The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755
–Public Distress and Political Propaganda


Ana Cristina Araújo
University of Coimbra


This article examines the impact of the Lisbon earthquake on the international political sphere. The shock waves of the event reflected the basic ideological traits of the eighteenth century. For the first time in the western world, the press helped to create the illusion of proximity and unity among the peoples of different European nations. Furthermore, the 1755 earthquake launched the modern debate on how to think and act in a world where such catastrophes are likely to occur.
On the eve of the Seven Years’ War, the destruction of the capital of the Portuguese empire also triggered diplomatic and political reactions. Pombal’s attempt to turn Portugal into a prosperous and politically strong country contributed towards minimising the disruptions to social and economic routines. Against the backdrop of the 1755 earthquake, and using the European war as an immediate cause, the Marquis of Pombal, minister of King Joseph I, laid the foundations for a press policy commensurate with the scale of the catastrophe.


Catastrophe, Marquis of Pombal, War, International Policy



In the months immediately after the 1755 earthquake, the quaking ground aroused curiosity amongst readers and stirred the imagination of writers, who turned their minds to producing fantastic portrayals of a partially devastated Lisbon. Age-old fears and myths emerged amidst the terrifying descriptions of ruins in hundreds of tracts written at the time in almost every European language. They were published and republished to great success, especially in 1755, 1756 and 1757, when the subject was most topical (Löffler 1999). To a large extent, this unexpected effect on the public sphere resulted from the way in which the print media of the time overlapped with the massive output of texts about the earthquake (Araújo 1993). This system generated new channels for the spread of information, succeeding thanks to the dissemination of accounts supported by witnesses who were felt to be credible (Buescu 2005).

The challenging nature of the event is mentioned by contemporary writers, who were shocked by the loose bits of circulating news. On 16 January 1756, the Gazette de Cologne noted that "the earthquake is still on people’s lips", and added that central Europeans were beginning to convince themselves that they had also felt the earth shake around 1 November (Campos 1998: 272). To a large extent, the spread of such feelings was caused by the language of those writing about the catastrophe. The sensational nature of the event was heightened by descriptions of the survivors’ panic, whose writings, whether real or non-existent, were to become a central theme of the larger circulation newspapers. Due to public pressure, personal and family letters were touched up and added to before going to press. Similarly, under the disguise of artful envelopes and other wrappings, wildly fictitious tales were published about life stories and episodes, which never in fact occurred. This expressive mixing together of facts and ideas embodies the common perception of the event and the reactions which it generated, and explains the commercial success, in Europe, of many accounts and printed material about the Lisbon earthquake. Most of the writings produced should be labelled in terms of "genre typology as relações de sucessos, that is popular news pamphlets" (Espejo Cala 2005:67).

This genre of literature included numerous circumstantial texts – anonymous or otherwise – in prose or in romance verse. Purportedly, they were transmitting news. They were printed on thick paper folded into small pamphlets and sold cheaply. A lower form of literature on the lookout for all kinds of unexpected situations and disasters, the relações de sucessos tended to use highly emotional language. These typically distorted accounts contained omissions, elements of fantasy, sloppiness and uncertainty. They were short-lived and hastily written. Distributed by blind sellers, they were the main sources of information for the illiterate, "who might find it hard to distinguish reliable accounts of the earthquake from the made-up anecdotes that were included in the reporting, like the story of how some lucky few had been saved thanks to the Virgin Mary’s miraculous intervention" (Espejo Cala 2005:71).

The huge spread and popularity of these brief works can be explained, on the one hand, by the power of the message behind them, and, on the other hand, by the beliefs, feelings and world views of most 18th-century readers. This popular literature, with its sensationalist background, used exuberant motifs, commonly presented as a "particular account", a "genuine letter", a "fantastic description", an "accurate report", etc. The fact that all these writings were reporting real events in no way guaranteed the truth of these accounts, which exaggerated, falsified and distorted, in order to better appeal to their readers.

