The Uses of History in Disaster Preparedness: The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the Construction of Historical Memory
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On 1 November 2005, a group of Portuguese scientists convened an international conference to memorialize the anniversary of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. The earthquake measured 8.5 on the Richter scale and triggered a tsunami, eventually killing as many as 70,000 people and leveling the city of Lisbon. The conference commemorating the quake drew an enormous and accomplished crowd; in attendance for the plenary and opening session were the deans of all of Portugal's major universities, the leaders of the nation's most prominent scientific institutes and associations, and Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio. The conference proceedings began with a letter written by an eighteenth-century Portuguese citizen to his sister, describing the "dreadful catastrophe that has befallen the once-flourishing city of Lisbon." This was followed by a statement of the vast impact of the 1755 earthquake on Europe and North Africa, asserting that "the eventuality of a similar occurrence urges society and the scientific community to reflect on its lessons."
As powerful as the earthquake was, there have been many natural disasters since 1755 with higher death tolls, more significant social and economic losses, and wider paths of devastation. Yet for Portugal and for the Portuguese community of earthquake and civil protection experts, the Lisbon quake has developed a meaning more powerful and resilient than many recent events exceeding its size and scope. During the conference, emergency professionals invoked the quake to encourage the Portuguese state and nation to adopt the goal of disaster preparedness. Portugal has not had a major natural disaster since the eighteenth century event; as a result, policy makers and scientists looking to promote the goal of civil protection have had no recent experiences with which to mobilize Portuguese citizens. Instead, they adopted the 1755 quake, attempting to create a collective memory of the event in people who were not alive to experience it. This phenomenon can be traced through the November 2005 conference and the story of the 1755 earthquake, as it was retold by scientists, engineers, and political figures.
The meanings of the Lisbon earthquake have been constructed on numerous levels. In the early days of the earthquake's first aftershocks, the event played a primary role in the development of European Enlightenment thought, making appearances in the work of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant. Artists also embraced the event, with depictions of the earthquake ranging from eighteenth-century Portuguese engravings, to French and Czech broadsheets, to Arabic drawings. Novelists and poets followed the pattern as well, as recently as Kurt Vonnegut, who once praised Voltaire's use of the quake in his novel Candide.
In recent years, emergency managers and policy professionals have also embraced the event, culminating in the 2005 conference. Organized primarily by a scientific association—the Portuguese Society for Earthquake Engineering—the conference panels included such topics as urban planning for natural hazards, earthquake-resistant architecture, risk mitigation, and earthquake hydrology. Scattered among the scientists, economists, and emergency managers, however, were historians. Canadian historian Alan Ruffman presented an analysis of primary source documentation on the arrival of the 1755 tsunami in the Americas. Portuguese anthropologist Francisco Vaz presented a paper on the role of earthquakes in scientific discourse in late eighteenth-century Portugal. Disaster experts Maya Pedrosa and R. W. Richards presented a paper focusing on the evolution of the themes of vulnerability and resilience in disaster expertise. There were even a few literary scholars, including Augustín Udías and Alfonso López Arroyo, who presented their joint paper on the role of the Lisbon quake in contemporary Spanish literature.
All of the panels were, in fact, framed by historical study. Even the scientists—the vast majority of them—worked from historical data on the 1755 earthquake. The call for papers issued in early 2005 identified a series of scientific topics, all of which were based partially in historical methods. The topics were not only based in the discipline of history, however, but also in the notion of using history to improve the present, of invoking historical knowledge and historical memory in the politics of modern-day civil protection. The first topic listed in the call for papers focused on the socio-economic impact of natural disasters. "The 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami," panel conveners Haresh C. Shah and José Oliveira Mendes asserted, "represent to this date one of the most destructive natural events to hit Europe." Shah and Oliveira then went on to lament that the world had not yet learned from its history, invoking the 1755 earthquake as foreshadowing for 2004's devastating Sumatra earthquake and Indian Ocean tsunami.
In other conference events, scientists Pierre-Yves Bard and Paula Teves Costa developed a topic on earthquake wave propagation phenomena, calling for papers addressing the ground motion of coastal areas during the 1755 event and looking for unusual phenomena related to the quake's high magnitude. Professors Elisa Buforn and António Ribiero proposed a complementary session designed for scientists taking new approaches to the seismic causes of the Lisbon earthquake. Individual scholars presented on such topics as the parallel seismology of the Lisbon and Sumatra earthquakes, the history of earthquake vulnerabilities along the Portuguese coast, and new clues as to what caused the quake of 1755.
The conference thus brought Portuguese scientists back to the event that had struck their homeland, in the process raising the profile of Portugal's experience with natural disaster and reminding the nation of its past suffering. In so doing, the conference conveners and participants worked to create and foster historical memory of a long-ago event. This emphasis on historical memory tied directly into the conference's focus on the concept of preparedness, with many scholars linking the two explicitly. E. I. Alves, for instance, presented a paper on the historical role of earthquake forecasting in the social aspects of civil protection, thus emphasizing the effects of disasters and disaster warnings among national populations, beginning his analysis with the 1755 quake.
Portugal's Historical Memory and Disaster Preparedness
On the same day the conference began, the anniversary of the earthquake, the bell towers of Lisbon rang for 15 minutes. The city's Roman Catholic Cardinal Jose Policarpo then led a service in memory of natural disaster victims the world over, set in the ruins of a fourteenth-century convent destroyed in 1755. President Jorge Sampaio attended the mass and then arrived at the conference. "Earthquakes cannot be avoided but tragedies can," Sampaio asserted, welcoming the more than 200 attendees. "We need to take advantage of the scientific and engineering capacities available today to strengthen [our nation]."
