How One Earthquake Changed the Course of Human History

Amazon/iStock
Amazon/iStock

At its height, the Portuguese empire spanned four continents, with territory everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Macau. The first global empire, Portugal's mastery of the seas began in earnest in the 1400s, when the relatively small and isolated country sought to find new trade routes with Europe and the rest of the world. Its first major success came in 1488, when Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama reached India. The ensuing centuries would witness Portuguese navigators establishing relations and trade with countries as far as Japan.

By the middle of the 18th century, Portugal's capital of Lisbon was the fifth-most populous city in Europe, its port the third-busiest. It was one of, if not the, wealthiest cities in the world. It might still be, as Mark Molesky reveals in This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, if not for an unspeakable catastrophe in 1755 that would leave the city leveled, the empire crippled, and the course of Western civilization forever altered.          

WHAT HAPPENED IN LISBON

Just before 10 a.m. on November 1, 1755—All Saints' Day—a fault line 200 miles or so off the Iberian Coast ruptured, releasing the energy equivalent of 32,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. So powerful was the earthquake that its effects were felt from the Azores to Sweden. Lisbon suffered the worst of it. "It began as a slight tremor, followed by a dull and persistent roar," writes Molesky. "Over the course of the next few minutes—and the arrival of two additional tremors—[the earthquake] would bring one of the greatest cities of Europe to its knees." It is thought to have measured up to a 9.2 on the Richter scale.

The city was obliterated. Ten thousand people were dead beneath the ruins of churches, houses, and markets. As the dust settled, the survivors pulled themselves free and gathered to witness and mourn what, even today, must have felt like the apocalypse. Then the tsunami hit.

The Atlantic Ocean rarely produces tsunamis, so the people of Lisbon would have been as unprepared for the tidal wave as they were for the earthquake. It seemed to come from nowhere, this wall of water, and so terrible was the tsunami that people as far away as Brazil were killed. Hundreds of the Lisbon earthquake's survivors emerged from rubble only to be pulled into the Tagus river and sucked into the Atlantic Ocean. This was a mere 30 minutes after the earthquake.

Then the fires came. There was no electricity in 1755, but there were an awful lot of candles, and they were all lit to celebrate All Saints' Day. Likewise, stoves and hearths had been primed with strong fires to celebrate the feast day. When the earthquake first hit, those candles and stoves were knocked to the ground, causing hundreds of small fires across the city. With the entirety of the city now reduced to kindling, not only did the fires spread, but they joined to create a literal firestorm that was so powerful in its thirst for oxygen that it could asphyxiate people 100 feet from the blaze—before incinerating them. Thousands of people trapped in rubble—people who had just survived the worst earthquake in European history, and who then survived a rare and terrible tsunami—were burned alive. The firestorm raged for a week, and smaller fires lingered for weeks after. In all, up to 40,000 people were killed in what the day before was the richest, most opulent city in Europe. The city would lay in ruin for years.

OUT OF CHAOS, A TYRANT

So sudden and catastrophic was the earthquake that the ruling state ground to a halt. The monarchy was paralyzed with fright, and other government officials had absconded, were dead, or were indisposed. This left a conspicuous vacuum of power soon to be filled by Portugal's secretary of foreign affairs, Marquês de Pombal. He seized the initiative in the chaos, and "dashed off orders and proclamations with great gusto." He took control of the recovery effort, and with the king's blessing, assumed the role of a dictator. As Molesky writes, "One might say he was the earthquake's fourth tremor, so swift and violent was his rise in the weeks after disaster."

To be sure, his actions in the earthquake's aftermath were decisive and oftentimes beneficial. Bodies had to be buried lest disease flourish, and the border and coast had to be secured from invaders and pirates who might take advantage of the chaos. His policies of conscripting vagabonds into forced labor were less favorable, however, as were his price controls on all food and goods, which prevented price gouging but ultimately discouraged vendors "from assuming the substantial risks of transporting their wares into a disaster zone."

As generally happens when one is made dictator, scores with old enemies were soon settled, freedoms were curtailed, and criticisms suppressed. Enemies who rose up were brutally crushed. (Featured were beheadings, limbs broken before executions, and burnings at the stake.) This "emergency rule" continued for more than 20 years, until 1777, when Queen Maria I assumed the throne of Portugal and exiled Pombal.

Portugal would never again see its former glory. Weak leadership, wars, revolutions abroad, and invasions at home—all of which might have gone differently or been averted entirely had Lisbon not been destroyed—slowly decomposed the empire and eventually ended the country's global ambitions. "Portugal was never the same after the earthquake," writes Molesky. With the existing order annihilated—the nobility, the church, commercial interests, and the military—the Portuguese empire would begin a decline from which it would never recover. "The earthquake, in short, had brought about a revolution."

THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS

The effects of the catastrophe were felt in other ways across Europe. Paradoxically, it both strengthened and weakened Enlightenment thinking, which was then in full force. Scientists around the world put forth explanations for the earthquake, establishing the fields of seismology and scientific geology in the process. Because scientists were unable to give a compelling reason for all that had transpired, however, the clergy were able to point to the Enlightenment as flawed, and suggest that maybe it was a vengeful God expressing his wrath at a decadent city.

The earthquake inspired artists as well—most notably Voltaire, who was then in exile in Switzerland. So infuriated was he at philosophers of the age who, even after the earthquake, called ours "the best of all possible worlds," that he wrote a novel savaging the philosophy of optimism, the church, and the ruling class. In Candide, the destruction of Lisbon is featured.

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

This Gulf of Fire reminds us what true devastation looks like, and that it needs no motivation or incitement. Our own nature might lead to our doom, but nature itself is unimpressed with our arguments and unmoved by our cries. "What a game of chance human life is!" Voltaire wrote. "[Lisbon] ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike."

10 Fascinating Facts About Davy Crockett

By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on August 17, 1786, backwoods statesman Davy Crockett's life has often been obscured by myth. Even during his lifetime, fanciful stories about his adventures were transforming him into a buck-skinned superhero. And after his death, the tales kept growing taller. So let’s separate fact from fiction.

1. HE RAN AWAY FROM HOME AT AGE 13.

When Davy was 13, his father paid for him to go to a school. But just four days in, Davy was bullied by a bigger and older boy. Never one to back down from a fight, one day Crockett waited in a bush along the road home until evening. When the boy and his gang walked up the road, Crockett leaped from the bush and, as he later wrote in his autobiography, set on him like a wild cat.” Terrified that the schoolmaster would whip him for beating one of the boys so severely, he decided to start playing hooky.

His father, John, was furious when a letter inquiring about his son's poor attendance showed up. Grabbing a stick, he chased after Davy, who fled. The teen spent the next few years traveling from his native Tennessee to Maryland, performing odd jobs. When he returned, Crockett’s parents didn’t recognize him at first. Following an emotional reunion, it was agreed that Davy would stick around long enough to help work off some family debts. About a year later, all these were satisfied, and Crockett left for good not long after.

2. HE NEARLY DIED IN A BOATING ACCIDENT.

After serving under General Andrew Jackson in the Tennessee militia, Crockett got into politics. Elected as a state legislator, he served two terms between 1821 and 1823. After losing his seat in 1825, Crockett chose an unlikely new profession for himself: barrel manufacturing. The entrepreneur hired a team to cut staves (the boards with which barrels are constructed) that he planned on selling in New Orleans. Once 30,000 were prepared, Crockett and his team loaded the shipment onto a pair of flatboats and traveled down the Mississippi River. There was just one problem: The shoddy vessels proved impossible to steer.

With no means of redirecting them, the one carrying Crockett ran into a mass of driftwood and began to capsize, with Crockett trapped below deck. Springing to action, his mates on the other boat pulled him out through a small opening. The next day, a traveling merchant rescued them all.

3. HE CLAIMED TO HAVE KILLED 105 BEARS IN ONE YEAR.

If his autobiography can be believed, the expert marksman and his dogs managed to kill 105 bears during a seven-month stretch from 1825 to 1826. Back then, bear flesh and pelts were highly profitable items, as were the oils yielded by their fat—and Crockett’s family often relied on ursid meat to last through the winter.

4. A SUCCESSFUL PLAY HELPED MAKE HIM A CELEBRITY.


By Painted by A.L. De Rose; engraved by Asher B Durand - Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Crockett ran for Congress in 1827, winning the right to represent western Tennessee. Four years later, a new show titled The Lion of the West wowed New York theatergoers. The hit production revolved around a fictitious Kentucky congressman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, whose folksy persona was clearly based on Crockett. Before long, the public grew curious about the flesh-and-blood man behind this character. So, in 1833, an unauthorized Crockett biography was published.

Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee became a bestseller—much to its subject’s chagrin. Feeling that Sketches distorted his life’s story (although, to be fair, it began, “No one, at this early age, could have foretold that he was ever to ride upon a streak of lightning, receive a commission to quiet the fears of the world, by wringing off the tail of a comet,” so it's unlikely anyone thought it was a straight biography), the politician retaliated with an even more successful autobiography the very next year.