In a world dominated by contradictory expectations – Halley's Comet was expected in 1757 or 1758 – terrifying predictions and allusions to fantastic displays of fanaticism also appeared in the larger-circulation newspapers, spreading fear and arousing people's compassion. Together with this kind of news, pamphlets told of terrifying occurrences, whilst random compilations of sermons by charismatic preachers were also released. In England, the Serious Thoughts occasioned by the late Earthquake at Lisbon by the Methodist John Wesley, first published in London in 1755, had been published on several separate occasions by the end of the century (Kendrick 1756; Ingram 2005; Webster 2005). Judging by the publishing success of other texts of various religious confessions, which also attributed the 1755 earthquake to the wrath of God, few 18th-century Europeans would have been unaware of the superstitious terrors fuelled and divulged by such tormented minds.

Political Power and the "Media War"

The message that God had helped to shape history was particularly well received at that time. Far beyond the providential interpretation of history, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the destruction of such an important trading city as Lisbon – given its position on the Atlantic routes and its role as a global trade centre – together with the annihilation of the splendid court of King João V, generated a kind of "revolution". The political climate of insecurity and instability posed a definite threat to "the balance of Europe", as defined after the Peace of Utrecht (1713).

After the Lisbon earthquake, Portugal was in no condition to take either the English or French side. Nor, without help, could it effectively fend off any hostile act. But despite the doubts, Portugal’s position was still an important one, especially for its ally England (Boxer 1956; Estorninho 1956). For that reason, and also for philanthropic motives, the main European powers offered material aid, both in kind and money, and made available other kinds of help, sending specialists and observers to Lisbon (Araújo 2005). The French Court enjoyed the services of the publicist, spy and adventurer, Ange Goudar (Hauc 2004). He came to Portugal in July 1751 – and not 1752, as he claimed in the preface to his book about the earthquake – on a secret mission to advise the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and War, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo. He returned to France before the disaster. Making use of the avalanche of information about Lisbon’s destruction, early in 1756 he published a work entitled Relation historique du Tremblement de Terre survenu à Lisbonne le premier Novembre […] précedée d’un Discours politique sur les avantages que le Portugal pourrait retirer de son Malheur. Originally, the book, printed in the Hague, bore no reference to either its author or printer. The immediate success of the work is evidenced by the four editions printed in 1756 alone, all in French. The third edition, falsely attributed to a Lisbon print shop, bears a significant change to its title (Barreto 1982: 415). The Discours politique now took pride of place, and preceded the distant, distorted and error-strewn report of the damage caused by the quake. For its part, the text was also revised so as to constitute a violent attack on the Portuguese Inquisition.

In the work, Goudar says that Portugal, a victim of its ally’s covetousness, had been allowing its Brazilian gold to be drained off by Great Britain, because of its balance of trade deficit. He estimates the losses of British firms based in Lisbon at the time of the earthquake at 64 million cruzados. In addition to that excessive sum there were the incalculable losses caused by the temporary interruption of regular trade with Britain. He blames the English for Portugal’s industrial backwardness, and suggests that the catastrophe represented a unique opportunity for a radical change in Portugal’s alliances and economic policy. This change in Portugal’s foreign policy would take place with France’s help, which would take the hand of this Iberian nation and help its trade and industry to re-emerge from the ashes. Guided by such concerns, Goudar’s text became a veritable political "propaganda weapon" on the eve of the Seven Years’ War. Ostensibly backing the interests of France and the continental countries that supported its colonial intentions against England, the Discours politique showed that Portugal still played a pivotal role on Europe’s diplomatic chessboard, and that one possible consequence of the quake could be an end to the favouritism shown towards Britain in Portugal’s Atlantic trade. For that reason, the Theatro Universal de Novidades Politicas e Marciaes, e Elementares e Prognóstico para o anno de 1757 noted that the whole of Europe feared England’s belligerent interference in French business, adding, on behalf of the French, that it was written in the stars that Portugal would not remain neutral in the conflict.

As demand for information about the European conflict grew, so did interest in Goudar’s book. From its very first edition, it was owned, read and commented on in many European countries, including Portugal, and in Brazil, as is clear from the Edict of 8 October 1756 issued by the General Council of the Holy Office, which severely condemned its errors, insults and political falsehoods. Later, in August 1777, it would again be censured and banned by the Royal Board of Censors, indicating the continued demand for the work, which aroused the Portuguese public’s curiosity until at least the time of the French invasions (1807-1814). Various editions and handwritten copies of the book circulated clandestinely in Portugal and its overseas territories.

