The Scio New Testament
Early in 1836, George Borrow was sent to Spain by the British & Foreign Bible Society, to see what might be done there in the way of distribution of Bible texts printed in a vernacular translation. Spain had recently passed through profound socio-political changes, which made such an initiative feasible for the first time in centuries. A new liberal regime, which followed on the archaic absolutist system kept in place for 20 years by the late king Fernando VII, had granted the country a (still limited) freedom of the press, which might perhaps be stretched just enough to allow for the distribution and sale of Spanish language, Protestant Scripture.
Contemporary engraving, often thought to represent George Borrow throwing the police spy Pedro Martin de Eugenio out of his apartment on 30 April 1838.
Borrow looked around and made inquiries, and soon after he had reported back his findings, it was decided that, rather than import – illegally - huge stocks of books from abroad at high costs and high risks, it would be better to print a fresh edition of a Spanish language New Testament in the country itself. To this purpose, Borrow sought formal permission from the Madrid government first to print, and then to distribute, such an edition. The Spanish government was rather unwilling to consent to that, because there were two somewhat formidable obstacles to the plan. First of all: the law quite simply forbade such a thing, unless the publisher received a formal licence from the all-powerful Catholic church. And secondly: the Catholic church was rigorously opposed to any such vernacular edition of Holy Writ, unless it answered to the conditions formulated by the Holy See in 1756, to wit: that neither more nor less of the books considered canonical by the Catholic Church be included, and that the text be accompanied by the copious explicatory notes which guided the reader towards the correct theological interpretation of each and every delicate passage. Since this would necessarily have turned the New Testament into a Catholic
publication, the Bible Society, a Protestant organisation at heart, refused to do so. Its projected New Testament had to be published “without note or comment“, according to the Society’s fundamental law; and was consequently incomplete in Catholic eyes.
This ought to have been the end of it. Except that Borrow had the backing of Sir George Villiers, the British Ambassador to Spain, and that Villiers had immense leverage over the Spanish government, since Britain lent the liberal regime essential diplomatic and military aid in its civil war against the Carlist rebellion in the north – a rebellion which throughout these years always stood on the verge of winning and of replacing the liberal experiment with a repetition of Fernando VII’s anachronistic autocracy. Thus, caught between a rock and a hard place, the Spanish government first stalled, then wavered, and at last caved in. They could not, of course, grant an illegal formal permission; but they went so far as to give a covert verbal
agreement to the printing of the New Testament, under the condition that it would be done in a most private, discreet and unobtrusive manner; in other words: completely on the sly and in such a way that the law-breaking could never be laid at the government’s doorstep. This astonishing, not to say absurd, policy already contained the doom of Borrow’s mission; but the prospective Bible-salesman gladly overlooked such things. Much as he always derided and ridiculed the Spain’s lawlessness and the ease with which even the authorities themselves blatantly ignored their own most rigorous legislation, Borrow was quite happy to make use of this practical ‘flexibility’ when it was convenient to his purpose.
As will be told in the pertinent article (The Sales of George Borrow’s Scio New Testament
on this website) Borrow’s Spanish language gospel was printed in early 1837 and 1,000 copies were distributed in various, sometimes adventurous ways in about a year, from April 1837 onward. Then matters changed drastically. First of all, a new, more conservative cabinet under Count Ofalia was appointed in December 1837. On top of that, Borrow’s successful distribution became known to the ecclesiastical powers, who balked at the audacity of the thing. And thirdly, one of Borrow’s missionary colleagues, Lieutenant James Graydon, began to cause scandal and uproar on the Levantine coast and in the city of Malaga by aggressive sales-policies and the distribution of Protestant tracts which directly insulted the Catholic Church and its holiest tenets. Consequently the government decided to crack down on all foreign Bible-selling activities in the land. Borrow received an order to stop distributing his New Testament; his shop in Madrid was raided and books confiscated; he himself was jailed when he threw an obnoxious police-officer out of his apartments; and on 19 May 1838, the Queen Regent signed a formal Royal Order prohibiting the sale, possession, and distribution of all vernacular Scripture. All extant copies were to be confiscated, sealed up and returned to Borrow under the solemn obligation to export them from the land.
This, once again, ought to have been the end of it. Only: due to an ugly foul-up, it once again was not. Borrow’s arrest and imprisonment, executed by an overzealous lower official, had been very much against the Spanish laws in regard to foreigners. This enabled Ambassador Villiers to “talk big“ in defence of the rights of an English subject, and make the government tone down its position to such an extent, that George Borrow and his books were left in a legal limbo all of their own. The half-hearted orders which the government issued to the lower authorities were formulated in such a way that it was now strictly forbidden to own, transport, or sell the 1837 New Testament; and whenever a mayor or police-officer discovered such books being offered for sale, he was under strict obligation to detain them and place them under embargo. Yet the orders also specified that any person found to be engaged in such forbidden trade, should not be bothered or detained under any circumstances. Nothing muddier than such a strict prohibition of commodities, combined with outspoken impunity for those who sold them, can possibly be imagined. It only compares with a prohibition of automatic weapons but not of their use; and Borrow was quick to make the most of that ambiguous situation.
Between July 1838 and November 1839 he mounted his greatest sales-efforts ever, effectively disposing of 3,000 more copies of the New Testament in the surroundings of Madrid and the plains of Andalusia, particularly around Seville. Only by late 1839, when the government showed unequivocal signs that they were tired of this shameless game and were getting ready to imprison him for real, British Ambassador or not, did he draw a bottom line and stop selling Testaments. By that time, however, only some 800 copies of the original 5,000 were left; and he could retire to England in missionary triumph.
The Gypsy books
In his early youth, George Borrow struck up a friendship with a Gypsy boy called Ambrose Smith (the “Jasper Petulengro“ of his later autobiographical novels), and ever since that time he was fascinated with the Gypsies. He hung out and travelled around with Ambrose’s family and learned from them the Romany language. This skill stood him in good stead in later years. English Romany being closely related to the other Gypsy languages on the continent, it opened doors to him which remained tightly shut to others. When meeting Gypsies in Russia he found that he could address them with a certain success in the English variant of Romany; and in January 1836, when crossing the Portuguese border into Spain, almost the first people he met were the Gypsies of Badajoz, who were astonished at his ability to get by in Caló. Borrow himself explained many years later that it was no miracle, since he found that this particular speech &dlquo;was radically one and the same as that of the English Romany Chals”
Being a philologist at heart, Borrow immediately began to collect Caló words, songs, sayings and curses; and being on a religious mission, he started here in Badajoz to translate the Gospel of Luke into the Gypsy language with the help of his new friends. Over the next two years, he worked away on this translation whenever he had “native speakers“ available. Thus, in Madrid, he hired the help of two formidable lady swindlers called Pepa and Chicharona who translated the first eight chapters of Luke
in exchange for glasses of Malaga wine; in Cordoba he persuaded the local Gypsy tertulia
to tackle the Apostolic Creed, and so on.
The translation was finished by early December 1837, and – once he had gained permission from the Bible Society to publish the book at their costs – the Embéo e Majaró Lucas
or Gypsy Luke
, as it is commonly called, was printed in 500 copies over Christmas 1837. It was the first book ever to appear in Caló, and caused as much scandal as sensation. Gypsies, philologists, missionaries and curious grandees
all sought to secure a copy; churchmen and government officers sought to forbid it as a work of witch-craft printed in robbers’ jargon. Sales consequently soared, as much while the book was still tolerated, as when it was formally forbidden by law in mid 1838. By the early 1840s, it was already a collector’s item, and today, the rare copies that reach the market sell for anything between £ 900 and £ 1600 a piece.
A copy of the Embéo e Majaró Lucas.