The conference was not simply an effort to learn from past events; it was an effort designed to create collective memory of Portuguese vulnerability. In a statement to journalists several days before the conference, Carlos Sousa Oliveira, president of the Portuguese Society for Earthquake Engineering, asserted, "We have to call [the attentions of] the authorities and the population in general [to the fact that] this past event, this terrible event, may come again. We don't know when. It might not be as strong. But we have to prepare to face it." A colleague of Oliveira's, seismic engineer Alfredo Campos Costa, agreed, "People living in Portugal have no idea of the risk. They are not aware of the risk because earthquakes have a long return period, meaning they can take hundreds of years to happen again." Members of the conference steering committee commented over and over again that the most potent argument for change is the memory of previous disasters. Robert Spence, president of the European Association for Earthquake Engineering, summed up the conference's goal by asserting, "It is folk memory rather than regulation that decides how people [prepare]."
Many nations and disaster relief organizations invoke history to convince the world of the need to prepare, to deter, and to mitigate. Preparedness professionals throughout the world direct efforts towards learning from past events in order to improve future labors. Portugal's efforts, however, are different. Portugal's conference was not a "lesson learned" event, a meeting in which individuals involved in the response to a major disaster come together to learn from their mistakes and successes so that they might be better prepared for the next emergency. The conference did not focus on errors in response; instead, conference conveners and presenters focused on linking the 1755 earthquake to twentieth- and twenty-first-century events that have devastated nations and regions across the world.
Conveners and presenters concentrated on telling the story of the event, reminding the nation and the world that it had happened in Portugal just as it has happened recently in Sumatra, Algeria, Morocco, and Guatemala. Speaking the day before the conference began, Joao Duarte Fonseca, lecturer at Lisbon's Superior Technical Institute, asserted, "People should consider that sooner or later, it will probably happen again." Fonseca went on to argue that at least one-third of Lisbon's buildings date from before the 1958 institution of anti-seismic building codes; he then asserted that inspections are notoriously unreliable in the city, that there is no comprehensive map of treacherous fault lines in mainland Portugal, and, perhaps most importantly, that the public is untrained for emergencies. He went on to assert his hope that the anniversary of the 1755 earthquake would combine with the recent experience of the Indian Ocean tsunami to "crack the apathy."
Nearly all of Portugal's efforts to bolster domestic preparedness have, in fact, been linked to the 1755 earthquake. The nation began civil protection efforts in earnest in the first years of the twenty-first century. In December 2002, Portugal initiated an emergency management partnership with Russia, focusing in particular on partnerships pertaining to seasonal forest fire suppression. Less than a year later, Portugal played a significant role in plans for developing a pan-European civil protection force. And in January 2005, Portuguese officials took the lead in urging the European Union to put in place a disaster warning system in the Atlantic and Mediterranean regions. In the early twenty-first century, Portugal also took prominent steps towards developing comprehensive regional and local emergency plans, a step many nations have yet to approach. In the discussions of each topic, Portuguese representatives emphasized Portugal's experience with emergencies of a devastating scale, invoking the 1755 event as their currency, the trial that made their nation an expert in the field. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Portuguese city officials also launched a series of television advertisements inviting Portuguese residents to "play the earthquake game" by creating an emergency plan for themselves and their families. Like most other sources, the advertisements referenced the 1755 earthquake.
Portugal is also a primary contributor to post-earthquake relief efforts. This includes the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Iran in 2003, and a 6.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Morocco in February 2004. In nearly all of the vehicles used to disseminate information on Portugal's disaster preparedness and relief efforts, Portuguese journalists and spokespeople continually link modern earthquakes and tsunamis to the Lisbon quake, invoking the 1755 event in an attempt to awaken public consciousness to the importance of earthquake preparedness. In a notable public statement encouraging aid not only to earthquake-stricken sites but also to war-ravaged nations such as East Timor, Portuguese Bishop and Nobel Laureate Dom Carlos Ximenes Belo also referenced the 1755 quake, quoting the Marques of Pombal, who masterminded the eighteenth-century response and recovery effort. Ximenes asserted, "I read a sentence used by the Portuguese prime minister, the Marques of Pombal, who said: 'Let us now bury the dead and take care of the living'... [As we did before,] let us rebuild."
Portuguese scientists, policy makers, and other public actors such as Ximenes have thus used the Lisbon earthquake to create a collective memory designed to mobilize modern citizens and political figures. As a result, the event has taken on a distinguished role in the discourses used by disaster preparedness, response, and recovery professionals in Portugal. The 250th anniversary conference was an important part of this process, an effort to re-awaken memory of an eighteenth-century event and to remind the Portuguese people of their vulnerability. The conference thus played a primary role in disaster professionals' efforts to create a collective historical memory of disaster designed to fuel contemporary emergency management policy and legislation.
Katherine Worboys, deputy research director of a U.S. government research initiative focusing on disaster response, recovery, and reconstruction, received her Ph.D. in history from U-M in 2005.
The author, at the time a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Michigan, became involved in the conference through her work with a large-scale U.S. government research program on emergency management and disaster response, relief, and recovery; she is currently the program's deputy research director.
While the terms "domestic preparedness" and "emergency preparedness" are used widely in the United States, much of the world substitutes the terms "civil defense" or "civil protection" instead. This article uses the terms "domestic preparedness" and "civil protection" interchangeably.
For more information, see: Russell W. Dynes, "The Dialogue Between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View," Working Paper, Disaster Research Center, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, University of Delaware, 1999; Jan T. Kozak and Charles D. James, "Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake," Working Paper, National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering, 1998.
For more information, see: Moscow Interfax (Moscow, Russia), 15 December 2002; Paris Liberation (Paris, France), 19 August 2003; Northern European News Service (Paris, France), 27 December 2003; Radio program transcribed, Lisbon RDP Antena 1, 1600 GMT, 24 February 2004.