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Letters Of George Borrow by George Borrow

To the Rev. A. Brandram

(Endorsed: recd. Nov.30th, 1836)
LISBON, Novr. 15th, 1836.

REVD. AND DEAR SIR, -- On taking leave of you I promised to write from Cadiz, and I still hope to perform my promise; but as I am apprehensive that several days will elapse before I shall reach that place I avail myself of the present opportunity of informing you that I am alive and well, lest you should become uneasy at not hearing from me at the time you expected. It is owing to the mercy of God that, instead of being able to pen these lines, I am not at the present moment floundering in the brine, a prey to the fishes and monsters of the ocean.

We had a most unpleasant passage to Falmouth. The ship was crowded with passengers, most of whom were poor consumptive individuals and other invalids, fleeing from the cold blasts of England's winter to the sunny shores of Portugal and Madeira. In a more uncomfortable vessel, especially steam-ship, it has never been my fate to make a voyage; the berths were small and insupportably close, and of the wretched holes mine was amongst the worst, the rest having been for the most part bespoken before I arrived on board, so that to avoid the suffocation which seemed to threaten me I lay upon the floor of one of the cabins, and continued to do so until my arrival here. We remained at Falmouth twenty-four hours, taking in coals and repairing the engine, which had sustained considerable damage.

On Monday the 7th inst. we again started and made for the Bay of Biscay; the sea was high and the wind strong and contrary, nevertheless on the morning of the fourth day we were in sight of the rocky coast to the north of Cape Finisterre. I must here observe that this was the first voyage that the captain who commanded the vessel had ever made on board of her, and that he knew little or nothing about the coast towards which we were bearing; he was a person picked up in a hurry, the former captain having resigned his command on the ground that the ship was not sea-worthy, and that the engines were frequently unserviceable. I was not acquainted with these circumstances at the time, or perhaps I should have felt more alarmed than I did when I saw the vessel approaching nearer and nearer to the shore, till at last we were only a few hundred yards distant. As it was, however, I felt very much surprised, for having passed it twice before, both times in steam-vessels, and having seen with what care the captains endeavoured to maintain a wide offing, I could not conceive the reason of our being now so near the dangerous region. The wind was blowing hard towards the shore, if that can be called a shore which consists of steep abrupt precipices, on which the surf was breaking with the noise of thunder, tossing up clouds of spray and foam to the height of a cathedral. We coasted slowly along, rounding several tall forelands, some of them piled up by the hand of nature in the most fantastic shapes, until about the fall of night. Cape Finisterre was not far ahead, a bluff brown granite mountain, whose frowning head may be seen far away by those who travel the ocean. The stream which poured round its breast was terrific, and though our engines plied with all their force, we made little or no way.

By about eight o'clock at night, the wind had increased to a hurricane, the thunder rolled frightfully, and the only light which we had to guide us on our way was the red forked lightning which burst at times from the bosom of the big black clouds which lowered over our heads. We were exerting ourselves to the utmost to weather the cape, which we could descry by the lightning on our lee, its brow being frequently brilliantly lighted up by the flashes which quivered around it, when suddenly, with a great crash, the engine broke, and the paddles on which depended our lives ceased to play.

I will not attempt to depict the scene of horror and confusion which ensued: it may be imagined, but never described. The captain, to give him his due, displayed the utmost coolness and intrepidity, and he and the whole crew made the greatest exertions to repair the engine, and when they found their labour in vain, endeavoured by hoisting the sails and by practising all possible manoeuvres to preserve the ship from impending destruction. But all was of no use; we were hard on a lee shore, to which the howling tempest was impelling us. About this time I was standing near the helm, and I asked the steersman if there was any hope of saving the vessel or our lives; he replied, 'Sir, it is a bad affair; no boat could for a minute live in this sea, and in less than an hour the ship will have her broadside on Finisterre, where the strongest man-of-war ever built must go to shivers instantly. None of us will see the morning.' The captain likewise informed the other passengers in the cabin to the same effect, telling them to prepare themselves, and having done so he ordered the door to be fastened, and none to be permitted to come on deck. I, however, kept my station, though almost drowned with water, immense waves continually breaking over our windward side and flooding the ship; the water-casks broke from their lashings, and one of them struck me down, and crushed the foot of the unfortunate man at the helm, whose place was instantly taken by the captain. We were now close on the rocks, when a horrid convulsion of the elements took place; the lightning enveloped us as with a mantle, the thunders were louder than the roar of a million cannon, the dregs of the ocean seemed to be cast up, and in the midst of all this turmoil the wind, without the slightest intimation veered right about, and pushed us from the horrible coast faster than it had previously drawn us towards it.

The oldest sailors on board acknowledged that they had never witnessed so providential an escape. I said from the bottom of my heart, 'Our Father: hallowed be Thy name.' The next day we were near foundering, for the sea was exceedingly high, and our vessel, which was not intended for sailing, laboured terribly, and leaked much. The pumps were continually working. She likewise took fire, but the flames were extinguished. In the evening the steam-engine was partially repaired, and we reached Lisbon on the 13th. Most of my clothes and other things are spoiled, for the hold was overflowed with the water from the boiler and the leak.

The vessel will be ready for sea in about a week, when I shall depart for Cadiz; but most of the passengers who intended going farther than Lisbon have abandoned her, as they say she is doomed. But I have more trust in the Lord that governeth the winds, and in whose hands the seas are as a drop. He who preserved us at Finisterre can preserve elsewhere, and if it be His will that we perish, the firm ground is not more secure than the heaving sea.

I have seen our excellent friend Mr. Wilby, and delivered to him the parcel, with which I was entrusted. He has been doing everything in his power to further the sale of the sacred volume in Portuguese; indeed his zeal and devotedness are quite admirable, and the Society can never appreciate his efforts too highly. But since I was last at Lisbon the distracted state of the country has been a great obstacle to him; people's minds are so engrossed with politics that they find no time to think of their souls. Before this reaches you, you will doubtless have heard of the late affair at Belem, where poor Freire (I knew him well) one of the ex-Ministers lost his life, and which nearly ended in an affray between the English forces and the native. The opinions of the Portuguese seem to be decidedly democratic, and I have little doubt that were the English squadron withdrawn the unfortunate young Queen would lose her crown within a month, and be compelled with her no less unfortunate young husband to seek a refuge in another country. I repeat that I hope to write to you from Cadiz; I shall probably be soon in the allotted field of my labours, distracted, miserable Spain. The news from thence is at present particularly dismal; the ferocious Gomez, after having made an excursion into Estremadura, which he ravaged like a pestilence, has returned to Andalusia, the whole of which immense province seems to be prone at his feet. I shall probably find Seville occupied by his hordes, but I fear them not, and trust that the Lord will open the path for me to Madrid. One thing I am resolved upon: either to be the instrument of doing something for Spain, or never to appear again in my native land.

G. B.

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