Monday, 1 November 2010

Not Letting a Good Crisis Go to Waste: Lisbon Earthquake 255 Years Ago Today Allowed Rebuilding the City

The Portuguese princesses wanted to spend the All Saints Day holiday at the royal retreat just outside Lisbon on November 1, 1755, so the king, Dom José I, agreed that the court would go there after attending a very early morning mass.

Lucky for them, because between 9:30 and 9:40 a.m. thousands of were killed when a magnitude 9 earthquake struck. A tsunami swept through the lower part of the city in the hours that followed, and much that was left burned in fires that raged for days afterwards.

The city was rebuilt relatively quickly under the direction of Marquês de Pombal, who abundantly deserved the nickname he's been given subsequently, Enlightened Despot. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, a portion of London's centre was rebuilt along lines suggested by Christopher Wren. In the early part of the 1700s, Turin had also been expanded beyond the city walls, following plans which featured squares and streets laid on grids. Pombal and his engineers looked to both these major changes in urban structure for ideas, but in the end forged ahead to plan a new city center that was the largest urban reconstruction project ever undertaken until Napoleon III hired Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to remake Paris more than 100 years later. (For more about the plan click here.)

When I started researching Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure, I knew nothing of this. Discovering the story has fueled my reflection on the role of leadership in government. It's worth thinking about today, not only because of the anniversary of the earthquake, but also because of the election yesterday of Dilma Rousseff as Lula's successor in Brazil and the mid-term elections in the United States where Barack Obama's too timid actions are likely to be rebuffed by electors who think going right will make things better.

Photos: Top right; the Carmo Convent was destroyed in the fire and never rebuilt. Its ruins now house a musuem.
Bottom right; this portrait of the Marquês de Pombal is in the Lisbon city museum, Museu da Cidade.
Bottom left: view from near the Carmo Convent to the east, and the hilltop which was fortified during Moorish times.

No comments: