Molesky (History/Seton Hall Univ.; co-author: Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, 2004) chronicles the history of the Portuguese Empire up to the catastrophic series of events beginning Nov. 1, 1755.
To fully appreciate the utter devastation of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and fire that ravaged Lisbon that year, readers must also understand Portugal’s vast wealth during the time period. Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India just before 1500 opened the country’s first golden age, which drew all of Europe to trade for pepper, spices, porcelain, gemstones, wood, and skins. However, her empire dwindled with the Restoration War in 1668 and widespread incursions by the Dutch. Portugal’s second golden age began with the Brazilian discovery of gold, emeralds, and diamonds at the end of the 17th century. By this time, Lisbon was one of the most ostentatiously wealthy cities in Europe, allied only to England to ensure defense from ever threatening Spain and France. At about 9:45 a.m. on All Saints Day 1755, three successively longer earthquakes struck, catching the populace off guard on their ways to Mass. The total time elapsed was around 10 minutes. Walls and buildings fell, and candles lit for Mass, chimneys, and home cook fires started blazes throughout the city. Three tsunamis also struck, killing many more than the earthquakes. But it was the fire that finally leveled the city, destroying riches, records, art, and, eventually, the Portuguese Empire. The author teases readers in the beginning with the promising stories of two men who stepped in after the disaster: priest Gabriel Malagrida and the Marquês de Pombal. Unfortunately, their tales are minimized, replaced with anecdotal forewarnings, international lists of who-heard-what-when, accounts of offers (and refusals) of aid, and philosophical arguments about the reasons and causes of the disaster.
Too many long lists of actions and reactions make the narrative drag, though the book is historically enlightening enough to appeal to readers familiar with Lisbon and its history.