The Zincali; or an Account of the Gypsies of Spain (two vols. 1841), had attracted a good deal of notice. But The Bible in Spain took readers by storm, and no wonder! Sir Robert Peel named it in the House of Commons; its perusal imparted a new sensation, the sensation of literature, to many a pious subscriber to the Bible Society. The book, wherever it went, - and it went where such like books do not often go, - carried joy and rapture with it. Young people hailed it tumultuously and cherished it tenderly. There were four editions in three volumes in the year of publication. — Augustine Birrell
In the following passage, taken from Chapter XXVI of the book, George Borrow recounts his arrival in A Coruña, and his meeting with an Italian pedlar he had met in England when he was a lad (the "N---" referred to here is likely to be Norwich). The man is full of regret for having left England, and Borrow's own feelings for the "green lanes and farm-yards" of home, and the cheerful bartering and bantering of pedlars and rustics there, are easily intuited. Borrow fulfils his missionary role by giving Luigi a copy of the Bible, and at the end of this excerpt is much struck by the monument in this Spanish port city to the heroic British Lt.-General, Sir John Moore. As he explains, during the Napoleonic Wars, Moore lost his life, but won admiration even from the enemy, by his staunch resistance to the French during the embarkation of his troops. Charles Wolfe's poem, "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna," is the one that starts with the well-known lines, "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,/As his corse to the rampart we hurried." — Jacqueline Banerjee
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A Coruña from a distance, taken from San Pedro Park.
The next day we departed for Coruña, leading our horses by the bridle: the day was magnificent, and our walk delightful. We passed along beneath tall umbrageous trees, which skirted the road from Betanzos to within a short distance of Coruña. Nothing could be more smiling and cheerful than the appearance of the country around. Vines were growing in abundance in the vicinity of the villages through which we passed, whilst millions of maize plants upreared their tall stalks and displayed their broad green leaves in the fields. After walking about three hours, we obtained a view of the bay of Coruña, in which, even at the distance of a league, we could distinguish three or four immense ships riding at anchor. “Can these vessels belong to Spain?” I demanded of myself. In the very next village, however, we were informed that the preceding evening an English squadron had arrived, for what reason nobody could say. “However,” continued our informant, “they have doubtless some design upon Galicia. These foreigners are the ruin of Spain.”
We put up in what is called the Calle Real, in an excellent fonda, or posada, kept by a short, thick, comical-looking person, a Genoese by birth. He was married to a tall, ugly, but good-tempered Basque woman, by whom he had been blessed with a son and daughter. His wife, however, had it seems of late summoned all her female relations from Guipuscoa, who now filled the house to the number of nine, officiating as chambermaids, cooks, and scullions: they were all very ugly, but good-natured, and of immense volubility of tongue. Throughout the whole day the house resounded with their excellent Basque and very bad Castilian. The Genoese, on the contrary, spoke little, for which he might have assigned a good reason; he had lived thirty years in Spain, and had forgotten his own language without acquiring Spanish, which he spoke very imperfectly.
We found Coruña full of bustle and life, owing to the arrival of the English squadron. On the following day, however, it departed, being bound for the Mediterranean on a short cruise, whereupon matters instantly returned to their usual course.
I had a dépot of five hundred Testaments at Coruña, from which it was my intention to supply the principal towns of Galicia. Immediately on my arrival I published advertisements, according to my usual practice, and the book obtained a tolerable sale — seven or eight copies per day on the average. Some people, perhaps, on perusing these details, will be tempted to exclaim, “These are small matters, and scarcely worthy of being mentioned.” But let such bethink them, that till within a few months previous to the time of which I am speaking, the very existence of the gospel was almost unknown in Spain, and that it must necessarily be a difficult task to induce a people like the Spaniards, who read very little, to purchase a work like the New Testament, which, though of paramount importance to the soul, affords but slight prospect of amusement to the frivolous and carnally minded. I hoped that the present was the dawning of better and more enlightened times, and rejoiced in the idea that Testaments, though but few in number, were being sold in unfortunate benighted Spain, from Madrid to the furthermost parts of Galicia, a distance of nearly four hundred miles.
The early nineteenth-century Farmacia Villar on the Calle Real, A Coruña, said to be the oldest pharmacy in Galicia. Borrow stayed in a small hotel or inn on this street.
