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

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Letter 30: 10th January, 1836

To the Rev. Andrew Brandram (ENDORSED: recd. Feb. 29th, 1836) JOURNAL CONTINUED


THE night had closed in before we reached Evora, and having taken leave of my friends, who kindly requested me to consider their house my home, myself and my little party proceeded to the Largo de San Francisco, where was a hostelry, which the muleteer informed me was the best in the town. We rode into the kitchen, at the extreme end of which was the stable, as is customary in Portugal. The house was kept by an aged gypsy-like female and her daughter, a fine blooming girl about eighteen years of age. The house was large; in the upper story was a very long room, like a granary, extending nearly the whole length of the house; the further end was partitioned off, and formed a tolerably comfortable chamber, but rather cold, the floor being of tiles, as was that of the large room in which the muleteers were accustomed to sleep on the furniture of their mules. Having supped I went to bed, and after having offered up my devotions to Him who had protected me through a dangerous journey, I slept soundly till the morning.

Evora is a walled town, but not regularly fortified, and could not sustain a siege of a day. It has five gates; before that to the south-west is the principal promenade of the inhabitants; the fair on St. John's Day is likewise held there. The houses are mostly very ancient; many of them are unoccupied. It contains about five thousand inhabitants, though twice that number would be by no means disproportionate to its size. The two principal edifices are the See or Bishop's Palace, and the Convent of San Francisco, opposite to which I had taken up my abode. A large barrack for cavalry stands on the right-hand side on entering the south-west gate. The adjacent country is uninteresting; but to the south-east, at the distance of six leagues, is to be seen a range of blue hills, the highest of which is called Serra Dorso. It is picturesquely beautiful, and contains within its recesses wolves and wild boars in numbers. About a league and a half on the other side of this hill is Estremoz.

I passed the day succeeding my arrival principally in examining the town and its environs, and as I strolled about I entered into conversation with various people that I met. Several of these were of the middle classes, shopkeepers and professional men; they were all Constitutionalists, or pretended to be so, but had very little to say, except a few commonplace remarks on the way of living of the friars, their hypocrisy and laziness. I endeavoured to obtain some information respecting the state of instruction at Evora, and from their replies was led to believe that it must be very low, for it seemed that there was neither book-shop nor school in the place. When I spoke of religion, they exhibited the utmost apathy, and making their bows left me as soon as possible. Having a letter of introduction to a person who kept a shop in the market-place, I called upon him, found him behind his counter and delivered it to him. I found that he had been persecuted much whilst the old system was in its vigour, and that he entertained a hearty aversion to it. I told him that the nurse of that system had been the ignorance of the people in religious matters, and that the surest means to prevent its return was to enlighten them in those points. I added that I had brought with me to Evora a small stock of Testaments and Bibles, which I wished to leave for sale in the hands of some respectable merchant, and that if he were desirous to lay the axe to the root of superstition and tyranny he could not do so more effectually than by undertaking the charge of these books. He declared his willingness to do so, and that same evening I sent him ten Testaments and a Bible, being half my stock.

I returned to the hostelry, and sat down on a log of wood on the hearth within the immense chimney in the common apartment. Two men were on their knees on the stones; before them was a large heap of pieces of iron, brass, and copper; they were assorting it and stowing it away in various large bags. They were Spanish CONTRABANDISTAS, or smugglers of the lowest class, and earned a miserable livelihood by smuggling such rubbish from Portugal into Spain. Not a word proceeded from their lips, and when I addressed them in their native language they returned no answer but a kind of growl. They looked as dirty and rusty as the iron in which they trafficked. The woman of the house and her daughter were exceedingly civil, and coming near to me crouched down, asking various questions about England. A man dressed something like an English sailor, who sat on the other side of the hearth, confronting me, said: 'I hate the English, for they are not baptized, and have not the law' (meaning the law of God). I laughed, and told him, that according to the law of England no one who was not baptized could be buried in consecrated ground; whereupon he said; 'Then you are stricter than we.' He then asked: 'What is meant by the lion and the unicorn which I saw the other day on the coat of arms over the door of the English consul at St. Uves?' I said that they were the arms of England. 'Yes,' he replied; 'but what do they represent?' I said I did not know. 'Then,' said he, 'you do not know the story of your own house.' I answered: 'Suppose I were to tell you that they represented the lion of Belem (Bethlehem) and the horned monster of the flaming pit in combat as to which should obtain the mastery in England, what would you say?' He replied: 'I should say that you gave a fair answer.' This man and myself became great friends; he came from Palmella, not far from St. Uves; he had several mules and horses with him, and dealt in corn and barley.

