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Lisbon Earthquake Scourged

( Originally Published 1906 )

Sixty Thousand Lives Lost in a Few moments—An Opulent and Populous Capital Destroyed—Graphic Account by an English merchant Who Resided in the Stricken City—Tidal Waves Drown Thousands in the City Streets—Ships Engulfed in the Harbor—Criminals Rob and Burn Terrible Desolation and Suffering.

MORE than once in its history has Lisbon, the beautiful capital of Portugal, on the Tagus river, been devastated by earthquakes and tidal waves. Greatest of all these was the appalling disaster of 1755, when in a few minutes thousands upon thousands of the inhabitants were killed or drowned. An English merchant, Mr. Davy, who resided in the ill-fated city at that time, and was: an eye-witness of the whole catastrophe, survived the event and w rote to a London friend the following account of it. The narrative reproduced herewith brings the details before the reader with a force and simplicity which leaves no doubt of the exact truth. Mr. Davy wrote as follows:

"On the morning of November 1st I was seated in my apartment, just finishing a letter, when the papers and the table I was writing on began to tremble with a gentle motion, which rather surprised me, as I could not perceive a breath of wind stirring. Whilst I was reflecting with myself what this could be owing to, but without having the least apprehension of the real cause, the whole house began to shake from the very foundation, and a frightful noise came from underground, resembling the hollow, distant rumbling of thunder.

"Upon this I threw down my pen, and started upon my feet, remaining a moment in suspense, whether I should stay in the apartment or run into the street, as the danger in both places seemed equal. In a moment I was stunned with a most horrid crash, as if every edifice in the city had tumbled down at once. The house I was in shook with such violence that the upper stories immediately fell, and though my apartment, which was on the first floor, did not then share the same fate, yet everything was thrown out of its place in such a manner that it was with no small difficulty I kept my feet, and expected nothing less than to be soon crushed to death, as the walls continued rocking to and fro, opening in several places; large stones falling down on every side from the cracks, and the ends of most of the rafters starting out from the roofs.

"To add to this terrifying scene, the sky in a moment became so gloomy that I could now distinguish no particular object; it was an Egyptian darkness indeed, such as might be felt.

"As soon as the gloom began to disperse and the violence of the shock seemed pretty much abated, the first object I perceived in the room was a woman sitting on the floor with an infant in her arms, all covered with dust, pale and trembling. I asked her how she got hither, but her consternation was so great that she could give me no account of her escape. I suppose that when the tremor first began, she ran out of her own house, and finding herself in such imminent danger from the falling stones, retired into the door of mine, which was almost contiguous to hers, for shelter, and when the shock increased, which filled the door with dust and rubbish, she ran upstairs into my apartment. The poor creature asked me, in the utmost agony, if I did not think the world was at an end; at the same time she complained of being choked, and begged me to procure her some water. Upon this I went to a closet where I kept a large jar of water, but found it broken to pieces. I told her she must not now think of quenching her thirst, but saving her life, as the house was just falling on our heads, and if a second shock came, would certainly bury us both.

"I hurried down stairs, the woman with me, holding by my arm, and made directly to that end of the street which opens to the Tagus. Finding the passage this way entirely blocked up with the fallen houses to the height of their second stories I turned back to the other end which led to the main street, and there helped the woman over a vast heap of ruins, with no small hazard to my own life; just as we were going into this street, as there was one part that I could not well climb over without the assistance of my hands as well as feet, I desired her to let go her hold, which she did, remaining two or three feet behind me, at which instant there fell a vast stone from a tottering wall, and crushed both her and the child in pieces. So dismal a spectacle at any other time would have affected me in the highest degree, but the dread I was in of sharing the same fate myself, and the many instances of the same kind which presented themselves all around, were too shocking to make me dwell a moment on this single object.

"I now had a long, narrow street to pass, with the houses on each side four or five stories high, all very old, the greater part already thrown down, or continually falling, and threatening the passengers with inevitable death at every step, numbers of whom lay killed before me, or what I thought far more deplorable, so bruised and wounded that they could not stir to help themselves. For my own part, as destruction appeared to me unavoidable, I only wished I might be made an end of at once, and not have my limbs broken, in which case' I could expect nothing else but to be left upon the spot, lingering in misery, like those poor unhappy wretches, without receiving the least succor from any person.

"As self-preservation, however, is the first law of nature, these sad thoughts did not so far prevail as to make me totally dispair. I proceeded on as fast as I conveniently could, though with the utmost caution, and having at length got clear of this horrid passage, I found myself safe and unhurt in the large open space before St. Paul's church, which had been thrown down a few minutes before, and buried a great part of the congregation. Here I stood for some time, considering what I should do, and not thinking myself safe in this situation, I came to the resolution of climbing over the ruins of the west end of the church, in order to get to the river's side, that I might be removed as far as possible from the tottering houses, in case of a second shock.

"This, with some difficulty, I accomplished, and here I found a prodigious concourse of people of both sexes, and of all ranks and conditions. There were several priests who had run from the altars in their sacerdotal vestments; ladies half dressed, and some without shoes; all these, whom their mutual dangers had here assembled as to a place of safety, were on their knees at prayer, with the terrors of death in their countenances.

