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Letters Of George Borrow by George Borrow

To the Rev. A. Brandram

(Endorsed: recd. Dec.28th, 1836)
SEVILLE, Dec. 5th, 1836.

REVD. AND DEAR SIR, -- I arrived safely at Cadiz on the 21st ult.; the steam-engine had been partially repaired at Lisbon, and our passage was speedy and prosperous. I was happy to have reached the shores of Spain, being eager to enter upon my allotted task. Cadiz is a small but beautiful city, built upon a tongue of land and surrounded on all points but one by the sea, which dashes up against its walls: the houses are lofty, and of a dazzling whiteness; the streets are straight and narrow. On my arrival I found great confusion reigning: numerous bands of the factious were reported to be hovering in the neighbourhood, an attack was not deemed improbable, and the place had just been declared in a state of siege. I took up my abode at the French Hotel, in the Calle de la Niveria, and was allotted a species of cock-loft or garret to sleep in, for the house was filled with guests, being a place of much resort on account of the excellent table d'hote which is kept there. I dressed myself and walked about the town. I entered several coffee houses: the din of tongues in all was deafening; in one no less than six orators were haranguing at the same time on the state of the country, and the probability of an intervention on the part of England and France. As I was listening to one of them he suddenly called upon me for my opinion, as I was a foreigner, and seemingly just arrived. I replied that I could not venture to guess what steps the two Governments would pursue under the present circumstances, but thought that it would be as well if the Spaniards would exert themselves more, and call less on Jupiter. As I did not wish to engage in any political conversation I instantly quitted the house, and sought those parts of the town where the lower classes principally reside.

I entered into discourse with several individuals, but found them very ignorant; none could write or read, and their ideas respecting religion were anything but satisfactory, most professing a perfect indifference. I afterwards went into a bookseller's shop, and made enquiries respecting the demand for literature, which he informed me was small. I produced our 24mo edition of the New Testament in Spanish, and asked the bookseller whether he thought a book of that description would sell in Cadiz. He said it was exceedingly beautiful, both in type and paper, but it was a work not sought after, and very little known. I did not pursue my enquiries in other shops, for I reflected that I was not very likely to receive a very favourable opinion from booksellers respecting a publication in which they had no interest. I had, moreover, but two or three copies of the New Testament with me, and could not have supplied them had they given me an order.

That night I became very unwell, and was apprehending that I had been seized with the cholera, as the symptoms of my complaint were very similar to those which accompany that disorder. I was for some time in most acute pain, and terribly sick; I drank oil mixed with brandy, and in some degree recovered, and for the two succeeding days was very feeble, and able to undertake nothing. This attack was the cause of my not writing to you from Cadiz as I had fully intended.

Early on the 24th I embarked for Seville in the small Spanish steamer the Betis. The morning was wet, and the aspect of nature was enveloped in a dense mist, which prevented my observing surrounding objects. After proceeding about six leagues, we reached the north-eastern extremity of the bay of Cadiz, and passed by Saint Lucar, an ancient town close by where the Guadalquivir disembogues itself. The mist suddenly disappeared, and the sun of Spain burst forth in full brilliancy, enlivening all around, and particularly myself, who had till then been lying on the deck in a dull melancholy stupor. We entered the mouth of the 'Great River,' for that is the English translation of Qued al Kiber, as the Moors designated the ancient Betis. We came to anchor for a few minutes at a little village called Bonanca, at the extremity of the first reach of the river, where we received several passengers, and again proceeded. There is not much in the appearance of the Guadalquivir to interest the traveller: the banks are low and destitute of trees, the adjacent country is flat, and only in the distance is seen a range of tall blue sierras. The water is turbid and muddy, and in colour closely resembling the contents of a duck-pool; the average width of the stream is from 150 to 200 yards. But it is impossible to move along this river without remembering that it has borne the Roman, the Vandal, and the Arab, and has been the witness of deeds which have resounded through the world, and been the themes of immortal song. I repeated Latin verses and fragments of old Spanish ballads, till we reached Seville at about nine o'clock of a lovely moonlight night.