I again walked out in the environs of the town. About half a mile from the southern wall is a stone fountain, where the muleteers and other people approaching the town are accustomed to water their cattle. I sat down by it, and there I remained about two hours, entering into discourse with every one who halted at the fountain; and I will here observe that during the time of my sojourn at Evora I repeated my visit every day, and remained there about the same time, and by following this plan I believe that I spoke to near two hundred of the children of Portugal upon matters connected with their eternal welfare. Of those whom I addressed I found very few had received any species of literary education; none of them had seen the Bible, and not more than half a dozen had the slightest knowledge of what the Holy Book consisted. I found that most of them were bigoted Romanists and Miguelites at heart. When they told me they were Christians, I denied the possibility of their being so, as they were ignorant of Christ and His commandments, and rested their hope of salvation in outward forms and superstitious observances which were the inventions of Satan, who wished to keep them in darkness in order that at last they might stumble into the pit which he had digged for them. I said repeatedly that the Pope whom they revered was a deceiver and the prime minister of Satan here on earth, and that the monks and friars, to whom they had been accustomed to confess themselves, and whose absence they so deplored, were his subordinate agents. When called upon for proofs, I invariably cited the ignorance of my hearers respecting the Scripture, and said that if their spiritual guides had been really ministers of Christ they would not have permitted their flocks to remain unacquainted with His word. Since this occasion I have been frequently surprised that I received no insult or ill- treatment from the people whose superstitions I was thus attacking, but I really experienced none; and am inclined to believe that the utter fearlessness which I displayed, trusting in the protection of the Almighty, may have been the cause. When threatened by danger the best policy is to fix your eye steadily upon it, and it will in general vanish like the morning mist before the sun; whereas if you quail before it, it becomes more imminent. I have fervent hope that the words which I uttered sunk deep into the hearts of some of my hearers, as I observed many of them depart musing and pensive. I occasionally distributed tracts among them, for although they themselves were unable to turn them to much account, I thought that by their means they might become of service at some future time, and might fall into the hands of others to whom they might be instruments of regeneration; as many a book which is cast on the waters is wafted to some remote shore, and there proves a blessing and a comfort to millions who are ignorant from whence it came.

The next day, which was Friday, I called at the house of my friend Azveto; I did not find him there, but was directed to the Episcopal Palace, in an apartment of which I found him writing with another gentleman, to whom he introduced me. It was the Governor of Evora, who welcomed me with every mark of kindness and affability. After some discourse we went out together to examine an ancient edifice, which was reported to have served in ancient times as a temple to Diana. Part of it was evidently of Roman architecture, for there was no mistaking the beautiful light pillars which supported a dome, under which the sacrifices to the most captivating and poetical divinity of the heathen Theocracy had probably been made; but the original space between the pillars had been filled up with rubbish of a modern date, and the rest of the building was apparently of the architecture of the latter end of the middle ages. It is situated at one end of the building which was once the seat of the Inquisition, and I was informed that before the erection of the present See, it served as the residence of the Bishop.

Within the See, where the Governor now resides, is a superb library, occupying an immense vaulted room, like the aisle of a cathedral, and in a side apartment is a collection of pictures by Portuguese artists, chiefly portraits, amongst which is that of Don Sebastian. I hope it did not do him justice; for it represents him in the shape of an awkward lad, of about eighteen, with staring eyes and a bloated booby face, and wearing a ruff round a short apoplectic neck.

I was shown several beautifully illuminated missals and other manuscripts, but the one which most arrested my attention, I scarcely need say why, bore the following title:-


It seemed a voice from the olden times of my dear native land. This library and picture-gallery had been formed by one of the latter Bishops, a person of commendable learning and piety.

In the evening I dined with Don Joze d'Azveto and his brother; the latter soon left us, in order to attend to his military duties. My friend and myself had then much conversation of considerable interest. He lamented feelingly the deplorable state of ignorance in which his countrymen were at present buried, and said that his friend the Governor and himself were endeavouring to establish a school in the vicinity, and that they had made application to the Government for the use of an empty convent called the ESPINHERO, or thorn-tree, at about a league's distance, and that they had little doubt of their request being complied with. I had before told him who I was; and now, after expressing my joy at the plan which he had in contemplation, I urged him in the most pressing manner to use all his influence to cause the knowledge of the Scripture to be the basis of the education of the pupils in the intended school, and added that half of the Testaments and Bibles which I had brought with me to Evora were heartily at his service. He instantly gave me his hand, [and] said he accepted my offer with the greatest pleasure, and would do all in his power to further my views, which were in many respects his own. I now told him that I did not come to Portugal with the view of introducing the dogmas of any particular sect, but with the hope of introducing the Bible, which is the well-head of all that is useful and conducive to the happiness of society and individuals; that I cared not what people called themselves, provided they read the Scripture, for that where the Scripture was read neither priestcraft nor tyranny could long exist; and instanced my own country, the cause of whose freedom and happiness was the Bible, and that only, for that before the days of Tyndal it was the seat of ignorance, oppression, and cruelty, and that after the fall of ignorance, the oppression and cruelty soon ceased, for that the last persecutor of the Bible, the last upholder of ignorance THE BLOODY AND INFAMOUS MARY - was the last tyrant who had sat on the throne of England. We did not part till the night was considerably advanced; and the next day I sent him the books, in the steadfast hope that a bright and glorious morning was about to rise upon the night which had so long cast its dreary shadow over the regions of the Alemtejo.

