946: The Last Day by Nicholas Shrady

by Gerard

946.9033: Shrady, Nicholas. The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 New York: Viking, 2008. 209 pp. ISBN 978-0-670-01851-2.

Dewey Construction:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 940: General history of Europe
  • 946: General history of the Iberian peninsula, Spain, and adjacent islands
  • 946.9: General history of Portugal
  • 946.9033: 1750-1807, including the Pombaline reforms

On November 1, 1755—All Saints’ Day—thousands of Lisbon’s citizen studiously marched to any of the dozen churches in the city to hear Mass. At 9:15 a.m., when the penitent were packed in the pews, the earth let loose a violent tremor. Then, ten minutes, later the ground quaked worse and leveled the city. A third tremor helped what was still standing to the ground. Since every house had a hearth, these now open flames, lit the rubble ablaze and burned the debris to ashes. If that wasn’t enough, the quake, whose epicenter was off the Portuguese coast, unleashed a massive tsunami that destroyed many of the ships in dock and washed away the entire business center of the port. After that, began the first modern disaster relief effort.

Luckily, the king and the royal family had decided to celebrate the day outside Lisbon and were spared from harm. King Jose I appointed local minister Sebastiao de Melo, Marquis of Pombal, to aid in the reconstruction efforts after a single question: “What is to be done?”

To which the marquis replied, “Bury the dead and feed the living.”

Pombal had to contend with a country that thought the earthquake was punishment from God and any effort to rebuild was deemed contempt of the Almighty. Pombal, whose power derived from the city of Lisbon managed to convince the king to rebuild the city and, in effect, became the ruler of province. The king, strangely hesitant to give direct orders, funneled his decisions through Pombal. With the help of the best civil engineers of the kingdom, he directed the complete redesign and reconstruction of the broken city.

Nicholas Shrady’s The Last Day is a short but interesting look at this episode in history. The writing flows nicely, and there is clearly a due amount of scholarship in his story. The only nit I have to pick is the patchy flow of history. We get the calamity all up front, then the appointment of Pombal. Then Shrady changes tack and recounts the entire history of Lisbon, going all the way back to the Phoenicians. Then, we come back to Pombal and his quest to exert control not only over the rebuilding, but over the social and cultural landscape of Portugal. All in all, a short read and a good book.

[Note: I got a little behind in posting due to a computer problem, so I promise to make it up to you with (hopefully) three reviews over three days. This is number one.]