Originally Posted in the University Bookman / Winter 2017 issue
Despite its status as one of history’s most powerful tremors, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 has barely left a trace in the unconscious memory of humanity. Once central to the discourse of the Enlightenment, it was overshadowed by the strife of war merely a decade later. But just as the quake defined an era, Seton Hall University professor Mark Molesky aims to do the same with This Gulf of Fire by reminding readers of its effects on European history.
Beginning with Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699–1782) and his decision to execute Fr. Gabriel Malagrida for heresy, Molesky introduces the setting through the lens of social change. He notes how Lisbon, once a city in decline, was poised to recover through the riches of Brazil. He notes the gap between Portugal’s religious culture and much of Western Europe. And there is the resulting struggle between Malagrida’s call for repentance versus Pombal’s rationalistic vision as Portugal’s Secretary of State of Internal Affairs.
But just as the preacher’s death heralded the end of the old order, so too did the events of that fateful All Saints’ Day. What should have been a solemn feast turned into a nightmare. Here, Molesky excels at chronicling the chaos through the use of extensive detail. Maps and illustrations help visualize the destruction; period and contemporary science explain the quake, fire, and tsunami nature wrought. And he effectively drives the narrative through various firsthand accounts—native, foreign, Protestant, and Catholic—to convey what an eyewitness called “the confusion … conceived by a human heart, but not described by a human pen.”
This balanced, holistic coverage continues as Molesky documents the aftermath and how it “brought about a revolution” both culturally and politically. Whereas religious Portugal turned to science before the tremors struck, many—like the British who fasted in supplication against future disaster—reacted by turning from science to religion. In counting the monies and lives lost, he tracks its economic and diplomatic effects as it inspired the first multinational relief effort in history. Finally, he weighs Pombal’s tenure, balancing his achievements in public health, city planning, and other forms of modernization against his negative effects on trade, property rights, and the ability to dissent.
Unfortunately in a work so grounded in the Age of Reason, Molesky notes the disaster’s intellectual fallout only within the last few pages. To his credit, he mentions the quake’s key role in countering Enlightenment tendencies towards philosophical optimism (as per Hume, Kant, and Voltaire’s critiques). Yet this analysis could have been extended: did the disaster affect believers besides reinstating old practices? Beyond the rise of pessimism, how much did it contribute to the questioning of rationalism itself? Focusing on the tremor’s immediate impact has its tradeoffs; with a different emphasis the author could have more fully brought together the several themes from the beginning of his work.
Still, Molesky’s text remains a thorough account of one of Europe’s greatest calamities, and one of its best modern treatments; its balanced approach and attention to detail make the work shine.