The day after this interesting event, which was Saturday, I had more conversation with the man from Palmella. I asked him if in his journeys he had never been attacked by robbers; he answered 'No,' for that he generally travelled in company with others; 'however,' said he, 'were I alone I should have little fear, for I am well protected.' I said that I supposed he carried arms with him. 'No other arms than this,' said he, and he pulled out a long, desperate-looking knife of English manufacture, like that with which every Portuguese peasant is provided, and which I should consider a far more efficient weapon than a dagger. 'But,' said he, 'I do not place much confidence in the knife.' I then enquired in what were his hopes of protection. 'In this,' he replied; and unbuttoning his waistcoat he showed me a small bag, attached to his neck by a silken string. 'In this bag is an ORACAM (or prayer), written by a person of power; and as long as I carry it about me no ill can befall me.' Curiosity is one of the leading features of my character, and I instantly said that to be allowed to read the prayer would give me great pleasure. 'Well,' he replied, 'you are my friend, and I would do for you what I would do for few others. I will show it you.' He then asked me for my penknife and proceeded to unrip the bag, and took out of it a large piece of paper closely folded up. I hurried with it to my chamber, and commenced the examination of it. It was scrawled over in a very illegible hand, and was moreover much stained with perspiration, so that I had considerable difficulty in making myself master of its contents; but at last I accomplished the following literal translation of the charm, which was written in bad Portuguese, but which struck me at the time as being the most remarkable composition I had ever seen.


'Just Judge and divine Son of the Virgin Maria, who wast born at Bethlehem, a Nazarene, and who wast crucified in the midst of all Jewry! I beseech Thee, O Lord, by virtue of Thy sixth day that the body of me, Francisco, be not caught nor put to death by the hands of Justice! Pazes teco (pax tecum), pazes Cristo. May you receive peace, said Christ to His disciples. If the accursed Justice should distrust me, or have its eye on me, in order to take me, or to rob me, may it have an eye which shall not see me; may it have a mouth which shall not speak to me; may it have an ear which shall not hear me; may it have a hand which shall not seize me; may it have a foot which shall not overtake me; for may I be armed with the arms of Saint George; may I be covered with the cloak of Abraham; and embarked in the ark of Noah; so that it can neither see me, nor hear me, nor draw the blood from my body! I also conjure Thee, O Lord, by those three blessed crosses - by those three blessed chalices - by those three blessed clergymen - by those three consecrated hosts, that Thou give me that sweet company which Thou gavest the Virgin Maria, from the gates of Bethlehem even unto the portals of Jerusalem, that I may go and come with peace and joy with Jesus Christ, Son of the Virgin Maria, the prolific, yet nevertheless the eternal Virgin Maria our Lady.'

The woman of the house and her daughter had similar bags tied to their necks, containing charms, which they said prevented the witches having power to harm them. The belief in witchcraft is very prevalent amongst the peasantry of the Alemtejo, and I believe of other provinces of Portugal. This is one of the relics of the monkish system, the aim of which in all countries where it has existed, or does exist, seems to be to besot the minds of the people that they may be the more easily plundered and misled. The monks of the Greek and Syriac Churches likewise deal in this kind of ware, which they know to be poison, but which, as it brings them a price and fosters delusion by which they are maintained in luxury and idleness, they would rather vend than the wholesome drug.

The Sunday morning was fine, and the plain before the church of the Convent of San Francisco was thronged with people going to mass or returning. After having performed my morning devotions and breakfasted, I went down to the kitchen. The fine girl Geronima was seated by the fire. I asked if she had heard mass; she replied, 'No,' and that she did not intend to hear it. Upon my inquiring her motive for absenting herself, she replied that, since the friars had been expelled from their churches and convents, she had ceased to attend mass or to confess herself, for that the Government priests had no spiritual power, and consequently she never troubled them. She said the friars were holy men and charitable; for that every morning those of the convent over the way had fed forty poor persons with the remains of their meals of the preceding day, but that now these people were allowed to starve. I replied that the friars who had lived upon the dainties of the land could well afford to bestow a few bones on the poor, and that their doing so was not the effect of charity, but merely a part of their artful policy, by which they hoped to secure to themselves friends in time of need. The girl then said that as it was Sunday I should perhaps like to see some of her books, and without waiting for a reply she produced them. They consisted principally of popular stories and lives and miracles of saints, but amongst them was a translation of Volney's RUINS OF EMPIRES. I inquired how she became possessed of this book; she said that a young man, a great Constitutionalist, had given it her some months since and had pressed her much to read it, telling her that it was the best book in the world. Whereupon I told her that the author of the book in question was an emissary of Satan and an enemy of Jesus Christ and the souls of mankind; that he had written it with the sole view of bringing all religion into contempt, and that he had inculcated therein the doctrine that there was no future state nor rewards for the righteous nor punishments for the wicked. She made no reply, but going into another room, returned with her apron full of dry brushwood and faggot; all of this she piled upon the fire, and produced a bright blaze. She then took the book from my hand, and placed it upon the flaming pile; then sitting down, took her rosary out of her pocket, and told her beads till the volume was consumed. This was an AUTO-DA-FE, in the true sense of the word.

