Considered the first modern natural disaster, the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, is well studied. If you are specifically interested in the scientific, philosophical, religious, economic, literary or political consequences of this event, an internet search will show you a treasure trove of information.

These are the basic facts about what happened. On the morning of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755, there was an earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Lisbon. It is speculated that the earthquake would have measured between 8.5 and 9.2 on the Richter scale, had that resource been available at the time.

Ruins of the Church of Saint Nicholas, following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.Painting by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas (1707–1783). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Not long after the earth stopped shaking, the earthquake also brought a series of tsunamis. And then there were fires, lasting almost a week. I’ve read estimates of the number of deaths being anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, although most estimates are in the 50,000 range.

Scholars in all disciplines can study the effects of this series of events on the Portuguese Empire and on what was one of the wealthiest and most populous cities in Europe. Aiding in this research about the destruction are historical resources that are only available because of the devastation.

Lisbon, Portugal, during the great earthquake of 1 November 1755. This copper engraving, made that year, shows the city in ruins and in flames. Tsunamis rush upon the shore, destroying the wharfs. The engraving is also noteworthy in showing highly disturbed water in the harbor, which sank many ships. Passengers in the left foreground show signs of panic. Original in: Museu da Cidade, Lisbon. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There are first person accounts from survivors in Lisbon and the surrounding areas. Visual artists depicted the events and the aftermath. Others wrote not only of what happened, but opined about the how and the why. The case has been made that this is the beginning of seismology. Learning the reasons why they chose to rebuild an entire ruined city in this particular way is fascinating.

We have available this entire array of primary resources to help explain not only what people did, but how they felt and what they believed after the earthquake, the tsunamis and the fires. If you read my posts regularly, you know how I feel about primary sources. This is an amazing window into mid-eighteenth century European life and their reaction to adversity.

But don’t forget what we lost. I first heard about 1755 Lisbon when I was researching primary source material about the great navigators and explorers from the Age of Exploration. Much of that is just…gone. Original records, logs, journals, maps and charts that were in the royal archives are no longer available to study.

The royal library in Lisbon contained 70,000 volumes. Remember, we’re not talking about mass market paperbacks readily available. As far as I know, there is no inventory, no way to completely know what we’re missing. Another palace library held 18,000 volumes. That palace also had art by Titian, Ruben and Correggio.

It looks like my message changed along the way. Originally I was lamenting what was lost. But people did what people do. They learned. They rebuilt. They moved on. Much better message.