Meanwhile, when Spain changed its foreign policy of neutrality and turned against England, allying itself with France, Goudar’s work was published in Spanish (Molina Córton 2003). It circulated anonymously under the title Profecía política, Verificada en lo que està sucediendo à los Portugueses por su ciega afiction à los Ingleses. It was published in 1762, in the same year in which French and Spanish troops, allied under the Family Compact signed between Louis XV and Charles III, invaded Portugal. This represented the last attempt to drag Portugal into the war, and led to an increase in English aid to Portugal, with military command being handed to the Count of Schaumburg-Lippe.

"The radical change in the political climate also marked a striking shift in the interpretation of the earthquake of Lisbon" (Téllez Alarcia 2005: 61). The new media war, with the 1755 earthquake as its background and the European war as its forthcoming cause, included the personal contribution of the future Marquis of Pombal. To sway international public opinion in Portugal’s favour, the statesman wrote a text alluding to a "political prophecy", to be published in the London Chronicle newspaper. In a clear attempt at camouflage and propaganda, he attributed his thoughts to an anonymous British citizen. He attacked the types of propaganda used to prise Portugal from its alliance with England, claiming that enemies sought to "paint" the English "with such colours as to make them odious and unbearable" in the "imagination of the Portuguese peoples". And, referring to the practical aim of his criticism, he added: "this was demonstrated to the entire European public by the famous lampoon printed and published in Madrid at the start of 1762, entitled Profecía política, Verificada en lo que està sucediendo à los Portugueses por su ciega afiction à los Ingleses. This defamatory text lived up to its seditious title and made it clear that the purpose of its writing was to denigrate both nations and to make the latter horrifying and unbearable to the former" (Barreto 1982: 414).

Pombal’s expedient of using the European press to minimise the effects of the catastrophe, counter mistakes or commonly held views and take advantage of the situation laid the ground for a persistent domestic and international propaganda campaign in support of King José I’s enlightened absolutism. This is something entirely new and modern, clearly showing that he understood the importance of European public opinion in the century of Enlightenment. Concurrently, upon the orders of the future Marquis of Pombal, agents and publicists sent out anonymous flyers and published opinion articles to support the international campaign against Jesuits in the main European capitals, as illustrated by Claude-Henri-Fréches (1982). Although these are two distinct, albeit parallel, propaganda issues, we wish to underline the resemblance between these political acts of the Marquis of Pombal, which sought to programme the European public debate agenda so that it would be in tune with the priorities of the Portuguese government, after 1755.

Pombal and the History of the Catastrophe.

Following a notable diplomatic career in London and Vienna, and after having been Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and War, the Marquis of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, was named King José’s Secretary of State in May 1756. He distinguished himself through his efficient political action in restoring public order, guaranteeing supplies to the capital, normalising institutions (Dynes 1997; 2005) and managing the urban reconstruction process (França 1987; Rossa 2004). In order to gain a clearer idea of the extent of the damage caused by the earthquake, on the advice of Padre José Luís Cardoso, Ribeiro Sanches, Soares de Barros, Miguel Tibério Pedegache, João Jacinto de Magalhães and other scientifically trained men who cooperated with the government, the enlightened minister ordered the launch of a modern national seismology survey of great scientific, political and social scope. The January 1756 survey comprised 13 questions, called for the direct observation of nature, and required the objective recording of all anomalies noted in the earth’s crust, watercourses and climate (Sousa 1919: I, 7; Barata et al. 1988: I, 43; Fonseca 2004: 121).

But Pombal did not just take control of the crisis. He also planned major reforms (Serrão 1982; Maxwell 1995). Having the trust of King José, and always at odds with certain members of the titled nobility, in little more than three years Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo was in control of the government at the head of the State Department. His rise would be marked by the crushing of a conspiracy in 1756, and by the drastic death sentences that were passed on several members of the nobility implicated in the attempt on the king’s life in 1758.

