By Peter Missler
The Ilustración was a typical late 19th century Spanish magazine. It was published by well-meaning intellectuals, who aimed to drag their fatherland and fellow citizens out of backwardness through technical and scientific modernisation. Since much of this ambition was inspired by what Borrow calls in chapter 27 of The Bible in Spain “the spirit of localism”, and what we may rephrase as love for the native province, the paper put a heavy emphasis on rural life and customs, and discoursed, in a grave and scholarly manner, upon local traditions and folklore, past and present arts, letters and history, and upon proposals to improve Spain’s two impoverished Atlantic provinces, to bring them up to date with the industrialised world.
The author of the review, Antonio Balbin de Unquera (1842-1919) is very representative of the magazine’s staff. Although Madrid born and educated, he never severed his ties with Asturias, the homeland of his ancestors. After studying philosophy and law, he became one of the great promoters, and eventually the president, of the Asturian Centre in Madrid; rose to the directorship of the Spanish Red Cross, and played a prominent role in early proposals for an International Court of Justice. As an author, he is noted for his fine articles on Asturian, Galician and Latin American themes (the latter due to the great waves of North-Spanish emigrants who settled overseas in this period).
Balbin’s interest in Borrow was therefore, first and foremost, sociological and localist. He was interested in what Borrow had to say about life in the Atlantic provinces during the troubled 1830s. And yet he also had a more active, more deliberate aim. Balbin wanted to celebrate the richness of local culture despite its embarrassing poverty and primitivity. Naturally, Borrow’s more controversial statements on dirt, dumbness and depravity had no place in such a discourse. So Balbin got out the scalpel and frequently ‘improved’ Borrow’s message, both to please his readership and promote the magazine’s programme.
This somewhat questionable method turns “Juicio de un Misionero Protestante” into a remarkable piece of work. At first sight, seeing Balbin’s many “misinterpretations”, one cannot help but wonder if his English was perhaps a little rusty, so that he did not really grasp what Borrow said. Then, as one reads on, one suspects that he may have been working, not from an original of The Bible in Spain, but rather from some second-hand report by a British friend. And finally, on close scrutiny, one begins to see how very cunning Balbin really was, what a sophisticated use he made of Borrow’s writings. First, he gives the English author an undiluted positive review, which may stimulate the audience to read the book. At the same time, he makes sure to strip away all of Borrow’s more unsavoury remarks which might offend the Ilustración’s subscribers. Borrow gets painted here as a visitor of good faith, who highly appreciates the local lifestyle, although he remains plainly critical of precisely those aspects which Balbin, the enlightened humanist of the 1870s, would like to see improved. Finally, at the end, Balbin praises Borrow for his “impartial judgement”, which is really more the result of his own plastic surgery than Borrow’s true merit! How often, one may ask, has Borrow been protected so well against himself?!
In order not to interrupt Balbin’s text unduly, my commentaries to the translation will be placed in a parallel column on the right, anchored to the original by numbers in square brackets which are not, of course, found in the original. The particular subjects receiving comment will be marked by capital letters between brackets [A], [B], [C] etc. in my translation of Balbin’s text.
[1.]Among all the protestant missionaries who came to our country between 1830 and 1850, special mention must be made of George Borrow, the famous linguist who has left us some most interesting memories of his journey, in works which are as entertaining to read as they are rich in detail. Borrow is the author of a book which (...) deserves to be qualified as a ‘classic’, namely The Gypsies of Spain. His expertise in this philological field is at least as great as that of other historians: hence he managed to demonstrate that the vagrant race of Gypsies did not originate in Egypt or in Tartary, but is instead one of the dispossessed groups of India, which unlike its countrymen of higher classes, was not subjected to domination by foreigners or conquering barbarians; and that their language is neither a newly invented jargon, nor some conventional dialect, but a derivative of classical Sanskrit, which consequently is closely related to the vernacular languages of the great south-Asian subcontinent. In Borrow’s book we find large vocabularies of this language, which not only show the origin of the words, but also offer comparisons with the original Sanskrit and with other derived languages, all of whom changed their character under the influence of the nations in which they were embedded, just like the race itself. The recent study by Roche, “Les Parias en France et en Espagne” does little more than repeat these findings of Borrow, to whom our fatherland’s historiography owes an honourable debt for such investigations.
