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Letters Of George Borrow by George Borrow

To the Rev. A. Brandram

(Endorsed: recd. July 30th, 1836)
MADRID, July 19th, 1836.

REVD. AND DEAR SIR, -- As I believe you have no account of my proceedings at Badajoz, I send you the following which will perhaps serve for your 'Monthly Extracts.' I have corrected and improved my translation of the Lord's Prayer into Rommany, and should it be printed, let it be done so with care. Perhaps in a few days I shall send a general account of what I have been about since my arrival at Madrid, but I am at present very feeble and languid, and can scarcely hold a pen. There is nothing new here, all is quiet, and I hope will continue so. My time does not pass very agreeably, I am without books or conversation, for all my acquaintance have left the place to escape from the intolerable heat. I often sigh for Russia, and wish I was there, editing Mandchou or Armenian; pray remember me kindly to Mr. Jowett and to my other friends. I remain, etc.

G. BORROW.

About one o'clock in the afternoon of the 6th of January, 1836, I crossed the bridge of the Guadiana, a boundary river between Portugal and Spain, and entered Badajoz, a strong Spanish town containing about 8000 inhabitants, and founded by the Romans. I instantly returned thanks to God who had protected me during a journey of five days through the wilds of Alemtejo, the province of Portugal the most infested by robbers and desperate characters, and which I had traversed with no other human companion than a lad, nearly idiotic, who was to convey back the mules which carried myself and baggage. It was not my intention to make much stay at Badajoz, and as a vehicle would set out for Madrid the day next but one after my arrival, I proposed to depart therein for the capital of Spain.

The next morning I was standing at the door of the inn where I had taken up my residence; the weather was gloomy, and rain seemed to be at hand. I was thinking of the state of the country I had lately entered, which was involved in bloody anarchy and confusion, and where the ministers of a religion, falsely styled Catholic and Christian, were blowing the trump of war, instead of preaching the love-engendering words of the blessed Gospel. Suddenly two men wrapped in long cloaks came down the narrow and almost deserted street. They were about to pass me, and the face of the nearest was turned full towards me. I knew to whom the countenance which he displayed must belong, and I touched him on the shoulder. The man stopped and his companion also; I said a certain word, to which after an exclamation of surprise he responded in the manner which I expected. The men were of that singular family, or race, which has diffused itself over every part of the civilized globe, and the members of which are known as Gypsies, Bohemians, Gitanos, Zigani, and by many other names, but whose proper appellation seems to be 'Rommany,' from the circumstance that in many and distant countries they so style themselves, and also the language which they speak amongst each other. We began conversing in the Spanish dialect of this language, with which I was tolerably well acquainted. Upon inquiring of my two newly-made acquaintances whether there were many of their people at Badajoz and in the vicinity, they informed me that there were nine or ten families residing in the town, and that there were others at Merida, a town about nine leagues distant. I asked by what means they supported themselves, and they replied that they and their brethren gained a livelihood by jobbing in horses, mules, etc., but that all those in Badajoz were very poor, with the exception of one man, who was exceedingly mubalballo or rich, as he was in possession of many horses and other beasts. They removed their cloaks for a moment, and I saw that their undergarments were rags.

They left me in haste, and went about the town informing the rest that a stranger was arrived, who spoke Rommany as well as themselves, who had the eyes and face of a Gitano, and seemed to be of the eratti, or blood. In less than half-an-hour the street before the inn was filled with the men, women, and children of Egypt. I went out amongst them, and my heart sank within me as I surveyed them; so much squalidness, dirt, and misery I had never before seen amongst a similar number of human beings. But the worst of all was the evil expression of their countenances, plainly denoting that they were familiar with every species of crime; and it was not long before I found that their countenances did not belie them. After they had asked me an infinity of questions, and felt my hands, face, and clothes, they retired to their homes. My meeting with these wretched people was the reason of my remaining at Badajoz a much longer time than I originally intended. I wished to become better acquainted with their condition and manners, and above all to speak to them about Christ and His Word, for I was convinced that should I travel to the end of the universe I should meet with none who were more in need of Christian exhortation, and I accordingly continued at Badajoz for nearly three weeks.

During this time I was almost constantly amongst them, and as I spoke their language and was considered by them as one of themselves, I had better opportunities of coming to a fair conclusion respecting their character than any other person, whether Spaniard or foreigner, could have hoped for, not possessed of a similar advantage. The result of my observations was a firm belief that the Spanish Gitanos are the most vile, degraded, and wretched people upon the earth.

In no part of the world does the Gypsy race enjoy a fair fame and reputation, there being no part where they are not considered, and I believe with justice, as cheats and swindlers; but those of Spain are not only all this, but far more. The Gypsies of England, Russia, etc., live by fraud of various descriptions, but they seldom commit acts of violence, and their vices are none or very few; the men are not drunkards, nor are the women harlots; but the Gypsy of Spain is a cheat in the market-place, a brigand and murderer on the high-road, and a drunkard in the wine-shop, and his wife is a harlot and thief on all times and occasions. The excessive wickedness of these outcasts may perhaps be attributed to their having abandoned their wandering life and become inmates of the towns, where to the original bad traits of their character they have super-added the evil and vicious habits of the rabble. Their mouths teem with abomination, and in no part of the world have I heard such frequent, frightful, and extraordinary cursing as amongst them.

Religion they have none; they never attend mass, nor confess themselves, and never employ the names of God, Christ and the Virgin, but in imprecation and blasphemy. From what I learnt from them it appeared that their ancestors had some belief in metempsychosis, but they themselves laughed at the idea, and were decidedly of opinion that the soul perished when the body ceased to breathe; and the argument which they used was rational enough, so far as it impugned metempsychosis: 'We have been wicked and miserable enough in this life,' they said; 'why should we live again?'

I translated certain portions of Scripture into their dialect, which I frequently read to them, especially the parables of Lazarus and the Prodigal Son, and told them that the latter had been as wicked as themselves, and both had suffered as much or more; but that the sufferings of the former, who always looked forward to a blessed resurrection, were recompensed in the world to come by admission to the society of Abraham and the prophets, and that the latter, when he repented of his crimes, was forgiven and received into as much favour as the just son had always enjoyed. They listened with admiration, but alas! not of the truths, the eternal truths I was telling them, but at finding that their broken jargon could be written and read. The only words of assent to the heavenly doctrine which I ever obtained, and which were rather of the negative kind, were the following, from a woman: 'Brother, you tell us strange things, though perhaps you do not lie; a month since I would sooner have believed these tales, than that I should this day have seen one who could write Rommany.'

They possess a vast number of songs or couplets which they recite to the music of the guitar. For the purpose of improving myself in the language I collected and wrote down upwards of one hundred of these couplets, the subjects of which are horse-stealing, murder, and the various incidents of gypsy-life in Spain. Perhaps a collection of songs more characteristic of the people from whom they originated was never made, though amongst them are to be found some tender and beautiful thoughts, though few and far between, as a flower or shrub is here and there seen springing from the interstices of the rugged and frightful rocks of which are composed the mountains and sierras of Spain.

The following is their traditionary account of the expulsion of their fathers from Egypt. 'And it came to pass that Pharaoh the King collected numerous armies for the purpose of war; and after he had conquered the whole world, he challenged God to descend from heaven and fight him; but the Lord replied, |There is no one who shall fight with Me|; and thereupon the Lord opened a mountain, and He cast therein Pharaoh the King and all his numerous armies; so that the Egyptians remained without defence, and their enemies arose and scattered them wide abroad.'

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