[This article first appeared in the George Borrow Bulletin n° 17 (1999), p. 29-43]
By far the wildest story in George Borrow’s Bible in Spain
is the Treasure-hunt of Benedict Mol in Santiago de Compostela (chapters 13, 27, 33 and 41-42). It is a fantastic tale in every meaning of the word: truly marvellous on the one hand, but on the other - larded as it is with French looters, Galician witches, copper kettles full of gold and its robust, child-like, credulous Swiss vagrant - it really smacks of too much romantic imagination. By the second reading you cannot help thinking: “But wait, does he really expect me to believe
all this? He gotta be kidding! This is too good to be true! It could never
have happened that way. Not even then; not even in Spain!”
I must confess that for years I was convinced George Borrow was pulling my leg. And I persisted in that scepticism even after the late Sir Angus Fraser was so kind as to send me a copy of his article on the famous Rey Romero letter of June 1839, which proves beyond a doubt that a “German of the treasure” had visited Santiago in 1838. (1)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 1).
Angus Fraser, 'Benedict Mol, treasure digger of Saint James', in: George Borrow Bulletin 12, 69-82. The letter was first published by Knapp, W., Life, writings and correspondence of George Borrow, 2 volumes (London 1899), I : 270f and II : 293f.
Oh sure, I thought, some small scandal may have happened, but Borrow’s far-fetched tale is still too good to be true! And consequently by last summer I had developed an elaborate and tremendously smart theory on how Borrow had made it all up and where he had found the strings to spin this giant hoax.
Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! For in early October, as I was researching other matters, I found the following paragraph in a history of Spain written by the great liberal statesman and historian Javier de Burgos (2)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 2).
Javier de Burgos, Anales del Reinado de Isabel II (Madrid 1851), tomo 5, libro 15, 428.
“El arrojado Mon, despues de pasar sucesivamente por las manos de cuantos quisieron esplotar la miseria publica, llegó hasta entregarse a las de un suizo, que le anunció la existencia de un tesoro, enterrado en Santiago en 1809, en oro portugues. El suizo empezó por hacerse habilitar con fondos y recomendaciones; y, como si quisiese rodear el chasco que meditaba de todo el aparato de un ultrage calificado, se presentó (el 17 de agosto) con gran séquito de operarios en el Hospital de San Roque de aquella ciudad, y mandó hacer, durante seis horas, escavaciones en sus latrinas. Cuando sus pestilentes exhalaciones hubieron infestado la ciudad, declaró que sin duda el pretendido tesoro habia sido sacado antes; y bien que la indignacion del publico chasqueado castigase al impostor descargando sobre el algunos golpes, no pudo esta satisfacción volver al ministro el decoro que compromitiera, entregandose a tan ridiculas esperanzas.”
“Undaunted Mon, having passed through the hands of so many who wanted to exploit the public misery, even went so far as to trust himself to those of a Swiss, who told him of the existence of a treasure of Portuguese gold, buried in Santiago in 1809. The Swiss began by getting himself supplied with money and recommendations; and, as if he wished to add a fitting insult to the injury of his premeditated swindle, presented himself (on the 17th of August) with a large following of workmen at the Hospital of San Roque in that city, and ordered excavations made in its latrines for 6 hours. Once its pestilent odours had invested the town, he declared that surely the fabled treasure had already been extracted before; and although the indignation of the cheated public punished the impostor with something of a beating, this satisfaction was insufficient to return to the Minister the decorum which he had lost by handing himself over to such ridiculous hopes.”
Santiago in the 1840s
What can I possibly add to this? Only a heartfelt and humble apology to poor, mistrusted Borrow! This text not only proves the truth of the treasure-hunt, but also shows that the affair took place - except for a few details - exactly as Borrow describes it! Here it is: the government connection, the pension and the recommendations, the gang of workmen, the digging, the stench and the violence of the townsfolk. Borrow was right; I was wrong. Ah, isn’t it marvellous to see that Truth is sometimes stronger than Suspicion!?
Of course, if we still were a little suspicious, we might suspect that Burgos, whose history was written in the 1840s and who was a much travelled and very erudite man, had read his Bible in Spain
and - embellishing just a little - had recycled Borrow’s tale as juicy material for his own vividly written book. But with luck and a little patience I located one more independent confirmation of the treasure-hunt which proves that this was not the case. This second text consists of only a single line from Modesto Lafuente’s satirical periodical Fray Gerundio
, but it has the additional merit of having been written and published within weeks of the actual affair, in September 1838. In a long exposé of the sad state of Spain and the silly measures which the government takes to fix that, “Fray Gerundio” writes:
“En seguida me acordé del Suizo zahorí (3)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 3).