[1.]No commentaries for this section.
[2.]Another work by the same author, The Bible in Spain, treats of Borrow’s missionary activities, and contains most valuable information for those who wish to study the religious annals of our country. Galicia and Asturias were visited by the British philologist and judged with a greater abundance of understanding and a keener eye than most other travellers and authors. In Madrid, Borrow suffered serious government prosecution and was imprisoned in the Carcel de Corte for a long time [A]. But the liberal ministers who came to power at the end of the seven year civil war and shortly afterwards, allowed him to open a bookshop in the Calle del Principe [B], where Bibles were sold in the national language, in various dialects of Spain, and even in tongues which not even the most erudite Spaniards master. To Borrow’s tireless labours we owe the translation of the Gospel of Saint Luke into the language of the Spanish Gypsies, a remarkable and valuable work which was printed in Madrid under the title Embeo’e majaró Lucas [sic] and of which we possess one of the few copies still remaining in Spain [C]. Those who have leafed through the collection of the jolly and notorious periodical Fray Gerundio, will remember what Don Modesto Lafuente had to say about the missionary and his works [D], as well as about the institution which, well-known to and tolerated by the government, he directed in the capital, while the rule of the Unity of Religion was still in place. To such lengths the very people who could have contained and sanctioned the appearance of the new religious beliefs were indeed willing to go in their attempts to undermine that rule.
[A]Borrow’s incarceration lasted only 11 days, from 1 to 12 May 1838. Given that his arrest was illegal and an overreaction of the police authorities involved, it was surely a long enough stretch of time; but it barely deserves Balbin’s qualification that Borrow ‘suffrió una larga prision’.
[B]It is remarks like these which make one wonder if Balbin had really read The Bible in Spain himself. Even if one grants that he wrote himself into a fix because he wished to explain, within a single twisted sentence, that the same Moderados ran the government in the middle of the Carlist Civil War of the 1830s and - after the short Espartero interval - from 1843 onward, this still looks as if he believed Borrow opened his famous Despacho only after the end of the war in 1840!
[C]Today’s whereabouts of this particular copy are unknown. The Embéo is of course a very rare book today. So far, only 14 copies of the edition have been located in modern Spanish libraries and private collections, although loose copies do appear now and then at Spanish auctions and book fairs. The total over known surviving copies in the world stands at some 59 so far. [See the article ‘The Story of the Gypsy Luke’ on this website]
[D]Fray Gerundio was a satirical weekly of the late 1830s, written by the historian Modesto Lafuente. Every so often I have tried to locate Lafuente’s remarks upon Borrow to which Balbin here refers, but so far to no avail. Research is not helped along by the fact that complete sets of Fray Gerundio are nearly impossible to come by nowadays, while the second edition of 1839, somewhat easier to find, contains only a selection of articles, and not the one, as far as I know, which mentions Borrow. That same second edition does, however, add a small Borrovian mystery to the many already known. According to the fly-leaf of volume 1 (Imprenta de Mellado, Madrid: November 1839) the central outlet where prospective readers could subscribe for the series was c/ del Principe n° 25 - an address which every reader of The Bible in Spain will recognize as the exact spot where Borrow opened his famous Despacho on 27 November 1837. Of course, Borrow’s shop was closed in May 1838, and Fray Gerundio’s second edition was not published until a year and half later. Nevertheless one does wonder if there was not, in one way or another, some contact between Borrow and Lafuente.