Borrow’s first original book, The Zincali
, was a direct descendent of the Gypsy Luke
. In the course of his translations and investigations, Borrow had drawn up a large, 2,000 word glossary of Caló, which he originally hoped to print at the back of the Embeo
as a dictionary. The Bible Society, however, objected to this inclusion and the Embeo
appeared without it. Borrow then decided to publish his word-list separately, supplied with a few introductory remarks on Gypsy history and some samples of unknown Caló song and verse. To find him material for this purpose, he engaged the services, often for money, of a large group of people, ranging from a Seville hotel-manager and a lottery-ticket salesman, to academics like Luis Usoz and Pascual Gayangos, librarian of the Madrid National Library. However, as he began writing and as material poured in, those introductory remarks grew and grew, until they reached the size of a veritable 2-volume book which covered a host of varied subjects.
Title page of The Zincali.
, as it was eventually published by John Murray in 1841, has often been criticized as a book without method or plan. That reproach is not wholly unjustified. Yet it ought to be remembered that Borrow was a true pioneer in the matter, and that his book, rather than an academic study, was at heart a compilation, an “everything I was able to discover about the Spanish Gypsies“, along the lines of the 18th century Encyclopedistes
. It is a loose mosaic composed of dozens of different things: personal reminiscences from his Spanish years, official documents from Spanish history, old traditions and slanders, scattered rhymes, ethnological guess-work and somewhat feeble linguistic comparison, anecdotes, jokes and criminal cases, etc. For all its faults, it was also one of the very few worthwhile studies of the Gypsies and their way of life before academic anthropology and earnest language-studies tackled the subject in a systematic way in the second half of the 19th century.
sold reasonably well and brought a little money, but it caused no sensation. Perhaps its most important contribution was that it opened the doors of the prominent Publishing House of Murray to Borrow, where two years later his greatest bestseller, The Bible in Spain
, was to appear.
The Bible in Spain
Throughout the years of his Spanish mission, Borrow wrote elaborate letters home to his employers to keep them informed of his activities, his travels and his success – or lack thereof – in selling the Scio New Testament. The text of these letters ran to more than 100,000 words, while their subject-matter went far beyond the banal shop-talk of an employee who has to keep his masters posted. Borrow did not merely describe the ups and downs of his Bible-selling mission, but painted the land, the people, the scandals and the gossip, the dangers and the charms of Spain in the 1830s, the strange customs in wayward places and the even stranger ways of the politicians and officials with whom he got to deal.
In early 1841, when he was looking around for a new book to write after the completion of The Zincali
, he struck upon the idea of turning these letters into a travelogue. After some hesitation, the Bible Society returned his letters to him, and Borrow set to the task of whipping the material into shape, often merely by chopping away the address and the signature so as to produce a chapter. The first draft was ready by late 1841 and was offered to John Murray, who handed the manuscript to his reader Henry Milton. Milton’s verdict was positive, but after comparing the draft with the letters themselves, suggested additions, so that blank periods would be filled in and the book be given more thematic consistency. Borrow cheerfully obliged, and over the next few months added 389 manuscript pages to the original 770.
Title page of The Bible in Spain.
This second, enlarged draft was ready by the spring of 1842, got printed in December, and reached the market before Christmas. It was an immediate success; far greater than anybody had foreseen. The first edition of 1,000 copies was sold out within weeks; the next edition of 1,000 copies appeared in January, and sales still went so well that a third, a fourth and fifth edition followed before the year was out. In the autumn of 1843 Murray published a special cheap edition in no fewer than 9,000 copies; and even before March 1843 American publishers – not bothered by restrictions of international copyright or moral scruples – had done Borrow the honour of bringing out pirate editions which ran into 10 or 20,000 copies each. The Bible in Spain
made Borrow’s reputation and his fortune; and much as it cannot pretend to be his most successful literary
endeavour ever, it remains his most read and readable book today.