Hurricane Harvey, the Portuguese Empire, and the Enlightenment

As I type, a Category 2 hurricane, Hurricane Harvey, is bearing down on Texas.  According to CNN (yes, fake news, I know) the rainfall from the storm will be “life threatening.”  Some areas in the path of the storm have already been evacuated.  I pray, as all of us do, that no lives are lost and that the property damage inflicted by the storm is minimal.

Hurricane season, every year it passes, seems to be less and less of a big deal.  In part, this is because it’s been twelve years since we’ve had a really bad hurricane – Katrina in 2005, which killed over 1,400 in New Orleans alone.  It could also be that we have measures in place – evacuation orders, instructions for boarding up and securing property – that prevent too much damage from being caused by these events.  This isn’t only the case with hurricanes – earthquakes?  Same deal more or less.  Populations in susceptible areas have taken precautions, for decades, with regards to the very structures they live in.

In such comfortable times as these, it can be hard to believe how devastating an impact natural disasters could have only a few centuries ago.  Not only an impact on the physical lives and livelihoods of those hit, but on the psyche of an entire civilization.

The greatest natural disaster in European history began at 9:30 AM on November 1st, 1755 AD.  The inhabitants of Lisbon, Portugal, began to feel tremors – described as a “rumble” according to a report after the event.  The citizenry, however, were pre-occupied.  It was All Saint’s Day, and the fervently Catholic population of Lisbon was gathering for the second Mass of the day in the great churches across the center of the city.

For some background, Lisbon was and still is the capital city of Portugal.  Portugal then was not what Portugal is now – the Portuguese had an empire stretching across the globe in 1755.  They controlled Brazil, great chunks of western Africa, and lands in India as well.  The Crown Jewel of this domain was Lisbon, a bustling city of 200,000, which contained the aforementioned grand churches, the residence of the royal family, great stores of historical records and countless pieces of beautiful artwork.

Let’s return there on the morning of November the first, 1755.  Ten minutes after we left off, the church bells have all begun to ring – simultaneously – as a result of yet stronger tremors.  In a matter of seconds, the churches have collapsed, killing the worshippers and tearing out the heart of the city.  Having fled from the city center, many inhabitants were engulfed by a tsunami that hit just forty minutes later.  The earthquake itself had lasted less than six minutes, but the damage was appalling.

Lisbon was utterly destroyed.  The grand opera house, that had been built only six months prior to the earthquake?  Flattened.  The Royal Palace, along with the 70,000 volume Royal Library, and hundreds of priceless paintings?  Likewise destroyed.  Detailed historical records of the travels of Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese explorer who reached India by sea were lost forever.  The Royal Hospital of All Saints burned to the ground in the ensuing fires.  Tragically, the hospital was full of injured from the earthquake at the time – hundreds of these unfortunates burned to death.  The total death toll was anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000.

King Joseph I of Portugal and his family were unharmed – his daughter wished to spend the day in the countryside, and he fortuitously obliged her.  For the rest of his life, however, King Joseph suffered from extreme claustrophobia and was thus terrified of living within walled cities.

Up to 48% of Portugal’s GDP was consumed by the disaster and the relief efforts that followed.  The economic and human costs were not the only ones to keep in mind – the fact that an earthquake had hit Lisbon on All Saint’s Day and destroyed all the major churches caused despair and shock amongst the devout.  Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant, all contemporaries of the disaster, drew from this event in their writings.  Rousseau used the incident to argue that human beings ought not to live in the confines of cities.  Kant made a groundbreaking foray into what would later be known as “seismology” due to the disaster.

Why did an earthquake destroy all the churches and leave the brothels intact?  Why, if it was a divine punishment, did it slaughter the people and not the King, whose role it is to see that morality is enforced?  It is no coincidence that the earthquake coincided with the Enlightenment, a movement which de-constructed age old traditions, governmental practices, and religious beliefs.  The great shift to the Left during the 1700s and 1800s was aided significantly by the Great Lisbon Earthquake.

Within a year – well, not that long – within a month, we will have forgotten about Hurricane Harvey.  But keep in mind that seismology, evacuation procedures, advanced architectural techniques, have removed what used to serve the purpose of a flip of the chess board.  To elaborate – there’s just one less means by which the “system” can collapse.

Something to think about, I suppose.

Note: All of you folks in the path of Harvey: listen to evacuation orders, keep yourselves up to date, and take every precaution to keep you and yours safe.  

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