[3.]Having seen these facts, let us now describe Borrow’s expedition through Asturias and Galicia, confident that such a summary will not displease our readership, since the story has not even been published in the days of the Revolution [E]. Borrow travelled from Madrid accompanied by a Greek called Antonio, a kind of Sancho Panza, as astute as the shield-bearer of the ingenious knight, but almost as educated as the missionary himself. Both master and servant greatly admired the strange and imposing scenery which met them when they passed the border of the province of Leon at Fuencebadon, an area of which Borrow says that his pen could not do it justice, although it is perfectly suitable for the descriptive genre. The missionary philologist possessed something of the qualities which distinguish the great painters of natural scenes, and his prose surges into poetry the moment he abandons the arid Castilian plains for the evergreen meadows, the high mountains and the profound valleys of Galicia. “These mists, said Antonio, which cover the mountain tops like a turban, are called bretimas by the Gallegos. How is that? Have you been in Galicia before, asked Borrow? - No, master; but I have often lived in houses which had Gallego servants, and therefore I know some of their habits and not a little of their language. Consequently I also know that not even the cleverest scoundrel of Paris can deceive them and if I occasionally lost a position in Madrid, it was because of the maid-servants native to this land” [F].
[E]I.e. the “Glorious Revolution” staged by General Prim in 1868, when full freedom of the press was granted by the ultra-liberal constitution.
[F]A heavily adapted quote from The Bible in Spain chapter 25. I kept this “return translation” as close as possible to Balbin’s Spanish version; since it shows clearly how the reviewer cuts away all of Borrow’s offending lines. Compare Borrow’s own text, in which I italicise the parts changed or eliminated:
“Shortly before we reached the summit of the pass thick mists began to envelop the tops of the hills, and a drizzling rain descended. ‘These mists,’ said Antonio, ‘are what the Gallegans call bretima; and it is said there is never any lack of them in their country.’ ‘Have you ever visited the country before?’ I demanded. ‘Non, mon maitre; but I have frequently lived in houses where the domestics were in part Gallegans, on which account I know not a little of their ways, and even something of their language.’ ‘Is the opinion which you have formed of them at all in their favour?’ I inquired. ‘By no means, mon maitre; the men in general seem clownish and simple, yet they are capable of deceiving the most clever filou of Paris; and as for the women, it is impossible to live in the same house with them, more especially if they are Camareras, and wait upon the Senora; they are continually breeding dissensions and disputes in the house, and telling tales of the other domestics. I have already lost two or three excellent situations in Madrid, solely owing to these Gallegan chambermaids.’”
[4.]Obviously, the good manservant was not lying, for he met acquaintances of his in the first Galician village where he stopped [G]. Soon, both master and servant grew accustomed to the life-style of the region, to the corn-bread and, naturally, to the hospitality of the inhabitants. Regrettably, space does not allow us to repeat his descriptions of Galician life; but let us not refrain from mentioning that, while so many Spaniards unjustly prided themselves on their ignorance of the region, two unknown foreigners could have taught the value of this corner of the Peninsula to Castilians, Catalans and Andalusians. A strange land this is, said the squire [H]; and Borrow describes of what this strangeness consisted, contrasting local life-style to that of the rest of Spain [I], as he paints a close likeness in the most vivid colours.
[G]I.e. the cut-throats and bandits turned border-guards in the village of Peyrafitta; hardly the Noble Savages which Balbin here suggests Antonio met (The Bible in Spain chapter 25).
[H]“ ‘A strange country this of Galicia,’ said I, and went to consult with Antonio.” (The Bible in Spain chapter 25) Obviously Balbin read a little too fast at this spot, confusing master and servant.
[I]As in such charming observations as: “Galicia is the only province of Spain where cases of leprosy are still frequent; a convincing proof this, that the disease is the result of foul feeding, and an inattention to cleanliness, as the Gallegans, with regard to the comforts of life and civilized habits, are confessedly far behind all the other natives of Spain” (The Bible in Spain chapter 27). Balbin’s euphemistic summary shows that space was not the only reason why he preferred not to repeat all of Borrow’s observations of the local lifestyle!
