Letter from Sister Witham - Photo Twitter
Letter from Sister Witham Photo: Twitter

British nun’s first-hand account of 1755 Lisbon earthquake

This feature takes a look at the 1755 Lisbon earthquake from a rather different perspective – that of a British nun living in Lisbon when on November 1, 1755, the earthquake struck, devastating most of the city.

Sister Catherine ‘Kitty’ Witham was living with the Bridgettine Order, a monastic group of Augustinian nuns in Portugal.

Writing to her mother, in a recently discovered letter dated January 27, 1756, Sister Witham told of how she survived the ordeal which killed around 60,000 people, starting with how she was washing dishes when the tremors began. “It began like the rattling of coaches and the things before me danced up and down upon the table,” she wrote.

The 1775 earthquake was one of Europe’s most powerful and was closely followed by a tsunami and firestorm, which left the city an unrecognisable mound of ruins.

Until this day, the location of the epicentre is still a subject of scientific debate with several theories abound. Of the exact location in the Atlantic Ocean, it was estimated to be about 200 km (120 mi) west-southwest of Cape St. Vincent. The same applies to the magnitude, being an estimated 8.5 to 9 on the Richter scale.                                                                                                          The royal family, however, escaped unharmed from the catastrophe. King José I and the court had left the city, after attending mass at sunrise, fulfilling the wish of one of the king’s daughters to spend the holiday away from Lisbon.

Sister Witham’s Letter

This letter is considered rare as most writing authored by women at that time were mainly about domestic or household issues and were not, therefore, kept in official archives; as such, they were less likely to survive.

She writes: “The tremors began at around 09.40am as worshippers were lighting candles for All Saints Day, which would cause the ‘great fire’ that burned for eight days.”

Sister Witham’s parchment was found by a researcher from the University of Exeter during cataloguing of the records of Syon Abbey, a monastery which returned to England in 1861.

She describes running out into the garden with the other nuns, narrowly escaping the collapse of the convent around her. “I looked about me and see the walls a-shaking, and a-falling down, then I got up and took to my heels, with Jesus in my mouth, and to the quire I run, thinking to be safe there, but there was no entrance but all falling round us, and the lime and dust so thick there was no seeing,” she wrote.

Map of Lisbon 1640 (before the earthquake)
Map of Lisbon 1640 (before the earthquake)

She also noted that if the earthquake had happened at night or when they were at mass, they would probably have been crushed by falling masonry.

“We spent the day in prayers but with a great deal of fear and apprehension as we had shakings and trembles all that day and night,” she added. The tremors continued for months afterwards and the night before she wrote her letter, she felt a “very sharp one”.

Sister Witham told her mother of the decimation of the city where she’d lived and how it was reduced to “nothing but a heap of stones” and the souls who perished. “Them that has seen Lisbon before this dreadful calamity and to see it now would be greatly shocked,” she said.

“And one of the most terrible things that happened was this, that many poor souls enclosed in the ruins [were] not killed but could not get out so some was burnt alive and others died of hunger.”

She added a story of a wealthy man trapped in a building who offered passers-by 100 gold coins to fetch him a ladder. “Everybody was so desirous to save their own lives none dare venture, so the poor soul was killed,” Sister Witham said.

Annie Price, the archivist who catalogued the Syon Abbey archive at the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, said: “This letter is quite remarkable, not only for its evidentiary value as a first-hand account of the earthquake, but also as a tantalising glimpse of a woman’s life as a nun in exile in the 18th century.

“It provides insight into her daily routine, the close bonds she maintained with friends and family back in England, and her emotions in the aftermath of the earthquake.”

Many of Sister Witham’s writings can be found in the collection at Exeter including several manuscripts she transcribed herself. “Sister Kitty’s writing style is vibrant and engaging, and her lasting presence in various written sources within the collection indicate a strong passion for reading and writing,” said Ms Price.

Syon Abbey was the only English Catholic religious community to continue existing without interruption following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Following the Great Lisbon Earthquake, the nuns of Syon Abbey were able to rebuild their convent and continue their religious life in Portugal. The community returned to England in 1861, initially residing in Spetisbury in Dorset. In 1887, the sisters moved to Devon, where they remained for more than a century until 2011, when the decision was made to close it.

James Daybell, professor of early modern history at the University of Plymouth, said that it was unusual to find an account told from a woman’s perspective. “The key issue is that women were present at major events the world over, and observers, but that the kinds of writing that survives from them tends [to be] more concerned with the family, household and domestic.”

He said that when he looked in archives for research for his book Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England, he only found 3,500 letters by women, compared with tens of thousands of items by men. “My sense is that women wrote less, but also their writing is much less likely to survive, since it is simply not kept in official archives.”

The letter itself can be viewed online at https://specialcollectionsarchive.exeter.ac.uk/exhibits/show/syon-abbey/item/526

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.
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