Book Review: This Gulf of Fire

This detailed & readable history of the Great Lisbon Earthquake is well worth your time.

On November 1, 1755 – All Saints Day in the Catholic Church – the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of modern Europe took place: the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded, completely destroyed the glittering capital of the Portuguese Empire and claimed victims on four continents. The tremors, along with the resulting tsunami and firestorm, turned Lisbon, previously a cosmopolitan masterpiece of a city replete with imperial grandeur, into a hulking collection of burnt-out ruins. Yet most of us interested in history (even European history) may not have heard of this cataclysmic event or had only heard of it in passing. A 2015 book by historian Mark Molesky seeks to right that wrong and give the Lisbon earthquake its proper historical due as a key event in the European Enlightenment. [Sidebar: Dr. Molesky is one of my professors at Seton Hall University and I have studied under him.]

This Gulf of Fire: The Great Lisbon Earthquake, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason is a fantastic work of popular history, as well as incredibly rigorous in its historical and scientific research. Molesky’s prose is engaging, readable, and extremely descriptive; oftentimes when reading this book, I felt transported to the streets, palaces, and homes of 1755 Lisbon. The book flows through the lead-up to the disaster, depicts the apocalyptic quake and its aftermath in riveting terms, and then traces its ‘aftershocks’ through Portuguese and European society. This Gulf of Fire uses a great deal of primary sources and includes many direct individual accounts of survivors, which make the reader truly feel like they are experiencing the disaster themselves. The humanity present in these accounts is deeply moving and makes the book feel more immersive than a typical history tome.

Molesky also dives into the science of earthquakes and plate tectonics, which add context and help the reader understand the true gravity of the situation which befell Lisbon on that fateful day. His scientific descriptions do not only use modern knowledge, but also explore what the scientists, philosophers, and clergymen of the time thought about the disaster and why it was visited on the Portuguese capital. The focus on cultural and intellectual history here is important and explains why the earthquake was not only a pivotal event for lisboetas, but for the wider European Enlightenment tradition. The disaster sparked furious debates around the Westernized world on topics like religion, philosophy, morality, and reason which involved such luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Godin. Molesky is clearly very well-read in the intellectual and philosophical history of the Enlightenment and brings that depth of knowledge to bear in this book. He traces the reverberations of the earthquake through the major events and thinkers of the period, showing how it impacted their work and philosophy. Also, for those who may not know a great deal about Portuguese history specifically, this book is a fabulous introduction and a great exploration of a critical period in the history of the Iberian kingdom.

Overall, This Gulf of Fire is an amazing work of history that is deeply researched, supremely immersive, and characterized by descriptive and readable prose. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in European history, cultural or intellectual history, or the science of natural disasters. The book covers all of these topics and more in a fashion that had me wanting more. This vivid portrayal of an historical event that should be better-known is well worth picking up.

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