Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Edward Paice - Wrath of God

In the Richter Magnitude Scalearticle in Wikipedia only three earthquakes surpass the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Two took place in the XX century (Alaska 1964 and Chile 1960) and the third in the XXI (Indian Ocean 2004). In fact, the earliest earthquake recorded on this list is 1906, San Francisco.

But the place Lisbon occupies in the list is calculated by approximation – the scale was invented in 1935 and in the XVIIIth century scholars were still trying to guess as to what caused earthquakes – underwater explosions, magnetism etc. However, that a scientific reason was being sought, already attests to the fact that the Age of Enlightenment was dawning upon Europe.

“Wrath of God”, though, is a title that hints at what, up until that point and for a majority still, was seen as the cause of the great earthquake – divine punishment. Edward Paice’s book looks at the tragic date through the eyes of English merchants and diplomats who lived in Lisbon at a time when, through the megalomaniac ambitions of King João V, the greatest part of the riches coming from the Portuguese colony of Brazil, were finding their way into British coffers.

Their opinion of the Portuguese was, not surprisingly poor: already the country was seen as a “has-been” resting on the laurels of maritime exploits of the XV and XVI centuries, squandering resources on an opulent noble class that was forever craving more luxury items, lead by a King more preoccupied with his mistresses and endless monumental building of palaces, convents and monasteries, with zero industrial infrastructures (with England happily picking up the slack and exporting everything from shoes to matchsticks) and few roads crossing the country outside the main cities.

Lisbon for the most part didn’t cause a good impression – the largest slave population in Europe, gypsies, orphans and vagrants roaming the streets didn’t much impress travelers, while the Portuguese women – although considered very fine (but don’t the British consider all foreign women beautiful? Says more about British women, really) were kept inside rather too much.

Paice first sets the stage explaining the ongoing (and very important) relation between the nations of Portugal and England at the time, describes the city as it stood before the earthquake, introduces his characters (British subjects who later put their experiences of the earthquake to paper) and follows them through the day of the earthquake (the 1st of November, All Saints Day), then he goes back to a wider perspective and explains how and why the earthquake became so important (not only because it was news-worthy but also because it challenged the reigning philosophy of optimism) and what happened to the city in the next decades.

I liked “Wrath of God” very much, but then I might be biased since I’ve always lived in Lisbon – a great part of the interest to me, was reading about my neighbourhood and those around it and understanding how different they were (and how different they would look today if not for the earthquake). Paice writes in a very engaging style that really captured my imagination. There were a few orthographic errors in Portuguese words, a place-name I don’t think actually exists, and by the way, a Sintra queijada is not a small goat cheese, but a sweet pastry. Otherwise, to my un-historically trained eyes it seemed a great piece of research.

No comments: