Lisbon earthquake

Catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755

The city of Lisbon was for centuries the gateway to the Americas, Africa and Europe. A cosmopolitan city of palaces, opulent churches and people from all corners of the globe. In front of the royal residence, was the river Tagus clogged with ships bearing spices, precious metals and….slaves. But this picture of unbridled wealth came to a sudden end in November 1755 when the city was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and fire.

The day when hell rained down on Lisbon was the 1st November. This was All Saints Day when the city’s mainly Catholic population was in church. By all accounts it was a sunny and very pleasant morning when at 9am, citizens heard an ominous subterranean thunder. Lisbon shook for about three minutes with buildings collapsing everywhere and people crushed beneath the rubble.

Then the sea retreated far from the harbour. It returned with an immense wave of about fifty to sixty feet in height. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had rushed to the harbour to escape toppling structures in the downtown area. But sadly, they’d dashed headlong into the tsunami.

DISCOVER: Aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris

The scene in churches across the city was utter carnage. At the Igreja do Carmo, a massive convent, overlooking the city, hundreds of worshippers died during mass when the church roof collapsed on their heads. The ruins have been kept to the present day as a grim reminder of what happened.

Because so many churches had candles burning that day, fires spread very quickly. It was also claimed that robbers and other criminals engaged in widespread arson to distract from acts of theft. Whether deliberately caused or not, the inferno raged in the city for six days. In every corner of Lisbon there were half-burnt bodies lying around for long afterwards.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

The Lisbon earthquake literally rocked 18th century opinion. On one side, it bolstered the arguments of those who saw a divine hand in natural events. Lisbon was being punished for its hubris. On the other side were the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. People like Voltaire who penned a sarcastic satire titled Candide where he mocked the idea that we lived in the best of all possible worlds – as the horror in Lisbon only too clearly evidenced.

On the plus side, the Lisbon earthquake gave a big boost to the study of earthquakes leading to our modern day understanding of these deadly phenomena.

coakly lettsom

The Abolitionist who owned a thousand slaves

Near where I live in London, a well known opponent of slavery had a mansion in the early nineteenth century. But somehow, despite his best intentions, this noble abolitionist ended up owning a thousand slaves. So, how did that unfortunate situation arise?

I recently bought a small magazine from February 1825 from an antique dealer that included a feature on Grove Hill, the mansion built by John Coakley Lettsom. Here I am with the magazine below. And it revealed an intriguing story about an abolitionist who unintentionally ended up owning an awful lot of slaves.

This prosperous gentleman was born to a slave owning father and an Irish mother in what is now the British Virgin Islands, a group of Caribbean islands to the right of Puerto Rico if you look at a map.

He was sent off to England as a child where, under the care of a guardian, he eventually studied medicine and became a doctor. Then the news came of a large inheritance back in the Caribbean as both his father and older brother had died. The brother had spent a large part of their father’s legacy but…a hundred slaves were left on the family plantation.

Now, John Coakley Lettsom had become a Quaker in England. And consequently an abolitionist – as that Christian denomination opposed slavery. So the first thing he did was to liberate all his father’s slaves – which left him penniless. He then set up as a doctor and eventually earned enough money to return from the Caribbean to England.

His self-sacrifice as an abolitionist who had stuck true to his principles got him very favourable publicity in London. England, at this time, was turning very much against the ownership of slaves. In contrast to the Americas where slavery would persist until the mid-century, slavery was officially outlawed in legislation passed in 1807 and 1833. Throughout the British Empire, it became illegal to own other human beings.

Lettsom built a large mansion outside London called Grove Hill – on a high point where you could see the city in the distance. As London has expanded, the area today is just another borough of south London. His mansion was demolished not long after his death and a row of very fine Regency houses built, many of which are still there.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Just before he died, fate played a cruel trick on Lettsom. His son Pickering Lettsom went to live in the British Virgin Islands, where his father had been born, and married a rich woman. Tragically, Pickering died a month after the marriage and his wife not long after. They left everything in their will to John back in London including….a thousand slaves that Pickering’s wealthy wife owned.

Before the exasperated abolitionist could free all these newly acquired slaves, he himself died in 1815. So having begun his career by freeing a hundred slaves to widespread public approval in England, he ended his life accidentally owning a thousand!

Below is a picture of the abolitionist at home with his family in Camberwell before learning about his windfall of a thousand slaves.