A 'zahori' is a clairvoyant who literally 'sees' things hidden below ground, such as water reserves, minerals or buried treasures. The word comes from the Arab Zahuri, a servant of the planet Venus and folklore has it that especially those born on Good Friday at the hour of vespers possess this 'third eye'. Borrow himself never uses 'zahori' to describe Mol, but he may be hinting at the phenomenon when he presents the Swiss dressed in green (the colour of Venus) and carrying the "magic rattan" during their last interview (Bible in Spain chapter 42).
que fué de acuerdo y con órden del Sr. Mon á extraer un tesoro que decía estar enterrado en el lugar comun del hospital de San Roque de Santiago, y solté una carcajada.” (4)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 3).
Modesto Lafuente, Obras Escogidas: Fray Gerundio, Imprimeria Bibliotheca Nacional Economica (Madrid 1874), episode 'El Botanico y el Prado' in Part II, Capillas de Madrid (1 de Julio - Diciembre 1838), 208. The piece is not dated, but begins with the words: "here we are in the first month with an R.", i.e. September.
“Then I remembered the Swiss zahori who, with Mr Mon’s agreement and on his orders, went to dig up a treasure which he said was buried in the lavatories of the hospital of San Roque in Santiago, and I burst out laughing.”
Plan of today’s San Roque Hospital and chapel. 1. Chapel; 2. Sacristy; 3. Hospital. Source: Plan especial de proteccion e rehabilitacion da cidade historica de Santiago de Compostela, Fichera 'Capilla e Hospital de San Roque', of the Servicio de Rehabilitacion del Concello de Santiago.
Modesto Lafuente, the author of Fray Gerundio
, may be called the Spanish Voltaire of the day. An accomplished scholar and rising civil servant, he wrote his bi-weekly satires, as an advertisement puts it, to “criticise the acts and mistaken (..) decisions of the government and authorities, [and] to denounce and ridicule general and local abuses in a merry style” (5)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 5).
Buletin Oficial de la Coruña nr. 3, 4.1.1838.
. He must therefore be counted among the press highly critical of the Moderado government of count Ofalia which was in office at the time, and I suspect that Fray Gerundio
was one of the publications which Borrow had in mind when he wrote that “the liberal press wafted on its wings the story of the treasure-hunt at Saint James”. It is more than likely that Borrow knew the periodical, for we learn from the first known Spanish review of The Bible in Spain (6)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 6).
Balbin de Unquera, 'Juicio de un misionero protestante', in: La Ilustracion gallega y asturiana, nr. 23 of 23.8.1879, 275f: "Los que hayan ojeado la coleccion del festivo y notabilisimo periodico Fray Gerundio recordaran lo que decia Don Modesto Lafuente del misionero y sus obras." I have not been able to locate the issue of Fray Gerundio that talks about Borrow. See for Balbin's review also my article 'A Partial Judgement' on this same website.
that he himself had at times been the subject of Fray Gerundio
’s jibes; and if vanity didn't do the job, then at least the need to keep an eye on the press he received - especially after the Graydon affair - must have given him sufficient reason to scan the publication occasionally.
Still this Fray Gerundio
one-liner can barely have been Borrow’s only source of information on Mol’s later exploits, if only because it makes no mention of several aspects - the stench, the band of workers, the date, the near lynching - which Burgos and Borrow share. Our three authors must therefore have had some other “common source” and a pretty detailed one for that (7)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 7).
Unfortunately, like most Spanish historians, Burgos gives no references to his sources. His book therefore becomes a dead alley for all research.
. What source that was remains to be discovered. It may have been a newspaper report (although many of us have been looking for that in vain), a pamphlet handed out in the street, or even something so ephemeral as a satirical ballad sung in the marketplace, a time-proven but traceless method of spreading news and scandal. The future must tell. Now, at least, we know what to look for, when the scandal happened, and who were involved. And that makes our quest considerably simpler.
San Roque Chapel
But let us turn away from bibliographical speculation and concentrate instead on the new facts which we have learned, beginning with the man who was blamed for it all. Alejandro Mon Menendez (1801-1882), an Oviedo banker, MP and sometime Prime Minister, served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the short-lived Ofalia government, which sat from December 1837 to 6 September 1838. Mon, a financial wizard and the father of the future fiscal reforms, is the typical example of a very competent man in a totally impossible age; and if simple common sense forces us to agree with Burgos that Mon’s hopes were very silly, we should also be fair and admit he had little to lose and every reason to try Benedict Mol’s ludicrous proposal.
The fact is that Chancellor Mon needed money, lots of money, and fast. After five years of civil war and financial mismanagement, the treasury was bankrupt, the country lay in shambles, and the trouble grew worse every day. Debt and expenditure far outstripped the pithy intake of the tax-collector; corruption and speculation were rampant; a standing army of thousands of men cobbled up every penny and still went practically unpaid, unarmed and unsupplied. Abroad, the stock markets had stopped trading Spanish bonds and no matter how one tried (including by the offer of bribes) no new foreign loans could be secured. Mon tried to fix the situation early in 1838 by proposing a forced loan of 500 million reales
, but a hostile parliament voted it down. In short: by the summer of 1838 Mon was at his wit’s end (8)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 8).
Espasa Encyclopedia Universal Ilustrado (Barcelona 1929), tomo 36, p. 1-2; also Burgos, op. cit., tomo 5, 410-421.
San Roque Hospital
In walks this Swiss and tells of a vast treasure, up for grabs, in distant Santiago. Mon gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I must say he may have been right in doing so. Certainly: the drooling belief in hidden treasure buried by those about to be exiled from the country (be they Jews, Moors, Celts or Napoleonic soldiers) was - and still is - a national pastime in Spain where luck or robbery are often the only roads to riches. But on the other hand Mol’s story possessed everything to make it ring true. For one thing, the treasure was said to be hidden in the Hospital of San Roque, an institution founded and run by the Chapter of the Santiago Cathedral, and this body was not only notoriously Carlist but - aware that they were the goose to be plucked by every greedy anti-clerical war-cabinet - also had a long history of hiding money from the government, with which to finance bands of Carlist guerrilleros. Only two years previously, for instance, in May 1836, the military commander of Santiago, Astariz, had staged an impromptu house-search of the bishop’s palace, and after three days probing, discovered a secret hoard of 478,680 reales
(roughly comparable to some £700,000) bricked in below a staircase, which he promptly confiscated (the auxiliary bishop pretended these were funds destined for charity, but that feeble excuse did not save him from exile) (9)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 9).
Barreiro Fernandez, El Carlismo Gallego (Santiago 1976), 107f gives a resumé of the many funds the clergy contributed to the Carlist guerilla. The discovery in the bishop's palace is told on page 125 note 183 and page 141 note 230. The original papers about this case are in the Archivo Historico de la Universidad de Santiago, Fondo Blanco-Ciceron, 'Partes 1836'.
. Therefore, Mon must have thought, even if the Swiss’s tale of French looters and Portuguese gold only existed in the man’s imagination, there might still be a kernel of truth to it: a kernel of ecclesiastical dollar-signs.
But why doubt the tale at all? It made as much historical sense then as it does today. Readers of The Bible in Spain
will remember that Mol told Borrow in chapter 13 that the treasure was buried by a soldier friend of his “who accompanied the French to Portugal”. Since Burgos gives the year as 1809, this must have been Marshall Soult’s short-lived occupation of Oporto (10)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 10).
A possible alternative is the invasion of Oporto which Captain General Tarranco staged from Santiago in November 1807 (when France and Spain were still allies) as an auxiliary to General Junot's march on Lisbon. Cf. Fernandez, C., La Capitania General de Galicia, Coruña 1984, p. 40; also Atkinson, W.C., A History of Spain and Portugal, Penguin books, 1961, p. 259. The great advantage of this invasion is of course that our looter would, as Mol suggests, be a Spanish soldier, not a French one.
. To tell it is a few lines: after driving Sir John Moore’s Expeditionary Army into the sea at Coruña earlier in the year, the French divisions led by Ney and Soult took Santiago late January 1809. One of their first concerns was the organisation of hospitals for their sick, and to this end the Hospital of San Roque was requisitioned on 4 February (11)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 11).
