Little Bits of History

Tsunami Destroyed Lisbon

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 1, 2014
Depiction of Lisbon as seen from across the River

Depiction of Lisbon as seen from across the Tagus River

November 1, 1755: Lisbon, Portugal is nearly destroyed. The Azores-Gibraltar Transform Fault runs from the eastern end of the Terceira Rift in the Azores through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea. It forms part of the tectonic boundary between the Eurasian Plate and the African Plate. It is poorly understood even now and is considered to be a “diffuse” boundary. On this day, about 120 mile west-southwest of Cape St. Vincent, an 8.5 to 9.0 earthquake struck. This was not the first earthquake to affect Lisbon. There had been eight recorded in the 14th century, five in the 16th century, three in the 17th century, and two previous ones in the 18th century.

Around 9:40 AM, the quake struck and lasted between three and a half and six minutes, depending on reports. Fissures nearly 15 feet wide were noted in the city center. Survivors of the earthquake fled to the docks and open lands for safety. They watched as the waters receded. The sea floor was visible and amazed onlookers saw lost cargo and shipwrecks. About forty minutes after the earthquake, the first of three tsunami waves struck. The harbor and the downtown area were flooded and waters rushed up the Tagus River. Areas not flooded were prone to fire and these raged for five days before all could be extinguished.

Other areas were also affected by both the quake and the resulting tsunami (maremoto in Portuguese). Southern Portugal, particularly the Algarve, suffered much destruction. The fortresses along the coast were destroyed as were most of the small towns and villages. Faro survived as it was protected by the banks of the Ria Formosa. In Lagos, the waves reached the top of the city walls. Shock waves destroyed part of Covilhã’s castle walls and its large towers. Shock waves were felt throughout Europe and North Africa. They reached as far as Finland and possibly even Greenland. They traveled west to the Caribbean. Sixty-six foot waves hit the coast of North Africa and waves even hit in Martinique and Barbados, across the Atlantic.

There is no way to get an accurate death toll from this disaster. Reports of the time were not exact and there were two other events in mid-November which may have numbers included in this body count. Numbers range between 10,000 and 100,000 for Lisbon alone. Also lost were significant numbers of livestock as well as foods stored for the winter. It is one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. The after effects greatly curtailed Portugal’s colonial ambitions. It was also the first earthquake to be studied scientifically and led to the birth of modern seismology and earthquake engineering. The disaster also heavily influenced philosophers of the time. Voltaire included the event in Candide as well as his “Poem on the Lisbon disaster”.

I shall always be glad to have seen it-for the same reason Papa gave for being glad to have seen Lisbon-namely, “that it will be unnecessary ever to see it again.” – Winston Churchill

Whenever an earthquake or tsunami takes thousands of innocent lives, a shocked world talks of little else. – Anne M. Mulcahy

Stupidity is an elemental force for which no earthquake is a match. – Karl Kraus

There is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state? – Lord Byron

Also on this day: Michigan’s Bridge – In 1957, Mackinac Bridge opened.
Saint Nick – In 1894, Tsar Nicholas II began his reign.
When Harry Met Oscar (and Griselio) – In 1950, President Truman survived an assassination attempt.
A Little Learning – In 1886, Ananda College was founded.

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