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The Tsunami that Lisbon Never Recovered from

Daniel Silva, in Qatar's Peninsula: (January 2005):

THE SCENES of death and destruction caused by last month’s Asian tsunami are stirring thoughts, as well as fears of a repeat, in Portugal of a similar disaster which wiped out Lisbon 250 years ago.

The worst European tsunami in recorded history occurred on November 1, 1755 when a powerful earthquake off Portugal’s Atlantic coast sent gigantic waves crashing into Lisbon, then Europe’s fourth largest city and one of its richest.

The temblor, which seismologists now estimate measured between 8.7 and 9.0 on the Richter scale, and the tsunami which struck several minutes later, claimed between 10,000 and 30,000 lives in the Portuguese capital alone, or up to one in eight residents.

Many of the victims were in churches observing All Saints Day when the disaster struck.

Thousands more lives were lost to the great waves which struck other parts of Portugal’s southern coast, southwestern Spain and north Africa.

Tidal waves also hit the coasts of Belgium, Britain, France, Ireland and the Netherlands as well as the shores of Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores islands.

Many of the deaths in Lisbon occurred among people who had sought refuge from falling debris from damaged buildings at the city’s open-air harbour.

Recorded accounts by survivors of the Lisbon earthquake give descriptions, of the water receding and then surging in with great force after the earthquake, which are similar to those heard today from the victims of the Asian disaster.

“A general panic was raised from a crowd of people coming from the waterside all crying out that the sea was pouring in and would certainly overwhelm the city,” a British merchant who was living in Lisbon at the time wrote to a friend in England.

The vast devastation caused to Lisbon, and the fact that many foreigners were living in what was then one of Europe’s most important ports and were caught up in the catastrophe, led to offers of aid from across Europe.

Britain, which lost 77 of its nationals in the disaster, making it the hardest-hit foreign nation, promptly dispatched three ships to the Portuguese capital carrying money, clothes and tools needed for rebuilding.

But despite the aid and efforts by the Portuguese government, Lisbon, then the capital of an empire which extended from Brazil to Angola to enclaves in India and China, never regained its former status.

“The city entered into a period of decline,” a historian at a museum dedicated to the history of Lisbon, Henrique Carvalho, said.

Key infrastructure, including the gold and spice market, the port and royal palace, were destroyed while thousands of people fled the city, some travelling as far as Rome, and refused to return for years after the disaster.

The earthquake struck just as the gold and diamond mines in Brazil, which had fuelled Lisbon’s growth, were starting to run dry and the lack of money led to delays in the reconstruction efforts....