This Gulf of Fire

Mark Molesky

November 16, 2015 
The following is from Mark Molesky’s book, This Gulf of Fire. Molesky is a graduate of the University of Michigan and received his PhD from Harvard University. He specializes in the intellectual, cultural, and political history of modern Europe, and is currently an associate professor of history at Seton Hall University. He lives in New York City.

Never before has the Demon of Fright spread his Terror so quickly and powerfully over the land.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Truth and Poetry (1811)

“Un Expresso”

On the morning of November 4, a lone courier, carrying packets stuffed with letters, bolted from the still burning capital. For several days, he rode eastward through the granite hills and gray-green valleys of Alentejo and Extremadura in Spain before turning north at the dry windswept plateau of Castile. Though difficulty in procuring a horse during one leg of the journey forced him to continue on foot for many miles, he arrived in Madrid at 4 p.m. on November 8, exhausted and caked with dust.

Several days earlier, the Gaceta de Madrid had reported what every madrileño already knew, that a “considerable Temblor de Tierra” had shaken the Spanish capital and caused “the inhabitants . . . the most dreadful consternation.” It was the strongest “earthquake in living memory,” declared the editors, though happily “His Majesties,” who were residing in the El Escorial palace at San Lorenzo, were unhurt and the loss of life and property had been minimal.

The letters arriving from Lisbon would tell a much different story. Written by authors both high and low—Dom José, Monsignor Acciaiuoli, the ambassadors of France, Naples, and Prussia, the secretary of the late Count Perelada (who paid for the courier), as well as several merchants and private citizens—they were quickly opened and distributed to people of prominence throughout the capital. Before long, copies were affixed to city walls, along with hastily produced accounts of the earthquake. In Madrid’s principal squares and markets, the resonant voices of noveleros (newsmongers) kept the city’s largely illiterate population abreast of the latest developments.

Perhaps no phrase uttered in the aftermath of the disaster proved more disconcerting to eighteenth-century sensibilities than Dom José’s oft-quoted words to the Spanish throne. “I am without a House, in a Tent, without Servants, without Subjects, without Money, and without Bread,” he informed Fernando VI, his brother-in-law, and Maria Bárbara, his older sister. Both were understandably horrified. “Their Catholic Majesties have been affected with this news as souls like [theirs] should be affected in such terrible calamities,” reported a British ambassador to Spain, Benjamin Keene. According to Keene, “the King immediately wrote a Letter to his Sister the Queen of Portugal in the most tender & most generous Terms: offering all in his Power to assist and relieve them; and expressing his great Concern that the Distance deprived Them from applying such immediate Remedies as He could wish.” “We must give a thousand thanks to God,” wrote Don Fernando to his stepmother, “that the [Portuguese] royal family has successfully escaped from such a great danger.”

Within hours, he and Maria Bárbara dispatched their first shipment of aid to Belém and “gave orders,” according to a newspaper account, “to supply [the Portuguese] court with everything else that would be wanted.” “They send as much ready money every day as a messenger can carry,” wrote Keene. “And . . . [Don Fernando’s] letter to his sister [Queen Mariana Vitória] offers all her King can ask and he can send.” To facilitate the flow of goods and royal cash, which may have totaled as much as 150,000 pieces of eight or about £37,000, Fernando abolished all tariffs along the Spanish-Portuguese border.

It was the opening act of the first international relief effort in world history. In the case of Spain, it was the close familial bonds between the two royal houses that, despite the age-old antagonism between the two Iberian kingdoms, proved decisive. Undoubtedly, the pivotal factor was Maria Bárbara, Spain’s Lisbon-born queen. The oldest child of João V, she was, despite her homeliness, much beloved by her husband, over whom she exercised considerable influence. After ascending the throne in 1746, she had worked tirelessly to improve relations with Portugal, lobbying strenuously for the Treaty of Boundaries, which had eased border tensions in the New World between the two Iberian kingdoms. Later, to the delight of both Portugal and Britain, she supported Spain’s neutrality during the early stages of the Seven Years War.

But despite the improved relations, the Portuguese refused to embrace Spain’s earthquake largesse with open arms. According to Keene, Dom José only accepted the money “conditionally” and requested that the funds “remain in the Hands of the Spanish Treasurer residing in Lisbon” until “he should have Occasion for Them.” Pombal must have reasoned that it was better to regard monetary gifts from former adversaries with a degree of caution than run the risk of later feeling obligated to them. The implication is that Portugal did accept some Spanish aid in the form of supplies (though, in at least one case, the Portuguese were forced to return a shipment of clothing because treaty obligations prohibited their importation from Spain).

On November 11, the Gaceta de Madrid published the first Spanish account of the earthquake in Portugal. “A special news bulletin [un expresso] has been received from Lisbon, that the same earthquake that was felt [here] . . . on the first of the month caused the most pitiful destruction” there. “Although specific information on the devastation was not yet available, it is said that His Excellency, Count Perelada, the Spanish Ambassador to the Portuguese Court, has perished along with several members of his family.” One of the few survivors was the count’s only son and heir, a lad of about seven. Upon hearing the news, Fernando VI appointed the boy a “Gentleman-in-Waiting” and awarded him “an annual pension of 500 gold doubloons” out of a sense of gratitude for his father’s service to the Crown.

Reliable information from Lisbon remained scarce, however. “We are stunned at the lack of news,” wrote Don Fernando. According to Mr. Keene, “Count Unhão [Portugal’s ambassador to Spain] is half dead for fear of his father and his daughter. He has not heard a word about either.” For his part, Keene knew nothing about the condition and whereabouts of Mr. Castres and Mr. Hay—though he tried mightily to interpret this as a positive sign. “I console myself from this very silence,” Keene wrote Castres on November 10, “that no harm is personally taken upon you and that your house is situated in such a manner as not to be exposed to the flames which we hear are consuming the miserable remains of what survived the earthquake. . . . Send me good news of yourself and believe the tender sentiments with which I embrace you.”

By the end of November, most Spaniards knew that the Portuguese capital had been destroyed. At this time, the Mercurio Histórico y Político began its monthly coverage of the Lisbon disaster, modestly offering its readers “a brief compendium of the innumerable and miserable ruins and pitiful destruction that the great city and court of Lisbon experienced on November 1, 1755, through the violent collusion of all four elements.” In November and December, the first pamphlets and books on the disaster were published in Spain. In hard-hit Seville, over fifty titles would appear before the end of the year.

Back in Lisbon, the most extraordinary thing about the press coverage was that it occurred at all. The shop that printed the Gazeta de Lisboa, Portugal’s only newspaper, was located in the heart of the Baixa on the Rua Nova dos Ferros (as the central section of the Rua Nova dos Mercedores was called) and was almost certainly destroyed. Although the November 6 edition of the weekly did appear—leading many later to applaud the superhuman efforts of its staff—it was almost certainly delayed for several weeks. The Gazeta declared on the last page of the November 6 edition,

The first day of the month will forever be remembered in every country for the earthquakes and fires that ruined a great part of this city; fortunately, the royal coffers and the greater part of the royal property were recovered in the ruins.

Such was the entire initial news coverage of the greatest natural disaster in Portuguese history.

In the edition that followed, on November 13, lisboetas learned that Spain had experienced the same “formidavel tremor de Terra” as they had and that the cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Cádiz had suffered substantial damage. In the coming months, the Gazeta would report on the devastation in the Algarve as well as the damage sustained by several Portuguese cities—although almost nothing on Lisbon itself.

The reasons for this lie not with any lack of interest in the disaster, but with the nature of the Gazeta itself. Created by royal charter in 1715 and still managed by its first editor, the now eighty-five-year-old José Freire Monterroio Mascarenhas, the paper was practically as well as conceptually ill-equipped to cover such a momentous and complex event. Like most European newspapers of the day, the Gazeta’s job was to keep the urban elite apprised of distant events as well as the doings of foreign courts. Except for an obligatory and brief accounting of the public activities of the Portuguese royal family and high nobility in the final pages of each issue, the Gazeta did not cover national and local news at all. It offered no political commentary and contained no headlines or illustrations, and, as was customary at the time, the most important and arresting stories were almost never featured on the front page. The paper was also rigidly controlled by the government—becoming, after the disaster, a tool of Pombal, who sought from the start to downplay the impact of the earthquake on Lisbon in order to convince business interests and foreign governments that Portugal had not been destroyed or irreparably damaged.