The closing of the political ranks around Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo helped to present an international image of King José I as an enlightened despot. Immediately after the earthquake, the Portuguese embassy in London tried to curry the British government’s favour and counter Anglican and Protestant exaggerations and opportunism regarding Portuguese Catholics. Counter-propaganda leaflets, such as A Satirical Review of the manifold Falsehoods and Absurdities hitherto published concerning the Earthquake (1756), and other anonymous invectives published in certain London periodicals, sought to frustrate criticisms and religiously motivated attacks on the Catholic royalist policy of José I (Rodrigues 1976). Their aim was also to reassure British subjects and blame Jews and other refugees – just like the author of Discours Pathétique – for the growing public fear and uproar in Britain (Oliveira [1756] 2004). In short, Portuguese diplomats were not indifferent to criticisms from Protestant sectors, and in particular the provocative pamphlets of the foreign-based Portuguese libertine Francisco Xavier de Oliveira (Rodrigues 1950).
In order to lay the foundations of a press policy commensurate with the scale of the catastrophe, the future Marquis of Pombal put together a fine group of writers, and a smaller number of faithful collaborators internationally, to regulate news about the earthquake, civil protection and the politics of those affected, as well as about Lisbon’s reconstruction. He mobilised some of the great names of the day in literature and culture (Diogo et al. 2001): the mathematician and astronomer, Joaquim Soares de Barros, at the time a corresponding member of both the Berlin Academy and the Paris Academy of Science; the physicist and instrument maker, João Jacinto de Magalhães, a member of several academies, who enjoyed good contacts in the international scientific community; the doctor, counsellor and philosopher, Ribeiro Sanches, renowned throughout Europe and living at the time in Paris; the theologian and counsellor, António Pereira de Figueiredo, identified with Febronius’s theories; and, amongst others, the career soldier, Miguel Tibério Pedegache Brandão Ivo, of Swiss ancestry, endowed with great technical and artistic talent, a man of the Enlightenment, and close to the future Count of Oeiras. This little-studied figure of Pombal’s regime – who before the quake had listed the most famous literary figures in Lisbon in letter form for the Journal Étranger – was responsible for writing the first news of the catastrophe authorised by José I’s government, in his capacity as a correspondent of that newspaper. The report, dispatched on 11 November 1755 and published in December in Paris, would be developed and republished in Portugal at the start of 1756, under the title Nova e fiel relação do terramoto que experimentou Lisboa e todo o Portugal no 1º de Novembro de 1755, and initialled M.T.P. This same correspondent was probably the source of the famous collection of engravings comprising six enigmatic views of Lisbon in ruins: Praça da Patriarcal, the Opera House, Santa Maria Basilica, São Roque Tower, São Nicolau Church, and São Paulo Church. They were engraved in Paris in 1757 by Jacques Philippe le Bas, an engraver of the French Court, in keeping with drawings sent from Lisbon by M. Paris and T. Pedegache.

While, in the images, the firm lines capture the ruined beauty of the magnificent buildings, in the text, the author’s accuracy, power of observation, mathematical spirit and political calculation provide a commanding description of the catastrophe. In French, and then in Portuguese, the start of the earthquake is described thus in the official version: "at about twenty to ten in the morning, with the barometer at 27 inches, 7 lines, and the Reamur thermometer at 14 degrees above freezing, clement weather, and pure atmosphere, the earth shook with three impulses" (Pedegache 1756:3). Curiously, as if plagiarism were involved, the same description is given by Joaquim Moreira de Mendonça in História Universal dos Terramotos (1758). In Pedegache’s text, the scale of the destruction is not hidden. As for the number of victims, he warns readers that “nobody knows, nor will ever know, the number of people who perished in this tragic disaster" (Pedegache 1756:31). Even so, he adds that approximately one tenth of the population died, which in round numbers equates to about 20 000 or 24 000 deaths: an appropriately moderate estimate. Guided by modern philosophical and naturalistic concerns, this adviser to Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo had read Buffon’s Theory of the Earth, and called attention to the regular intervals between the great earthquakes of 1309, 1531 and 1755. He explicitly launches the suggestion of cyclical earthquakes of a similar magnitude hitting Portugal again. Science in the public service gave a relative dimension to this evil, encouraged the spread of knowledge and gave pragmatic scope to political action and urban reconstruction. The curious building techniques used for new constructions mirrored those used for cages, making it possible to better withstand any future tremor.

