The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the Algarve

Lynne Booker March 2013

For any week in the year there are about 200 earthquakes above 2.5 magnitude on the Richter Scale around the world - mostly around the Pacific Rim. And earthquakes are not uncommon in the Algarve. But just how significant was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755? Known as the Lisbon earthquake because Lisbon suffered immense damage, it also affected areas such as the Algarve which were closer to its epicentre.


It is estimated that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, measured at 8.7 - 9.0 on the Richter Scale, was one of the strongest earthquakes ever on planet earth. Analysis of the seismic events around the world since 1755 shows only one of a similar or greater magnitude, that in Indonesia on Boxing Day of 2004. It was certainly the most destructive such event in recorded European history. It was felt in Spain, South West France, the Atlantic coast of Morocco, Madeira, the Açores, the Canary Islands, Cabo Verde, Ireland, Sweden and Pomerania. The consequent tsunami travelled as far as Spain, Morocco, Ireland, England, Germany, Holland, Norway, the Açores, Barbados and Antigua. It is impossible to be certain of the number of deaths caused by these events in Portugal alone and estimates range from 12 000 to 60 000. It is certain that there were more casualties in other countries close by, such as Morocco and Spain.

International interest

The earthquake was a subject of immense international interest. Voltaire´s novel Candide was partly set in the Lisbon of the earthquake and Rousseau corresponded with Voltaire about it. Goethe in Dichtung und Wahreit wrote of the shock given to man´s childish trust in the Almighty. In London, Dr Samuel Johnson became weary of hearing of it. The British government sent aid of £50 000 in money and an equal amount in the form of shovels, pickaxes and food - one of the first instances of international disaster aid.

The Earthquake ...

.. took place on 1 November, All Saints Day and on that day most Lisboetas were either in Church or at home. Churches lost or damaged included São Nicolau, São Domingos, Misericórdia, São Paulo, Santa Catarina, São Vicente de Fora, the Cathedral of Sta Maria and the Convento do Carmo. Losses of palaces included the royal palaces of Paço da Ribeira and Bemposta, the church palaces of the Inquisition and the Patriarchal, and the aristocratic palaces of Távora, Alegrete, São Vicente de Soure and Unhão, Vila Nova de Cerveira, Mesquitela and Louriçal. Other losses included the Customs House, the Câmara, prisons, the Opera House, the Royal Library, the Casa do Infantado. The greatest loss to historians was the Casa da Índia on the riverside, which disappeared with its priceless records of the early Portuguese Empire and its commercial transactions.

Caro Church LisbonCaro Church Lisbon

The shocks came in three bursts lasting 9 minutes in all and the 500 aftershocks were spread over the next 10 months. In spite of the fact that Lisbon had suffered earlier seismic events, including two of a magnitude near 7 on the Richter Scale in 1719 and 1722, the earthquake of 1755 was perceived to be one of much greater significance. The Baixa and Bairro Alto were wrecked but the Alfama and Mouraria districts were not. The earthquake was followed by the tsunami over the Baixa and by numerous fires which burned for about a week. Four fifths of the buildings in the city centre were destroyed. Of the 65 religious houses only five remained habitable. Notable for withstanding the shocks were the west front of the Cathedral and the new Águas Livres aqueduct.

The British in Lisbon

The British had a major presence in the commercial affairs of Lisbon. Many Portuguese struggle with the difference in the terms British and English, and the British merchants were known collectively as the English Factory and much of their profit went up to London in the form of gold bullion. The British at Lisbon lost 78 people. According to the records 29 men and 49 women were killed of which only two men and two women were of any consequence, the others being Lisbon Irish ..... so obscure as not to be known to any but the Irish Friars. Many of the English Factory lost a great deal of money since their Portuguese customers were now in no position to pay their debts. The new Prime Minister Pombal imposed a 4% import tax to finance the rebuilding of Lisbon at which the English protested and sulked, but to no avail. From this point, the English Factory never recovered its former wealth.

Causes of the Earthquake

Portugal is situated at the junction of the African and Euro-Asiatic plates. These tectonic plates meet at what is known technically as a subduction zone, which means that milllimetre by millimetre, one plate is disappearing underneath the other at the rate of 4mm per annum. It is easy to imagine that if there should be no free movement between these plates, the resulting stresses at the edges build up over time. The accumulated pressure may be released all of a sudden and it is this sudden movement which we experience as earthquake, or seismic event.