The original note to this effect, signed by General Marchand on 4 Februari 1809, is in the Archivo Historico de la Universidad de Santiago, Libro Consistorios 1809, document 183.
. Soult immediately began to prepare his invasion of northern Portugal, for which Santiago served as a supply-base, and in the following March he occupied Oporto. He did not enjoy it very long. In a dashing action Wellington drove the French out of the city and back into Galicia in a terrible rout which on the scale of horror can only be compared with the return of the Grande Armée from Moscow (12)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 12).
Longford, E., Wellington, the Years of the Sword (Granada Publishing 1971), 227ff. For the local history of Santiago during this period: Lopez Ferreiro, A., Historia de la S.A.M. Iglesia de Santiago (Santiago 1905), tomo 11, 155-209.
. This is not the place to describe all the subsequent battles lost and won and the troop movements up and down the dust paths of Galicia, but it is useful to point out that when the last French forces finally evacuated Santiago on the 23 July 1809, they left much of their accumulated loot behind in the hands of trusted, pro-French citizens, because the roads were infested with guerilleros and it was too dangerous to go burdened by such loads (13)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 13).
Lopez Ferreiro, op. cit, p. 217ff.
. This, if there ever was a treasure, may well have been the moment when our Looter decided it was wiser to dump his diamonds down a toilet bowl than to carry them along through hostile country (14)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 14).
It is of course impossible to say if there ever was one. On the one hand, looting was general during this war, so there is no reason to exclude the possibility. But on the other hand, the looter's willingness to disclose the whereabouts of his hard-earned plunder is most suspicious. It sounds too much like a badly hurt man, laying deadly sick in a hospital where food and medical assistance are absent, trying to lure an old acquaintance into giving him help. A bait, therefore, thrown to a credulous and greedy man, as Benedict Mol obviously was.
The Patio of the San Roque Hospital
Why Borrow replaced the Hospital
with the Chapel
of San Roque in his version of the story we can only guess at. The two buildings are adjacent (see the map above), but they cannot possibly be confused, and Borrow must have been aware in which of the two the digging really took place. His own text proves he worked from that “common source” which obviously named the hospital clearly, for some of his rather misty remarks only begin to make sense now that we know Burgos’ alternative version. Here we have, for instance, the “vaulted passage” that the parade supposedly passed through on its way to the sacristy. It always struck me that there is no such thing in the chapel of San Roque, a very simple, one-nave affair with a sacristy that barely covers 16 m2
. The Hospital on the other hand is a solid, two-story building of some 900 m2
with a pillared arcade around a spacious patio, which must have inspired the words “vaulted passage”.
Hospital Vaulted Passage
Then we have Borrow’s “solemn festival” that was “drawing nigh”. This was obviously the feast-day of San Roque himself - the 16th of August - forever an important holiday in Santiago, a day of many masses, processions and celebrations, and one, moreover, which Borrow must have witnessed when he was in Santiago the year before (he stayed roughly from the 9th to the 20th of August 1837) (15)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 15).
I still wonder how much material Borrow may have taken from the San Roque processions to coin his description of the treasure hunt parade in chapter 42 of The Bible in Spain. The bell-chiming which takes place when the statue of San Roque leaves the chapel, and which the present author can vouch for is indeed an earshattering experience, is one aspect I think George Borrow 'borrowed'!
. Next there is that “horrible and fetid odour” which rises from the hole the masons dig. In Borrow’s account, it rather suggests decomposing corpses, but we now know that it really was the result of digging up a cesspool. And finally, Mol’s negotiations with a canon
becomes explicable (instead of the more logical choice of the chapel’s priest), for the Hospital’s “Administrator” at the time was a canon of the Santiago Cathedral called Don Ramon Boan, who held that job from before 1836 to his death in 1857, and may even have been living in the Hospital itself (16)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 16).
Archivo Historico Diocesano (Santiago), Mazo 426 Hospitales. The Plan especial de proteccion e rehabilitacion da cidade historica de Santiago de Compostela, Fichera 'Capilla e Hospital de San Roque', of the Servicio de Rehabilitacion del Concello de Santiago, mentions that there was an "'apartment of a canon'" on the first floor of the Hospital’s west wing. I wish to express my gratitude to mister Xose Allegue for making this file available to me and for much other help in my research.