[5.]Observations about the Galician dialect and its differences from village to village; the apparent easiness of learning it, but the real difficulties of doing so [J]; appreciation of the local character, in which he praises the love for the native land and the zeal to assist compatriots [K]; facts about the means of communication between Madrid and these distant provinces... None of these things escaped the perception of the two travellers. In Nogales they studied popular customs [L]; in Lugo and other provincial capitals they made contact with the most distinguished classes of Galicia. In the latter town Borrow sold books, much sought after by the public, and complained about having insufficient copies available in proportion to demand. The good missionary did not understand that many people probably bought these books in order to destroy them, and, like all his colleagues, counted all clients and recipients as so many converts [M]. The lover of history could not pass by the Roman antiquities or the medicinal baths without paying a visit. Later he describes his journey to Betanzos and the confrontation he had there with an inn-keeper [N]; the delicious road between extensive maize-fields which leads to Coruña, and of which he says “that nothing he has ever seen is so smiling and cheerful in comparison” [O]. He admired the ships of our fleet in different harbours of Galicia, asking himself occasionally: ‘How can these ships belong to the Spanish Navy?’ And indeed, although it is sad to admit, not only foreigners, but Spaniards themselves, and not only people alien to the profession, but the very sailors themselves, might well share Borrow’s surprise if they were to compare our Navy as it was ever since the day of Trafalgar, as catastrophic as it was glorious, with its dismal state shortly after the beginning of the reign of Doña Isabel II, which still persists today [P]. The missionary took 500 New Testaments from a stock he had established in Coruña and set out on a tour of the city and its surroundings. He published advertisements and sold, as he says, seven or eight copies a day. But the missionary was mistaken in saying that Spaniards, and more particularly the Galicians and Asturians, did not buy more of his Bibles [sic] because its reading was not amusing, instead of explaining it by the deep Catholic convictions of the natives of these regions [Q].
[J]“ ‘Can you understand this conversation?’ I demanded of Antonio (...). ‘I cannot, mon maitre,’ he replied; ‘I have acquired at various times a great many words amongst the Gallegan domestics in the kitchens where I have officiated as cook, but am quite unable to understand any long conversation. I have heard the Gallegans say that in no two villages is it spoken in one and the same manner, and that very frequently they do not understand each other. The worst of this language is, that everybody on first hearing it thinks that nothing is more easy than to understand it, as words are continually occurring which he has heard before: but these merely serve to bewilder and puzzle him, causing him to misunderstand everything that is said; whereas, if he were totally ignorant of the tongue, he would occasionally give a shrewd guess at what was meant.’ ” (The Bible in Spain chapter 25). See also my article on Borrow’s views of Gallego, “A Gallegan Source for The Bible in Spain”, on this website and in George Borrow Bulletin n° 25, pp. 64-71.
[K]This honest “zeal to assist compatriots” is Balbin’s rehash of Antonio’s explanation that “all the Gallegans in Madrid know each other, whether high or low makes no difference; there, at least, they are all good friends, and assist each other on all imaginable occasions; and if there be a Gallegan domestic in a house, the kitchen is sure to be filled with his countrymen, as the cook frequently knows to his cost, for they generally contrive to eat up any little perquisites which he may have reserved for himself and family.” (The Bible in Spain chapter 25)
[L]Beyond the discussion on the incomprehensibility of Gallego quoted in note [J.] above, there is no “study of customs” in the two short Nogales paragraphs of The Bible in Spain chapter 25.
[M]It is interesting to meet here a very late echo of the hostile “slanders”, which Borrow himself mentioned to Brandram in his letter from Coruña of 20 July 1837 (i.e. a week after he visited Lugo), when he wrote that “The enemies of the Bible Society have stated in several publications that it has no vent for the Bibles and Testaments which it publishes (...) but by (...) distributing them gratis or selling them by auction, when they are bought for waste paper.” Had Balbin heard local stories, or was he merely inspired by the same Catholic hostility to Protestant Bibles? It is impossible to tell now.
[N]The Bible in Spain chapter 26. The confrontation was not with the inn-keeper but with the farrier, who refused to bleed Borrow’s stallion unless he be paid an outrageous fee, a gold Onza, i.e. 320 reales, roughly 1/6 of the price that Borrow had paid for the horse!