In the field of "political medicine" – the expression coined by Ribeiro Sanches – public health led the way in civilising the urban world of the Enlightenment, by improving city dwellers’ quality of life and health. Prompted by the Duke of Lafões, the head of the Royal Judiciary, Catherine II of Russia’s Portuguese doctor wrote the Tratado da conservação da saúde dos povos, published in Paris (1756), Lisbon (1757) and later Madrid (1781; 1798). Ribeiro Sanches’ opportunity for reflection comes in the appendix to this work, which provides some considerations on earthquakes, with reference to the most recent one on 1 November 1755. The final version received the patronage of the Lisbon Court, as demonstrated by the bill for 3.500 Tours pounds drawn in Lisbon and discounted by Thomas & Sons’ banking house in Paris in February 1756. Even if of no great use, inasmuch as its advice was not entirely followed, the fact that it was associated with a Portuguese doctor respected by European science and individuals concerned with the Encyclopédie was a point in favour of the enlightened policy of José I’s minister, who continually raised hygiene and health concerns in the rebuilding of Lisbon.

With regard to the 1755 earthquake, we know of more examples of information manipulation and propaganda. One might take just two examples linked to the catastrophe, which became well-known internationally through the press. The first follows publication of As Memórias das Principais Providências que se deram no Terramoto que padeceu a corte de Lisboa no ano de 1755, attributed to the Arcadian Francisco José Freire and published under the pseudonym Amador Patrício Lisboa. This compilation of laws bearing the signature of minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, less than a year after he joined the titled nobility as Count of Oeiras, is clearly political. This is shown by the work’s dedication, which, because of its high-level patronage, was produced without a printing licence. In fact, Memórias das Principais Providências is a monument to the majesty of José I in book form, whose "immortal honour and greatness" it promotes. A living expression of its time, more than anything this ostentatious book embodies a people’s victory over misfortune and the triumph of the political actions of their leaders.

But the way in which the press imposed the majesty of the king and his minister did not end there. The advertising campaign for As Memórias das Principais Providências que se deram no Terramoto continued in France in subsequent years. In June and July 1759, the mathematician and astronomer, Soares de Barros, published an article on the wise governance of King José’s minister in the Journal des Sçavants. And in April 1760, the Journal Étranger published a systematic description of the Lisbon earthquake and a favourable review of Memórias das Principais Providências by the physicist and secularised abbot, João Jacinto de Magalhães. The first author was highly regarded in academic circles in Paris and London. As he had good international contacts, the Portuguese government granted him a pension in exchange for the support and information he provided to the diplomatic representative of Portugal in Paris, Monsenhor Salema (Ferrão 1936). The long scientific career of Jacinto de Magalhães, immediately after he was secularised and moved abroad, featured many commitments of the kind, as illustrated by some of the letters he exchanged with Pombal’s advisers and with Portuguese refugees who were not blessed with identical political protection (Carvalho 1951).

Abbot Magalhães said that, after the earthquake, it was important, among other things, to save any remaining property and punish the deserters, looters, arsonists and thieves who had moved quickly into action. Entry-points into Lisbon were policed by soldiers, and the bloody repression of real and assumed criminals was decreed. Images of the disaster from that time explicitly depict the threat of the death penalty. Unusually, the spectacle seems not to have aroused the population’s morbid curiosity or vengeful fury, because people were scattered and concerned with more prosaic and immediate tasks.

The wish to make up for and replace religious fear with "statutory terror" (felt to be more rational and effective) and the need to set society – threatened by crime – back on an even keel, made the death penalty acceptable to the despotic minister. By veiling punishment in a cloak of justice, the general effect was to shift ritualised fear from Heaven to Earth. As a secularised expression of power, the cruel and bloody portrayal of royal justice was also a core element of absolutism’s strategy of self-consecration. In short, under Pombal’s government, the death penalty had a higher political profile. It became known not only for its elements of cruelty, but also for the conspiratorial nature of the trials and sentences, which worsened after the 1755 earthquake.

