512 pages, b/w illustrations
The captivating and definitive account of the most consequential natural disaster of modern times.
On All Saints' Day 1755, tremors from an earthquake measuring perhaps 9.0 (or higher) on the moment magnitude scale (a scale seismologists preferentially use over the Richter scale) swept furiously from their origin along the Atlantic seabed toward the Iberian and African coasts. Directly in their path was Lisbon, then one of the wealthiest cities in the world and the capital of a vast global empire. Within minutes, much of the city lay in ruins.
But this was only the beginning. A half hour later, a giant tsunami unleashed by the quake smashed into Portugal's coastline and barreled up the Tagus River, carrying countless thousands out to sea. By day's end, the great wave chain would claim victims on four separate continents. To complete Lisbon's destruction, an infernal firestorm then engulfed the city's shattered remains. Subjecting survivors to temperatures exceeding 1,832 °F (1,000 °C), it burned for several weeks, killing thousands and incinerating much of what the earthquake and tsunami had spared.
Drawing on a wealth of new sources, the latest scientific research, and a sophisticated grasp of European history, Mark Molesky gives us the authoritative account of the Great Lisbon Disaster and its impact on the Western world – including descriptions of the world's first international relief effort; the rise of a brutal, yet modernizing, dictatorship in Portugal; and the effect of the disaster on the spirit and direction of the European Enlightenment.
Much more than a chronicle of destruction, This Gulf of Fire is, at its heart, a gripping human drama, involving an array of unforgettable characters – such as the Marques de Pombal, the once-slighted striver who sees in the chaos his path to supreme power, and Gabriel Malagrida, the charismatic Jesuit whose view that the earthquake was a punishment sent by God leads inexorably to his demise. There is Dom Jose, the unremarkable king of Portugal, who stands by his people in their moment of greatest need but ultimately abandons them to the tyranny of his first minister. There is Kitty Witham, the plucky English nun who helps her fellow sisters escape from their collapsing convent, and Manoel Portal, the Oratorian priest who flees the burning capital on his broken leg and goes on to write one of the definitive accounts of the disaster. Philosophers, kings, poets, emperors, scientists, scoundrels, journalists, and monkeys all make their appearance in this remarkable narrative of the mid-eighteenth century.
"A gripping and valuable history [...] [Molesky] has uncovered new sources on this much-studied disaster, allowing him not only to provide novel anecdotes and insights but also to contribute to debates about the earthquake's impact on eighteenth-century political and intellectual struggles [...] A fabulously written monograph that contributes a great deal and never veers toward history lite."
– Charles F. Walker, The American Historical Review
"Superb [...] Engrossing [...] A welcome resurrection of an epic tragedy [...] Molesky's gripping portrait [...] is gleaned from a seemingly endless number of firsthand accounts. [His] narrative [...] transports you to the midst of this horror."
– William O'Connor, The Daily Beast
"Richly readable [...] [Molesky] paints an astonishing picture of the natural cataclysm that struck Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755."
– Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
"The definitive history of the Lisbon earthquake and its aftermath. [This Gulf of Fire] combines exhaustive research with dramatic eyewitness accounts and modern discoveries in geology and seismology [...] Molesky has masterfully revived [the Lisbon tragedy] here. [This is] a powerful story about human and cultural loss and recovery that is hard to forget."
– R.W. Clark, Washington Independent Review of Books
"Molesky's rendering of the continent-wide philosophical debate following the earthquake is particularly lucid."
– Henrik Bering, The New Criterion
"[A] vivid portrayal [...] Molesky's story is well-informed and well-paced [...] [and] fluent prose and vivid vignettes keep the reader engaged [...] Molesky paints a dolorous picture of the decadence of the pre-earthquake city [...] [and] knows everything worth knowing about the quake."
– Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The Wall Street Journal
"Molesky brings to vivid and horrifying life a disaster that forever changed Lisbon and provoked a Europe-wide debate about God and the workings of nature."
– Matthew Price, The Boston Globe
"A thoroughly absorbing take on a momentous event [...] Anyone interested in history and especially disaster history will find this book enthralling."
– Laura Hiatt-Smith, Library Journal
"[A] masterpiece of nonfiction."
"Excellent [...] a comprehensive account of nearly every aspect of the disaster [...] As in any disaster story, great heroism and great treachery abounded, and Molesky shows us plenty of examples of both [...] [and] also places this earthquake firmly in its historical context, arguing that the quake and its resultant disasters helped to shape the 18th century."
– Emily Cataneo, Christian Science Monitor
"Mesmerizingly comprehensive [...] Magisterial in its account of a world-changing event, this is a book to savor."
– John S. Major, The History Book Club
"Focused, well-researched, and fascinating [...] This smart, comprehensive, colorful account shows readers Lisbon's phoenix-like recovery from destruction that is now nearly forgotten, and how it ushered in a more recognizably modern response to large-scale natural disasters."
– Publishers Weekly
"Humanity's perennial battles between faith and reason have always been tested most intensely in times of calamity. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was the first and most dramatic of such tests in the modern era, and the great calamity has long been waiting for its historian. Now it has its brilliant chronicler and analyst in Mark Molesky whose This Gulf of Fire is an extraordinary marriage of fine, vivid narrative and sharp, clear thought. Full of poignant stories, it makes gripping reading and like all powerful histories stays around in one's mind long after the last page is read."
– Simon Schama
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Mark Molesky is a graduate of the University of Michigan and received his PhD from Harvard University. He specializes in the intellectual, cultural, and political history of modern Europe, and is currently an associate professor of history at Seton Hall University. He lives in New York City.