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Published by: Rage University on Jun 17, 2012
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e-JPH, Vol. 4, number 1, Summer 2006 
 
The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755– Public Distress and Political Propaganda
 Ana Cristina Araújo 
University of Coimbraaraujo@fl.uc.pt
Abstract
This article examines the impact of the Lisbon earthquake on the international political sphere.The shock waves of the event reflected the basic ideological traits of the eighteenth century. Forthe first time in the western world, the press helped to create the illusion of proximity and unity among the peoples of different European nations. Furthermore, the 1755 earthquake launchedthe modern debate on how to think and act in a world where such catastrophes are likely tooccur.On the eve of the Seven Years’ War, the destruction of the capital of the Portuguese empire alsotriggered diplomatic and political reactions. Pombal’s attempt to turn Portugal into a prosperousand politically strong country contributed towards minimising the disruptions to social andeconomic routines. Against the backdrop of the 1755 earthquake, and using the European waras an immediate cause, the Marquis of Pombal, minister of King Joseph I, laid the foundationsfor a press policy commensurate with the scale of the catastrophe.
Keywords
 
Catastrophe; Marquis of Pombal; War; International Policy 
In the months immediately after the 1755 earthquake, the quaking ground arousedcuriosity amongst readers and stirred the imagination of writers, who turned their minds toproducing fantastic portrayals of a partially devastated Lisbon. Age-old fears and myths emergedamidst the terrifying descriptions of ruins in hundreds of tracts written at the time in almost every European language. They were published and republished to great success, especially in 1755,1756 and 1757, when the subject was most topical (Löffler 1999). To a large extent, thisunexpected effect on the public sphere resulted from the way in which the print media of the timeoverlapped with the massive output of texts about the earthquake (Araújo 1993). This systemgenerated new channels for the spread of information, succeeding thanks to the dissemination of accounts supported by witnesses who were felt to be credible (Buescu 2005).
 
 Araújo The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 – Public Distress and Political Propaganda e-JPH, Vol. 4, number 1, Summer 2006 
 
2
The challenging nature of the event is mentioned by contemporary writers, who wereshocked by the loose bits of circulating news. On 16 January 1756, the Gazette de Cologne notedthat “the earthquake is still on people’s lips”, and added that central Europeans were beginning toconvince themselves that they had also felt the earth shake around 1 November (Campos 1998:272). To a large extent, the spread of such feelings was caused by the language of those writingabout the catastrophe. The sensational nature of the event was heightened by descriptions of thesurvivors’ panic, whose writings, whether real or non-existent, were to become a central theme of thelarger circulation newspapers. Due to public pressure, personal and family letters were touched upand added to before going to press. Similarly, under the disguise of artful envelopes and other wrappings, wildly fictitious tales were published about life stories and episodes, which never in factoccurred. This expressive mixing together of facts and ideas embodies the common perception of theevent and the reactions which it generated, and explains the commercial success, in Europe, of many accounts and printed material about the Lisbon earthquake. Most of the writings produced shouldbe labelled in terms of “genre typology as
relações de sucessos 
, that is popular news pamphlets”(Espejo Cala 2005:67).This genre of literature included numerous circumstantial texts – anonymous or otherwise– in prose or in romance verse. Purportedly, they were transmitting news. They were printed onthick paper folded into small pamphlets and sold cheaply. A lower form of literature on the lookoutfor all kinds of unexpected situations and disasters, the
relações de sucessos 
tended to use highly emotional language. These typically distorted accounts contained omissions, elements of fantasy,sloppiness and uncertainty. They were short-lived and hastily written. Distributed by blind sellers,they were the main sources of information for the illiterate, “who might find it hard to distinguishreliable accounts of the earthquake from the made-up anecdotes that were included in the reporting,like the story of how some lucky few had been saved thanks to the Virgin Mary’s miraculousintervention” (Espejo Cala 2005:71).The huge spread and popularity of these brief works can be explained, on the one hand, by the power of the message behind them, and, on the other hand, by the beliefs, feelings and worldviews of most 18th-century readers. This popular literature, with its sensationalist background, usedexuberant motifs, commonly presented as a “particular account”, a “genuine letter”, a “fantasticdescription”, an “accurate report”, etc. The fact that all these writings were reporting real events in no way guaranteed the truth of these accounts, which exaggerated, falsified and distorted, in order tobetter appeal to their readers.In a world dominated by contradictory expectations – Halley’s Comet was expected in 1757or 1758 – terrifying predictions and allusions to fantastic displays of fanaticism also appeared in thelarger-circulation newspapers, spreading fear and arousing people’s compassion. Together with thiskind of news, pamphlets told of terrifying occurrences, whilst random compilations of sermons by charismatic preachers were also released. In England, the
Serious Thoughts occasioned by the late Earthquake at Lisbon 
by the Methodist John Wesley, first published in London in 1755, had beenpublished on several separate occasions by the end of the century (Kendrick 1756; Ingram 2005; Webster 2005). Judging by the publishing success of other texts of various religious confessions, which also attributed the 1755 earthquake to the wrath of God, few 18th-century Europeans wouldhave been unaware of the superstitious terrors fuelled and divulged by such tormented minds.
 
