The Bible in Spain, by George Borrow

Chapter 1

Man Overboard — The Tagus — Foreign Languages — Gesticulation — Streets of Lisbon — The Aqueduct — Bible tolerated in Portugal — Cintra — Don Sebastian — John de Castro — Conversation with a Priest — Colhares — Mafra — Its Palace — The Schoolmaster — The Portuguese — Their Ignorance of Scripture — Rural Priesthood — The Alemtejo.

On the morning of the tenth of November, 1835, I found myself off the coast of Galicia, whose lofty mountains, gilded by the rising sun, presented a magnificent appearance. I was bound for Lisbon; we passed Cape Finisterre, and standing farther out to sea, speedily lost sight of land. On the morning of the eleventh the sea was very rough, and a remarkable circumstance occurred. I was on the forecastle, discoursing with two of the sailors: one of them, who had but just left his hammock, said, “I have had a strange dream, which I do not much like, for,” continued he, pointing up to the mast, “I dreamt that I fell into the sea from the cross-trees.” He was heard to say this by several of the crew besides myself. A moment after, the captain of the vessel perceiving that the squall was increasing, ordered the topsails to be taken in, whereupon this man with several others instantly ran aloft; the yard was in the act of being hauled down, when a sudden gust of wind whirled it round with violence, and a man was struck down from the cross-trees into the sea, which was working like yeast below. In a short time he emerged; I saw his head on the crest of a billow, and instantly recognised in the unfortunate man the sailor who a few moments before had related his dream. I shall never forget the look of agony he cast whilst the steamer hurried past him. The alarm was given, and everything was in confusion; it was two minutes at least before the vessel was stopped, by which time the man was a considerable way astern; I still, however, kept my eye upon him, and could see that he was struggling gallantly with the waves. A boat was at length lowered, but the rudder was unfortunately not at hand, and only two oars could be procured, with which the men could make but little progress in so rough a sea. They did their best, however, and had arrived within ten yards of the man, who still struggled for his life, when I lost sight of him, and the men on their return said that they saw him below the water, at glimpses, sinking deeper and deeper, his arms stretched out and his body apparently stiff, but that they found it impossible to save him; presently after, the sea, as if satisfied with the prey which it had acquired, became comparatively calm. The poor fellow who perished in this singular manner was a fine young man of twenty-seven, the only son of a widowed mother; he was the best sailor on board, and was beloved by all who were acquainted with him. This event occurred on the eleventh of November, 1835; the vessel was the London Merchant steamship. Truly wonderful are the ways of Providence!

That same night we entered the Tagus, and dropped anchor before the old tower of Belem; early the next morning we weighed, and, proceeding onward about a league, we again anchored at a short distance from the Caesodre, or principal quay of Lisbon. Here we lay for some hours beside the enormous black hulk of the Rainha Nao, a man-of-war, which in old times so captivated the eye of Nelson, that he would fain have procured it for his native country. She was, long subsequently, the admiral’s ship of the Miguelite squadron, and had been captured by the gallant Napier about three years previous to the time of which I am speaking.

The Rainha Nao is said to have caused him more trouble than all the other vessels of the enemy; and some assert that, had the others defended themselves with half the fury which the old vixen queen displayed, the result of the battle which decided the fate of Portugal would have been widely different.

I found disembarkation at Lisbon to be a matter of considerable vexation; the custom-house officers were exceedingly uncivil, and examined every article of my little baggage with most provocating minuteness.

My first impression on landing in the Peninsula was by no means a favourable one; and I had scarcely pressed the soil one hour before I heartily wished myself back in Russia, a country which I had quitted about one month previous, and where I had left cherished friends and warm affections.

After having submitted to much ill-usage and robbery at the custom-house, I proceeded in quest of a lodging, and at last found one, but dirty and expensive. The next day I hired a servant, a Portuguese, it being my invariable custom on arriving in a country to avail myself of the services of a native; chiefly with the view of perfecting myself in the language; and being already acquainted with most of the principal languages and dialects of the east and the west, I am soon able to make myself quite intelligible to the inhabitants. In about a fortnight I found myself conversing in Portuguese with considerable fluency.

Those who wish to make themselves understood by a foreigner in his own language, should speak with much noise and vociferation, opening their mouths wide. Is it surprising that the English are, in general, the worst linguists in the world, seeing that they pursue a system diametrically opposite? For example, when they attempt to speak Spanish, the most sonorous tongue in existence, they scarcely open their lips, and putting their hands in their pockets, fumble lazily, instead of applying them to the indispensable office of gesticulation. Well may the poor Spaniards exclaim, THESE ENGLISH TALK SO CRABBEDLY, THAT SATAN HIMSELF WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND THEM.

