Magazine article History Today

The Lisbon Tsunami: Jenifer Roberts Recalls the Impact of an Earlier Tidal Wave, Which Brought Chaos and Disaster to Portugal 250 Years Ago

Magazine article History Today

The Lisbon Tsunami: Jenifer Roberts Recalls the Impact of an Earlier Tidal Wave, Which Brought Chaos and Disaster to Portugal 250 Years Ago

Article excerpt

TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO, an earthquake approaching 9 on the Richter Scale--similar in magnitude to the recent quake in the Indian Ocean--devastated the city of Lisbon. 'One moment', wrote an English merchant, 'has reduced one of the largest trading cities to ashes'.

Lisbon was one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. Enriched by the gold and diamond mines of Brazil, every large building was a church, monastery or convent, all adorned with statues, gold, silver and precious stones. The city rambled over steep slopes, its streets lined with four and five-storey houses.

The morning of All Saints' Day November 1st, 1755, was unseasonably warm. At twenty to ten, the ground began to shake and the earth jerked upwards in a motion that felt like a wagon being driven violently over rough stones. The captain of a ship in the River Tagus watched the buildings of Lisbon rock to and fro like corn in the wind, then collapse in a deafening roar of destruction.

Clouds of dust billowed into the air and hung over the ruins, turning sun-lit morning into deepest night. Twenty minutes later, when the dust began to clear, people were seen stumbling through the wreckage. As a merchant wrote in his pocket book that night:

   Old, young, male and female, seeking their parents,
   children, relations and friends, many sick,
   many maimed from the fall of houses, some
   dead and most half naked, so dismal a sight as
   was never seen. Neither can thought imagine
   the scenes of misery: the friars and priests giving
   absolution, confessing and praying with everyone;
   the coaches and chaises, horses and mules,
   buried under the ground; people under the
   ruins begging for assistance and none able to
   get near them; old people, hardly able to walk,
   without shoes and stockings.

Survivors set out for the safety of the river bank, their progress hampered by piles of shattered stonework and by the distressed and injured people they tried to help. At eleven o'clock, when many of them had reached the river, three giant waves, twenty feet high, came speeding up the Tagus. An Englishman described the onrush of water:

   On a sudden I heard a general outcry: 'The sea
   is coming in, we shall all be lost'. Turning my
   eyes towards the river, which in that place is
   near four miles broad, I could perceive it heaving
   and swelling in a most unaccountable manner,
   as no wind was stirring. In an instant, there
   appeared a vast body of water, rising like a
   mountain. It came on foaming and roaring, and
   rushed towards the shore with such impetuosity
   that, although we all ran for our lives, many were
   swept away. The rest were above their middles in
   water, a good distance from the banks ... I then
   observed ships tumbling and tossing about, as in a
   violent storm. Some had broken their cables and
   were carried to the other side of the river. Others
   were whirled around with incredible swiftness, several
   large boats were turned keel upwards, and all
   this without any wind.

The ship's captain watched the tsunami from the deck of his vessel:

   As they were tossed on land by the sudden rise of
   the water, boatmen jumped on shore to save themselves,
   and immediately their boats were carried
   away by the retiring sea, which ebbed and flowed,
   and ebbed and flowed, in four or five minutes.
   The ships near the shore, which on a common ebb
   lay aground, were floated in an instant, and in a
   minute or two left dry, and again set afloat and
   dashed against one another, and the tide so quick
   eastward and westward that the ships, turning fast
   round, ran foul of each other. The whole river was
   overspread with boats, vessels, timber, masts,
   household goods, casks, etc.

The waves caused tremendous damage to the low-lying districts of Lisbon, destroying buildings (including the Customs House and the marble quay on which hundreds of people had taken refuge) and washing away everything in their path. …

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