Lisbon Earthquake, 1755

Halloween has become a holiday based upon the celebration of All Saint’s Day, 1 November, which was established to make church services manageable. For many centuries, people had left money in their wills to say prayers for their souls on the anniversary of the day that they died, but these prayers became so numerous and time consuming that churches had little time for anything else, so they changed the system, to commemorate all the dead on the same day.

But on 1 November 1755 the day took on a special and terrible significance. The city of Lisbon was destroyed by a huge earthquake. Candles lit for the commemoration set of fires that swept through the city, adding to the mass destruction and causing the survivors to flee, leaving the dead and injured while the tremors continued.

This is from Jenifer Roberts’ Book, Glass:

[the south coast of England was being pounded by high waves] “At Kinsale in County Cork, a mass of water had poured into the harbour, breaking anchor cables and causing fishing boats to “whirl around like so many corks”; at St Ives in Cornwall, the sea had risen between 8 and 9 feet; at Plymouth, a bore had moved up the harbour, driving ships from their moorings. …In the Scilly Isles, people had felt a trembling of the earth and rushed out of their houses, the ground had vibrated in Poole, and a gardener in Reading had felt the land move and watched the water oscillating in his fish pond.”

 There was a large community of English merchants in Lisbon, the ‘English Factory’. They traded wollen cloth for wine, olive oil and dried fruit, so there were plenty of them affected by the disaster. She also describes how an English merchant was driven from his office by the tremor, and with houses still falling, “he soon set out for the safety of the river bank. His progress was hampered by piles of shattered stonework, by the distressed and injured people he tried to help, and by three giant waves, twenty feet high, which came speeding up the Tagus. “Turning my eyes towards the river,” wrote an English merchant who had reached the low-lying area of Sao Paulo, “I perceived it heaving and swelling in a most unaccountable manner. In an instant, there appeared a vast body of water, rising like a mountain. It came on foaming and roaring, and rushed towards the shore with such impetuosity that, although we all ran for our lives, many were swept away.” Ships were ripped form their anchors and crushed into each other, while the waves tore at buildings on the foreshore and destroyed the marble quay near the custom house.

 This incident is widely recorded as the Lisbon earthquake, but the British accounts, but to modern eyes, it was clearly a tsunami as well.

 As the merchant fled to the safety of the outskirts of the city,

“His way was littered with the dead and the dying: “In some places lay coaches, with their masters, horses and riders almost crushed in pieces; here mothers with infants in their arms; there ladies richly dressed. Priests, friars, gentlemen, mechanics, some with their backs or thighs broken, others with vast stones on their breasts. Some lay almost buried in the rubbish and, crying out in vain for succour, were left to perish with the rest.”

 Another merchant wrote: “As it grew dark, … the whole city appeared in a blaze so bright I could easily see to read by it. The people were so dejected and terrified. Everyone had their eyes turned towards the flames and stood looking on with silent grief, interrupted by the shrieks of women and children whenever the earth began to tremble, which was so often this night that the tremors did not cease for a quarter of an hour together.”

Another merchant showed the famous English ‘mustn’t grumble’ attitude with: “If you happened to forget yourself with sleep… you were awakened by the tremblings of the earth and the howlings of the people. Yet the moon shone, and the stars, with unusual brightness. Long wished-for day at last appeared and the sun rose with great splendour on the desolated city in the morning.”

This last is a really interesting observation, as anyone who has ever survived a big storm knows how beautiful the sky is afterwards. I recall going out one morning after a sudden and heavy snow storm and seeing the most incredible cloud formation – a series of zig zags reaching from the earth to about half way to the zenith. Or maybe we just look for such things when the weather is strange, or, in his case, he might not normally be outside at that time so may have little to compare it with.

 This is from Latimer’s Annals of Bristol:

“Various strange phenomena, inexplicable at the moment, were noticed in the West of England on the 1st November. The ebbing tide in the Avon suddenly flowed back for a time, and the water in many deep wells became discoloured and undrinkable. Captain G. W. Manby, in his “fugitive Sketches of Clifton,” published in 1802, stated on the authority of a person who witnessed the marvel that the Hot Well water suddenly became as red as blood, whereupon “all flew to the churches, where prayers were offered to avert the apparent approach of their destruction,” and that of the world. “The water ran foul for a length of time.”

 The British had a tradition of organising nation wide collections for the victims of disasters through parish churches, and the British goverment sent ships with money and provisions, with 6 February being declared a national day of fasting and prayer. Many people saw the event as being a sign of God being angry with the people, so there were many prayers and promises to repent to avoid further incidents. The English were not only linked to the Portugese by trade and family links, but the incident probably stirred up historical awareness of the Great Fire of London and the devastation it caused.

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