Before entering upon more important matter I will say a few words respecting Seville and its curiosities. It contains 90,000 inhabitants, and is situated on the left bank of the Guadalquivir, about eighteen leagues from its mouth. It is surrounded with high Moorish walls, in a good state of preservation, and built of such durable materials that it is probable they will for many centuries bid defiance to the encroachment of time. The most remarkable edifices are the cathedral and Alcazar or palace of the Moorish kings. The tower of the former, called La Giralda, belongs to the period of the Moors, and formed part of the Grand Mosque of Seville. It is 220 ells in height, and is ascended not by stairs or ladders, but by a vaulted pathway, in the manner of an inclined plane; this path is by no means steep, so that a cavalier might ride up to the top, a feat which Ferdinand the Seventh is said to have accomplished. The view from the summit is very extensive, and on a fine clear day the ridge called the Sierra de Ronda may be discovered though the distance is upward of twenty-two leagues. The cathedral itself is a noble Gothic structure, reputed the finest of the kind in Spain. In the chapels allotted to the various saints are some of the most magnificent paintings which Spanish art has produced. Here are to be seen the far-famed 'Angel of the Guard,' by Murillo, his 'Saint Anthony at Devotion,' the celestial spirits hovering around him, and Saint Thomas of Villa Nueva bestowing Charity'; there are also some pictures by Soberan [? Zurbaran] of almost inestimable value. Indeed, the cathedral at Seville is at the present time far more rich in splendid paintings than at any former period, possessing many very recently removed from some of the suppressed convents, particularly from the Capuchin and Franciscan.

No one should visit Seville without paying particular attention to the Alcazar. It is perhaps the most perfect specimen of Moorish architecture which is at present to be found in Europe. It contains many splendid halls, particularly that of the Ambassadors, so called, which is in every respect more magnificent than the one of the same name within the Alhambra of Granada. This palace was a favourite residence of Peter the Cruel, who carefully repaired it, without altering its Moorish character and appearance. It probably remains in much the same state as at the time of his death.

On the right side of the river is a large suburb called Triana, communicating with Seville by means of a bridge of boats; for there is no permanent bridge across the Guadalquivir owing to the violent inundations to which it is subject. This suburb is inhabited by the dregs of the populace, and abounds with Gitanos or Gypsies. About a league and a half to the north-west stands the village of Santo Ponce; at the foot and on the side of some elevated ground higher up are to be seen vestiges of ruined walls and edifices which once formed part of Italica, the birth-place of Silius Italicus and Trajan, from which latter personage Triana derives its name. One fine morning I walked thither, and having ascended the hill I directed my course northward. I soon reached what had once been bagnios, and a little farther on, in a kind of valley between two gentle acclivities, the amphitheatre. This latter object is by far the most considerable relic of ancient Italica; it is oval in its form, with two gateways, fronting the east and west. On all sides are to be seen the time-worn broken granite benches, from whence myriads of human beings once gazed down on the area below, where the gladiator shouted, and the lion and leopard yelled. All around beneath these flights of benches are vaulted excavations, from whence the combatants, part human, part bestial, darted forth by their several doors. I spent several hours in this singular place, forcing my way through the wild fennel and brushwood into the caverns, now the haunts of adders and other reptiles, whose hissings I heard. Having sated my curiosity, I left the ruins, and returning by another way reached a place where lay the carcase of a horse half-devoured. Upon it with lustrous eyes stood an enormous vulture, who, as I approached, slowly soared aloft till he alighted on the eastern gate of the amphitheatre, from whence he uttered a hoarse cry, as if in anger that I had disturbed him from his feast of carrion.

And now for another subject. You are doubtless anxious to know what are my projects, and why I am not by this time further advanced on my way to Madrid; know then that the way to Madrid is beset with more perils than harassed Christian in his route to the Eternal Kingdom. Almost all communication is at an end between this place and the capital, the diligences and waggons have ceased running, even the bold arrieros or muleteers are at a stand-still; and the reason is that the rural portion of Spain, especially this part, is in a state of complete disorganisation and of blackest horror. The three fiends, famine, plunder, and murder, are playing their ghastly revels unchecked; bands of miscreants captained by such -- what shall I call them? -- as Orejita and Palillos, are prowling about in every direction, and woe to those whom they meet. A few days since they intercepted an unfortunate courier, and after scooping out his eyes put him to death with most painful tortures, and mangled his body in a way not to be mentioned. Moreover, the peasantry, who have been repeatedly plundered by these fellows, and who have had their horses and cattle taken from them by the Carlists, being reduced with their families to nakedness and the extreme of hunger, seize in rage and desperation upon every booty which comes within their reach, a circumstance which can awaken but little surprise.