San Roque Chapel during the procession of 16 August
So did Borrow prefer the chapel because it had a pleasant Gothic touch? Or because it gave him an opportunity to vent his never-ending anti-papism? Or did Mol himself perhaps mislead his English friend to safe his secret? (This last thing would at least explain Mol’s truly astonishing indiscretion about a secret of such size! In the course of a few chapters, he reveals the whereabouts of his treasure to: one protestant missionary, one orange-salesman, a family of innkeepers, a witch, a canon, a bookseller, a Greek manservant, a “captain general” and various members of the Royal Court! Small wonder that no treasure was found!) We cannot tell for sure, but perhaps we should not even dig that deep. Borrow, as we learn from his swift, dismissive remarks upon the Great Hospital, the leper-house on the Padron road and the Roman baths of Lugo, cared very little for hospitals, least of all when they involved contagious diseases; and as it happens San Roque was a hospital for syphilitic patients at this time! What is more: as an upright Victorian, he surely was even less at ease having to talk about cesspools and their contents. So if he moved the scene of the farce from the Hospital to the chapel of San Roque, it may have been for simple reasons of ‘literary hygiene’ and a wish to avoid shocking his readers’ sensibilities.
in the Hospital Mol and his helpers actually dug is still a matter for research. The lay-out of today’s building has little to do with what a French looter would have seen. It underwent a thorough renovation in 1819 during which the whole of the interior was changed. If therefore there ever was a treasure (and I fear we’ll never know...) it may have been discovered during those works, 20 years before poor Mol ever got his chance. Or if the lavatories were replaced during that overhaul, the treasure might still be there... At the moment I write this, the Hospital is again being renovated. And despite that cruel natural law concerning hidden treasures, which states that one will hear a thousand stories about hoards which were never discovered but not a whisper about those that actually were (Big Taxman is Watching You!), one still hopes to see, one day, on opening the morning paper and scanning the headlines...
Enough!!! No treasure was found, and that's the end of it! Let me only add what remains to be done now that we known better where and what to search. First of all we should of course keep an eye out for that Common Source to Borrow, Burgos and Lafuente. There may not be much news in it, but it will at least clarify the genesis of Borrow’s story. Then there ought to be somewhere a copy of the introductory letters from Mon to Astariz, who was the ultimate authority in Santiago, since the town was under a state of siege. Mon’s papers may be in a Madrid archive (possibly the Ministry of Finance) or in Oviedo, where he died. At the Galician end, Astariz’s official papers are perhaps kept in a Coruña archive. The archive of the Hospital de San Roque - which I am still trying to see - may also contain some correspondence about the affair, or at least a bill for considerable repair works in the second half of 1838!
Inside a Spanish Prison
Finally, we should locate Mol in jail, in Santiago or Coruña, where Rey Romero says he was ultimately taken. This is less simple than it sounds. That we do not know how close “Benedict Mol” is to our hero’s real name may still be overcome: any French or German name - no matter how scrambled in Spanish spelling - invariably stands out. But our efforts are frustrated by the fact that at this time all the convents and barracks of Santiago were turned into prisons for Carlist rebels and sympathisers, and in none of these institutions, true prison-records seem to have been kept (17)
Click Yellow Bar to Hide Note(Peter Missler: Of Truth, Mistrust and Treasure Hunts, footnote 17).
I have searched the few documents there are about prisoners in the Carcel Publica below the Town Hall. Only two kinds of lists have survived: those of the roughly 20 % of prisoners who received charity in food and money; and the inventories of furniture and inmates which the Alcaides of the prison wrote out on handing their charge to successors. No German or otherwise odd name occurs in these. Cf. Archive Historico de la Universidad de Santiago, Mazo Correccion Publica: Cuentas, Nominas, Visitas 1835-1848; Mazo Carcel Publica y afiliado Puente Ulla.
We should, however, persist in this search, for the most pressing question, now that we know it is all true, still remains: what became of Benedict Mol? Was he exiled? Was he shot? Did he return to Lucerne or Madrid, or was he sent to the Lisbon “pontones
” where many political prisoners were locked up? I do not know but fear the worst. Astariz, who would have decided his fate, was not a man to fool around with. Representing a very nervous government in a very Carlist town, he was famously ruthless. And what would you do if you had this foreign madman on your hands, a political liability who could not be set free just like that, but whom you had no good reason to keep in jail either?
Santiago de Compostela, 17 October 1998.