Memórias Paroquiais

Pombal is the figure always associated with the 1755 earthquake and with the rebuilding of Lisbon. He is less well-known for his contribution to the modern science of seismology. It was Pombal who instituted the national enquiry into its effects on people, animals and buildings. Every parish priest was required to give an account of the damage in his parish. The results have helped modern seismologists to understand the size of the event. By studying the effect of the tsunami as shown in these contemporary records together with the known characteristics of tsunamis generated since 1969, it has been possible to isolate the probable epicentre of the earthquake which is now known by the name Falha do Marquês de Pombal, somewhere to the west of Cape St Vincent. This priceless eighteenth century record is known as the Memórias Paroquiais and is currently lodged in the Torre do Tombo, Portugal´s national archive. Another reason for this earthquake being remembered as the Lisbon Earthquake is that most of the memoirs and descriptions of the events were written by people who were resident in Lisbon, many of them British. Recent study of the Memórias Paroquiais shows that the effects were felt much more widely.

The Marquês de Pombal and the rebuilding of Lisbon

Statue of the Marquês de Pombal in Lisbon
Statue of the Marquês de Pombal in Lisbon

In 1755 Pombal had been Foreign Minister for five years. Since his house at Oeiras was not damaged in the earthquake, he was obviously protected by God and so the king chose him as Chief Minister. When asked by the king about what should be done, Pombal is reported to have replied Bury the dead and feed the living. It sounds apocryphal, but these words reflect his practicality. Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo took charge in Lisbon: he fixed the prices of goods to prevent profiteering; he organised the police to prevent looting; he organising the clearing of rubble to facilitate movement around the city; and he created a plan for the rebuilding of the capital city. There was at this time a recommendation to move the capital either to Coimbra or further west to Oeiras, but it was decided to rebuild on the current site. The plan of Eugénio dos Santos to demolish the rest of the Baixa and rebuild was selected. Helping with technical expertise was with Manuel de Maia, who had been involved in the design and building of the undamaged Águas Livres aqueduct.

The Casa do Risco produced all the plans for the new Baixa with a focus of the city in the area now called Praça do Comércio. The whole of the Baixa now rests on pine trunks imported from northern Europe. The area was constructed with earthquake defences involving the use of materials such as wood which could withstand ground movement and with a regularity of form. The reconstruction of Lisbon involved a widespread use of wooden beams and a lighter wooden roof load. This inventive earthquake defence came to be known as the Gaiola Pombalina (Pombal´s cage). And indeed a sketch of the skeleton of these houses looks a little like a cage.

Pombal later rewrote history to show that he was the real mastermind in the crisis. He was a master of propaganda. He carefully banished anyone who had exercised any independent command at the time - there was even a royal duke whom he got rid of in this way. Pombal became indispensable to his royal master D José I, and he was created Conde de Oeiras in 1759 and Marquês de Pombal in 1769.

Earthquakes in the Algarve in the 18th Century

There were two major seismic events in the Algarve in the eighteenth century. The 1719 earthquake was felt most in Vila Nova de Portimão and as far as Lagos. The 1722 earthquake was felt over the whole of the Algarve, and in Tavira a caravel on the river was left high and dry and the crew walked ashore with dry feet. In Faro, the cathedral bells rang by themselves. The 1722 earthquake was more destructive than that of 1719 and much of the damage had been repaired by 1755.

The Algarve in the 1600s and 1700s

At the end of the 15th century the Algarve occupied an important strategic position in the supply of the Portuguese fortresses on the Moroccan coast. There had been an increase in the population and the growth of exports such as dried fruit, wine, olive oil and salted tuna. The main town of importance was Tavira, which was used as the port of embarkation and arrival for royal journeys to The Other Algarve (Morocco). The importance of Tavira´s position was emphasised in 1562 when there was a national call for support to the Portuguese coastal fortress at Mazagão, at that time under siege by the Moroccans. It is reported that up to 30 000 men gathered at Atalaia in Tavira. The expedition to North Morocco by D Sebastião in 1578 also stressed that Tavira was still important for North African operations.

As the Moroccan fortresses were given up, and the river Gilão silted up, Tavira lost its importance and Faro, gaining cathedral status in 1577, slowly overtook it. The English attacked Faro first in 1587 under Sir Francis Drake and again in 1596 when the Earl of Essex stole books from the Bishop´s Library. These books are now in Oxford´s Bodleian Library.