[O]The Bible in Spain chapter 26: “Nothing could be more smiling and cheerful than the appearance of the country around”.
[P]In The Bible in Spain Chapter 26, the question “Can these vessels belong to Spain?” is of course rhetorical; and the unspoken answer is a resounding “No!” Yet Balbin would not, of course, forsake this opportunity to voice his opinion that Spain stood in need of a much better Navy, up to the standards of the time. This is probably the reason why he deliberately fails to mention that the “three or four immense ships riding at anchor” which Borrow saw as he got his first glimpse of Coruña, were British warships. The Boletin Oficial de La Coruña, n° 113 of Saturday 15 July 1837 provides us with the identity of these ships, which had come into harbour two days before. They were:
“Navio de guerra ingles Hercules, com. J GORDM [sic], de Plimouth
Borrow’s own doubts as to their number - “three or four” - may stem from the fact that the French Corvette de Guerre Thisbe had come in the day before, 12 July, towing the French brigantine Jules, which had run into trouble on the high seas, and either or both ships may still have been lying in port.
The reason for the presence in Coruña of this small British flotilla, which Borrow could only guess at, is explained in an official note in Boletin n° 114 of 17 July, which says that the British government had decided to protect the East coast of Spain from Carlist attacks by putting warships into all the harbours between Barcelona and Gibraltar. This was urgently needed, for the fact is that after the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, there was barely a Spanish fleet left to speak of. One begins to understand why such welcome news was so widely celebrated by the ultra-liberal inhabitants of Coruña.
[Q]The Bible in Spain chapter 26: “The book obtained a tolerable sale - seven or eight copies per day on the average. Some people (...) 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 (...) 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.” Indeed, sales in Galicia were not terribly impressive. There is only hard evidence for 250 New Testament copies sold for certain in the entire province, with a maximum 45 of possible further sales.
[6.]He met in Coruña an old friend, Luis Piozzi [R], dedicated to commerce; he visited the tomb of the famous English General John Moore, fallen on the battle-field against the French in 1809 [S], whose sad end was celebrated with inspired verse by more than one famous British poet; and he admits that even in Galicia, the Land of the Lethe, the memory of that hero of the glorious Spanish War of Independence still persists [T].
Pictures of Moore’s Tomb and the memorial plaque
[R]Other than Borrow’s chance encounter with Benedict Mol, which Balbin wisely never mentions, the meeting with Luigi Piozzi (The Bible in Spain chapter 26) must have taken place for real. Some years ago, the Spanish author Juan Campos located a reference to the errant Italian in ‘Temas y personajes de la Historia Coruñesa Contemporanea’, by Antonio Meijide Pardo (Coruña, 1997). On page 60, Meijide writes that one “Luis Pozzi” is registered as retail shopkeeper n° 105 in the 1830 Matriculas Industriales (included in the Censo de comerciantes Coruñeses en los años 1830-1845, presently kept by the Archivo del Colegio Notarial of Coruña) and adds that the Italian “states in his declaration that he was ‘born in Commo, jurisdicion ibid, province of Italy, subject to Austria’”. These details square up perfectly with Borrow’s own description of Pozzi as a man of some 65 years of age, born in Como, and having come to Coruña from England some 16 years ago (i.e. roughly in 1821). Although Borrow spells the name as ‘Piozzi’ in The Bible in Spain, he later adopted the apparently more correct form ‘Pozzi’ in a dialogue with a travelling Italian from chapter 24 of Wild Wales:
“I have seen Giovanni Gestra myself,” said the Italian, “and I have heard of Luigi Pozzi. Giovanni Gestra returned to the Lago - but no one knows what is become of Luigi Pozzi.”
“The last time I saw him,” said I, “was about eighteen years ago at Coruna in Spain; he was then in a sad drooping condition, and said he bitterly repented ever quitting N[orwich].”
