure in Portugal, convinced folks to start looking at the world without their rose-tinted glasses, allowed other European nations to catch up in the colonial game, and most importantly, spared us from having to eat dried salted cod for lunch as the Portuguese do (I'd rather starve). On top of all that, top seismologists who continue to make more money than me say that a very similar earthquake may hit southwestern Europe once again in the coming decades, which could produce more world-changing consequences. Maybe it could take care of that Cristiano Ronaldo guy, and I can have free reign over all the European supermodels! Ah, who am I kidding...they'll just flock to those rich seismologists instead...

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