When The Lion of the West came to Washington, Crockett finally watched the play that started it all. That night, actor David Hackett was playing Col. Wildfire. As the curtain rose, he locked eyes with Crockett. They ceremoniously bowed to each other and the crowd went wild.

5. HE RECEIVED A FEW RIFLES AS POLITICAL THANK YOU GIFTS.

Over the course of his life, Crockett wielded plenty of firearms; two of the most significant were named “Betsy.” Midway through his state assembly career, he received “Old Betsy,” a .40-caliber flintlock presented to him by his Lawrence county constituents in 1822 (today, it can be found at the Alamo Museum in San Antonio). At some point during the 1830s, Crockett’s congressional tenure was rewarded with a gorgeous gold-and-silver-coated gun by the Whig Society of Philadelphia. Her name? “Fancy Betsy.”

If you’re curious, the mysterious woman after whom these weapons were christened was either his oldest sister or his second wife, Elizabeth Patton.

6. HE PUT A LOT OF EFFORT INTO MAINTAINING HIS WILD IMAGE.


By John Gadsby Chapman - Art Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For somebody who once called fashion “a thing I care mighty little about,” Crockett gave really detailed instructions to portraitists. Most likenesses, the politician complained, made him look like “a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist preacher.” For the portrait above—arguably the world’s most dynamic painting of Crockett, as rendered by the esteemed John Gadsby Chapman—Crockett asked the artist to portray him rallying dogs during a bear hunt. Crockett purchased all manner of outdoorsy props and insisted that he be shown holding up his cap, ready to give “a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”

7. HE COMMITTED POLITICAL SUICIDE BY SPEAKING OUT AGAINST ANDREW JACKSON'S NATIVE AMERICAN POLICY.

Andrew Jackson was a beloved figure in Tennessee, and Crockett’s vocal condemnation of the President’s 1830 Indian Removal Act didn’t win him many friends back home. “I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure,” the congressman later asserted, “and that I should go against it, let the cost against me be what it might.” He then narrowly lost his 1831 reelection bid to William Fitzgerald, who was supported by Jackson. In 1833, Crockett secured a one-term congressional stint as an anti-Jacksonian, after which he bid Tennessee farewell, famously saying, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

8. HE REALLY DID WEAR A COONSKIN HAT (SOMETIMES).


Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett TV serial triggered a national coonskin hat craze in the 1950s. Suiting up for the title role was square-jawed Fess Parker, who was seldom seen on-camera without his trusty coonskin cap. Children adored Davy’s rustic hat and, at the peak of the show's popularity, an average of 5000 replicas were sold every day.

But did the historical Crockett own one? Yes, although we don’t know how often he actually wore it. Some historians argue that, later in life, he started donning the accessory more often so as to capitalize on The Lion of the West (Col. Wildfire rocked this kind of headgear). One autumn morning in 1835, the frontiersman embarked upon his journey to Texas, confident that the whole Crockett clan would reunite there soon. As his daughter Matilda later recalled, he rode off while “wearing a coonskin cap.” She’d never see him again.

9. THERE'S SOME DEBATE ABOUT HIS FALL AT THE ALAMO.

It's clear that Crockett was killed during or just after the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—but the details surrounding his death are both murky and hotly-contested. A slave named Joe claimed to have spotted Crockett’s body lying among a pile of deceased Mexican soldiers. Mrs. Suzannah Dickinson (whose husband had also been slain in the melee) told a similar story, as did San Antonio mayor Francisco Ruiz.

On the flip side, The New Orleans True American and a few other newspapers reported that Crockett was actually captured and—once the fighting stopped—executed by General Santa Anna’s men. In 1955, more evidence apparently surfaced when a long-lost diary written by Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña saw publication. The author writes of witnessing “the naturalist David Crockett” and six other Americans being presented to Santa Anna, who promptly had them killed.

Some historians dismiss the document as a forgery, but others claim that it’s authentic. Since 2000, two separate forensics teams have taken the latter position. However, even if de la Peña really did write this account, the famous Tennessean still might have died in combat beforehand—perhaps the Mexican officer mistook a random prisoner for Crockett on the day in question.

10. DURING SPORTING EVENTS, A STUDENT DRESSED LIKE CROCKETT RALLIES UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE FANS.


Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Smokey the hound dog might get all the attention, but the school has another mascot up its sleeve. On game days, a student known simply as “the Volunteer” charges out in Crockett-esque regalia, complete with buck leather clothes, a coonskin cap, and—occasionally—a prop musket.