Both at the beginning and the end of the dialogue in chapter 26 of The Bible in Spain, Pozzi mentions a “countryman” who lives and works in Santiago. One wonders if this compatriot - or perhaps a family-member? - might be the Domingo Antonio Pozzi, who is known as a member of the town council of Lugo in 1841 (Juana de Vega, Condesa de Espoz y Mina, Memorias, Ediciones Tebas, Madrid 1977, 272) and later took part in the abortive liberal rising of 1846 (Gonzalez Lopez, E., De Espartero a la Revolucion Gallega de 1846, Coruña, 1985, 162). According to J. R. Barreiro Fernandez (El Levantamiento de 1846, Santiago 1977, 123) this gentleman took a law degree from the Santiago University on 9 July 1840, which would place him in the right town at the right time.
[S]Sir John Moore fell on 16 January 1809, near the village of Elviña, on the plateau just above Coruña, in a rear-guard action meant to stop the pursuing French armies of Soult and Ney from interrupting a hurried, Dunkerque-style embarking of the English Expeditionary Army. An exploding obus tore his belly to shreds, and one arm from his shoulder, and he died some hours later in the mansion of Don Jenaro Fontela, in the Canton Grande n° 16. He was buried on one of the bulwarks that looks out to sea, and there the tomb still stands, although new surrounding highways now ensure that its wall is no longer “washed by the waters of the bay”, as Borrow described it, but by a steady stream of traffic; while the “young trees” which Borrow mentions have now grown to huge and venerable chestnuts. Crews of English navy ships that stop in Coruña harbour still regularly deposit wreaths at the tomb. For a contemporary description and the story of how the burial place came into being, see Richard Ford, Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845 edition), 977ff.
[T]In ancient mythology, the Lethe - a Greek word meaning “forgetfulness” - was one of the rivers which washed the Underworld. The souls of the dead were supposed to drink from it before entering the Hades, so they might forget everything said and done while alive before entering the Realm of the Dead. Of course, the name Guadalete - a river in the far south of Spain - is Arabic, and it is rather unlikely that it has anything to do with the Greek word, as Borrow pretends. Borrow’s acknowledgement of the good care which the Coruñese took of John Moore’s tomb is, however, much deserved; and considerably fairer a treatment than the snide remarks about lack of loyalty etc., which Ford, Handbook II, 977ff makes on the subject. Already in November 1838 a citizen’s initiative staged a collection, which brought in 10,084 reales in contributions from everyday inhabitants for repairs on the tomb and the surrounding park (J. Garcia Barros, Medio Sigle de Vida Coruñesa (1834-1889), Coruña 1970, p. 149); and both the grave itself and the spot where Moore died are still honoured today by memorial plaques and proper care, even though the house itself has disappeared (see the photographs).
[7.]In Coruña, Borrow was pleasantly surprised by commercial life and the exceptional activity of the harbour, and on the road to Santiago by the continuous movement of travellers and the beauty of the landscape. The Apostle’s city seemed a “beautiful and ancient” town to him, and the ancient splendour, combined with the present decadence of the pilgrimage, brought forth in him most lofty thoughts. Being a man who does justice to the exceptional merits of art, as it is made to serve religion, he said of the cathedral that it must please God to dwell there [U]. He copies the hymns which all the generations have sung and are still singing below these arches; and he does not consider the inhabitants of Compostela unworthy of those monuments of religion and those wonders of art. Wandering through the city he meets a well-known bookseller whom he befriended; and whose name any readers of The Bible in Spain may glean, but which we will not repeat here since we do not consider ourselves authorised to do so, due to the religious consequences which such a repetition may bring about and because we respect that name and that of his descendants [V]. All the booksellers of Spain, says the missionary, are liberals. All are enemies of fanaticism, no matter the cause to which it gets applied or the mask beneath which it hides [W]. Borrow writes accomplished paragraphs about the rivalry between Santiago and Coruña, not without doing merited justice to the glories and qualities of both. That Coruña desires the Cathedral and Santiago the harbour, does not imply that travellers will not be happy to visit both towns [X].
