A story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.


There are currently some 256 churches in Lisbon all of them, of necessity, constructed since 1755. London with 16 times the population and 20 times the area has about 1,000 churches – most of the notable ones having been built by the Catholics and confiscated by Henry VIII. Is Lisbon more religious with more steeples per capita or is London more religious with more square footage for worship per capita? Both questions are equally silly as is either blaming or crediting the reformation to a natural disaster.

While some – Voltaire notable among them – may have railed against a God they did not believe in to start out with they lacked the advantages of today’s popular media which allows lies to sweep tsunami like through a popular culture. As evidenced by the rebuilding of churches in Lisbon itself not only did the Church play a large role in recovery but there were feelings of both supplication and thanksgiving in a city that was devastated but managed to survive.

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That Portugal became a minor power compared to England is also a case of maybe. Portugal still controlled colonies and Africa and the Far East as well as Brazil – the largest single colony in the world. The closer analogy may be between England and America today. The British lion may be covered with mange, its tail may be drooping and no pride may claim it but even without its roar there are still a few teeth left in the skull and it is wise to avoid the bite if only to guard against infection. It is axiomatic that history is a fable agreed upon and this book does nothing to dispel that idea.

Wrath of God: the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 London: Quercus, 2008      Edward Paice Lisbon Earthquake, Portugal, 1755 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xx, 279 p., [8] p. of plates: ill. (some col.); 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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Just after half past nine on the morning of Sunday 1 November 1755, the end of the world came to the city of Lisbon. On a day that had begun with blue skies and gentle warmth, Portugal‘s proud capital was struck by a massive earthquake.

After a brief, two-minute tremor came six minutes of horror as Lisbon swayed ‘like corn in the wind before the avalanches of descending masonry hid the ruins under a cloud of dust’. A third tremor shook most of the buildings still standing to the ground, causing catastrophic loss of life. Lisbon had been struck by a seismic disturbance estimated at 8.7 on the Richter scale – more powerful than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

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An hour later, riverine Lisbon and the Algarve coast were engulfed by a series of tsunamis. In areas of the city unaffected by the waves, fires raged for six days, completing the destruction of Europe’s fourth-largest city. By the time it was all over, 60,000 souls had perished and 85% of Lisbon’s buildings, plus an unimaginable wealth of cultural treasures, had been destroyed by quake, fire or water.

The earthquake is credited with having a searing impact on the European psyche. Writers pretended to be baffled by what they described as an awesome manifestation of the anger of God. How could the presence of such suffering in the world be reconciled with the existence of a beneficent deity? For Portugal itself, despite an ambitious programme of reconstruction the quake ushered in a period of decline, in which her seaborne supremacy was eclipsed by the inexorable rise of the British empire.

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Drawing on primary sources, Edward Paice paints a vivid picture of a city and society changed for ever by a day of terror. He describes in thrilling detail the quake itself and its immediate aftermath, but he is interested just as much in its political, economic and cultural consequences. Wrath of God is a gripping account from a master writer of a natural disaster that had a transformative impact on European society.

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