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Letters Of George Borrow by George Borrow

To the Rev. J. Jowett

(Endorsed: recd. Dec.8, 1835)
LISBON, 30 Nov. 1835.

REVD. AND DEAR SIR, -- I arrived safe at Lisbon on the twelfth of the present month after a passage which, considering the season in which it was made, may be termed a fair one. On the morning of the tenth we found ourselves about two leagues from the coast of Galicia, whose lofty mountains gilded by the rising sun presented a magnificent appearance. We soon 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 most remarkable circumstance occurred. I was on the forecastle, discoursing with two of the sailors, [and] one of them who had just left his hammock told me that he had had a most disagreeable dream, for, said he, pointing up to the mast, 'I dreamt that I fell into the sea from off 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 up aloft. The yard was presently loosened, and in the act of being hauled down, when a violent gust of wind whirled it round with violence, and a man was struck down from the cross-trees into the sea, which was raging and tumbling below. In a few moments he emerged, and I saw his head distinctly on the crest of a wave, and I recognised in the unfortunate man the sailor who shortly before had been relating his dream. I shall never forget the look of agony he cast us whilst the ship hurried past him. The alarm was given, and in a moment everything was in confusion. It was at least two minutes before the vessel was stopped, and the man was left a considerable way behind, but I still kept my eye upon him, and could perceive that he was struggling gallantly with the waves. A boat was at length lowered, but the rudder unfortunately was not at hand, and only two oars could be procured, with which the men who manned her could make but little progress in the tremendous sea; however, they did their best, and had arrived within ten yards of the man who had continued struggling for his life, when I lost sight of him, and the men on their return said that they saw him below the waters at glimpses, sinking deeper and deeper, his arms stretched out and his body to all appearance stiff, but they found it impossible to save him. Presently afterwards the sea, as if satisfied with the prey it had received, became comparatively calm, and the squall subsided. The poor fellow who was drowned in this singular manner was a fine young man, twenty-seven years of age, the only son of a widowed mother. He was the best sailor on board, and beloved by every one who was acquainted with him. The event occurred on the 11th of November 1835, the vessel was the 'London Merchant' Steamship, commanded by Captain Whittingham. Wonderful indeed are the ways of Providence.

I experienced some difficulty in landing at Lisbon, the custom-house officers being exceedingly dilatory in examining the baggage. I had yet more difficulty in obtaining a lodging, but at last found one, dark, dirty, and exceedingly expensive, without attendance. I shall not trouble you with a description of Lisbon, for as I have much that is important to communicate I must not waste paper with uninteresting details. I will merely observe that it is a noble town, situated on seven hills on the left bank of the Tagus, the houses are very lofty, like castles, the streets are in general precipitously steep, and no animals of burden but mules, asses, and oxen can traverse them with safety. I found the streets by no means so dirty as they have been represented, and at night they are tolerably well lighted, but between the hours of nine and twelve they swarm with robbers and assassins.

I should have written to you before, but I wished to transmit in my first letter a stock of information which would enable you at once to form some idea as to the state of this country; and in order to acquire such I have visited every part of Lisbon, entered into discourse with the people on all occasions, and have made a journey of nearly one hundred miles about the country, during which I visited Cintra and Mafra, at the former of which places I remained four days, making excursions in the meanwhile on foot or on a mule amongst the mountains, and visiting whatever villages are contained within its beautiful and picturesque neighbourhood.

In Lisbon carelessness for religion of any kind seems to prevail. The people appear in general to have shaken off the old superstition and to feel no inclination to bend their necks to another yoke. Many of them have told me that the priests are the veriest knaves in the world, and that they have for many years subsisted by imposing upon them, and that they wished the whole body was destroyed from the face of the earth. I have enquired of many of the lower orders whether they ever confessed themselves, whereupon they laughed in my face and said that they had not done so for years, demanding what good would result to them for so doing, and whether I was fool enough to suppose that a priest could forgive sins for a sum of money. One day whilst speaking to a muleteer I pointed to a cross over the gate of a chapel opposite to us, and asked him if he reverenced it; he instantly flew into a rage, stamped violently, and spitting on the ground said it was a piece of stone, and that he should have no more objection to spit upon it than the stones on which he trod: 'I believe that there is a God,' he added, 'but as for the nonsense which the priests tell us I believe no part of it.' It has not yet been my fortune during my researches in Lisbon to meet one individual of the populace amongst the many I have addressed who had read the Scripture or knew anything of its contents; though many of them have assured me that they could read, which in many instances I have found to be the fact, having repeatedly taken from my pocket the New Testament in Portuguese which I constantly carry with me, and requested them to read a few verses, which they were able to do. Some of these individuals had read much in their own language, which indeed contains a store of amusing and instructive literature -- for example, the chronicles of the various kings of Portugal and of the heroes who distinguished themselves in the various wars of India, after Vasco da Gama had opened the way into the vast regions of the East by doubling the Cape.