The Algarve coast from 1609 onwards was under constant threat from the Barbary corsairs in search of captives to be sold into slavery in North Africa. For this reason, coastal fishing was a dangerous occupation, and villagers used to stay only for the summer at the tuna armação. At the end of the fishing season, they retired to the relative safety of their inland villages. The obvious example nowadays is coastal Armação de Pêra and more inland Pêra. The corsair threat and raids by other pirates (including the English) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a decline in importance of the ports in the Algarve.

Fisheries attracted high royal taxation and from 1600 onwards the tuna disappeared, and there was a major economic recession between 1630 to 1725. The Portuguese Inquisition was also active during this period, and many New Christians (Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity) found greater security by leaving the country. They took their business expertise with them and Algarvian businesses suffered enormously as a consequence.

Silver imported from Peru to Seville was of great interest to smugglers in the 1500s and 1600s. The French in particular came to get this illegal silver and used the Algarve as a base. Since the English had captured Gibraltar in 1704, there had been an increase in the smuggling trade with Gibraltar, and this trade continued in varying degrees of intensity until the mid 1900s.

From 1600, the Algarve became more and more depopulated and some men preferred to live wild in the mountains rather than be called up for military service. There was little economic activity, save for the smuggling of silver and the export of figs. Records show that there was an British presence in the Algarve, as in other parts of Portugal. These British exported figs and other dried fruit and imported grain and manufactured goods into the Algarve. They used their monopoly position to the detriment of the local populace, and were cordially disliked in the whole region. One popular expression dating from this time is para inglês ver. It means that something has been made to look better than it really is, and implies that a Portuguese seller has hoodwinked a British buyer.

At this time there were only two further education institutes in the Algarve: the College of S Francisco Xavier in Portimão and its sister in Faro. These two seminaries taught theology and Latin. Because the Algarve was so poor, there was no permanent royal governor and government business was carried out by the Bishop of Faro. So it was that when the earthquake happened in 1755, the Algarve was economically backward and under-populated.

The Earthquake in the Algarve

At 9.30 am on 1 November, the day was clear and calm. The wind was from the north west. There was a great deep thundering, and after 3 or 4 minutes the ground began to shake with frightening violence. The sea withdrew by more than 20 braços (furlongs?), leaving the beaches dry. And then it threw itself onto the land with such force that it reached inland as much as a league (about 4 miles), flowing over even the highest rocks. It turned and came again three times in few minutes, pulling over enormous masses of rocks and buildings. And leaving nearly all the seaside villages in ruins.

Tremors contined to be felt until 20 August 1756.

The Relaçam written in 1756 shows a death toll of 1020 out of about 82 000 people in the Algarve. On 1st November in Lisbon many people died as a result of the fires which may have been started by either the candles lit for the Holy Day or looters (before being hanged, some looters admitted to starting fires). In the Algarve all of the victims died as a result of the natural catastrophe, either as a direct consequence of the earthquake itself or of the tsunami which followed. The overall death rate in the Algarve was less than 2% but in Albufeira it was near 10%. The death rate in Lisbon, including all fire victims, was between 5% and 25%.

Study of the Memórias Paroquiais shows that in the Barlavento, Vila do Bispo was extensively ruined. Only one house remained undamaged; it was built of rock and clay, not brick and mortar and it is still there today. The forts of Sagres and Baleeira in the extreme southwest were also extensively damaged. Lagos was nearly completely destroyed and 1080 of 1170 houses became unusable. In Portimão the Colégio da Companhia de Jesus was completely wrecked. It had been originally built in 1660 and was damaged in the 1719 and 1722 earthquakes. It had to be rebuilt again after 1755. The town of Silves suffered badly and it lost the cathedral, tower, castle, walls, town hall, council meeting room, prison, the convent of the third order of S Francisco and many shops and workshops. But there were only 14 people killed.

The tsunami arrived 6-7 minutes after the earthquake and in places the wave was 60 metres high. From Cape St Vincent to Quarteira the damage by tsunami was extensive. The wave came in three times and threw up rocks up to 4 500 kg in weight. At Lagos, the wave dragged down the city wall and most of the houses, throwing boats up to 2 miles inland. Many people sought refuge from the earthquake by fleeing to the beach, and were lost in the tsunami. Albufeira suffered major damage. The Santa Ana district disappeared completely, towers on the town wall fell and there were masses of fish left in the countryside. At Boliqueime, most fisherfolk lived on the beach, and they were lost (28) and at Quarteira 55 fisherfolk disappeared from the beaches.

Rebuilding in the Sotavento

In the Sotavento, much of the coast was protected from the tsunami by the sand islands. The original hamlet of Santo António de Arenhilha was not so lucky and it perished in the disaster. The royal decree to found the new town (Vila Real de Santo António) was signed on 30 December 1773. The impetus to found this town was possibly supplied by the need to collect customs or to demonstrate to Spain that this territory was effectively occupied. The design of the town was made in Lisbon and the materials were prefabricated so that assembly and the building could take place quickly. The first of the prefabricated stones was laid in March 1774. On 13 May 1776, the centre of the town had been finished and was officially opened with a military parade and fanfares as the crown on the obelisk was unveiled. While in Lisbon it was Pombal who took charge, in the Algarve, the Bishop of Faro, D Fr Lourenço de Santa Maria was the moving force.

Pombal fell from grace in February 1777 and the motive power for the continuing rebuild in the Algarve came from the new Bishop, D Francico Gomes de Avelar. He was appointed in 1789 after a long stay in Rome, and he immediately engaged an Italian architect whom he knew, Francisco Xavier Fabri. They set about restoring and repairing the fabric of many churches in the Algarve, such as Stª Maria do Castelo in Tavira.


Santa Maria Church Tavira Santa Maria Church Tavira

Church of Espirito Santo do Hospital Tavira
Church of Espirito Santo do Hospital Tavira


Consequences of the Earthquake

There were physical, political, religious and commercial consequences to this natural phenomenon. The history of science would also be different as a result of this earthquake. Except for the Great Fire of London, no other capital had undergone such a disaster. Pombal´s radical gridiron design for Lisbon and Vila Real de Santo António created quite a stir in a Portuguese conservative environment. The sober streets and squares were intended to provide business premises and city centre apartments, not convents and palaces. Although the central Praça do Comércio was finished only in 1875, the change of name was important and intentional and the space was to be used for commerce. Politically, Pombal planned an unprecedented relief operation. He intended to maintain order, prevent looting, dispose of the dead, prevent the outbreak of disease, make available food and water to the homeless in their tented cities. In order to do this he imposed a form of martial law on the nation.

There was an attempt on the King´s life, and after manipulating the show trial Pombal was able to see to the execution of the aristocratic Távora family. Their barbaric execution discouraged further aristocratic opposition, and Pombal himself became the virtual dictator of Portugal.

The arguments by the chattering classes about the cause of the catastrophe were not shared by the people who spent their time praying. They believed that both the people of Portugal and Portugal itself had suffered divine punishment and that everyone should pray for divine forgiveness. Pombal insisted that the earthquake was a natural phenomenon. Thus an argument between religion and science became a political argument. The Jesuit Padre Malagrida preached the idea of divine punishment and Pombal had him arrested and condemned by the Inquisition. He was executed at an auto da fé in 1761 (his was the last such execution in Portugal) and the Jesuit order was then suppressed first in Portugal, and eventually over most of Europe. The Inquisition was also suppressed as a religious organisation, and became instead Pombal´s secret police.

Pombal´s revolution was neither aristocratic nor popular but of the middle class. He hoped to create in Portugal a wealth creating middle class to get rid of the British influence. To that extent, it was anti-British. He created monopoly companies in Brazil to cut out British advantage in Brazil and he created a Junta do Comércio to provide capital and protected markets. He also made moves to limit British influence in the port wine trade.

Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Conde de Oeiras and Marquês of Pombal from 1769 effectively ruled Portugal until the death of D José in 1777. D José´s successor, Dona Maria I, loathed the Marquês. She preferred the company of churchmen and aristocrats. The new Queen withdrew all of his political offices and banished him in disgrace to his country estates near Pombal. The Marquês died on his estate in 1782 after a long illness bravely borne at the age of 83; his long rule had created many opponents and his final years were spent in disgrace as he expertly defended himself against the charges laid by his enemies. His architectural legacy in Lisbon and in the Algarve is a monument to his ability to create order out of chaos. But even more remarkable was his ability to seize the opportunity provided by the chaos of the earthquake to challenge the established order in Portugal, and to create his own revolution.