7 Human Body Parts That Were Once Used as Medicine

A 2300-year-old mummy from Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex
A 2300-year-old mummy from Egypt's Saqqara Pyramids complex
AFP/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, from at least the Renaissance through the Victorian era, medicine in England, Italy, France, and other European countries routinely involved the use of the dead human body. Bones, brains, blood, and more were believed to be able to cure everything from gout to epilepsy, thanks to the life-giving spirit imparted by the deceased. Although today the use of corpses is still an integral part of our healthcare—from tissue transplants to blood transfusions—the bulk of the practice of "medical cannibalism" has, thankfully, died out.

1. ANY PART OF A MUMMY

Arguably the most popular and the most difficult to find of the bunch, mummy was considered practically a panacea during the golden age of corpse medicine in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brought back from plundered Egyptian tombs, it was added to tinctures or plasters used to combat bleeding, venomous bites, bruising, and joint pain. Unfortunately, demand far outweighed the ill-gotten supply, and clever entrepreneurs cashed in on the craze by preparing fake mummies from the bodies of lepers, beggars, and even camels.

2. SKULLS

A 1633 image of skull moss from "The herball or, generall historie of plantes" by John Gerarde
A 1633 image of skull moss from The herball or, generall historie of plantes by John Gerarde

If powdered corpse was powerful, powdered corpse with chocolate was doubly so—at least according to Thomas Willis, a 17th-century scientist who combined skulls and cocoa in a cure for bleeding. Human skulls were also soaked in alcohol, creating a tincture called “the King’s drops,” since King Charles II of England allegedly paid £6000 for a personal recipe. The tincture was said to be good for gout, dropsy (edema), and "all fevers putrid or pestilential," among other ailments.

Nosebleeds and epilepsy were also treated with a powder made from moss growing on human skulls. Richard Sugg, the author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, says that this cure actually did work—but only because powder stimulated coagulation.

3. BRAINS

A photolithograph of brains of dissected heads, after a 1543 woodcut
A photolithograph of brains of dissected heads, after a 1543 woodcut

Brains were also used to cure epilepsy. Physician John French describes the process for making a tincture of brains in his 1651 book The Art of Distillation: “[T]ake the brains of a young man that hath died a violent death,” mash in a stone mortar, steep in wine, and “digest it half a year in horse dung” before distilling.

This remedy was supposed to work under the "like cures like" theory of medicine popular at the time, in which skulls and brains were seen as especially useful for curing illnesses thought to stem from the head. Cures taken from corpses that had died horribly were often thought to be extra powerful, because violence was seen to somehow concentrate the life force.

4. FAT

Human fat was a sought-after remedy for bleeding, bruising, muscle cramps, nerve damage, joint pain, and a variety of other afflictions. It was especially popular in Germany, and was delivered to Munich’s doctors by enterprising executioners until the mid-18th century. Others sought to bypass the apothecary entirely and went straight to the executioner for their medicinal supplies. Often the fat was made into a salve (sometimes known as "hangman's salve"), but one physician to several English and French kings combined the ingredient with hemlock and opium and administered it as a pain-reducing plaster.

5. BLOOD

A crowd of spectators wait as Tom Idle is driven in a cart with his coffin to his place of execution and the gallows. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1747
Engraving of an execution by William Hogarth, 1747

Like fat and brains, blood was also often procured directly from the executioner. People who were too poor to afford the fine wares of their local apothecary went instead to the gallows, where they paid a few coins to drink the fresh blood of the recently executed. Though usually drunk straight, blood was also dried and powdered (to cure nosebleeds), sprinkled on wounds (to stop bleeding), or even made into a kind of human marmalade.

6. HAIR

According to Sugg, a tonic called “liquor of hair” was regularly used to encourage hair growth in those who were balding. Under the like cures like theory, the hair of a deceased person was believed to help with the hair of the living. However, powdered hair was also administered for complaints that had nothing to do with heads—including jaundice.

7. TEETH

Engraving of a tooth-drawer by D.J. Pound after G. Dou, 1672
Engraving of a tooth-drawer by D.J. Pound after G. Dou, 1672

Teeth, too, were an example of "like cures like." In North Hampshire, England, and other areas, people wore teeth taken from corpses in a bag around their neck as a remedy for toothache, an ailment that could also be treated by touching a cadaver’s tooth to your own. In Ireland, people went even further, and believed that toothache could be cured by rubbing the afflicted gum with the finger of a corpse, or even washing it with some water that had also been used to wash the dead body. (Makes you thankful for modern mouthwash.)

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