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February 23, 2010

Edward Paice’s Wrath of God: Lisbon 1755

by quaesitor

I read this book very quickly, while away on half term last week. It is a brilliantly researched and well-written account of a world-changing tragedy – and there is no small, grim irony that this is the week in which the Porguguese island of Madeira has suffered more natural disaster.

That Lisbon 1755 was a terrible moment (earthquake followed by rampant fires followed by tsunami) is not in doubt and simply as a human story, it is entirely deserving of study. Indeed, it was such a huge event that the impact was felt 100s of miles away, and the sea was affected on the other side of the Atlantic (in the Caribbean). It thus qualified as one of only two ‘teletsunami‘ (a tsunami that has travelled over 1000km) ever recorded in the Caribbean.

But its wider importance cannot be underestimated either, because of the philosophical and moral repercussions it had on European thought. As Paice describes Voltaire’s brilliant deconstruction of prevailing ideas:

In Voltaire’s deft hands the Lisbon earthquake became the vehicle for an assault on optimism and the orthodox view of divine Providence which would change the way people thought for ever; and it in turn it arguably became the last disaster in which God held centre stage. (p195)

The reasons are many – but if a city could ever have claimed to have been ‘Christian’ Lisbon was one that would have tried (although many Protestants at the time including the likes of Wesley and Whitefield would have disputed it). It’s Catholicism was very strong – perhaps 1/6th of the population were so called ‘religioso‘ – but its forms were (even by many european Catholics’ admissions) rampantly corrupt and hypocritical. Worse, though, was that the first big quake struck at 10am on Saturday 1st November 1755 – which was at precisely the moment that many of Lisbon’s citizens would have been in church. For 1st November is also All Saints’ Day, and this was a huge feast day in the life of the city. Was this God’s judgment on their sham piety? Or some grim divine error? Or did it in fact have anything to do with God at all?

Paice has gathered an impressive range of sources, mainly from visiting English traders or resident English merchants, or from aristocrats passing through on their European Grand Tours. These bring the event home, steering us clear of the history of hollow statistics. He manages regularly to find the ‘mot juste‘ from one source or another, and thus creates what is a very readable account. This is no small feat in itself.

The earthquake seen from the Atlantic

Another, very positive feature is the introductory section (pp1-64 – entitled A Gilt-Edged Empire). This is excellent in setting up the drama of the tragedy – it puts into perspective so much of why people could reach such harsh and grim conclusions about Lisbon’s suffering, as well as why it took so long to recover.

My only criticisms are slight (and they are slight, because i was thoroughly gripped by the book):

  • the impact on European philosophy and thinking is not greatly developed (although the short chapters that engage with Voltaire and his Poeme & [[ASIN:0140455108 Candide]] are clear and helpful). The philosophical aftershocks of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake are still felt today, long after the physical event has disappeared from memory. It was fascinating (in a chilling kind of way) to hear echoes in the book of some remarks made about the 2010 Haiti earthquake – their seeds had sown in the response to Lisbon. Of course, this book was written in 2008, but the modern resonances in the aftermath to the Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, could have been drawn in more. The book’s title is certainly accurate because earthquakes were clearly seen as caused directly by God’s judgment. But it would be interesting to see further how this interpretation has been relentlessly and deliberately challenged since, not least by Voltaire’s heirs.
  • Maps! There is a simple map at the start of the book – but because this book is so focused on a whole city and its environs (one I’ve never visited), it would have been greatly improved by better maps so that the relentless accounts of the disasters spreading through the town could be more easily followed. As someone who does not speak Portuguese and who does not know the city, I was confused on several occasions (but my hunch is that better maps would have helped). To my mind, history books can never have enough maps!

However, despite these minor gripes, this is an excellent book. Fascinating, informative and provocative. As it was one of those events that made us what we are in contemporary, secularised Europe, this is a book that deserves a wide readership. How we handle these challenges, which were so well formulated by the likes of Voltaire, continues to this day for those wanting to uphold an orthodox understanding of divine providence. But it has arguably got harder – for not only have natural disasters ratcheted up in their horror, so too has the depth and extent of man’s inhumanity to man (e.g. the Holocaust).

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