The Lisbon Disaster viewed from England

The Lisbon earthquake of November 1st, 1755 was by far the most significant natural disaster of the entire 18th century. On that fateful day, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, razed the Portuguese capital almost entirely to the ground, causing the death of at least 50,000 out of its 275,000 inhabitants, and fatally weakening Portugal as an international power. The moral and intellectual consequences of the event were no less far reaching, whether one thinks of Voltaire (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1755 ; Candide, 1759), or of Immanuel Kant, the author in 1756 of three works exploring the causes of earthquakes. What is less commonly known, at least on this side of the Channel, is that the Lisbon catastrophe had a particular resonance in England, as London had been struck by an earthquake a mere five years before. Even though the London earthquake had resulted in minimal damage, it had nonetheless led to much soul searching and moral introspection (sermons and specially written hymns and poems), as well as to musings on the natural causes of such phenomena. The Lisbon disaster therefore gave renewed urgency to the questions and worries that had been triggered by the 1750 London earthquake. The English responses to the Lisbon tragedy took several forms, ranging from first-hand accounts of the earthquake – a number of English merchants were on the spot –, to poems, sermons and admonitions from clerics of various stripes, including the founders of Methodism, John Wesley and George Whitefield. This presentation will focus on two issues : the way in which the various English writers, who were all Protestants, dealt with the fact that the stricken city was a Catholic one ; the need to combine the explanation of earthquakes by natural causes, with a theological framework in which they were viewed as the expression of divine judgment, a complex intellectual exercise that led at times to some unexpected transactions between these potentially contradictory requirements.

Pierre Lurbe (Faculté des Lettres, Sorbonne Université)

Primary sources : 

  • An Account of the late Dreadful Earthquake and Fire, Which destroyed the City of Lisbon, The Metropolis of Portugal. In a Letter from a Merchant Resident there, to his Friend in England. London, 1755.
  • A farther Account of Memorable Earthquakes To the present year1756. Wherein is inserted a short and faithful Relation of the late Dreadful Calamity at Lisbon, Cambridge, 1756.
  • Alcock, Thomas, A Sermon on the Late Earthquakes, More particularly that at Lisbon, Oxford, 1756.
  • Hunter, Thomas, An Historical Account of Earthquakes, Extracted from the most Authentick Historians, Liverpool, 1756.
  • Wesley, John, Serious Thoughts Occasion’d by the Earthquake at Lisbon, London, 1756.
  • [Whitefield, George], A Letter from a Clergyman at London to the Remaining Disconsolate Inhabitants of Lisbon, London, 1756.

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