Tuesday, May 21, 2019


The French really were amateurs when compared to Portugal and Pombal…

In this prison there are nineteen cells: two are almost totally dark, and among the others there are two that have the reputation of being the worst, by their small size, and because they are close to a pipe where filth pours out.

-          Marquês de Alorna, the prisons of Junqueira

If only life returned to normal in Lisbon within a few months of the earthquake.  No such luck.  Eight months later – in the summer of 1756 – tremors continued, along with riots, murders, and robberies.  Gangs would start fires in the tent cities in order to rob from the residents that would flee the flames.

Pombal’s powers would increase, along with his list of enemies.  His tyrannies would also increase, yet order was nowhere to be found.  A conspiracy was formed to remove and replace him.  The conspiracy was discovered, and with royal support Pombal moved quickly against even the most highly placed conspirators.  Some would find a new home in Junqueira; others were banished from the city.  These were the lucky ones.

Pombal reserved a special hatred for the Jesuits – and it was not due solely to the preaching of Malagrida and others who were blaming the earthquake on Lisbon’s sins.  In the New World, the Jesuits had built a power base – converting the natives in numbers beyond imagination.  The natives would now labor for the Jesuits – where 200 Jesuits would control a workforce of 140,000.

Spanish and Portuguese colonists complained that the Jesuits controlled too much of the native workforce.  The colonists would raid villages in order to capture workers – call them slave-hunters.  The Jesuits felt they had no choice but to arm the natives.  Now the Jesuits were also in charge of vast armies, often successful in battle.

Portugal and Spain sent armies to crush the Jesuits.  In their place, Pombal created government enforced monopolies.  In addition to the Jesuits, smaller businessmen were out and state control increased.

Pombal acted in a similar manner in Portugal – for example, identifying certain areas of the Douro as the only ones authorized to sell port wines to the British.  Of course, the choice of these areas concentrated wealth in the hands of those favored by the state – to include vineyards owned by Pombal.  Pombal would write in 1756 that he took such actions because “I know their interests better than they do themselves, and the interests of the whole kingdom.”

The smaller vineyard owners would riot; Pombal’s retribution was swift and severe.  Of 478 accused, 442 were convicted.  Fourteen were hanged with their limbs thereafter hung on pikes and displayed for the public.  Fifty-nine were exiled to India and Africa; others were imprisoned or delivered to the galleys.  Most had their property seized to the benefit of the state.  Porto was thereafter placed under martial law.  Pombal’s cousin was placed in charge, staying in power as military governor of northern Portugal for over 20 years.

An assassination attempt, supposedly against the king, was used as pretext for countless arrests – including some of the most powerful nobility of the kingdom.  All were interrogated; many were tortured.  The trial was quick, the defense had twenty-four hours to prepare.  The accused were executed the next day – including many members of the noble family who once rejected Pombal as inadequate for one of their daughters.

A platform was erected; ten-thousand were in the audience.  The punishment for attempted regicide was always brutal, but rarely public when the “guilty” were members of the nobility.  Pombal would change this.  One by one, the prisoners were brought out: some beheaded, some strangled with limbs broken thereafter, some had limbs broken while alive.  Finally, Antonio Alvares Ferreira was brought out to be burned alive.  He was burned, along with the pile of corpses and limbs of those who were executed before him.

The French Reign of Terror lasted eleven months; Pombal’s lasted eighteen years – from 1759 to 1777.  The prisons were bursting, with many who were never even charged, let alone tried and convicted.  Some remained in their cells for years.

Ordinary people feared making even private comments that might be construed as critical of Pombal.  The despotism of the enlightened first minister had started to take on features of a police state.

His war with the Jesuits continued as well: stripped of positions, removed from universities and schools.  Pombal’s attacks were not limited to Portugal – he sent books and pamphlets throughout Europe.  In 1764, the Jesuits were expelled from France and Spain; in 1773, they were suppressed by Pope Clement XIV.

