This Day In History: November 1

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A devastating earthquake hits Lisbon, Portugal, killing as many as 50,000 people, on November 1, 1755. The city was virtually rebuilt from scratch following the widespread destruction.

Lisbon was Portugal’s capital and largest city during the prosperous 18th century, when diamonds and gold from the Portuguese colony in Brazil made many in the country wealthy. About 10 percent of Portugal’s 3 million people lived in Lisbon and, as one of the biggest ports on the Atlantic Ocean, the city played a critical role in world trade. In 1755, Lisbon was also a major center of Catholicism and was home to Catholic religious authorities.

On All Saints Day, three tremors over the course of 10 minutes suddenly struck Lisbon. The worst of the quakes is thought to have had a magnitude of 8.0, though this is just an estimate as no recording equipment existed at the time. The shaking was felt as far away as Morocco.

The devastating effects of the earthquake were felt throughout the city. Close to the coast, a 20-foot tsunami rushed ashore and killed thousands. Many people were observing All Saints Day in churches at the time and died when the buildings collapsed. Fires broke out all over the city and winds spread the flames quickly. The royal palace was destroyed, as were thousands of homes. Much of the country’s cultural history, preserved in books, art and architecture, was wiped away in an instant. Many of the city’s residents, including hundreds of escaped prisoners, fled Lisbon immediately. The death toll has been estimated at between 10,000 and 50,000.

The Marquis of Pombal was assigned the task of rebuilding the city. The twisting narrow streets that had once made up Lisbon were replaced by broad avenues. The reconstruction also featured one of the first uses of prefabricated buildings. While the rebuilding was a notable success, some used the tragedy for their own purposes. Religious authorities proclaimed that the earthquake was caused by the wrath of God, brought on the city because of its sins. The famous author Voltaire, who witnessed the quake, parodied this line of thinking—along with those who insist that everything that happens is for the best—in the book Candide.