News Articles

Twenty-metres high waves hit European coast after Lisbon earthquake

Disaster in 1755 was followed by intense debate over cause

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

One of Europe’s worst earthquakes will have its 250th anniversary later this year. The 9.0 quake with its epicentre off the coast of Portugal, on November 1, 1755 caused a great tragedy in Lisbon where over a five-day period fires destroyed much of the city. Within 30 minutes, a ‘tsunami’ hit the coast of Spain, Portugal and Morocco with waves, according to some sources, as high as thirty metres. Later in the day, the tidal waves reached the Caribbean. With the images from the Southeast Asian countries still fresh in people’s minds, it is not hard to see that that the 1755 tragedy did extract a heavy toll in Europe.

The Dutch Ambassador to Portugal, C.F. Bosc de la Calmette, wrote his employers in The Hague an eyewitness account of the tragedy. ”We are here in utmost consternation and misery. This past Saturday, at around 10:00am the largest part of the city was destroyed in a few minutes by a terrible earthquake.”

The earthquake was just the beginning. Fires erupted everywhere, burning down everything in their path in large parts of the capital city. In ages without motorized fire trucks and water bombers, such city fires usually spelled heart rendering upheaval for the survivors. Most people did not live to tell their story. In Lisbon, the rubble of both the earthquake and the fires made the remaining narrow streets and alleys impassable. The risk of collapsing buildings kept rescuers from helping trapped victims. The raging fires then destroyed buildings which had survived the earthquake.

Enormous losses

Towns up the coast faced a different set of circumstances. Because the quake’s epicentre was located in the Atlantic Ocean, huge waves raced towards the coast where they created havoc soon after the continental plates had collided. The retreading floods pulled along people and debris before smashing the coastline once more. Many coastal towns – including some located inland on rivers - struggled for decades to recoup from their losses in lives and property.

Chroniclers of that era widely differ on the total number of victims. The most conservative estimates hold to 15,000 casualties, but French author Voltaire estimates the number as high as 30,000. Without the central population registries of today, the actual number of victims could never be established conclusively.

The destruction of property in Lisbon as one of Europe’s leading cultural centers also was enormous. Among the losses were numerous famed paintings of artists such as Titian, Correggio and Rubens, in addition to thousands of rare books and documents, furniture, tapestries, and ornaments of churches, palaces and manors.

The Netherlands also experienced a sensation of sorts. Earth tremors were not really felt but far more noticed everywhere, adding to the bewilderment. Although there was no wind that day, boats in Amsterdam’s canals suddenly bobbed and swayed. In churches chandeliers mysteriously twisted and turned. In Gouda, a carillon suddenly tolled and in isolated peatdigger’s colony Staphorst, teacher Hendrik Bloemert put his observations on paper, noting strange things that had happened in a local canal. A boat, which had sat below the waterline for sometime was pushed up and resurfaced and heavy oak beams that had been in the water for a long time, were floating about. Barges that were tied up broke loose.


Lisbon was a cosmopolitan city. If you had not been to the Portuguese capital, you just had not experienced the finer things of life, a noted author wrote of its reputation. The city’s sudden demise therefore was all the more troubling for people of that time, widely giving rise to prolonged discussions and debate about the meaning of it all. Trying to interpret their times, French writers Voltaire and Rousseau found it a cause for dissention and disagreements with each other. The clergy were notably at the centre of the debate. Methodist preacher John Wesley, for example, published his musings in his ”Serious thoughts occasioned by the late earthquake at Lisbon”, making a connection between the quake, a comet and the approaching apocalypse.

The effects of the earthquake reverberated through Europe for years. Many compared ”Lisbon” with such disasters as the St. Elizabeth’s Flood, which in the Netherlands wiped out dozens of villages and hamlets in the region now known as the Biesbosch, south of Dordrecht, and elsewhere. In the mid 1700s, such events widely were viewed in the context of God’s wrath against sin while some, such as for example Voltaire, lamented that such happenings do not fit in the confines of beauty extolling poets and metaphycisians. In the 1800s, the discussions on Lisbon continued but with greater emphasis on it as a natural phenomen. The debates on the recent tsunami, in which thirteen people from the Netherlands perished, centres much more on preparedness for such tragedies, aided by the latest technology, and possible containment of the effect by improved zoning regulations and better building codes.

Renewed attention

In recent times, “Lisbon” has resurfaced in the Netherlands as a new subject of debate. In 1992, it was the topic in a chapter of Jan Willem Buisman’s dissertation, where he used it to trace the effects of the Enlightenment in the Netherlands in the period of 1755-1810. The 2004 release of philosopher Susan Neiman’s book , ”Het kwaad denken. Een andere geschiedenis van de filosofie,” (which freely translates as: Thinking Evil. An alternative history of Philosophy) is more contemporary as she places the Lisbon tragedy next to Auschwitz. Both events raised issues about the Providence of God and caused shockwaves in the European mind. With the book’s release date so close to Asia’s tsunami, it received extensive and wide coverage in the Dutch press.