Seton Hall professor examines deadly 1755 earthquake

Photo by Yael Katzwer Seton Hall University professor Mark Molesky, right, shows an engrossed audience where some fault lines in the Atlantic Ocean lie; however, scientists do not know which fault line is actually responsible for the 1755 earthquake that leveled Lisbon, Portugal.
Photo by Yael Katzwer
Seton Hall University professor Mark Molesky, right, shows an engrossed audience where some fault lines in the Atlantic Ocean lie; however, scientists do not know which fault line is actually responsible for the 1755 earthquake that leveled Lisbon, Portugal.

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Though the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, hit almost exactly 260 years ago, the world is still feeling the aftershocks today.

Seton Hall University professor Mark Molesky details the apocalyptic destruction brought by the Lisbon earthquake, as well as the responses and effects that truly changed the world, in his new book, “This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason.”

Molesky presented his research and introduced his book at a Seton Hall lecture on Nov. 19 to the students, colleagues and friends gathered.

In his masterpiece of nonfiction, Molesky chronicles the effects of the 1755 cataclysm that unleashed a triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and firestorm that destroyed Lisbon, then one of Europe’s cultural and commercial hubs.

“Lisbon in 1755 wasn’t the European backwater it is today, but was a premier European city,” Molesky said.

The earthquake, which hit on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1755, is believed to have been a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the largest earthquake ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. According to Molesky, the Lisbon earthquake was 1,000 times more powerful than the 2010 Haitian earthquake and three times more powerful than the Krakatoan eruption.

“It is unquestionably one of the strongest earthquakes to hit in human history,” Molesky said during his lecture, explaining that, while scientists are unsure which fault line is to blame, some believe there were several fault lines involved, triggered by the initial fault-line blowup.

This earthquake then unleashed a tsunami that rushed up the Tagus River, sweeping hundreds of Lisboetas into the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the earthquake and resulting tidal pattern was so strong that there were reports of rising tides across the Atlantic in the Americas; the disaster is believed to have caused deaths on four continents.

Then, after Lisbon had already suffered greatly, that which remained in the center of the city was destroyed by a firestorm, likely caused in part by all the candles lit for All Saints Day. The firestorm, which burned in excess of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, burned in parts of the city for weeks. In his lecture, Molesky humbly offered that his contribution to scholarship in this area is his identification of the destruction as a firestorm, rather than just a large conflagration. Unlike a typical out-of-control fire, a firestorm draws in air creating its own self-sustaining wind system.

Beyond the destruction of a once-thriving capital city, the earthquake affected the world around it, spurring the first international humanitarian aid campaign; cementing Portugal’s alliance with Great Britain in the beginnings of the Seven Years’ War; allowing a brutal yet forward-thinking dictatorship to rise in Portugal; and shaping the philosophies coming out of the European Enlightenment as people struggled to find meaning in the horrible disaster.

“I first heard about the Lisbon earthquake in a lecture on European intellectual history in college,” Molesky told the News-Record. “Intrigued, I wrote my senior honors thesis on the topic, although I put the subject aside during my doctoral studies in history at Harvard.”

Molesky earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and earned his master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University. Despite setting the Lisbon earthquake aside for a number of years, he returned to the topic while teaching at Seton Hall in South Orange.

“While an assistant professor in history at Seton Hall University, I realized that the earthquake was the perfect topic for my new book. I could use the Portuguese language that I had learned as an exchange student after high school, as well as the other languages — like German — that I had acquired earning my history degrees,” Molesky told the News-Record. “It was also a topic that had an enormous intellectual impact, which has always intrigued me as an intellectual and cultural historian, and because of the inherent drama of the disaster — with its earthquake, tsunami and firestorm — I could write in a narrative style that might appeal to a large popular audience.”

Seton Hall history professor Kirsten Schultz, who introduced Molesky, said that she finds her colleague’s research enlightening in that it focuses on an area that modern scholarship often ignores.

“There is a lack of attention focused on Portugal and Spain, partially driven by the current perception of the world and current events,” Schultz said. “We tend not to study Portuguese history today, but it was a main center of Europe.”

“One of the things I want readers to realize is the size and complexity of the disaster,” Molesky told the News-Record. “It was the largest earthquake to have impacted Europe in historical time and may have been larger than 9.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale, which has replaced the Richter scale. It also caused an enormous and very rare Atlantic Ocean tsunami, which claimed victims on four continents, as well as a firestorm, which destroyed many parts of Lisbon that the earthquake had spared.

“Another thing that I want readers to know is that it may have been the most consequential natural disaster in history in that it played a crucial role in the decline of the Portuguese empire and led to one of the most important debates of the European Enlightenment on the subjects of God and Nature,” he continued. “The most important story that comes out of the aftermath of the disaster is the rise of the Marquis of Pombal, one of the most important figures in European history, whom no one knows about. He becomes a de facto dictator and both rebuilds Lisbon and terrorizes the country.”

In his book, Molesky goes into minute detail regarding these elements of Portuguese history, giving the reader both the breadth and depth required to understand fully the effects of the disaster. While he does not teach a class at Seton Hall devoted to Lisbon’s destruction, he told the News-Record that he naturally touches on it in many of his classes because what happened in Lisbon is so closely connected with what was happening around the world at that time. Molesky did say, however, that he is planning to “teach a course on several impactful natural disasters during the coming academic year,” which would of course include the 1755 quake.

With a keen eye toward philosophy, Molesky examines how the disaster influenced 18th century thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant. Molesky maintains that Voltaire never would have written “Candide” if not for the Lisbon earthquake. Following the quake, many beliefs were strengthened, with some using the disaster to discount science and others trying to view the destruction through a positive lens.

“The earthquake didn’t change a lot of minds, but it made people think more deeply about views they already had,” Molesky said after his lecture.

And not only is studying the 1755 earthquake necessary to understanding Europe and the world in the 18th century, but studying the disaster’s origins is vital to the lives of those living in Iberia today and sheds light on current mindsets regarding natural disasters.

“I do think scientists need to learn much more about the fault — or faults — that caused the Lisbon earthquake, as there’s no consensus on what fault was to blame,” Molesky told the News-Record. “If a similar-sized earthquake and tsunami were to occur in the same general location today, the results might be equally or even more devastating.

“Although modern buildings are more earthquake-proof than they were in the 18th century, the number of people living along the coasts of Iberia and Morocco, who would be vulnerable to both an earthquake and a tsunami, has increased substantially over the last 260 years,” he continued. “In short, we still live in a world affected and shaped by natural disasters. Many of the same debates that I discuss in my book about the meaning and causes of disasters and the proper political and humanitarian responses are still with us today.”

This only touches on the fascinating study Molesky has conducted into the Lisbon earthquake. Anyone whose appetite for European history has been whetted should read “This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason.”