This terrible state of things, staring me in the face on my arrival at Seville, made me pause. I thought that the tempest might in some degree subside, but hitherto I have been disappointed. My mind is at present made up. I shall depart for Madrid in two or three days, at all risks. The distance is 300 miles. I shall hire, in the first place, horses, and a guide, as far as Cordova (twenty-six leagues). I shall have to pay a great price, it is true, but I have money, praised be God, who inspired me with the idea of putting fifty sovereigns in my pocket when I left London. I should otherwise be helpless. From Cordova I must endeavour to obtain horses to Val de Penas (twenty leagues), which is half way to Madrid. Were I at Val de Penas, I should feel comparatively at ease; for from thence I know the road, having traversed it in my ways from Madrid to Grenada; it moreover runs through La Mancha, which, though infested with banditti, is plain open ground, and if I could obtain no guide or horses, or had been plundered of my money, I might hope to make my way on foot. But I am ignorant of the country between Seville and Cordova, and from Cordova to Val de Penas. The route is through the dismal and savage mountains of the Sierra Morena, where I should inevitably be bewildered, and perhaps, if not murdered, fall a prey to the wolves. Were the whole way known to me, I would leave my baggage here and dressed as a beggar or Gypsy set out on foot; strange as this plan may sound in English ears, it would be the safest course I could pursue. Should I perish in this journey, keep the affair secret as long as possible from my dear mother, and when it should be necessary to reveal it to her, do me the favour to go to Norwich on purpose; should I reach Madrid, you will hear from me in about five weeks, from the time you receive this. It would be of no utility to write to you from Cordova; the letter would never reach you, I hope this will.

Gomez had not hitherto paid a visit to Seville; when I arrived here, he was said to be in the neighbourhood of Ronda. The city was under watch and ward, several gates had been blocked up with masonry, trenches dug, and redoubts erected, but I am convinced that the place would not have held out six hours against a resolute assault. Gomez has proved himself to be a most extraordinary man, and with his small army of Aragonese and Basques has within the last four months made the tour of Spain; he has very frequently been hemmed in with forces three times the number of his own, in places whence escape seemed impossible, but he has always baffled his enemies, whom he seems to laugh at. The most absurd accounts of victories gained over him are continually issuing from the press at Seville; the other day it was stated that his army had been utterly defeated, himself killed, and that 1200 prisoners were on their way to Seville. I saw these prisoners; instead of 1200 desperadoes, they consisted of about twenty poor lame ragged wretches, many of them boys from fourteen to sixteen years of age; they were evidently camp-followers, who, unable to keep up with the army, had been picked up straggling in the plains and amongst the hills. It now appears that no battle had occurred, and that the death of Gomez was a fiction. The grand defect of Gomez is not knowing how to take advantage of circumstances; after his defeat of Lopez he might have marched to Madrid and proclaimed Don Carlos there, and after sacking Cordova, he might have captured Seville.

There are several booksellers' shops in Seville, in two of which I found copies of the New Testament (our own 12mo edition of 1826); they had been obtained from Gibraltar about two years since, during which time six copies had been sold in one shop and four in the other. I have become acquainted with an elderly person, a Genoese by birth, who, should we succeed in bringing out an edition of the sacred volume at Madrid, may be of service to us, as a colporteur in this place and the neighbourhood, where he is well known. He has assured me of his willingness to undertake the task, and, if required, to visit Cordova, Grenada, or any part of Andalusia, town or country; he has been accustomed to bookselling, and at one time he also brought some of our Testaments from Gibraltar, all of which were however taken from him by the Custom House officers with the exception of one copy, which he afterwards disposed of to a lady for 30 reals (6s.6d.). Should the Bible Society be desirous to circulate the book in the rural districts of Spain, they must be prepared to make considerable sacrifices. In some of the towns, especially the sea-ports, it is probable that many copies may be disposed of, at a fair price; but can it be expected that amongst myriads, who are in want of the common necessaries of life, who are without food, fuel or clothing, and on whose wretched heads the horrors which civil war -- and such a civil war -- have principally fallen, [men] can have money for books? I am willing to visit every part of Spain, and to risk my life a thousand times in laying God's Word before the people, but I can promise no more. I have no extraordinary powers, indeed scarcely those allotted to the average of humanity; God, it is true, can operate wonders by any instrument, but we must bide His will.

I have had the good fortune to form the acquaintance of Mr. Wetherell, an English gentleman, who has for many years been established in a very important branch of business at Seville. He takes a warm interest in my mission, and has frequently informed me that nothing will afford him greater pleasure than to further the cause at this place and in the neighbourhood; as he employs a vast number of individuals, I have little doubt that he has the power, as he certainly has the will. He is a virtuoso and possesses a singular collection of the ancient idols of Mexico, which bear a surprising resemblance to those used by the followers of the Buddhist superstition. In return for a translation of an Arabic inscription which I made for him, he presented me with a copy of the Cabalistic book Zohar, in the Rabbinical language and character, which on the destruction of the Inquisition at Seville (1820) he obtained from the library of that horrible tribunal.

Pray remember me to Mr. Jowett and Mr. Browne and my other friends. May the Lord bless you, my dear Sir.

GEORGE BORROW.

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