When a natural disaster devastates a country, it can lead to tyranny. In This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, Seton Hall history professor Mark Molesky traces how an earthquake that occurred on All Saints Day (November 1) in 1755 led to the rise of a brutal dictatorship in Portugal. It was one of the largest earthquakes in history, between 8.5 and 9.2 on the Richter scale. It caused an enormous tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean, compounding the damage. Of the 200,000 residents of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, 40,000 lost their lives. The book gets its name from Voltaire’s description of the many fires that started all over the city when churches and homes, then filled with candles and lamps, collapsed.
In 1755, Portugal was a monarchy under Dom José I. He lived an opulent lifestyle, turning the city into an “exotic Babylon,” funding libraries, culture, and public works. Lisbon was a center of Catholic life, with clergy comprising one-sixth of the population. Yet 10 percent of the city’s downtown residents remained homeless during José’s reign, with prostitution and venereal diseases rampant.
After the disaster, it was the clergy who took care of the people, rescuing survivors and providing food and medical treatment. However, Sebastião de Melo, later the Marquis de Pombal, used the disarray to take over the country as a dictator. He had been the king’s war secretary, then his First Minister. He instituted a “reign of terror” while rebuilding the city. He weakened the power of the king, imprisoned political enemies and persecuted the church. He banned the Jesuits when they suggested Lisbon was living through the Apocalypse, and executed their charismatic leader, Father Malagrida.
What happened in Portugal left a lasting mark on Europe, helping to shape the 18th century. It caused some of the most preeminent Enlightenment thinkers to reassess their viewpoints on goodness in the world. They could not explain why something so terrible could happen. It did not fit within their secular worldview, which denies the role of God and the spiritual realm.
But the changes made by Pombal ensured that the religiosity of the city would never be the same again. Molesky observes that modern-day Lisbon no longer has “gaggles of priests, monks and nuns” crowding the streets. More than two and a half centuries of secularization were “inaugurated by the aggressive anti-clerical policies of Pombal and crowned by the dissolution of Portugal’s monastic orders on May 28, 1834.” Lisbon today remains only nominally Catholic.
Molesky points out several times in history where a major natural disaster has undermined a ruling government. An earthquake in 2100 BC probably caused the overthrow of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The walls of Jericho likely had help coming down due to earthquake damage. In 464 BC, an earthquake flattened Sparta in Greece, which decimated its warrior population, hastening its decline.
Currently in the U.S., the San Andreas Fault in California is long overdue for an eruption. Scientists believe there is more than a 99 percent chance it will occur within the next 30 years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the fault is due for an epic tremor every 150 years. Its “upper limit is roughly an 8.2 — a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.”
However, that isn’t the earthquake to fear. The Cascadia Subzone, located in the Pacific off the shores of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, is capable of earthquakes 30 times more powerful than the San Andreas Fault. Experts warn, “When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America.” Thirteen thousand are projected to die, 27,000 will be injured, and millions displaced in need of food and water. The odds of a big quake taking place there in the next 50 years are one in three.
Molesky’s book is colorfully written, containing eyewitness accounts and much about the period’s cultural and religious background. He was awarded the 2016 Phi Alpha Theta Book Award for Best Subsequent Book. He previously co-authored Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France with John Miller.
If the wrong person becomes president of the U.S., a natural disaster could allow them to seize dictatorial control. Although President Trump is a strong leader who promotes freedom and democracy, the left is doing everything it can to oust him. The left has a recent track record of taking leaders out using sham legal witch hunts. This is the easiest way they may take Trump out.
The American left wants everyone to think that a repeat of a dictator might be happening in the U.S., even without a natural disaster. Parallel changes may be happening, but not in the way the left envisions. President Trump has made no indication he intends to become a dictator. He is already being thwarted by Democrats holding up his cabinet nominations and judges striking down his executive orders. Yet despite how badly checks and balances are being abused by the other two branches, Trump is not removing their power. The similar changes are that the country is steadily becoming a secular society, as Christianity is stamped out. As the monks were outlawed and influence taken away from the clergy, so are Christians being prosecuted and gradually forced out of much of society.