"In the midst of these devotions the second great shock came on, little less violent than the first, and completed the ruin of those buildings which had been already much shattered. The consternation now became so universal, that the shrieks and cries of the frightened people could be distinctly heard from the top of St. Catherine's hill, a considerable distance off, whither a vast number of the populace had likewise retreated. At the same time we could hear the fall of the parish church there, whereby many persons were killed on the spot, and others mortally wounded. On a sudden I heard a general outcry, `The sea is coming in, we are lost!' Turning my eyes toward the river, which at this place is nearly four miles broad, I could perceive it heaving and swelling in a most unaccountable manner, as no wind was stirring. In an instant there appeared, at some small distance, a large body of water, rising as it were like a mountain. It came on foaming and roaring, and rushed toward the shore with such impetuosity; that we all immediately ran for our lives, as fast as possible; many were actually swept away, and the rest were above their waists in water, at a good distance from the bank.

"For my own part, I had the narrowest escape, and should certainly have been lost, had I not grasped a large beam that lay on the ground, till the water returned to its channel, which it did with equal rapidity. As there now appeared at least as much danger from the sea as the land, and I scarce knew whither to retire for shelter, I took a sudden resolution of returning, with my clothes all dripping, to the area of St. Paul's. Here I stood some time, and observed the ships tumbling and tossing about as in a violent storm. Some had broken their cables and were carried to the other side of the Tagus; others were whirled around with incredible swiftness, several large boats were turned keel upward; and all this without any wind, which seemed the more astonishing.

"It was at the time of which I am now writing, that the fine new quay, built entirely of rough marble, at an immense expense, was entirely swallowed up, with all the people on it, who had fled thither for safety, and had reason to think them-selves out of danger in such a place. At the same time a great number of boats and small vessels, anchored near it, all like-wise full of people, who had retired thither for the same pur pose, were all swallowed up, as in a whirlpool, and never more appeared.

"This last dreadful incident I did not see with my own eyes, as it passed three or four stone-throws from the spot where I then was, but I had the account as here given from several masters of ships, who were anchored within two or three hundred yards of the quay, and saw the whole catastrophe. One of them in particular informed me that when the second shock came on, he could perceive the whole city waving backwards and forwards, like the sea when the wind first begins to rise, that the agitation of he earth was so great, even under the river, that it threw up his large anchor from the mooring when swam, as he termed it, on the surface of the water; that immediately upon this extraordinary concussion, the river rose at once nearly twenty feet, and in a moment subsided; at which instant he saw the quay, with the whole concourse of people upon it, sink down, and at the same time everyone of the boats and vessels that were near it were drawn into the cavity, which he supposes instantly closed upon them, inasmuch as not the least sign of a wreck was ever seen after-wards.

"I had not been long in the area of St. Paul's, when I felt the third shock, which though somewhat less violent than the two former, the sea rushed in again and retired with the same rapidity, and I remained up to my knees in water, though I had gotten upon a small eminence at some distance from the river, with the ruins of several intervening houses to break its force. At this time I took notice the waters retired so impetuously, that some vessels were left quite dry, which rode in seven-fathom water. The river thus continued alternately rushing on and retiring several times, in such sort that it was justly dreaded Lisbon would now meet the same fate which a few years ago had befallen the city of Lima. The master of a vessel which arrived here just after the first of November assured me that he felt the shock above forty leagues at sea so sensibly that he really concluded that he had struck upon a rock, till he threw out the lead and could find no bottom; nor could he possibly guess at the cause till the melancholy sight of this desolate city left him no room to doubt it.

"I was now in such a situation that I knew not which way to turn; I was faint from the constant fatigue I had undergone, and I had not yet broken my fast. Yet this had not so much effect on me as the anxiety I was under for a particular friend, who lodged at the top of a very high house in the heart of the city, and being a stranger to the language, could not but be in the utmost danger. I determined to go and learn, if possible, what had become of him. I proceeded, with some hazard, to the large space before the convent of Corpo Santo, which had been thrown down, and buried a great number of people. Passing through the new square of the palace, I found it full of coaches, chariots, chaises, horses and mules, deserted by their drivers and attendants, and left to starve.

"From this square the way led to my friend's lodgings through a long, steep and narrow street. The new scenes of horror I met with here exceed all description; nothing could be heard but sighs and groans. I did not meet with a soul in the passage who was not bewailing the loss of his nearest relations and dearest friends. I could hardly take a single step without treading on the dead or dying. In some places lay coaches, with their masters, horses and riders almost crushed in pieces; here, mothers with infants in their arms; there, ladies richly dressed, priests, friars, gentlemen, mechanics, either in the same condition or just expiring; some had their backs broken, others great stones on their breasts; some lay almost buried in the rubbish, and crying out in vain for succor, were left to perish with the rest.

"At length I arrived at the spot opposite to the house where my friend, for whom I was so anxious, resided; and finding this as well as the other contiguous buildings thrown down, I gave him up for lost, and thought only of saving my own life.

