He was born as Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the son of Manuel de Carvalho e Ataíde, a country squire, with properties in the Leiria region, and his wife, D. Theresa Luiza de Mendonça e Mello. In his early life, he studied law at the University of Coimbra and served briefly in the army. When he moved to the capital, Lisbon, Sebastião de Melo was a turbulent man. His first wife was Teresa de Mendonça e Almada (1689-1737) the niece of the Count of Arcos, whom he married against her family's wishes, after a consented kidnap. The in-laws made life for the young couple unbearable, and they retired to his properties near Pombal.
In 1738, Sebastião de Melo received his first public appointment, as ambassador in London, and, in 1745 was transferred to Vienna. The consort queen of Portugal, archduchess Maria Anna of Austria was fond of the widowed ambassador and arranged his marriage with the daughter of the Austrian Field Marshal Daun. King John V of Portugal, however, was not pleased with Sebastião de Melo's actions and recalled him to Portugal in 1749. The king died in the following year and, due to a recommendation of the queen mother, the new king Joseph I of Portugal appoints Sebastião de Melo as minister of foreign affairs. Unlike his father, Joseph I was very fond of him and gradually trusted him with the control of the state.
In 1755, Sebastião de Melo was already prime minister of the kingdom. He ruled with a strong hand, imposing strict law to all classes, from the poorest to the high nobility. Impressed by English economic success, he tried with success to implement similar measures to the Portuguese economy. The demarcated region for production of Port, the first in the world designed to insure the wine's quality, dates from his ruling. He also abolished slavery in the India colonies, reorganized the army and the navy, restructured the University of Coimbra, and ended discrimination between old and new Christians. But Sebastião de Melo's greatest reforms were economic and financial, with the creation of several companies and guilds to regulate every commercial activity, and a review on the country's tax system. Naturally, all these reforms gained him enemies in the upper classes, especially in the high nobility, who despised him as a social upstart.
Disaster fell upon Portugal in the morning of November 1, 1755. On this date Lisbon was struck by a violent earthquake, with estimated magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale (see 1755 Lisbon earthquake). The city was razed to the ground by the earthquake and the huge tsunami and fires that followed. Sebastião de Melo survived by a struck of luck, but he was not impressed. Immediately he started to work to rebuild the city, following his famous quote: What now? we bury the dead and feed the living. Despite the calamity, Lisbon suffered no epidemics and less than a year later was already being rebuilt. The downtown of the city was designed by a group of architects to resist any subsequent earthquake. Models were built for tests where the earthquake was simulated by marching troops around. The buildings and big squares of the Pombaline Downtown of Lisbon are still standing as one of Lisbon's tourist attractions: they are the world's first quake-proof buildings. Sebastião de Melo also made an important contribution to seismology: he designed an inquiry that was sent to every parish in the country. Examples of questions included are: did the dogs or other animals behaved strangely before the event?; did the water level rise or fall in the wells?; how many buildings were destroyed?; what kind of destruction occurred? With these answers modern Portuguese scientists were able to reconstruct the event.
Following the earthquake, Joseph I gave his Prime Minister even more power, turning Sebastião de Melo in a kind of dictator. As his power grew, his enemies increased in number and bitter disputes with the high nobility became frequent. In 1758 Joseph I is wounded in an attempted regicide. The Tavora family and the Duke of Aveiro were implicated in the attempt and executed after a quick trial. The Jesuits were expelled from the country and their assets confiscated by the crown. Sebastião de Melo showed no mercy and prosecuted every person involved, even women and children. This was the final stroke on the nobility power and the victory of the minister against his enemies. For his swift action in this matter, Joseph I made his loyal minister Count of Oeiras in 1759.
Following the Tavora affair, the new Count of Oeiras knew no opposition. Made Marquis of Pombal in 1770, he effectively ruled Portugal until Joseph I's death in 1779. His successor, queen Maria I of Portugal, disliked the Marquis immensely. Maria I never forgave him the ruthlessness showed against the Tavora family and redrew all his political offices from him. The queen also issued one of the world's first restraining orders and ordered that the Marquis should not be closer than 20 miles from her presence. If she would travel near his estates, he was compelled to remove himself from his house to fulfil the royal decree. Maria I is reported to have tantrums with the slight reference to her father's former prime minister.
The Marquis of Pombal died peacefully on his estates in May 15 1782. Nowadays, he is remembered in a huge statue placed in the most important square in Lisbon, named after him. Marquis of Pombal is also the busiest underground station in Lisbon.
See also: Joseph I of Portugal – Maria I of Portugal – 1755 Lisbon earthquake – Tavora affair