Lisbon is a huge ruinous city, still exhibiting in almost every direction the vestiges of that terrific visitation of God, the earthquake which shattered it some eighty years ago. It stands on seven hills, the loftiest of which is occupied by the castle of Saint George, which is the boldest and most prominent object to the eye, whilst surveying the city from the Tagus. The most frequented and busy parts of the city are those comprised within the valley to the north of this elevation.

Here you find the Plaza of the Inquisition, the principal square in Lisbon, from which run parallel towards the river three or four streets, amongst which are those of the gold and silver, so designated from being inhabited by smiths cunning in the working of those metals; they are upon the whole very magnificent; the houses are huge and as high as castles; immense pillars defend the causeway at intervals, producing, however, rather a cumbrous effect. These streets are quite level, and are well paved, in which respect they differ from all the others in Lisbon. The most singular street, however, of all is that of the Alemcrin, or Rosemary, which debouches on the Caesodre. It is very precipitous, and is occupied on either side by the palaces of the principal Portuguese nobility, massive and frowning, but grand and picturesque, edifices, with here and there a hanging garden, overlooking the streets at a great height.

With all its ruin and desolation, Lisbon is unquestionably the most remarkable city in the Peninsula, and, perhaps, in the south of Europe. It is not my intention to enter into minute details concerning it; I shall content myself with remarking, that it is quite as much deserving the attention of the artist as even Rome itself. True it is that though it abounds with churches it has no gigantic cathedral, like St. Peter’s, to attract the eye and fill it with wonder, yet I boldly say that there is no monument of man’s labour and skill, pertaining either to ancient or modern Rome, for whatever purpose designed, which can rival the water-works of Lisbon; I mean the stupendous aqueduct whose principal arches cross the valley to the north-east of Lisbon, and which discharges its little runnel of cool and delicious water into the rocky cistern within that beautiful edifice called the Mother of the Waters, from whence all Lisbon is supplied with the crystal lymph, though the source is seven leagues distant. Let travellers devote one entire morning to inspecting the Arcos and the Mai das Agoas, after which they may repair to the English church and cemetery, Pere-la-chaise in miniature, where, if they be of England, they may well be excused if they kiss the cold tomb, as I did, of the author of Amelia, the most singular genius which their island ever produced, whose works it has long been the fashion to abuse in public and to read in secret. In the same cemetery rest the mortal remains of Doddridge, another English author of a different stamp, but justly admired and esteemed. I had not intended, on disembarking, to remain long in Lisbon, nor indeed in Portugal; my destination was Spain, whither I shortly proposed to direct my steps, it being the intention of the Bible Society to attempt to commence operations in that country, the object of which should be the distribution of the Word of God, for Spain had hitherto been a region barred against the admission of the Bible; not so Portugal, where, since the revolution, the Bible had been permitted both to be introduced and circulated. Little, however, had been accomplished; therefore, finding myself in the country, I determined, if possible, to effect something in the way of distribution, but first of all to make myself acquainted as to how far the people were disposed to receive the Bible, and whether the state of education in general would permit them to turn it to much account. I had plenty of Bibles and Testaments at my disposal, but could the people read them, or would they? A friend of the Society to whom I was recommended was absent from Lisbon at the period of my arrival; this I regretted, as he could have afforded me several useful hints. In order, however, that no time might be lost, I determined not to wait for his arrival, but at once proceed to gather the best information I could upon those points to which I have already alluded. I determined to commence my researches at some slight distance from Lisbon, being well aware of the erroneous ideas that I must form of the Portuguese in general, should I judge of their character and opinions from what I saw and heard in a city so much subjected to foreign intercourse.

My first excursion was to Cintra. If there be any place in the world entitled to the appellation of an enchanted region, it is surely Cintra; Tivoli is a beautiful and picturesque place, but it quickly fades from the mind of those who have seen the Portuguese Paradise. When speaking of Cintra, it must not for a moment be supposed that nothing more is meant than the little town or city; by Cintra must be understood the entire region, town, palace, quintas, forests, crags, Moorish ruin, which suddenly burst on the view on rounding the side of a bleak, savage, and sterile-looking mountain. Nothing is more sullen and uninviting than the south-western aspect of the stony wall which, on the side of Lisbon, seems to shield Cintra from the eye of the world, but the other side is a mingled scene of fairy beauty, artificial elegance, savage grandeur, domes, turrets, enormous trees, flowers and waterfalls, such as is met with nowhere else beneath the sun. Oh! there are strange and wonderful objects at Cintra, and strange and wonderful recollections attached to them. The ruin on that lofty peak, and which covers part of the side of that precipitous steep, was once the principal stronghold of the Lusitanian Moors, and thither, long after they had disappeared, at a particular moon of every year, were wont to repair wild santons of Maugrabie, to pray at the tomb of a famous Sidi, who slumbers amongst the rocks. That grey palace witnessed the assemblage of the last cortes held by the boy king Sebastian, ere he departed on his romantic expedition against the Moors, who so well avenged their insulted faith and country at Alcazarquibir, and in that low shady quinta, embowered amongst those tall alcornoques, once dwelt John de Castro, the strange old viceroy of Goa, who pawned the hairs of his dead son’s beard to raise money to repair the ruined wall of a fortress threatened by the heathen of Ind; those crumbling stones which stand before the portal, deeply graven, not with “runes,” but things equally dark, Sanscrit rhymes from the Vedas, were brought by him from Goa, the most brilliant scene of his glory, before Portugal had become a base kingdom; and down that dingle, on an abrupt rocky promontory, stand the ruined halls of the English Millionaire, who there nursed the wayward fancies of a mind as wild, rich, and variegated as the scenes around. Yes, wonderful are the objects which meet the eye at Cintra, and wonderful are the recollections attached to them.

