What a difference a day can make! This year, 1 November (All Saints’ Day) marked the 260th anniversary of the 1755 ‘Great’ Lisbon earthquake, one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, measuring an estimated 8.5-9 on the Richter scale. With its subsequent fires (many of them starting from church candles lit for All Saints’ Day) and a tsunami, it almost totally devastated Lisbon and surrounding areas. Its tremors were felt throughout Europe, as far as Finland and North Africa, according to some even to Greenland and the Caribbean, and recent evidence shows the tsunami waves might have reached the Brazilian coast.
Along with the staggering loss of human lives, much of the city’s artistic, music and literary legacy was irretrievably lost with the destruction especially of the 70,000-volume royal library. “Bury the dead and take care of the living” was the advice of prime minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (later to be known as the Marquês de Pombal) to his king D. José I. Lisbon was cleared of debris on a war footing, and a new, ‘perfectly ordered’ city, with big squares, rectilinear large avenues and wide streets was built. The ‘Pombaline’ buildings were among the first seismically protected constructions in Europe.
The earthquake had a seismic effect also on prevailing beliefs and philosophy. The fact that it had struck on a holy day was seen by some as a manifestation of divine wrath, although, perhaps tellingly, Lisbon’s red-light district in the Alfama suffered little harm. The earthquake shook the foundations of the European ‘Age of Enlightenment’, and left a deep impression on the French writer-philosopher Voltaire. In addition to a 180-line “Poem on the Lisbon disaster” (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne) written soon after, he published in 1759 his magnum opus, the satirical novella ‘Candide, ou l’Optimisme’ (Candide or, The Optimist), which has as its basis the Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. In both works, Voltaire rejects the philosophy of theodicy, a term coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in his assertion that the actual world is the “best of all possible worlds”, thus attempting to reconcile the presence of evil and suffering in the world with an omni-benevolent God. In the words of German philosopher, sociologist and composer Theodor Adorno, “the earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz”. In the novella, Candide is a student of Baron Pangloss (who is a self-proclaimed follower of Leibniz) and tries to apply his mentor’s thinking to events such as the Lisbon earthquake but eventually fails, thus being ‘painfully cured’ of his optimism. The book created a scandal, and was banned but became a best-seller nevertheless. A historical lesson perhaps, on the futility of bans.
Other thinkers influenced by the calamity were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who felt the high mortality was due to dense populations in cities, and argued for a more naturalistic way of life; and Imannuel Kant, whose book on the subject is regarded as a milestone in seismology.
But the forerunner in seismology was the Marquês de Pombal himself, who, in addition to toiling at Lisbon’s reconstruction, also sent out a questionnaire to every parish in the country, with key questions on the chronology of local events and scale of the destruction. The responses are archived in the Torre do Tombo, the national historical archive, and present-day scientists have been able to reconstruct the event from this data.
Voltaire’s satire provided the inspiration two centuries later for Leonard Bernstein’s eponymous operetta. Although it failed to create a stir at its 1956 premiere, it rests among his many successful stage works today. Its overture has earned a place in the orchestral repertoire, one of the most frequently performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century composer. It incorporates tunes from four songs from the operetta, starting with “The Best of All Possible Worlds”. The New York Philharmonic paid tribute to their Laureate Conductor Bernstein by playing this overture without a conductor at a 1990 memorial concert, and it is a tradition they observe ever since.
What effect did the 1755 Lisbon earthquake have on Goa? Goa may not have felt its ground tremors, but it received its aftershocks in other ways. When the Marquês de Pombal instructed the Governor of Goa D. José Pedro de Câmara (1774-1779) to develop Pangim as the new capital, his newly-reconstructed Lisbon with its broad and spacious roads in grid pattern and large squares, became the template for Pangim (today Panaji).
The Marquês de Pombal had shown quick decisive action in the country’s worst crisis and D. José I fell increasingly under his sway. In the reforms initiated by him (Pombaline reforms), he abolished slavery in Portugal and her colonies in India. During his tenure, the Inquisition (autos-da-fé) was suppressed. The Marquês could not have wielded such authority had he not proved his mettle in the aftermath of 1 November 1755.
Pombal gained even more favour with D. José I after his ruthless backlash at the nobility after a failed assassination attempt upon the king in 1758. Pombal took this as an opportunity also to diminish the power of the clergy. His anti-Jesuit campaign at home in Portugal also saw the expulsion of the order from Goa into British India, with the eventual establishment of the many Jesuit-run schools and colleges that dot India today.
Other Pombaline reforms regarding education, employment and race relations (his 1761 decree and 1774 instruction) also achieved fruition in Goa.
D. José I’s daughter and eventual successor D. Maria I on the other hand, disliked Pombal intensely; the very mention of his name could induce a fit of rage. She issued one of the first restraining orders in history against him. A devout Catholic, she was opposed to his expulsion of the Jesuits. Upon ascending the throne, she removed all his political powers and reversed most of his reforms. Some of these actions indirectly contributed to the revolt of 1787 in Goa.
(An edited version of this article was published on 8 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)