Journalist Shrady (Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa, 2003, etc.) takes a brief, brilliantly encapsulated look at the physical and spiritual damage wrought by a famous catastrophe.
The great earthquake that struck Lisbon midmorning on November 1, 1755, had far-reaching consequences. Nearly 100,000 people were killed as the city’s structures were leveled in minutes; fires raged, and tsunamis crashed on the shores. While the entire royal entourage of King José I, ensconced four miles away in Belém, miraculously escaped harm, the Mint was one of the only buildings that survived unscathed in Lisbon, leaving this major European port barely able to function. Most witnesses attributed the catastrophe to God’s vengeance on a sinful people, even though Lisboans were the most demonstrably pious of all Catholics. Shrady takes stock of a disaster second only to the destruction of Pompeii and pursues the city’s gradual regeneration thanks to the tireless work of Portugal’s secretary of state, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who immediately mobilized the troops, urged the royal family not to flee, suppressed lawlessness and made food available. Enlightened in his ideas, Carvalho attempted to silence the sermons of woe by the powerful Jesuit Gabriel Malagrida, among others, and encouraged scientifically minded thinkers to look into the earthquake’s natural causes. Faced with the task of rebuilding, Carvalho embraced the Enlightenment’s new spirit of urban planning, endorsing plans that reflected “the kind of social and economic change that was necessary to rouse Lisbon, and Portugal, from centuries-old slumber.” His reforms ranged from the abolition of slavery to the repeal of institutional discrimination against Jews, though his power was eclipsed after the king’s death in 1777. To provide context for Carvalho’s achievements, Shrady offers an elegant précis of Portuguese history and dwells in one affectionate digression on Voltaire’s depiction of the earthquake in Candide and the Protestants’ relish in blaming the Catholic Church.
An elegant, pertinent study.