When dawn broke in Lisbon, Portugal, on Saturday November 1, 1755, inhabitants and visitors alike were poised to celebrate one of the country’s most important national holidays, All Saints’ Day, with exceptionally beautiful weather. Hours later citizens found themselves wondering whether the world was coming to an end, victims of an unusually powerful mega-thrust earthquake that would have measured somewhere between 8.5 and 9.1 on the moment magnitude scale—a quake which was followed in short order by a tsunami (or three), as well as hellacious fires that burned for more than a week.
Despite the fact that the Great Lisbon Earthquake and Fire was one of the most consequential natural disasters of modern times, it has been largely forgotten by history. But the book “This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason” (Knopf), by historian Mark Molesky, is bringing newfound attention to the cataclysmic event, which ushered in the decline of Portugal as a great European power.
Utilizing his knowledge of Portuguese and German, Molesky consulted an impressive array of sources (including handwritten letters that local priests penned shortly after the earthquake), enabling him to not only chronicle the widespread destruction, but to introduce the reader to the most notable characters of the day, thereby humanizing a disaster that impacted the country—and the world—in surprising ways.
In the following Failure Interview, Molesky recounts what happened on that fateful Feast Day, discusses the international relief effort, and addresses popular beliefs about what caused the earthquake.
To view the interview, click here: failuremag.com