On the Monday and Tuesday I paid my usual visits to the fountain, and likewise rode about the neighbourhood for the purpose of circulating tracts. I dropped a great many in the favourite walks of the people of Evora, as I felt rather dubious of their accepting them had I proffered them with my own hands; whereas if they found them on the ground, I thought that curiosity might induce them to pick them up and examine them. I likewise on the Tuesday evening paid a farewell visit to my friend Don Azveto, as it was my intention to leave Evora on the Thursday following; in which view I had engaged a cabriolet of a man who informed me that he had served as a soldier in the GRANDE ARMEE of Napoleon, and had been present throughout the Russian campaign. He looked the image of a drunkard; his face was covered with carbuncles, and his breath impregnated with the fumes of strong waters. He wished much to converse with me in French, in the speaking of which language, it seems, he prided himself much; but I refused, and told him to speak the language of the country, or I would hold no discourse with him.

Wednesday was stormy, with occasional rain. On coming down I found that my friend from Palmella had departed, but several CONTRABANDISTAS had arrived from Spain. They were mostly fine fellows, and, unlike the two I had seen the previous week, who were of much lower degree, were chatty and communicative; they spoke their native language and no other, and seemed to hold Portuguese in great contempt; their magnificent Spanish tones were heard to great advantage amidst the shrill chirping dialect of Portugal. I was soon in deep conversation with them, and was much pleased to find that all of them could read. I presented the eldest of them, a man of about fifty years of age, with a tract in Spanish. He examined it for some time with great attention; he then rose from his seat, and going into the middle of the apartment, began reading it aloud, slowly and emphatically; his companions gathered round him, and every now and then expressed their satisfaction at what they heard. The reader occasionally called upon me to explain particular passages which, as they referred to Scripture, he did not exactly understand, for not one of the party had ever seen either the Old or New Testament. He continued reading for nearly an hour until he had finished the tract, and at its conclusion the whole party were clamorous for similar ones, with which I was happy to be able to supply them. Most of them spoke of priestcraft and the monks with the utmost abhorrence, and said that they should prefer death to again submitting to the yoke which had formerly galled their necks. I questioned them very particularly respecting the opinion of their neighbours and acquaintances on this point, and they assured me that in their part of the Spanish frontier all were of the same mind, and that they cared as little for the Pope and his monks as they did for Don Carlos, for the latter was a dwarf (CHICOTITO) and a tyrant, and the others were plunderers and robbers. I told them that they must beware of confounding religion with priestcraft, and that in their abhorrence of the latter they must not forget that there is a God and a Christ, to whom they must look for salvation, and whose word it was incumbent upon them to study on every occasion; whereupon they all expressed a devout belief in Christ and the Virgin.

These men, though in many respects far more enlightened than the surrounding peasantry, were in others quite as much in the dark; they believed in witchcraft and in the efficacy of particular charms. The night was very stormy, and about nine we heard a galloping towards the door, and then a loud knocking; it was opened, and in rushed a wild-looking man mounted upon a donkey. He wore a jerkin of sheepskin, called in Spanish ZAMARRAS, with breeches of the same as far down as his knee; his legs were bare. Around his SOMBRERO, or shadowy hat, was tied a large quantity of the herb called in English rosemary, in Spanish ROMERO, and in the rustic language of Portugal ELLECRIN, which last is a word of Scandinavian origin, and properly signifies the elfin plant. [It was probably] carried into the south by the Vandals or the Alani. The [man seemed] frantic with terror, and said that the witches had been pursuing him, and hovering over his head, for the last two leagues. He came from the Spanish frontier with meal and other articles; he informed us that his wife was following him and would soon arrive, and within a quarter of an hour she made her appearance, dripping with rain, and also mounted upon a donkey. I asked my friends the CONTRABANDISTAS why he wore the rosemary in his hat, and they told me that it was good against witches and the mischances of the road. I had no time to argue against this superstition, for as the chaise was to be ready at five o'clock next morning I wished to make the most of the few hours which I could devote to rest.