The town of Cintra contains about eight hundred inhabitants. The morning subsequent to my arrival, as I was about to ascend the mountain for the purpose of examining the Moorish ruins, I observed a person advancing towards me whom I judged by his dress to be an ecclesiastic; he was in fact one of the three priests of the place. I instantly accosted him, and had no reason to regret doing so; I found him affable and communicative.

After praising the beauty of the surrounding scenery, I made some inquiry as to the state of education amongst the people under his care. He answered, that he was sorry to say that they were in a state of great ignorance, very few of the common people being able either to read or write; that with respect to schools, there was but one in the place, where four or five children were taught the alphabet, but that even this was at present closed; he informed me, however, that there was a school at Colhares, about a league distant. Amongst other things, he said that nothing more surprised him than to see Englishmen, the most learned and intelligent people in the world, visiting a place like Cintra, where there was no literature, science, nor anything of utility (coisa que presta). I suspect that there was some covert satire in the last speech of the worthy priest; I was, however, Jesuit enough to appear to receive it as a high compliment, and, taking off my hat, departed with an infinity of bows.

That same day I visited Colhares, a romantic village on the side of the mountain of Cintra, to the north-west. Seeing some peasants collected round a smithy, I inquired about the school, whereupon one of the men instantly conducted me thither. I went upstairs into a small apartment, where I found the master with about a dozen pupils standing in a row; I saw but one stool in the room, and to that, after having embraced me, he conducted me with great civility. After some discourse, he showed me the books which he used for the instruction of the children; they were spelling books, much of the same kind as those used in the village schools in England. Upon my asking him whether it was his practice to place the Scriptures in the hands of the children, he informed me that long before they had acquired sufficient intelligence to understand them they were removed by their parents, in order that they might assist in the labours of the field, and that the parents in general were by no means solicitous that their children should learn anything, as they considered the time occupied in learning as so much squandered away. He said, that though the schools were nominally supported by the government, it was rarely that the schoolmasters could obtain their salaries, on which account many had of late resigned their employments. He told me that he had a copy of the New Testament in his possession, which I desired to see, but on examining it I discovered that it was only the epistles by Pereira, with copious notes. I asked him whether he considered that there was harm in reading the Scriptures without notes: he replied that there was certainly no harm in it, but that simple people, without the help of notes, could derive but little benefit from Scripture, as the greatest part would be unintelligible to them; whereupon I shook hands with him, and on departing said that there was no part of Scripture so difficult to understand as those very notes which were intended to elucidate it, and that it would never have been written if not calculated of itself to illume the minds of all classes of mankind.

In a day or two I made an excursion to Mafra, distant about three leagues from Cintra; the principal part of the way lay over steep hills, somewhat dangerous for horses; however, I reached the place in safety.

Mafra is a large village in the neighbourhood of an immense building, intended to serve as a convent and palace, and which is built somewhat after the fashion of the Escurial. In this edifice exists the finest library in Portugal, containing books on all sciences and in all languages, and well suited to the size and grandeur of the edifice which contains it. There were no monks, however, to take care of it, as in former times; they had been driven forth, some to beg their bread, some to serve under the banners of Don Carlos, in Spain, and many, as I was informed, to prowl about as banditti. I found the place abandoned to two or three menials, and exhibiting an aspect of solitude and desolation truly appalling. Whilst I was viewing the cloisters, a fine intelligent-looking lad came up and asked (I suppose in the hope of obtaining a trifle) whether I would permit him to show me the village church, which he informed me was well worth seeing; I said no, but added, that it he would show me the village school I should feel much obliged to him. He looked at me with astonishment, and assured me that there was nothing to be seen at the school, which did not contain more than half a dozen boys, and that he himself was one of the number. On my telling him, however, that he should show me no other place, he at length unwillingly attended me. On the way I learned from him that the schoolmaster was one of the friars who had lately been expelled from the convent, that he was a very learned man, and spoke French and Greek. We passed a stone cross, and the boy bent his head and crossed himself with much devotion. I mention this circumstance, as it was the first instance of the kind which I had observed amongst the Portuguese since my arrival. When near the house where the schoolmaster resided, he pointed it out to me, and then hid himself behind a wall, where he awaited my return.