Pombal, described as a “practicing Catholic,” nevertheless never deferred to the authority of Rome.  It was the state’s right to remove any bishop or cleric from office.  In 1760 he even removed the papal nuncio and also orchestrated a formal break with Rome – a break that lasted for ten years until the pope gave in to his every demand. 

Pombal ended slavery in Portugal – not for humanitarian reasons, but so they could return to Brazil to work in the fields and mines.  Slavery was not abolished in Brazil for another century.  He founded state schools throughout the empire – replacing the Jesuit schools that were by then disbanded.

Portugal’s economy would languish for years after the earthquake.  Understandable on the one hand, yet compounded by the establishment of state-enforced monopolies, increases in regulation, taxes and tariffs.

Dom José died in 1777, and with him went Pombal’s power. 

Upon learning the news, jubilant priests ran door to door announcing the end to the tyranny, and ballads deprecating Pombal filled the air.

The king’s daughter, Maria I, opened the prisons.  Eight-hundred came out, some who hadn’t been seen for twenty years.  Perhaps two-thousand died in their cells.

Many were calling for Pombal’s head.  He tendered his resignation and fled with his family into exile.  While it would have been politically expedient for the queen to condemn Pombal, she knew that by doing so she would also be condemning her father – every major edict had been signed by the king, and in any case Pombal served at the king’s pleasure.

Pombal lived six more years, dying a slow and painful death in poor health.


Voltaire would only grow more pessimistic.  “The universe is ‘completely mad,’ Voltaire wrote.”  Yet optimism did not immediately die out in Europe nor in Enlightened philosophy, though as the century wore on this optimism would wane.

To assert, as some have, that the Lisbon disaster represents an abrupt break or transformation in European thought – or that it signaled the onset of modernity – would be to distort the historical record.

Certainly.  History rarely offers abrupt breaks, and certainly not in an era when communication was hindered and Christianity – albeit post-Reformation Christianity – still was infused into the culture of the continent. 

Yet the earthquake raised many questions for the theologians.  As man applied reason to these questions, Europe would be changed.  No single event can be identified for a transformation from what we call pre-modernity to modernity, but the Lisbon earthquake certainly belongs in the discussion.


  1. The Jesuits were probably correct. The earthquake was some kind of punishment for the primary role Portugal took in chattel slavery.

    Slavery had existed around the world for all of history. However, the Portuguese system that was taken to the South American and mimicked in the Caribbean was brutal. They worked slaves to death literally. Even today Brazil's northern region contains a large amount of direct African culture (food, religion, custom, etc), because a unique Brazilian-African culture was never allowed to form. The slaves didn't live long enough and communities of multiple generations couldn't form because of the carnage.

    It was telling that in the US, the slave trade was cut off for some time before slavery was made illegal while the slave population was growing. That couldn't have happened in Brazil.

    Pombal didn't get the message though. And neither did any of the new Enlightened intellectuals.

  2. Spanish and Portuguese colonists complained that the Jesuits controlled too much of the native workforce. The colonists would raid villages in order to capture workers – call them slave-hunters. The Jesuits felt they had no choice but to arm the natives. Now the Jesuits were also in charge of vast armies, often successful in battle.

    Portugal and Spain sent armies to crush the Jesuits.

    This is very interesting. I believe the common historical narrative accuses the Roman Catholic Church of converting Native Americans to Christianity so that the Spanish and Portuguese colonists could more easily exploit them. I never before heard of the Jesuits championing rights for Native Americans workers; even arming them to resist colonialist attempts to enslave them. Please, BM or anyone else, direct me to some sources for further information on the Jesuit influence in the new world.

    1. Hello, the first thing that came to my mind was this 1986 movie


      But that´s just the "popular" depiction.

      This article should lead you to some desired sources


  3. Very interesting article about the same historical event, adding a bit more spiritual context.