At mid-morning on November 1st, 1755, while many of Lisbon’s citizens were in church celebrating All Saints Day, a massive earthquake struck the city. As many of the survivors made their way to the city’s quays to escape the fires that were raging after the earthquake, three tsunamis hit the city and swept many of the survivors into the sea. It’s estimated that between 15,000 and 60,000 people perished in the earthquake, fires and tsunamis that destroyed Lisbon on that day.
While many of the survivors were just trying to stay alive, one man, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, a secretary of state to King José I, took charge. The king asked Carvalho what was to be done. Carvalho replied, “Bury the dead and feed the living.”
The Last Day, by Nicholas Shrady, is an interesting look at the earthquake and how Carvalho, later appointed Marques de Pombal, took charge, not just of the recovery efforts after the earthquake, but of the country, ruling with an iron hand in the name of a weak king and saved Lisbon and, very possibly, Portugal. Ignoring those who wanted to abandon the city and move the capital to nearby Belem while, at the same time, battling both the powerful Church and his political enemies, Carvalho oversaw the rebuilding of Lisbon, abolished slavery in Portugal, fostered commerce and rebuilt the military until his political downfall 22 years later.
The book looks at the Catholic Church’s centuries-long control of Portugal that left its citizens in the dark ages, the lopsided trade agreements with England that kept Portugal at a commercial disadvantage and how gold and slaves from Brazil and other Portuguese colonies kept the country afloat while weakening any homegrown commerce Portugal had. Carvalho, in a frequently brutal way, fought these negative influences on his home country and helped to build it into the nation he believed it could be. Some of his influence didn’t last; Queen Maria I, successor to Carvalho’s protector King José I, returned much of the power lost under Carvalho to the Catholic Church and the old nobility. But much of his legacy, not the least of which can be seen in the city of Lisbon, remains.
The Last Day is a fascinating look at the earthquake and the man who saved Lisbon.