Coruña stands on a peninsula, having on one side the sea, and on the other the celebrated bay, generally called the Groyne. It is divided into the old and new town, the latter of which was at one time probably a mere suburb. The old town is a desolate ruinous place, separated from the new by a wide moat. The modern town is a much more agreeable spot, and contains one magnificent street, the Calle Real, where the principal merchants reside. One singular feature of this street is, that it is laid entirely with flags of marble, along which troop ponies and cars as if it were a common pavement.
It is a saying amongst the inhabitants of Coruña, that in their town there is a street so clean, that puchera may be eaten off it without the slightest inconvenience. This may certainly be the fact after one of those rains which so frequently drench Galicia, when the appearance of the pavement of the street is particularly brilliant. Coruña was at one time a place of considerable commerce, the greater part of which has latterly departed to Santander, a town which stands a considerable distance down the Bay of Biscay.
“Are you going to Saint James, Giorgio? If so, you will perhaps convey a message to my poor countryman,” said a voice to me one morning in broken English, as I was standing at the door of my posada, in the royal street of Coruña.
I looked round and perceived a man standing near me at the door of a shop contiguous to the inn. He appeared to be about sixty-five, with a pale face and remarkably red nose. He was dressed in a loose green great coat, in his mouth was a long clay pipe, in his hand a long painted stick.
“Who are you, and who is your countryman?” I demanded; “I do not know you.”
“I know you, however,” replied the man; “you purchased the first knife that I ever sold in the market-place of N---.”
Myself. — Ah, I remember you now, Luigi Piozzi; and well do I remember also, how, when a boy, twenty years ago, I used to repair to your stall, and listen to you and your countrymen discoursing in Milanese.
Luigi. — Ah, those were happy times to me. Oh, how they rushed back on my remembrance when I saw you ride up to the door of the posada. I instantly went in, closed my shop, lay down upon my bed and wept.
Myself. — I see no reason why you should so much regret those times. I knew you formerly in England as an itinerant pedlar, and occasionally as master of a stall in the market-place of a country town. I now find you in a seaport of Spain, the proprietor, seemingly, of a considerable shop. I cannot see why you should regret the difference.
Luigi (dashing his pipe on the ground). — Regret the difference! Do you know one thing? England is the heaven of the Piedmontese and Milanese, and especially those of Como. We never lie down to rest but we dream of it, whether we are in our own country or in a foreign land, as I am now. Regret the difference, Giorgio! Do I hear such words from your lips, and you an Englishman? I would rather be the poorest tramper on the roads of England, than lord of all within ten leagues of the shore of the lake of Como, and much the same say all my countrymen who have visited England, wherever they now be. Regret the difference! I have ten letters, from as many countrymen in America, who say they are rich and thriving, and principal men and merchants; but every night, when their heads are reposing on their pillows, their souls auslandra, hurrying away to England, and its green lanes and farm-yards. And there they are with their boxes on the ground, displaying their looking-glasses and other goods to the honest rustics and their dames and their daughters, and selling away and chaffering and laughing just as of old. And there they are again at nightfall in the hedge alehouses, eating their toasted cheese and their bread, and drinking the Suffolk ale, and listening to the roaring song and merry jest of the labourers. Now, if they regret England so who are in America, which they own to be a happy country, and good for those of Piedmont and of Como, how much more must I regret it, when, after the lapse of so many years, I find myself in Spain, in this frightful town of Coruña, driving a ruinous trade, and where months pass by without my seeing a single English face, or hearing a word of the blessed English tongue.
Myself. — With such a predilection for England, what could have induced you to leave it and come to Spain?
Luigi. — I will tell you: about sixteen years ago a universal desire seized our people in England to become something more than they had hitherto been, pedlars and trampers; they wished, moreover, for mankind are never satisfied, to see other countries: so the greater part forsook England. Where formerly there had been ten, at present scarcely lingers one. Almost all went to America, which, as I told you before, is a happy country, and specially good for us men of Como. Well, all my comrades and relations passed over the sea to the West. I, too, was bent on travelling; but whither? Instead of going towards the West with the rest, to a country where they have all thriven, I must needs come by myself to this land of Spain; a country in which no foreigner settles without dying of a broken heart sooner or later. I had an idea in my head that I could make a fortune at once, by bringing a cargo of common English goods, like those which I had been in the habit of selling amongst the villagers of England. So I freighted half a ship with such goods, for I had been successful in England in my little speculations, and I arrived at Coruña. Here at once my vexations began: disappointment followed disappointment. It was with the utmost difficulty that I could obtain permission to land my goods, and this only at a considerable sacrifice in bribes and the like; and when I had established myself here, I found that the place was one of no trade, and that my goods went off very slowly, and scarcely at prime cost. I wished to remove to another place, but was informed that, in that case, I must leave my goods behind, unless I offered fresh bribes, which would have ruined me; and in this way I have gone on for fourteen years, selling scarcely enough to pay for my shop and to support myself. And so I shall doubtless continue till I die, or my goods are exhausted. In an evil day I left England and came to Spain.
