'This Gulf Of Fire' Examines The Lisbon, Portugal, Earthquake In 1755 NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Mark Molesky, associate professor at Seton Hall University, about his book, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason.

'This Gulf Of Fire' Examines The Lisbon, Portugal, Earthquake In 1755

'This Gulf Of Fire' Examines The Lisbon, Portugal, Earthquake In 1755

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Mark Molesky, associate professor at Seton Hall University, about his book, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason.


Natural disasters are compelling news. They shake our faith and test our resources. In my career, I've experienced a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in China. I've seen the rivers of the Midwest overflow their banks and watch New Orleans struggle out of Katrina's destructive legacy. And when I read Mark Molesky's book "This Gulf Of Fire," I'm reminded that I haven't seen anything close to the catastrophe that he has studied. It happened on November 1 of 1755 in Lisbon. Mark Molesky, welcome to the program.

MARK MOLESKY: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And OK, it's All Saints' day in 1755 in a very Catholic, very rich European capital. It's about quarter-to-10 in the morning. In a nutshell, what happens?

MOLESKY: About 200 or 300 miles off the Iberian coast in the Atlantic Ocean, an enourmous fault line that had been dormant for perhaps thousands of years exploded. And an enormous amount of energy was released, perhaps a thousand times more energy that came out of the 2010 Haitian earthquake - 475 megatons of energy - the equivalent of 32,000 Hiroshima bombs.

It was one of the largest earthquakes in history, estimated measurement between 8.5 and perhaps 9.2 on the Richter scale. It was the largest earthquake to affect Europe in the last 10,000 years, and its tremors and reverberations were felt as far away as Sweden, Northern Italy and the Azores in the Central Atlantic.

SIEGEL: In Lisbon, churches collapsed. Of course, it's a great feast day. Many are inside. Buildings fall down. There are many six- and seven-story buildings that people live in. They fall to the ground. And that's only the beginning of what's happening.

MOLESKY: Yeah, absolutely. An enormous cloud of dust is thrown into the air, and as that dust settles, this new Lisbon is revealed. Tens of thousands of people have died. The fascinating thing about the Lisbon earthquake is that, as a mega-thrust earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean, it caused a very rare Atlantic Ocean tsunami. And about a half hour after the earthquake, this tsunami smashed into the Iberian Peninsula, went up the Tagus river and hit the riverbank in Lisbon where thousands of survivors and eyewitnesses to the earthquake had gathered, pulling many into the Tagus and out into the Atlantic. The tsunami barreled across the Atlantic, hit the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, Cuba, Bermuda and even crossed the equator and hit Northeastern Brazil, killing several people there.

SIEGEL: If this weren't enough, in the 18th century, of course, people lit their homes with candles and lamps. As the buildings came down, the city erupted into fire.

MOLESKY: Yeah. It was the middle of the 9 o'clock mass. And hundreds of little fires started across the city. Within a few hours, they coalesced in what I believe to be a firestorm, which is a fire that becomes so hot and so intense that it produces its own wind system. It actually pulls oxygen into itself, becoming hotter and asphyxiating people who were perhaps a hundred feet away. And this killed thousands more who were trapped or couldn't escape from the rubble and, in fact, did more physical damage to Lisbon than the earthquake had. It essentially gutted the heart of this great world empire.

SIEGEL: Some people say as few as 10,000 or 12,000 people died in Lisbon. You come up with a much higher death toll than that. What's your bottom line?

MOLESKY: I think that approximately 40,000 people died within Lisbon on November 1, 1755 and in the weeks and months afterwards.

SIEGEL: Now, after a natural disaster, people to this day will be argue about cause. Was it that big a snowstorm, or did the mayor just fail to have enough snowplows? Or was Katrina's damage an act of nature, or was it the consequence of eroding barrier islands and mismanaging levies? I want you to describe how the argument over what caused the devastation of Lisbon really went to the core of how Europeans in that time, in the 18th century, understood the world or didn't understand the world.

MOLESKY: Well, of course there were all kinds of theories about what caused earthquakes. And what I found is that Enlightenment thinkers and scientists and many clerics who read scientific works were really rather up on those theories. I mean, you see a debate arising from Lima to St. Petersburg. The fascinating thing about all these theories - underground fires, exploding gases underground, even electricity - is that they're all wrong - so a rollicking debate that really leads to nothing. And one of the fascinating things about this is it creates a kind of opening for religious elements and priests and Protestant ministers who argued, look; the Enlightenment has essentially failed. The scientists can't explain this phenomenon, and perhaps we have to fall back on the old cause of earthquakes, which is God, which is the Almighty who is sending us a message in this particular instance.

SIEGEL: And, as you describe it, Lisbon has been a city rich with the swag of empire and a very sinful city by the standards of the time. And so there was plenty of sin for God to punish if that had been the point of the earthquake.

MOLESKY: Lisbon today rarely makes the front pages of the newspapers in the West, but in 1755, it was one of the richest cities in the world. It was the major New World port, and it was essentially dripping with gold and diamonds that had been discovered in previous decades in Brazil. And so many people saw it as, you know, God's attempt to sort of punish this rich, hubristic capital.

But also, it was one of the last centers of the Inquisition. People were still being burnt at the stake in 1755 in Lisbon. The house of the Inquisition actually collapsed during the earthquake, and many people, particularly Protestants, saw this as the work of God.

SIEGEL: There is one legacy of the Lisbon earthquake that keeps its memory alive, and that is Voltaire's story "Candide." Voltaire, the great French writer, was furious at the philosophical optimists epitomized by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who, even in the face of this disaster, said all is for the best in God's creation; everything must serve a positive purpose.

MOLESKY: Yes. Voltaire's living in exile in Switzerland, and several weeks after the earthquake, he gets word in a letter from his friend. And suddenly, he realizes that this is the perfect subject for him to write on. He'd becoming sort of pessimistic in his personal life. One of his lovers had died. He was getting older. And everything sort of seemed to crystallize with this horrible event in which thousands of people had died. He even dropped his kind of reactive anti-Catholicism to kind decry the fact that tens of thousands of innocent people had died. He penned a very famous poem on the earthquake that set off this debate across Europe. And then, of course, four years later, his masterpiece "Candide" comes out in which the Lisbon earthquake makes a cameo role.

SIEGEL: Mark Molesky, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MOLESKY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mark Molesky's book about the Lisbon earthquake and the events that followed it is called "This Gulf Of Fire: The Destruction Of Lisbon, Or Apocalypse In The Age Of Science And Reason."

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