The scale of it is staggering. Imagine the force of 32,000 Hiroshima bombs dispersed across 5.8 million square miles (3 percent of the Earth’s surface). It happened early on Nov. 1, 1755, All Saints Day, when two plates a few hundred miles off the Portuguese coast collided, releasing a cataclysmic burst of energy that radiated in all directions. The effects were felt as far away as Finland, but it was Lisbon that most famously bore the brunt of one of the most powerful earthquakes in history.
The quake was only the beginning of Lisbon’s travails. Two other disasters befell the city in quick secession: a tsunami, triggered by the seismic event, carried thousands out to sea and a devastating firestorm, fueled by vast reserves of debris, burned for days, killing thousands of the maimed and wounded who survived the quake, only to be consumed by flames and smoke.
In “This Gulf of Fire,’’ historian Mark Molesky brings to vivid and horrifying life a disaster that forever changed Lisbon and provoked a Europe-wide debate about God and the workings of nature.
“With three violent shivers (and the destruction of a major capital city), Europeans were suddenly confronted with a phenomenon of nature that could, without warning, throw one back into the chaos of blind and destructive forces,” Molesky writes.
Though the impressively learned author weaves science and intellectual history into his account, his discussion of the quake’s impact on Enlightenment thought — Voltaire and Kant grappled with its cosmic meanings — is tucked away at book’s end and feels slightly cursory. But Molesky excels in his sections on the material impact from the three disasters and the plight of the city’s residents — lisboetas — from all classes.
He has an acute feel for the topography of pre-earthquake Lisbon — situated, like Rome, on seven hills. In the mid-18th century, Lisbon was the sparkling jewel of an empire that drew its considerable wealth from the gold mines of Brazil. A center of Catholic life, pious pursuits mixed with carnal pleasures (often in the same establishment); the city was notorious for its prostitutes, and “the distinction between Lisbon’s convents and its brothels was practically nonexistent.”
A thriving port, it drew traders from all corners of Europe. Dom José I, the Portuguese king, could take pride in the Casa da Ópera, “[surpassing] in magnitude and decorations all that modern times can boast,” as one visitor noted, and his impressive collection of books and manuscripts were housed in three sumptuous marble rooms in his palace, the Paço de Ribeira.
All of this would be sundered and destroyed. In three harrowingly detailed chapters, Molesky moves with Steadicam-like precision through the ruins, giving us snapshots of horror. The pious were filled with dread after the initial rumbling subsided: “In the midst of such terrifying assaults on the senses — imploding buildings, heart-stopping noises, spreading fires, clouds of dust and smoke, and the pitiful wails of men and beasts — a ‘Wreck of Worlds,’ as one described it — many believed that Judgment Day had finally arrived.”
It is almost too painful to describe the human suffering and cultural loss that occurred in the wake of the multiple calamities. What the earthquake did not destroy — remarkably, the opera house remained intact, as did the economically vital Rua Nova dos Mercadores (New Street of the Merchants) — the subsequent fire ravaged. The Biblioteca dos Reis was destroyed, a development Molesky calls “one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the West and can be likened to the burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria.” (Several other notable collections were also burned to ashes, as well as the ecclesiastical libraries of the Carmelite and Oratorian orders.)
Molesky uses the testimony of eyewitnesses to powerful effect. Be warned: It is grim. “Infinite were the Numbers of poor broken-limbed Persons, who were forced to be deserted even by those who loved them best and left to the miserable Torture of being burnt alive,” recalled one survivor.
The author does a fine job balancing contemporary interpretations of the Lisbon disaster with up-to-date seismic research and brings a comparative perspective to the force of the earthquake, which still ranks as one of the most devastating of all time. All told, Molesky, via some forensic number crunching, estimates the three disasters claimed the lives of 19 percent of Lisbon’s pre-earthquake population of 200,000. (Several thousand more perished from the tsunami on the Spanish and Moroccan coasts.)
Still, the city recovered, and Molesky outlines the efforts of the marquês de Pombal, the royal adviser who took charge. He was the man for the hour, though Molesky is alternately impressed and appalled by Pombal’s draconian methods, which set him against the Jesuits and other powerful interests. If today the Lisbon earthquake is dimly remembered, “This Gulf of Fire’’ evokes in all too terrible detail a catastrophe that shook Europe to its very soul.
By Mark Molesky. Knopf, 496 pp., illustrated, $35Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.