Myself. — Did you not say that you had a countryman at St. James?
Luigi. — Yes, a poor honest fellow, who, like myself, by some strange chance found his way to Galicia. I sometimes contrive to send him a few goods, which he sells at St. James at a greater profit than I can here. He is a happy fellow, for he has never been in England, and knows not the difference between the two countries. Oh, the green English hedgerows! and the alehouses! and, what is much more, the fair dealing and security. I have travelled all over England and never met with ill usage, except once down in the north amongst the Papists, upon my telling them to leave all their mummeries and go to the parish church as I did, and as all my countrymen in England did; for know one thing, Signor Giorgio, not one of us who have lived in England, whether Piedmontese or men of Como, but wished well to the Protestant religion, if he had not actually become a member of it.
Myself. — What do you propose to do at present, Luigi? What are your prospects?
Luigi. — My prospects are a blank, Giorgio; my prospects are a blank. I propose nothing but to die in Coruña, perhaps in the hospital, if they will admit me. Years ago I thought of fleeing, even if I left all behind me, and either returning to England, or betaking myself to America; but it is too late now, Giorgio, it is too late. When I first lost all hope, I took to drinking, to which I was never before inclined, and I am now what I suppose you see.√
“There is hope in the Gospel,” said I, “even for you. I will send you one.”
The tomb of John Moore in the San Carlos Garden, A Coruña.
There is a small battery of the old town which fronts the east, and whose wall is washed by the waters of the bay. It is a sweet spot, and the prospect which opens from it is extensive. The battery itself may be about eighty yards square; some young trees are springing up about it, and it is rather a favourite resort of the people of Coruña.
In the centre of this battery stands the tomb of Moore, built by the chivalrous French, in commemoration of the fall of their heroic antagonist. It is oblong and surmounted by a slab, and on either side bears one of the simple and sublime epitaphs for which our rivals are celebrated, and which stand in such powerful contrast with the bloated and bombastic inscriptions which deform the walls of Westminster Abbey:
leader of the English armies,
slain in battle,
The tomb itself is of marble, and around it is a quadrangular wall, breast high, of rough Gallegan granite; close to each corner rises from the earth the breech of an immense brass cannon, intended to keep the wall compact and close. These outer erections are, however, not the work of the French, but of the English government.
Yes, there lies the hero, almost within sight of the glorious hill where he turned upon his pursuers like a lion at bay and terminated his career. Many acquire immortality without seeking it, and die before its first ray has gilded their name; of these was Moore. The harassed general, flying through Castile with his dispirited troops before a fierce and terrible enemy, little dreamed that he was on the point of attaining that for which many a better, greater, though certainly not braver man, had sighed in vain. His very misfortunes were the means which secured him immortal fame; his disastrous route, bloody death, and finally his tomb on a foreign strand, far from kin and friends. There is scarcely a Spaniard but has heard of this tomb, and speaks of it with a strange kind of awe. Immense treasures are said to have been buried with the heretic general, though for what purpose no one pretends to guess. The demons of the clouds, if we may trust the Gallegans, followed the English in their flight, and assailed them with water-spouts as they toiled up the steep winding paths of Fuencebadon; whilst legends the most wild are related of the manner in which the stout soldier fell. Yes, even in Spain, immortality has already crowned the head of Moore; — Spain, the land of oblivion, where the Guadalete flows. [238-244n ]
Birrell, Augustine. Introduction. Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy and the Priest. By George Borrow. London: Macmillan, 1900. Project Gutenberg. Web. 18 May 2020.
Borrow, George. The Bible in Spain or, The Journeys, Adventures, and Imprisonments of an Englishman in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1906. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 18 May 2020.
Created 16 May 2020