I Found It at the JCB

This month

November 2009

Abandoning Lisbon (or What Was Left of It):
Father José Francisco de Isla’s Plan for a New Portuguese Capital
by Mark Molesky


Old Lisbon

Theodor de Bry Lisbon

Hans Staden's voyage to Brazil began in 1546. Here his departure from Lisbon is shown in Theodor de Bry, America, part 3.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

Finding a previously unknown contemporary source on the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 is, if not impossible, certainly unexpected. For over two and a half centuries, the great disaster, which all but destroyed the Portuguese capital and sparked a continent-wide debate about its meaning and causes, has attracted enormous scholarly attention. And so it was with enormous surprise and delight that during my first week at the JCB I encountered a manuscript copy of a letter (dated January 17, 1756) that I had never seen before.

Written by the renowned Spanish Jesuit preacher and satirist, Father José Francisco de Isla, to a Portuguese friend who had survived the earthquake, the letter begins with the usual lamentations about the thousands of lives and the incalculable riches lost in the disaster—but then adds a curious proposal. Because of the enormous cost it would take to clear away the mountains of charred rubble, Isla advises the Portuguese king (José I) to abandon Lisbon completely and move his capital to the city of Braga. There, in the middle of the rich inland plain of northeastern Portugal, the court would be surrounded by “pure and healthy air,” “abundant wine, wheat…, livestock,” and “fertile women.” It would also be sheltered from the dangerous and unpredictable forces of the sea (Lisbon’s shoreline had been devastated by a tsunami triggered by the earthquake). And new construction would hardly be necessary; Braga was already one of Portugal’s largest cities, and the king, Isla reckoned, could easily be accommodated in the archbishop’s palace.

Of course, Isla’s dream would never become a reality. The Portuguese would rebuild Lisbon on its original site; and the new, substantially redesigned capital would rise out of the ashes of the old (albeit over the course of several decades). Although a proposal to relocate the city several leagues to the east along the Tagus River had been briefly entertained by the king’s military engineers, no known plan envisioned such a radical break with the past as the one which sprang from Father Isla’s self-described “vivid imagination” (“vivísima imaginación”).

Isla’s letter was previously printed in the eighteenth-century periodical Seminario erudito.

Mark Molesky, Seton Hall University, was a John Carter Brown Library Associates Fellow in the Fall of 2009.


John Carter Brown Library
Brown University
Box 1894
Providence, Rhode Island 02912
Tel: 401.863.2725
Fax: 401.863.3477

Permissions and Conditions
Join the JCB
About this site

© 2009   •   John Carter Brown Library 
Site maintained at Brown University

John Carter Brown Library John Carter Brown Library