Seton Hall University

This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason  


Mark Molesky, Associate Professor of History, has been selected a finalist for the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the history category for his book, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Those selected reflect a commitment to literary excellence and the ability to help us understand and engage in our world. The who’s who of previous Book Prize recipients include Nobel Laureates Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Czeslaw Milosz, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky; and National Book Award winners Joan Didion and Allen Ginsberg. The ceremony takes place on April 9. Professor Molesky will also participate in an April 10 panel discussion with noted historian Mary Beard from Cambridge University.

The Lisbon Earthquake was arguably the most consequential natural disaster in history. On All Saints Day (November 1) 1755, a giant earthquake, followed by enormous tsunami and a deadly firestorm, largely destroyed the capital of one of the world's great empires. In its wake, a brutal dictatorship would arise, transforming the country and contributing to Portugal's decline as a European power. The disaster would also spark an intense debate about Nature, God, and the limits of scientific inquiry, which engulfed much of the Western world. Participants included the three most celebrated minds of the eighteenth century: Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant.

"The Lisbon Earthquake," according to Prof. Molesky, "was one of the most powerful earthquakes in human history. Estimated to have measured at least 8.5-and possibly above 9.1-on the moment magnitude scale (Mw), it was the largest earthquake ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and the most powerful to have struck the continent of Europe in recorded human history. It was 1,000 times more powerful than the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, 250 times larger than the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and may have surpassed both the Indian Ocean Earthquake of 2004 and the 2011 Tohoku (Japan) earthquake in destructive power."

Also fascinating was the fact that for the first time in history, European nations came to the aid of Portugal in the first international relief effort in world history.

"The decision of nations to send-or not send-aid was made during one of most transformative periods in European history: the prelude to the great global conflict later known as the Seven Years War (or the French and Indian War in North America) and the so-called Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, in which several centuries-old European alliances were abandoned and several new ones formed. This Gulf of Fire also charts the far-reaching economic impact of the destruction of Lisbon, the busiest New World port and a major trading hub," explained Molesky.

Another intriguing element is that the Lisbon Earthquake was the first earthquake to be subject to serious scientific inquiry, igniting a debate on the physical causes of earthquakes and tsunamis, leading to scientific breakthroughs.

"One French scientist stationed in Cádiz determined the speed of the tsunami in the open ocean using data from ship captains and other eyewitnesses, while the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained (correctly) how the tilt of the earth influences how earthquake tremors affect bodies of water like lakes, rivers, and canals," said Molesky.

He added, "Most commentators, however, interpreted the disaster as the manifestation of God's displeasure with mankind or as a punishment for the Inquisition-obsessed Portuguese-thus revealing the religious core of a century which many today view as quasi-secular. Indeed, many in Lisbon believed that they were experiencing the end of the world."

Molesky shared that in the decades after the disaster, lisboetas rebuilt their city, constructing a gleaming new neoclassical capital whose many earthquake and fire-resistant innovations-like the "Pombaline cage," which renders the walls of buildings stronger and more flexible-were visionary for their time. As a result, buildings today are much more capable of withstanding a major earthquake than they were in the eighteenth century, yet the threat from large tsunamis remains.

"If, for example, a temblor the size of the Lisbon Earthquake were to occur in the same place as it did in 1755, the resultant tsunami (which move at the speed of a jet airplane in the open ocean) could potentially kill thousands along the tourist-lined coasts of Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. For this reason, the search for the fault which gave birth to the Lisbon Earthquake is one of the most pressing missions of modern seismology," he explained.

His research has been praised by many, including The Smithsonian Channel, which sent him to Lisbon to share his scholarship firsthand on the recently aired Smithsonian Channel's Perfect Storms documentary: God's Wrath.

Here, Robert Siegel talks to Mark Molesky about his book, This Gulf of Fire on NPR's All Things Considered

To read the Wall Street Journal review of This Gulf of Fire, click here »

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