If literate lisboetas wished to learn more about the disaster, they (like their Spanish counterparts) would have consulted the growing number of handwritten accounts, letters, and official proclamations that circulated among the elite or were plastered to city walls. Within weeks, published narratives, poems, sermons, and scientific treatises on the disaster began to appear in Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra. For the illiterate majority, most news on the topic would have been obtained through word of mouth.

* * * *

Beyond the Pyrenees

On November 10, several couriers left Madrid for Paris and Versailles. Their ride across Castile, Navarre, the Pyrenees, Guyenne, Gascony, and Poitou was colder, wetter, and almost twice as long as the journey from Lisbon to Madrid. In the eighteenth century, most overland mail was delivered by coach, but for urgent messages—those requiring an “express”—an individual rider was used. At intervals of around twenty miles, fresh horses were provided at “posts,” usually taverns or inns. If offered extra money, a rider would increase his speed, normally around five miles per hour, and limit his periods of rest. The courier who carried the news on November 4 from Lisbon to Madrid averaged about 3.8 miles per hour (factoring in periods of sleep and rest) during his 103-hour, 390-mile journey. Such efforts were necessary, for the majority of ships in Lisbon’s harbor had been detained for inspection or the urgent need to collect people and property.

On November 18, the French ambassador’s letter (of November 4) arrived at Versailles. Addressed to Louis XV from “a field near Lisbon” and composed on two small and uncharacteristically plain leaves of paper, it contains almost no punctuation, a testament, Count de Baschi explained, to the enormous strain under which it was produced.

I have taken advantage of the departure of the courier of the secretary of the Spanish Embassy and [my] first moment of peace to share with you the horrible event which has overwhelmed Lisbon . . . Most of the houses have been destroyed . . . and the fire has yet to complete its consuming of this unfortunate city that will not be rebuilt in a hundred years[.] My house has collapsed like all the others[.] But my people have courageously saved many of my effects[,] but for some chairs beds and two tapestries[,] everything is [beneath the ruins.] I am overjoyed that my life has been saved as well as that of my wife my children and all of my servants[.]

The Baschis were now living (the ambassador reported) on the grounds of French consul Nicolas Grenier’s villa, sitting on pillows in the open air and sleeping in tents fashioned from towels, which somehow provided adequate protection “from a violent wind that blows every night.” Joining them was the surviving son of Count Perelada, whom Baschi had saved from the ruins, in addition to the servants and staff of the Spanish embassy who had followed the ambassador there after Perelada’s death.

In his memoirs, the Marquis d’Argenson, the former French foreign minister, recalled the moment that the “awful news” that Lisbon had “been suddenly swallowed up” arrived at Versailles. “The engulfed churches, the palaces, the residences of the Portuguese and the foreign ministers—what wealth destroyed!” he wrote. “We . . . fear bankruptcy for our merchants . . . [though] the English, too, will have heavy losses.”

Similarly distressed was Madame de Pompadour, the king’s “official chief mistress,” who feared for the safety of her sister-in-law and protégée, Charlotte-Victoire Le Normant, Count de Baschi’s wife. It was Pompadour, after all, who had first brought this younger sister of her own cuckolded husband, Charles-Guillaume Le Normant d’Étiolles, to the attention of the king and court. And it was Pompadour who, two years earlier, had secured for Madame de Baschi’s husband, François (a provincial aristocrat and well-known incompetent), the coveted ambassadorship to Portugal. Now she found herself powerless to do anything more than inset a few “valuable presents” in the shipment of supplies the government was readying to send the Baschis.

On November 15, Madame de Baschi composed a letter that would be quoted in newspapers as far away as St. Petersburg. “His Majesty has ordered six people, who have confessed to setting fire to the Royal Palace and the Patriarch’s house, to be hanged,” she wrote, and in addition he “has ordered gallows to be erected to terrify such godless people around the city.” Not long ago, the king “toured the whole city to inspect the damage and endeavored to dig up anything that was possible from underneath the rubble. . . . My husband found his silver plate [in the ruins of our house] . . . only a few pieces have been damaged.”

This last fact caught the attention of the great and ever-alert Voltaire, indirectly inspiring his greatest masterpiece four years later. “I see my dear Monsieur from your last letter,” the philosopher wrote to a friend on December 9, 1755, “that the End of the World and the Last Judgment is not yet come, and since M. Baschi’s furniture is in good condition, all is well in Lisbon.”


From THIS GULF OF FIRE. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Molesky.

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