"In less than an hour I reached a public house, kept by a Mr. Morley, near the English burying-ground, about a half a mile from the city, where I found a great number of my countrymen in the same wretched circumstances as myself.

"Perhaps you may think the present doleful subject here concluded; but the horrors of the day are sufficient to fill a volume. As soon as it grew dark, another scene presented itself, little less shocking than those already described. The whole city appeared in a blaze, which was so bright that I could easily see to read by it. It may be said without exaggeration that it was on fire in at least a hundred different places at once, and thus continued burning for six days together, without intermission, or without the least attempt being made to stop its progress.

"It went on consuming everything the earthquake had spared, and the people were so dejected and terrified that few or none had courage enough to venture down to save any part of their substance. I could never learn that this terrible fire was owing to any subterraneous eruption, as some reported, but to three causes, which all concurring at the same time, will naturally account for the prodigious havoc it made. The first of November being All Saint's Day, a high festival among the Portuguese, every altar in every church and chapel, some of which have more than twenty, was illuminated with a number of wax tapers and lamps, as customary; these setting fire to the curtains and timber work that fell with the shock, the conflagration soon spread to the neighboring houses, and being there joined with the fires in the kitchen chimneys, increased to such a degree, that it might easily have destroyed the whole city, though no other cause had concurred, especially as it met with no interruption.

"But what would appear almost incredible to you, were the fact less notorious and public, is, that a gang of hardened villains, who had escaped from prison when the wall fell, were busily employed in setting fire to those buildings, which stood some chance of escaping the general destruction. I cannot conceive what could have induced them to this hellish work, except to add to the horror and confusion, that they might, by this means, have the better opportunity of plundering with security. But there was no necessity for taking this trouble, as they might certainly have done their business without it, since the whole city was so deserted before night, that I believe not a soul remained in it, except those execrable villains, and others of the same stamp. It is possible some of them might have had other motives besides robbing, as one in particular being apprehended—they say he was a Moor, condemned to the galleys-confessed at the gallows that he had set fire to the King's palace with his own hand; at the same time glorying in the action, and declaring with his last breath, that he hoped to have burnt all the royal family.

"The whole number of persons that perished, including those who were burnt or afterwards crushed to death whilst digging in the ruins, is supposed, on the lowest calculation, to amount to more than sixty thousand; and though the damage in other respects cannot be computed, yet you may form some idea of it, when I assure you that this extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins; that the rich and poor are at present upon a level; some thousands of families which but the day before had been in easy circumstances, being now scattered about in the fields, wanting every convenience of life, and finding none able to relieve them.

"In order that you may partly realize the prodigious havoc that has been made, I will mention one more instance among the many that have come under my notice. There was a high arched passage, like one of our old city gates, fronting the west door of the ancient cathedral; on the left hand was the famous church of St. Antonio, and on the right, some private houses several stories high. The whole area surrounded by all these buildings did not much exceed one of our small courts in London. At the first shock, numbers of people who were then passing under the arch, fled into the middle of this area for shelter; those in the two churches, as many as could possibly get out, did the same. At this instant, the arched gate-way, with the fronts of the two churches and contiguous buildings, all inclined one toward another with the sudden violence of the shock, fell down and buried every soul as they were standing here crowded together."

The portion of the earth's surface convulsed by this earth-quake is estimated by Humboldt to have been four times greater than the whole extent of Europe. The shocks were felt not only over the Spanish peninsula, but in Morocco and Algeria they were nearly as violent. At a place about twenty-four miles from the city of Morocco, a great fissure opened in the earth, and the entire village, with all its inhabitants, upward of 8,000 in number, were precipitated into the gulf, which immediately closed over its prey.

The earthquake was also felt as far to the westward as the West Indian islands of Antigua, Barbados, and Martinique, where the tide, which usually rises about two feet, was suddenly elevated above twenty feet, the water being at the same time as black as ink. Toward the northwest the shock was perceptible as far as Canada, whose great lakes were all disturbed. Toward the east it extended to the Alps, to Thuringia, and to Toplitz, where the hot springs were first dried up, and soon after overflowed with ochreous water. In Scotland the waters both of Loch Lomond and Loch Ness rose and fell repeatedly. Toward the northeast, the shock wàs sensibly felt throughout the flat country of northern Germany, in Sweden, and along the shores of the Baltic.

At sea, 140 miles to the southward of Lisbon, the ship Denia was strained as if she had struck on a rock; the seams of the deck opened, and the compass was upset. On board another ship, 120 miles to the westward of Cape St. Vincent, the shock was so violent as to toss the men up perpendicularly from the deck. The great sea wave rose along the whole southern and western coasts of Portugal and Spain; and at Cadiz it is said to have risen to a height of sixty feet. At Tangier, on the northern coast of Africa, the tide rose and fell eighteen times in rapid succession. At Funchal in Madeira, where the usual ebb and flow of the tide is seven feet, it being half tide at the time, the great wave rolled in, and at once raised the level of the water fifteen feet above high water mark. This immense tide, rushing into the city, caused great damage, and several other parts of the island were similarly flooded.

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