Lisbon Earthquake 1755

Lisbon_Earthquake_1755[December 1755] Saturd 27.  A Snowy day. I went into Town to see the Boston News Paper, which gives an account of the Terrable Efffects of a Great Earthquake in Spain & Portugail.  The famous City of Lisbourn Destroyed.  Ye Houes all Shaked down but 3.  & Thousands of Pple killed.  The fire on the hearths burnt all ye houses & Rubbish. & Some places Swallowed up &c. 

Here in 2011 we have all been horrified and transfixed by the pictures and videos of the “great earthquake” and Tsunami in Japan that also killed thousands and swallowed up whole towns.  Back in 1755 this kind of terrible news was not immediate, and not visual of course, but it still had the power to shake those far away who read about it, and Joshua, always a news hound, made a point of heading to town to get his news about the tragic earthquake in Lisbon, which destroyed the city by shaking, flooding and fire – very similar to the situation in the towns and cities along the coast of northeastern Japan.  Knowing as we do, the difficulties facing the population of Japan in 2011, we can only imagine the chaos and the fear of those affected in 1755.

The University of California Berkeley’s Earthquake Information Center has a short article on the event that includes this information: “The earthquake began at 9:30 on November 1st, 1755, and was centered in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 km WSW of Cape St. Vincent. The total duration of shaking lasted ten minutes and was comprised of three distinct jolts. Effects from the earthquake were far reaching. The worst damage occurred in the south-west of Portugal. Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, was the largest and the most important of the cities damaged. Severe shaking was felt in North Africa and there was heavy loss of life in Fez and Mequinez. Moderate damage was done in Algiers and in southwest Spain. Shaking was also felt in France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. A devastating fire following the earthquake destroyed a large part of Lisbon, and a very strong tsunami caused heavy destruction along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco.”

Joshua and his neighbors and fellow New Englanders were no stranger to local earthquakes as he notes several others in his journal, the earliest in 1727 on November 29. Of that event he wrote: “about 10 Clock at night an Earthquake Shook the houses Continued about 1 minute & half. ye Earthquake was Terrible in Boston Colony as here. An Irruption at Newbuy but a Rumbling noise & trembling of the earth & all things.” Several other smaller earthquakes are mentioned in later years and in each he refers back to the 1727 event, which clearly was memorable and mighty scary for our eighteenth-century New London record keeper. A very good account of this earthquake can be found on the website of the US Geological Survey – including information on the “irruption” at Newburyport, MA, where marshes rose up and dried up forever. This was perhaps an event much like the “liquefaction” that occurred in Christchurch, NZ, as a result of the earthquake there earlier this year.




[Oct. 1754] Saturd 5  fair. I was about home all day fitting up Cask for Cyder.  I Rid out to Crossman Lot to water the Cattle.  Thundr & Lightning in the night & a Storm of wind & Rain.

“Thunder and lightning” are fairly common with rain storms in this part of New England all through the summer and into the fall, as they were in Hempstead’s time.  What has changed is our perception of them.

Well into the eighteenth century, it was the thunder that was assumed to be the dangerous part of the combination.  When you think about an age without our capabilities to measure the transmission of sound and light, this makes sense.  If you have ever had a tree or pole near your house struck by lightning, you know that the noise of the thunder accompanying it is impressive—and simultaneous.  Looked at objectively, it does appear that the thunder is more important, since no harm came earlier from clearly visible lightning.

In the earlier parts of the diary Hempstead refers a couple of times to damage done by thunder and lightning.  When the meetinghouse was struck on August 31, 1735, he records “a Terable Clap of Thunder & Lightning Came Struck ye meeting house in Divers places. . .”  By July of 1743 he had changed the order to record “the malocholy News of the Death of 2 Ladds by Lightning & Thunder & the horse. . .”  And in June of 1745 he records a thunder and lightning storm and says “the Lightning Struck Mr Stewarts Windmill on Townhill & Shattered the Arms & Shafts & ye Toyle & Stares.”

Hempstead had an inquiring and rather scientific mind, but it is doubtful that he actually thought of lightning as causing damage separately from the thunder.  Although he does not use it, the term “thunderbolt” was in common usage well in to the nineteenth century.  And we still generally refer to “thunderstorms” even now that we know what part of the storm we really need to worry about.

Being a modern person (even if I haven’t yet mastered Facebook), when indexing the diary I indexed lightning but not thunder.  I assumed, of course, that lightning had struck the meetinghouse, rather than the “Terable Clap of Thunder. . .” that Hempstead and his contemporaries knew had caused the damage and injuries.

Note:  The first chapter of Richard Cullen Rath’s book, How Early America Sounded (Cornell University Press, 2003), addresses the perception of thunder in the seventeenth century, along with other noises of the natural soundscape.

March … brot home the mare & colt

March … brot home the mare & colt

FOAL[1]Tuesd Mar .1. . . .wee got home [from his farm in Stonington] Sun about an hour high and wee buried the Child at Sun down. . . . Saturd 5. . . I was at home al Day. Josh brot home the mare & Colt & left the young Horses. . . Mond .7. fair & Cold & windy.  I went to Groton to John Averys to Assist in an arbitration . . . Tuesd 15 it Snowed & Rained most of the Day.  I was at home foren. afternoon helping measure 100 Rod of Land for Dea. fosdick Hills Lot Next Jno Plumb taken by Execution for Charlots Debt.  Wednsd 16 fair & warm.  I was at home al day. foren helping Adm draw S[t]ones. aftern pruning Appletrees.  Thursd 24. . . I was Laying out Commons . . . I am to Receive 7s 4d of Dea Fox.  the Rest are pd & I Recd 2s 6d for Abel Moors part of Dea Fosdick.

Something that fascinates a good many people about Joshua Hempstead’s life is its variety.  One day he’s at court acting as someone’s lawyer, the next he may be surveying or working on the highways.  It’s very different from today’s specialization.

The month of March, 1736/7, gives a representative sample of this range of activities.  In that month, Hempstead:

  •  attended two funerals, one for an infant grandchild
  • worked for Madam Winthrop by making up accounts with a tenant and renewing that lease, and assisting in an arbitration involving tenants
  • spent three days in Norwich at a court
  • performed a marriage
  • spent several days surveying commons and land taken for execution of a debt
  • spent another several days engaged in agricultural work such as pruning apple trees, breaking dung, toppoling a fence, and gathering stones and making part of a wall
  • paid the minister’s “rate,” or tax, for two towns where he owned property
  • held a court of probates one day
  • sold some land and wrote the deed of sale; purchased bass and sent money to Guilford to purchase flax
  • shipped two horses to Long Island
  • received news from London
  • attended meeting every Sunday and recorded the publishments (announcements of marriage intentions)
  • spent several days “at home,” with no further explanation.

What didn’t Hempstead do that month?  Well, he didn’t letter any gravestones, an activity that provided income now and then throughout his adult life.  He didn’t write a will for anyone.  He didn’t hold any justice of the peace courts at his house, although he did perform that marriage, also a justice function.  But overall this month gives a very good picture of the scope and variety of Hempstead’s life.