The Lisbon earthquake of 1755


Title page of Carta em que se mostra a falsa profecia (7000.d.1953(11)) Click on image to enlarge.

The University Library has acquired a first edition of Carta em que se mostra a falsa profecia do terremoto do primeiro de Novembro de 1755 (1756). This is a rare pamphlet by the Portuguese historian and writer Pedro Norberto de Aucourt e Padilha (1704-1759) published the year after the great Lisbon earthquake. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Epicureo Alexandrino,’ the author dismisses the prophecies that, in the aftermath of the event,  claimed that the natural disaster was God’s work.

The Lisbon earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day 1755. With a magnitude estimated at eight points in the Richter scale, it opened cracks on the ground of up to five metres wide and destroyed eighty five percent of the city. It was followed by three tidal waves that engulfed the port and the city centre. There were also multiple fires, many of them started by the candles lit in churches to pray for the dead. The fires lasted for five days.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782) was instrumental in the reconstruction of Lisbon in the days following the earthquake. Appointed new Secretary of State in 1756, he masterminded the rebuilding of Lisboa Baixa. Within weeks of the disaster, he had recruited architects and engineers to build solid structures that could withstand a second earthquake.

The Lisbon earthquake had significant economic and political repercussions. The climate of insecurity posed by the destruction of one of the most important trading cities in Europe became a threat to the stability of Europe, and most importantly, to Portugal’s colonial ambitions.

The Marquis of  Pombal soon became the dominating figure in Portuguese politics.  He planned major reforms as King D. José I entrusted him with increasing control of the state.  The Library holds a two-volume set of Pombal’s correspondence published 1820-1822: Cartas e outras obras selectas (1820-1822). For a comprehensive bibliography on the Marquis of Pombal, see Marquês de Pombal, catálogo bibliográfico e iconográfico. However, the truth is that most of his works remain scattered over multiple sources. The Catálogo dos manuscritos portugueses ou relativos a Portugal existentes no Museu britânico (1932) includes references to some of them.


Title page of Memorias das principaes providencias que se derão no terremoto que padeceo a corte de Lisboa no anno de 1755 (F175.a.12.1). Click on image to enlarge.

It is worth mentioning another work here: Memorias das principaes providencias que se derão no terremoto que padeceo a corte de Lisboa no anno de 1755 (1758). The Portuguese historian Francisco José Freire (1719-1773) gives a detailed account of the government’s court rulings after the disaster. The first document is dated on the day of the earthquake; the last one on the 16th of June of 1758.

Other works that may shed some light on the years that followed include: Eduardo Freire de Oliveira’s Elementos para a historia do municipio de Lisboa (1882-1911), in 17 volumes; and Depois do terremoto : subsídios para a história dos bairros ocidentais de Lisboa (1916).

The immediate repercussions of the earthquake resonated with numerous philosophers of the eighteenth century, who looked into the possible natural causes of earthquakes or tried to rationalize God’s role in nature.

Amongst these philosophers were Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Voltaire described the Lisbon catastrophe in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne et sur la loi naturelle (1756). He rejected the optimistic approach of the Enlightment towards an explanation of the world and questioned God’s justice. If God was the basis of human society, how could such destruction be justified? Voltaire later alluded to the earthquake in his work Candide. The Library holds multiple editions of this work (the earliest dated 1759).


Title page of Lettre de J.J. Rousseau à Monsieur de Voltaire (7000.d.65)

Voltaire’s vision of society differed from that of Rousseau, who wrote a lengthy letter to Voltaire in response to his poem: Lettre de J.J. Rousseau à Monsieur de Voltaire, le 18. août 1756 (1759). For Rousseau, the agent of the earthquake could not have been God, nor man itself, but social conditions.

Pedro Norberto de Aucourt e Padilha was the author of a number of books on various subjects, including Memorias Historicas Geograficas E Politicas Observadas De Pariz a Lisboas (1746) (available electronically from the Biblioteca Nacional de España at and Raridades da natureza, e da arte, divididas pelos quatro elementos. (available electronically from the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal at

Sonia Morcillo




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