[U]Once again Balbin avoids quoting those phrases which will displease his readers. Indeed Borrow writes about the cathedral (The Bible in Spain chapter 27) that “it is almost impossible to walk its long dusky aisles (...) and entertain a doubt that we are treading the floor of a house where God delighteth to dwell.” But, he adds: “the Lord is distant from that house; he hears not, he sees not, or if he do, it is with anger.” This, of course, is a purely Protestant opinion.
[V]It is anyone’s guess why Balbin would feel such qualms, in 1879, about mentioning Francisco Rey Romero by name. The core phrase on “religious consequences” seems deliberately vague (“por la parte religiosa que puede tener este memoria”). Somehow, one feels, too close an association with a Protestant agent might still carry repercussions, even more than 40 years after Borrow met the bookseller and 30 years after Rey Romero himself died! Of course, the third Carlist Civil War, no nicer an affair than the first or second one, had only recently ended in 1875, and the consequent religious animosities may well have inspired this caution (The sentence also implies, incidentally, that there were still known descendants of Rey Romero alive in 1879.)
[W]Borrow “says” this only in the sense that he wrote it down in his book. In reality, the remark was made by Rey Romero, who according to Borrow, observes that ‘we booksellers of Spain are all liberals; we are no friends to the monkish system. How indeed should we be friends to it? It fosters darkness, whilst we live by disseminating light. We love our profession, and have all more or less suffered for it; many of us, in the times of terror, were hanged for selling an innocent translation from the French or English. (...) Thanks be to God, those times are past, and I hope they will never return’ (The Bible in Spain chapter 27). Rather than being an enemy of all fanaticism, Rey Romero gets painted here as a die-hard anti-papist; but in reality there is no reason to believe the old bookseller was anything of the kind. Rather, he was an enlightened catholic. The fact is that Borrow knew just as well how to twist other men’s words to his wishes as Balbin did half a century later!
[X]The rivalry is described in The Bible in Spain chapter 27, but it is painted one-sidedly, since Borrow puts most remarks into the mouths of the vastly chauvinistic Santiaguese. Balbin, however, wrote to please all Gallegos, and so he added the remark “that Santiago [desires] the harbour”, a desire which is not found anywhere in The Bible in Spain! For this rivalry and Borrow’s inspiration, see my article, “A Gallegan Source for The Bible in Spain”, on this website and in George Borrow Bulletin n° 25, pp. 64-71.
[8.]Leaving Santiago, Borrow passed through Padron, Caldas das Reis, Pontevedra and Vigo, making interesting observations in all of these. He says of the convents of Pontevedra that they may compete with the best in Spain and Italy, which surely are the best in the world. The incomparable landscape of the latter province found in the British Apostle [sic] an intelligent observer and a poetic admirer. The Bay of Vigo seemed to him the best in the world. Our author even tells us of the verses of the Curate of Fruime, which he saw among the books of a Pontevedra notary [Y]. Not always fortunate during his travels, he relates how he nearly perished at sea near Cape Finisterre, “because I thought that the project of conveying the light of the Gospel to the end of the earth might have been a pleasant sacrifice in the eyes of the Supreme Maker”. It does not discourage him, and he undertakes a new and dangerous pilgrimage to the Convent of Esclavitud. Then, in the house of the mayor of Finisterre, another shipwreck, this time not by Borrow himself, but by his books, and with that his journey through Galicia comes to an end [Z].
The Esclavitud church north of Padron
[Y]The Bible in Spain chapter 28: “Some of [Pontevedra’s] public edifices, especially the convents, being such as are nowhere to be found but in Spain and Italy.” And on Vigo bay: “Well may the people of Pontevedra envy the natives of Vigo their bay, with which, in many respects, none other in the world can compare.” The verses of the Curate of Fruime were shown to Borrow by a Pontevedra lawyer, to whom the Pontevedra notary José Manuel García introduced him. The lawyer in questions has been identified by William Knapp and Manuel Azaña as Don Claudio González y Zuñiga, author of the Descripcion economica de la provincia de Pontevedra (1834); but it seems this identification could still use some verification. Note that Balbin mentions nowhere the rivalry between Vigo and Pontevedra, much elaborated on by Borrow.
