Reconstruction of a city destroyed by its 1755 earthquake

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: FIONA McCANNreviews Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755by Edward Paice

WHEN AN earthquake 150km off the coast of Sumatra threw up a wall of water that washed away hundreds of thousands of lives on St Stephen's Day, 2004, it reverberated all over the world. Four years on, its mark on our memory remains.

Some 250 years ago, the Lisbon earthquake had a comparable resonance in public consciousness. But today "nine out of 10 educated, well-travelled Europeans" have never heard of it, writes historian Edward Paice. He contends that while what happened to Lisbon on All Saints' Day in 1755 has not left an imprint on the popular imagination, its impact was felt across western Europe, all the way to west Cork.

On November 1st, 1755, All Saints' Day, an earthquake thought to have measured close to nine on the Richter scale and to have lasted between seven and 10 minutes (the 2004 earthquake had a similar duration) shook the city of Lisbon and its environs. Within 15 minutes, the Portuguese capital was, in the words of the English consul of the time, Edward Hay, "laid to ruins".

An estimated 60,000 people were killed in the tremors, aftershocks and tsunamis that followed, and in the fires that raged for days after. Lisbon was decimated: some 85 per cent of the city's buildings were destroyed, and documents, money and cultural treasures disappeared.

Paice opens his account with an 18th-century arrival into the then-glittering city, taking the reader up the river Tagus into "one of the most opulent, populous and . . . magnificent cities in Europe". He takes us into its teeming streets, populated by dark-skinned slaves and freedmen from Africa and Brazil, monks, priests, gypsies, merchants, noblemen and beggars.

He details reports from English and Irish merchants and diplomats for his eyewitness accounts of the city before, during and after the events of All Saints' Day.

Threading together the words of these men - among them Hay, Sir Harry Frankland, merchants Benjamin Farmer and Thomas Chase, and a Cork wine merchant called Lawrence Fowkes - whose letters home and journal accounts of what they witnessed allow this book to exist, Paice makes present the horrors of the past.

Paice places the individual stories within the framework of the philosophical and political ramifications of the event, which had congregations across Europe in terror at the wrath of God.

The value of Paice's thought-provoking book is in his retelling of an old story through new voices, and in his portrait of the lost city of pre-quake Lisbon.

• Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755; By Edward Paice Quercus; 279 pp, £20

• Fiona McCann is a freelance journalist