Letters of George Borrow to Bible Society by George Borrow - HTML preview

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Letter 28: 15th December, 1835

To the Rev. A. Brandram
(ENDORSED: recd. Jan. 10, 1836)

AT length I departed for Mafra; the principal part of the way lay over steep and savage hills, very dangerous for horses, and I had reason to repent, before I got back to Cintra, that I had not mounted one of the sure-footed mules of the country. I reached Mafra in safety; it is a large village, which has by degrees sprung up in the vicinity of an immense building, originally intended to serve as a convent and palace, and which next to the Escurial is the most magnificent edifice in the Peninsula. In this building is to be seen the finest library in Portugal, comprising books in all sciences and languages, and which, if not suited to the place in which the building stands, which is almost a desert, is yet well suited to the size and grandeur of the building which contains it. But here are now no monks to take care of it; they have been driven forth, some of them to beg their bread, some of them to serve under the banners of Don Carlos in Spain, and many, as I have been informed, to prowl about as banditti. The place is now abandoned to two or three menials, and exhibits an aspect of solitude and desolation which is truly appalling. Whilst I was viewing the cloisters an exceedingly fine and intelligent-looking lad came up to me, and asked (I suppose in the hope of obtaining a trifle) if I would permit him to show me the village church, which he told me was well worth seeing. I said 'No,' but that if he would show me the village school, I should be much obliged to him. He looked at me with astonishment, and assured me that there was nothing to be seen in the school, at which not more than half a dozen boys were instructed, and that he himself was one of the number; but I told him that he should show me no other place, and he at last unwillingly attended me. On the way he said that the schoolmaster was one of the brothers of the convent who had lately been expelled, and that he was a very learned man and spoke French and Greek. We went past a stone cross, and the boy bent and crossed himself with much devotion: I mention this circumstance, as it was the first instance of devotion 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 waited till I returned.

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 that he occupied the situation of schoolmaster to the place, I had come to pay my respects to him, and to beg to be informed respecting the manner of instruction which he adopted. He said that whosoever told me that he was a schoolmaster lied, for that he was a brother of the convent. I replied that I had heard that all the friaries had been broken up and the brothers dismissed; whereupon he sighed, and said it was too true. He was then 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, or to conciliate them, must never refuse to put his finger and thumb into it when preferred; I took therefore a large pinch, though I detest the dust, and we were soon friendly enough. He was eager to obtain news, especially from Lisbon and Spain. I told him that the officers of the regiments 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, 'I am sure that things will not remain tranquil at Lisbon.' Upon my saying that the affairs of Don Carlos were on the decline, he frowned, and said 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 from his home in the noble convent close by, and from a state of comfort and affluence reduced in his old age to indigence and misery, for his dwelling seemed to contain scarcely an article of furniture. I tried twice or thrice to induce him to converse on the school, but he always avoided the subject or said shortly that he knew nothing about it; the idea of being a schoolmaster was evidently humiliating to him.

On my leaving him, the boy came from his hiding-place and rejoined me; he said his reason for hiding himself was fear that his master might know that it was he who brought me to him, for that the old man was ashamed of appearing in the character of a schoolmaster. I asked the boy whether he or his parents were acquainted with the Scripture and ever read it; but he did not understand me. I must here observe that the boy was fifteen years of age, and 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 that at least one half of his countrymen are, in that respect, no wiser than himself. I have questioned the children of Portugal at the doors of village inns, at the hearths of their cottages, in the fields where they labour, at the stone Mountains by the way-sides where they water their cattle, about the Scripture, the Bible, the Old and New Testament, and in scarcely one instance have they known what I was alluding to or could return me a rational answer, though in all other instances I had no reason to complain of their want of apprehension. Indeed nothing has surprised me more than the free and unembarrassed manner with which the Portuguese peasantry sustain a conversation, and the purity of the language in which they express their thoughts; and yet very few of them can write or read, whereas the peasantry of our own country, whose education is in general much superior, are in their conversation coarse and dull almost to brutality, and absurdly ungrammatical in the language which they use, though the English tongue, upon the whole, is more simple in its grammar than the Portuguese. On my way back from Mafra to Cintra I very nearly lost my life. As the night was closing in fast, we left the regular road by the advice of the guide, and descending the hill on which Mafra stands reached the bottom of the valley, from which there is a narrow pathway winding round the next hill, exceedingly steep, with a precipice on the left side; the horse on which I was mounted, and which was by no means suited for such climbing, in his violent struggles to accomplish the ascent burst the girth of the saddle, so that I was cast violently off, with the saddle beneath me. Fortunately, I fell on the right side, or I should have rolled down the hill and probably have been killed; as it was, I remained stunned and senseless for two or three minutes, when I revived, and with the assistance of the guide and the man who waits on me, walked up the remaining part of the hill, when, the saddle being readjusted, I mounted again. I was very drowsy and stupid for two or three days, from the influence of the fall, but I am happy to say at present, thanks to the Almighty, I have long ceased to feel any inconvenience from it.

On my return to Lisbon I saw Mr. Wilby, who received me with great kindness; the next ten days were exceedingly rainy and prevented me from making any excursions into the country, and during this time I saw him frequently and had a good deal of conversation with him, concerning the best means of causing God's glorious Gospel to be read in Portugal. He informed me that four hundred copies of the Bible and New Testament were arrived, and he thought that we could do no better than put them into the hands of the booksellers; but I strongly advised that at least half of them should be entrusted to colporteurs, to hawk about, upon receiving a certain profit on every copy they sold. He thought the idea a good one, as far as regards Lisbon, but said that no colporteur would venture to carry them about the country, as the fanatical priests would probably cause him to be assassinated. He was kind enough to promise to look out for people suited to make the essay in the streets of Lisbon; and as the lower orders are very poor I wrote to Mr. Whiteley at Oporto, requesting to be informed whether he had any objection to our selling the books to the populace at Lisbon at a lower price than a CRUZADO NOVO, which he had determined to sell them at. I thought it but right to consult him on the subject, as the Society are under great obligations to him; and I was unwilling to do anything at which he could possibly take umbrage. During one of my conversations with Mr. Wilby I enquired which was the province of Portugal, the population of which he considered to be the most ignorant and benighted: he replied, 'The Alemtejo.' The Alemtejo means 'the other side of the Tagus.' This province is not beautiful and picturesque like the other portions of Portugal, it has few hills or mountains; the greatest part of it consists of heaths, broken by knolls and gloomy dingles, swamps, and forests of stunted pine. These places are infested with banditti, and not a week passes by without horrible murders and desperate robberies occurring. The principal town is Evora, one of the most ancient cities in Portugal, and formerly the seat of an Inquisition far more cruel and baneful than the terrible one of Lisbon. Evora lies about sixty miles from the farther bank of the Tagus, which is at Lisbon three leagues broad; and to Evora I determined on going with a small cargo of Testaments and Bibles. My reasons I need not state, as they must be manifest to every Christian; but I cannot help thinking that it was the Lord who inspired me with the idea of going thither, as by so doing I have introduced the Scriptures into the worst part of the Peninsula, and have acquired lights and formed connections (some of the latter most singular ones, I admit) which if turned to proper account will wonderfully assist us in our object of making the heathen of Portugal and Spain acquainted with God's holy word. My journey to Evora and my success there shall be detailed in my next letter.