On stepping over the threshold I was confronted by a short stout man, between sixty and seventy years of age, dressed in a blue jerkin and grey trousers, without shirt or waistcoat; he looked at me sternly, and enquired in the French language what was my pleasure. I apologised for intruding upon him, and stated that, being informed he occupied the situation of schoolmaster, I had come to pay my respects to him and to beg permission to ask a few questions respecting the seminary. He answered that whoever told me he was a schoolmaster lied, for that he was a friar of the convent and nothing else. “It is not then true,” said I, “that all the convents have been broken up and the monks dismissed?” “Yes, yes,” said he with a sigh, “it is true; it is but too true.” He then was silent for a minute, and his better nature overcoming his angry feelings, he produced a snuff-box and offered it to me. The snuff-box is the olive-branch of the Portuguese, and he who wishes to be on good terms with them must never refuse to dip his finger and thumb into it when offered. I took therefore a huge pinch, though I detest the dust, and we were soon on the best possible terms. He was eager to obtain news, especially from Lisbon and Spain. I told him that the officers of the troops at Lisbon had, the day before I left that place, gone in a body to the queen and insisted upon her either receiving their swords or dismissing her ministers; whereupon he rubbed his hands and said that he was sure matters would not remain tranquil at Lisbon. On my saying, however, that I thought the affairs of Don Carlos were on the decline (this was shortly after the death of Zumalacarregui), he frowned, and cried that it could not possibly be, for that God was too just to suffer it. I felt for the poor man who had been driven out of his home in the noble convent close by, and from a state of affluence and comfort reduced in his old age to indigence and misery, for his present dwelling scarcely seemed to contain an article of furniture. I tried twice or thrice to induce him to converse about the school, but he either avoided the subject or said shortly that he knew nothing about it. On my leaving him, the boy came from his hiding-place and rejoined me; he said that he had hidden himself through fear of his master’s knowing that he had brought me to him, for that he was unwilling that any stranger should know that he was a schoolmaster.

I asked the boy whether he or his parents were acquainted with the Scripture and ever read it; he did not, however, seem to understand me. I must here observe that the boy was fifteen years of age, that he was in many respects very intelligent, and had some knowledge of the Latin language; nevertheless he knew not the Scripture even by name, and I have no doubt, from what I subsequently observed, that at least two-thirds of his countrymen are on that important point no wiser than himself. At the doors of village inns, at the hearths of the rustics, in the fields where they labour, at the stone fountains by the wayside where they water their cattle, I have questioned the lower class of the children of Portugal about the Scripture, the Bible, the Old and New Testament, and in no one instance have they known what I was alluding to, or could return me a rational answer, though on all other matters their replies were sensible enough; indeed, nothing surprised me more than the free and unembarrassed manner in which the Portuguese peasantry sustain a conversation, and the purity of the language in which they express their thoughts, and yet few of them can read or write; whereas the peasantry of England, whose education is in general much superior, are in their conversation coarse and dull almost to brutality, and absurdly ungrammatical in their language, though the English tongue is upon the whole more simple in its structure than the Portuguese.

On my return to Lisbon I found our friend — who received me very kindly. The next ten days were exceedingly rainy, which prevented me from making any excursions into the country: during this time I saw our friend frequently, and had long conversations with him concerning the best means of distributing the gospel. He thought we could do no better for the present than put part of our stock into the hands of the booksellers of Lisbon, and at the same time employ colporteurs to hawk the books about the streets, receiving a certain profit off every copy they sold. This plan was agreed upon and forthwith put in practice, and with some success. I had thought of sending colporteurs into the neighbouring villages, but to this our friend objected. He thought the attempt dangerous, as it was very possible that the rural priesthood, who still possessed much influence in their own districts, and who were for the most part decided enemies to the spread of the gospel, might cause the men employed to be assassinated or ill-treated.

I determined, however, ere leaving Portugal, to establish depots of Bibles in one or two of the provincial towns. I wished to visit the Alemtejo, which I had heard was a very benighted region. The Alemtejo means the province beyond the Tagus. This province is not beautiful and picturesque, like most other parts of Portugal: there are few hills and mountains, the greater part consists of heaths broken by knolls, and gloomy dingles, and forests of stunted pine; these places are infested with banditti. The principal city is Evora, one of the most ancient in Portugal, and formerly the seat of a branch of the Inquisition, yet more cruel and baneful than the terrible one of Lisbon. Evora lies about sixty miles from Lisbon, and to Evora I determined on going with twenty Testaments and two Bibles. How I fared there will presently be seen.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32