On All Saints Day 1755, tremors from an earthquake measuring approximately 9.0 or higher on the moment magnitude scale swept furiously toward Lisbon…
This Gulf of Fire: The Great Lisbon Earthquake, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, by Mark Molesky
Almost instantly, much of the city was in ruins; within 30 minutes, a tsunami barreled up the Tagus River and carried thousands of bodies out to sea – dead and alive; shortly thereafter a fire engulfed whatever would burn. Lisbon, one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, was virtually no more.
The disaster is significant on its own, but my interest is in the impact on the culture and religion. Portugal was as Catholic a kingdom that one could find; the earthquake did not just shake physical foundations.
Six years after the earthquake, in September 1761, Father Gabriel Malagrida was headed toward execution. The seventy-two-year-old Jesuit priest was a former favorite of the king. This would not save him on this day. Eleven years before, he entered Lisbon in triumph – hailed as a “living saint”; this was before the earthquake.
The earthquake was the largest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, and the largest to strike Europe. Equivalent to 32,000 Hiroshima bombs, three times the power of Krakatoa, and a thousand times more powerful than the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010.
It arrived at 9:45 AM, during morning mass with the churches full of worshipers on All Saints Day. Thousands were buried in place – in church, at home, on the streets. Survivors fled to the riverbank, only to be swept out to sea by the tsunami. The worst was still to come – an uncontrollable and unquenchable fire, burning out of control for weeks.
“I believe,” wrote one dazed survivor, that “so compleat a Destruction has hardly befallen any Place on Earth since the Overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Six years later – as Malagrida was being led to his end, the city still remained in ruins. The rebuilding project had barely begun. Thieves and dogs ruled the city. The survivors of this pitiable scene strained to see Malagrida taking his last steps. This, a result of the Portuguese Inquisition, proving that Malagrida was a heretic.
The royal family was absent. In their stead was Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, 1st Count of Oeiras. Let’s call him Pombal to make everyone’s lives easier. He had been the earthquake’s greatest beneficiary, taking action when no one else would or could act, when the king remained in his prolonged daze. At the time of the earthquake, he was secretary of state for foreign affairs. Shortly after, he would become virtually Portugal’s dictator.
Several months after the earthquake, a sermon by Malagrida was published:
“Know, oh Lisbon,” he thundered, “that the destroyers of so many houses and palaces, the devastators of so many churches and monasteries, the killer of so many people…are not comets, stars, vapors, exhalations, phenomena, accidents, or natural causes – but only our intolerable sins.”
He offered: The Good Lord had decided to smash Lisbon to the ground. It was not the message that Pombal wanted delivered – he saw the earthquake as a random occurrence – or at least this is how he wanted it explained.
Pombal implored the cardinal patriarch to forbid priests from delivering sermons that “increased the anxiety of the people” and caused them to cease working and “flee to deserted places.”
But Malagrida would not be silenced. As he sent his 31-page pamphlet to many of the most prominent figures in the kingdom – including Pombal – his actions would not go unnoticed. He was implicated (and almost certainly framed, according to Molesky) in an attempt by the Duke of Aveiro and members of the Távora family to assassinate José I, the king.
Perhaps an important note: before Pombal came to power – before, even, he came into any notoriety at all – he naively attempted to woo a daughter of the noble and wealthy Távora family. He was unceremoniously sent on his way. This might suggest something about the motivation for Pombal behind the charge.
Malagrida languished in prison for two years, until his trial and sentence. The verdict and sentence were assured, as Pombal appointed his brother as Inquisitor General. This was just of a type for Pombal, as he went after the two institutions that stood in between him and absolute power: The Church and the nobility.
For in Pombal’s newly conceived absolutist state, the twin demons of modernity – political violence and an abiding contempt for tradition – would be fully realized.
Malagrida – the once-beloved holy man – stood silently for two hours while the charges were read against him.
… “a monster of the greatest iniquity,” who had acted as if he were a “saint” and a “true prophet.” …he had faked “miracles, revelations, visions, locutions, and other favores celestiaes” (heavenly favors) …
This in addition to admitting to having conversed regularly with many saints. This ability once brought him reverence. Now it brought him a garrote. No blood – as a gesture of respect.
Members of the Távora family were not so fortunate. Two years before, as Pombal’s assault on the aristocracy intensified, several male and female members of the family…
…had been ritually torn apart in a publicly staged bloodbath of such concentrated cruelty that the future French revolutionary executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, might have recoiled in horror.
Once dead, Malagrida’s corpse was covered in wood and set ablaze; the ashes were thrown into the Tagus. Nothing left to be gathered up by his admirers – no memory of him or his remains.
Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau would all weigh in the Great Lisbon Earthquake Debate: Europe was in between believing God was in control and science had conquered all.
The earthquake would prove to be one of the defining events of the Enlightenment.