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From the Archives - The Great Lisbon Earthquake (2)

Further extracts from the White Manuscript describing the terrible effects of the Great Lisbon Earthquake.

The following is the second part of a series of extracts related to the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. These extracts are from a letter sent to Father James White recorded in the White Manuscript. They expand on the aftermath of the earthquake, such as the fire throughout the city. The earthquake was so terrible that people believed the end times had come.


A letter from Lisbon, 21 November 1755

‘A most dreadful calamity happen’d in these parts, I mean Lisbon, of an Earthquake which on the first of November raze’d the major part of the houses here to the ground, and upward of 50,000 of its inhabitants buried under the ruins. A fire immediately succeeded, which in three days totally demolish’d the City, and consumed riches and effects of immense value therein contain’d. 


What has been saved is very inconsiderable, so that we may say, there’s no such place as Lisbon now in Portugal, and that its inhabitants, who were opulent and florishing, are at present the poorest set of people in Europe. It’s true, many might have saved their money, and merchandize from the flames, but the apprehension of repeated shocks deter’d them from returning to their houses at the risk of their lives. 


Besides many people imagined the world was at an end, and indeed according to the idea we have of this last day, what happen’d was a likely emblem of it. For all the Elements seemingly conspired to an entire dissolution of the world, and the terrible lamentations of the confused populace, some running to the fields, and some endeavouring to get on board ships, all in the utmost consternation, was a most dreadful scene to behold. In short, no person can conceive the terror of that day, but such as shared in it…


We had light shock every second day since, and it’s dreaded they are not as yet cease’d, therefore most people lie in the fields and some on ship board, not thinking it safe to inhabit the few houses still standing in the City, and the adjacent villages. The ships in the harbour receiv’d no hurt. At the time of the Earthquake a most nauseous flinch of sulphur and brimstone came out of the Earth, which was agitated like the waves of the sea; the fowl woud reel about, and fall down dead.


Above four hundred churches which that City contain’d, humble’d down to the ground, and as it was a great day of devotion, being all saints day, they crush’d to death numbers of people in their ruins, for most of the people were kill’d in churches, and many priests saying mass at the altars. The Kings palace was one of the first buildings seen in a blaze which communicated the fire to the India house, the King’s ship yard, the custom house etc. In short few houses escaped the ravage of the fire, which continued for six days.


Some say that Incendiaries were very busy, in order to have the better opportunity of plundering. Four hundred weight of plate and gold, and jewels to an immense value were found on board a Cork ship, for which the Crew were executed; many others were put to death who were found plundering.'


Author: Conor Moore, TY Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh on work experience, Limerick Diocesan Archives.