In his ode, Au Soleil, sur les malheurs de la terre, depuis le désastre de Lisbonne, en 1755, the poet Le Brun accurately linked the tragic event to the attempts to assassinate the king of France in 1755 and the king of Portugal in 1758. But the idea of transforming an unexpected and brutal event into an essential turning point in the exaltation of royal power can already be found in Father Pereira de Figueiredo’s Comentário latino e português sobre o terramoto e incêndio de Lisboa (1756). This work also saw a degree of success in Spain, Italy, France and Austria. This theoretician of political regalism later developed a historical view of Pombal’s government in the Diário dos Sucessos de Lisboa, desde o terramoto até ao extermínio dos jesuítas (1761), originally written in Latin, as was the former book, and destined to be read in Portugal and abroad. In it, he saw Pombal’s government polarised by two fundamental events: the 1755 earthquake and the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759. The latter is shown to be closely connected with the dramatic execution of the Marquis of Távora and others implicated in the attempted assassination of 3 September 1758. The trial highlighted the persecution of the Jesuits, and in particular Father Gabriel Malagrida, accused of having inspired the plot. The condemned men were publicly executed in Praça do Cais de Belém in 1759. Although the Jesuit was found guilty of collusion with the would-be assassins, he continued in imprisonment at Junqueira. He was sentenced by the auto-da-fé of 1761. The Inquisitor-General, Paulo de Carvalho de Mendonça, was the brother of the future Marquis of Pombal.

In narrating these and other facts, the Diário dos Sucessos de Lisboa glorified the official version of history during the period and was published in the year in which the Duke of Lafões, the head of the judiciary, died, a few months after it was decreed that the Portuguese government’s relations with the Holy See were severed, and the Count of Oeiras ordered the exile of several members of the Court. The rise and consecration of the king’s leading minister should not, therefore, be disassociated from these complex events. The Diário dos Sucessos de Lisboa, reprinted in 1766, circulated throughout Europe, seeking to inform people of the enlightened governance of the future Marquis of Pombal and to show that, for wise men and men of action, the 1755 earthquake represented a new era of progress and glory for Portugal. Thus, in response to the domestic and international crisis of 1755 to 1761, the Portuguese State produced a positive balance sheet for the work carried out, and, in the face of superstition and common-sense truths, imposed an unquestionably secular interpretation of the catastrophe and its consequences.


In brief, in a context featuring the Lisbon earthquake (1755) and the early stages of a war involving the main European powers (1756), the effects of natural risk – exhaustively discussed in surveys, memoirs, accounts, and studies which, according to Gregory Quenet, gave rise to the "first popular debates on science in the Age of Enlightenment" (Quenet 2005: 367) – together with the uncertainties underlying the termination of the European conflict, as expressed publicly by reporters, diplomats, anonymous observers and reputed figures, revealed to 18th-century philosophers a new view of the natural and social world.

In Portugal, the Marquis of Pombal shared with the enlightened elite an experimental conception of nature. In January 1756, he designed a national survey to discover the causes and origin of the natural disaster, minimise future risks and assess the damage the earthquake had caused. Through another scheme, the enlightened minister of King José I attempted to legitimate history on the basis of the doctrinal work of his direct advisers. The statesman, who efficiently managed the crisis by solving the immediate effects of the cataclysm, rebuilding the capital according to a plan, silencing his rivals and publicising his policies internally and internationally, enhanced the idiosyncrasy of the enlightened absolutist rule of King José I. He also adopted a modern attitude by clearly separating the purpose of God from the signs of nature and the will of human beings. From this point onwards, the "victory of the Marquis of Pombal" – in the words of Susan Neiman (Neiman 2005: 279) – arose from the development of a coherent political agenda which was founded on past events and, in the aftermath of the earthquake, focused on the dissemination of Natural Philosophy, the enhancement of knowledge that could be of use for the State, legislative reform and on imposition of the History of National Rule.



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Copyright 2006, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol.4, number 1, Summer 2006