 Araújo The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 – Public Distress and Political Propaganda e-JPH, Vol. 4, number 1, Summer 2006 
 
3
Political Power and the “Media War”
The message that God had helped to shape history was particularly well received at thattime. Far beyond the providential interpretation of history, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War(1756-1763), the destruction of such an important trading city as Lisbon – given its position onthe Atlantic routes and its role as a global trade centre – together with the annihilation of thesplendid court of King João V, generated a kind of “revolution”. The political climate of insecurity and instability posed a definite threat to “the balance of Europe”, as defined after the Peace of Utrecht(1713). After the Lisbon earthquake, Portugal was in no condition to take either the English orFrench side. Nor, without help, could it effectively fend off any hostile act. But despite the doubts,Portugal’s position was still an important one, especially for its ally England (Boxer 1956;Estorninho 1956). For that reason, and also for philanthropic motives, the main European powersoffered material aid, both in kind and money, and made available other kinds of help, sendingspecialists and observers to Lisbon (Araújo 2005). The French Court enjoyed the services of thepublicist, spy and adventurer, Ange Goudar (Hauc 2004). He came to Portugal in July 1751 –and not 1752, as he claimed in the preface to his book about the earthquake – on a secret mission toadvise the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and War, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo. He returned toFrance before the disaster. Making use of the avalanche of information about Lisbon’s destruction,early in 1756 he published a work entitled
Relation historique du Tremblement de Terre survenu à Lisbonne le premier Novembre […] précedée d’un Discours politique sur les avantages que le Portugal  pourrait retirer de son Malheur 
. Originally, the book, printed in the Hague, bore no reference toeither its author or printer. The immediate success of the work is evidenced by the four editionsprinted in 1756 alone, all in French. The third edition, falsely attributed to a Lisbon print shop,bears a significant change to its title (Barreto 1982: 415). The
Discours politique 
now took pride of place, and preceded the distant, distorted and error-strewn report of the damage caused by thequake. For its part, the text was also revised so as to constitute a violent attack on the PortugueseInquisition.In the work, Goudar says that Portugal, a victim of its ally’s covetousness, had beenallowing its Brazilian gold to be drained off by Great Britain, because of its balance of trade deficit.He estimates the losses of British firms based in Lisbon at the time of the earthquake at 64 millioncruzados. In addition to that excessive sum there were the incalculable losses caused by thetemporary interruption of regular trade with Britain. He blames the English for Portugal’sindustrial backwardness, and suggests that the catastrophe represented a unique opportunity for aradical change in Portugal’s alliances and economic policy. This change in Portugal’s foreign policy  would take place with France’s help, which would take the hand of this Iberian nation and help itstrade and industry to re-emerge from the ashes. Guided by such concerns, Goudar’s text became averitable political “propaganda weapon” on the eve of the Seven Years’ War. Ostensibly backing theinterests of France and the continental countries that supported its colonial intentions againstEngland, the
Discours politique 
showed that Portugal still played a pivotal role on Europe’sdiplomatic chessboard, and that one possible consequence of the quake could be an end to thefavouritism shown towards Britain in Portugal’s Atlantic trade. For that reason, the
Theatro Universal de Novidades Politicas e Marciaes, e Elementares e Prognóstico para o anno de 1757 
noted

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