Amongst the many public places which I have visited at Lisbon is the Convent of San Geronymo, the church of which is the most beautiful specimen of Gothic architecture in the Peninsula, and is furnished with the richest shrines. Since the expulsion of the monks from the various religious houses in Portugal, this edifice has served as an asylum for orphans, and at present enjoys the particular patronage of the young [Queen]. In this establishment upwards of five hundred children, some of them female, are educated upon the Lancastrian system, and when they have obtained a sufficient age are put out to the various trades and professions for which they are deemed most suited, the tallest and finest of the lads being drafted into the army. One of the boys of his own accord became my guide and introduced me to the various classes, where I found the children clean and neat and actively employed upon their tasks. I asked him if the Holy Scripture (Santa Escritura) was placed in the hands of the scholars. He answered in the affirmative; but I much doubt the correctness of his answer, for upon my requesting him to show me a copy of the Holy Scripture, he did not appear to know what I meant by it. When he said that the scholars read the Holy Scripture he probably meant the vile papistical book called 'Christian Doctrine,' in which the office of the mass is expounded, which indeed I saw in the hands of the junior boys, and which, from what I have since seen, I believe to be a standard school-book in Portugal. I spent nearly two hours in examining the various parts of this institution, and it is my intention to revisit it in a short time, when I hope to obtain far better information as to the moral and religious education of its inmates.

On my arrival at Lisbon I was disappointed in my expectation of finding Mr. Wilby, who was in the country and was not expected for a week. I therefore had at first no person to whom I could apply for counsel as to the best means of proceeding; but unwilling to remain idle till the period of his arrival, I at once commenced operations at Lisbon as I have narrated. At the end of four or five days I started for Cintra, distant about four leagues from Lisbon, situate on a ledge of the northern declivity of a wild and picturesque mountain. Cintra contains about eight hundred inhabitants, and in its environs are many magnificent quintas or country seats of some of the first families in Portugal; it is likewise a royal residence, for at its north-eastern side stands an ancient palace, which though unfurnished is preserved in [good repair], and which was the favourite residence of the ancient kings. On one of the ridges of [this] mountain are seen the ruins of an immense castle, which for centuries was the stronghold of the Moors in this part of the Peninsula. The morning after my arrival I was about to ascend the mountain to examine it, when I observed a person, advanced in years, whom, by his dress, I judged to be an ecclesiastic; upon enquiry I found in effect that he was one of the three priests of the place. I instantly accosted him, and had no reason to repent for so doing, for I found him affable and communicative. After praising the beauty of the scenery, I made some enquiry as to the state of education amongst the people beneath his care. He told me that he was sorry to [say that] they were in a state of great ignorance, that very few of them could either write or [read], that there was no school in the place but one at which a few children were taught the alphabet, but which was not then open, that there was a school at Colhares, about a league [distant]. He said that nothing so surprised him as to see English, the most learned and intelligent people in the world, visiting a place like Cintra, where there was no literature and nothing of utility (aonde no ha nem leitura, nem sciencia, nem alguma cousa que presta). You may easily guess that I was in no slight degree surprised to hear a priest of Portugal lament the ignorance of the populace, and began to entertain hopes that I should not find the priests in general so indisposed to the mental improvement of the people as I at first imagined.

That same day I visited Colhares, a romantic village lower down the mountain to the west, near the sea. Seeing some peasants collected round the smithy I enquired about the school, and one instantly offered to be my guide thither. I went upstairs into a small apartment where I found the master with about a dozen pupils standing in a row, for there was but one chair, or rather stool, to which, after having embraced me, he conducted me with great civility. After some discourse he shewed me the books which he used for the instruction of his pupils; they were spelling-books like those used in our village schools and the before-mentioned 'Christian Doctrine.' Upon my enquiring whether it was his custom to use the Scripture in his school, he told me that long before the children had acquired sufficient intelligence to understand the Scriptures their parents took them from school in order that they might assist them in the labours of the field, and that in general they were by no means solicitous that their children should learn anything, as they considered the time occupied in acquiring learning as squandered away. He added that all the village schools in Portugal were supported by the Government, but that many of them had lately been discontinued, as the schoolmasters experienced the greatest difficulty in obtaining their salaries; but that he had heard that it was the intention of the Government to establish schools in all parts of the country on the Lancastrian system -- which since my return to Lisbon I have discovered to be a fact. 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 (from Pereira's version) with long Popish notes. I asked him whether he considered that there was any harm in reading the Scripture without notes; he said that there was certainly no harm in it, but that simple people without the assistance of notes could derive but little benefit therefrom, as the greatest part that they read 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 the Almighty would never have inspired His saints with a desire to write what was unintelligible to the great mass of mankind.

For some days after this I traversed the country in all directions, riding into the fields where I saw the peasants at work, and entering into discourse with them; and notwithstanding many of my questions must have appeared to them very singular, I never experienced any incivility, though they frequently answered me with smiles and laughter. (I have now communicated about half of what I have to say; the remainder next week. G. BORROW.)

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