[Z]A third-grader would be flunked for such a messy synopsis! Here, Balbin was either running out of steam or out of space, for he clearly aims to reduce the whole Finisterre episode to a few sweeping lines, which, rather conveniently, ignore Borrow’s arrest and near murder by the Finisterre fishermen. Borrow was not shipwrecked when trying to reach Finisterre by boat to bring the Gospel, but years earlier, on his way to Lisbon. Nor does he afterwards make a pilgrimage to the “Convent of Esclavitud” just north of Padrón, but merely passes it on his way to Finisterre. And the mayor of Finisterre village had no objections to his books, but to foreigners climbing the Cape and spying on the fortifications. Note that Balbin once again strips away the slightly offending turn of phrase in Borrow’s “I thought that to convey the Gospel to a place so wild and remote, might perhaps be considered an acceptable pilgrimage in the eyes of my Maker.”
[9.]Crossing into Asturias, he visited Luarca, judging the countryside and its inhabitants with an identical abundance of data as those of Galicia. “The mountains of Asturias in this part,” he says, “rise to a considerable altitude. They consist for the most part of dark granite, covered here and there with a thin layer of earth. They approach very near to the sea, to which they slope down in broken ridges, between which are deep and precipitous defiles, each with its rivulet, the tribute of the hills to the sea. There are, among others, seven defiles or gorges which are called the Seven Bellotas [AA], where holy hermits might live happy lives and pass entire years absorbed in heavenly contemplation, without being disturbed at all by the noise and turmoil of the world” [BB]. In his description of Muros, Borrow offers us the curious adventures of a family of Russians, whose nationality, so far unknown, the inn-keeper reveals by means of a single remembered word [CC]. Then he goes on to describe Oviedo with its cathedral and tells of Feijoo, last century’s prolific author, who through his personal background becomes a link between the Galician and Asturian provinces [DD]. The portrait which Borrow describes, applauding its artistic merit, belonged to the lawyer don Ramon Valdes, a citizen of Oviedo. Continuing his journey, he describes Vilaviciosa, calling her the “Capital of Filberts” and is surprised that with such an abundant harvest, he could not get any to eat, which he attributes to the commerce made with them by British boats. Afterwards he continued to Santander, where, as was his habit, he had gathered a considerable number of Bibles, translated into Spanish by the English Societies, in order to distribute them [EE].
Borrow’s Seven Bellotas falling into the Gulf of Biscay
[AA]It is unfortunate that Balbin, who must have known the area well, lets this remark pass without further comment or explanation. As far as I gave been able to establish through library research and in situ, there is no such name as Las Siete Bellotas, or The Seven Acorns, nor was such a name ever used. Even Pascual Madoz’s famous Diccionario - which minutely describes every speck and hole-in-the-wall in Spain - does not record any name which resembles. The savage area which Borrow here describes, does however, exist. It consists of a 10 km long sequence of steep and elongated foothills, separated one from the other by sudden, narrow gorges and ravines, which come down from the Asturian mountains to the south and run directly into the foaming ocean, roughly between the villages of Cadavedo and Albuerne. The whole range is densely wooded and wild streams come tumbling down through many of its ravines. It must indeed have been a formidable barrier for travellers in Borrow’s days. Even the old National Road, built with the benefit of dynamite and bridges, is most arduous to follow, and did not of course exist when Borrow passed here. In the middle of the area is one small village called Ballota, which may be what Borrow grabbed onto for the coining of the name (although once again Madoz makes no mention of it in the 1840s!) It could, however, be argued that the etymology of “Ballota” does not come from “Acorn” but perhaps from some local word for “Whale”, since whaling used to be an important industry on this coasts until quite recently (see also Richard Ford, Handbook, p. 1024 and 1027 for a description of the area which, however, seems to owe quite a bit to Borrow’s experiences).
[BB]The first lines of this quote, which make a near perfect translation of Borrow’s text in The Bible in Spain chapter 32 (with only a few small variations) prove that any deviations of Balbin’s were no result of a faulty mastery of English. Only when religion comes in, the interpreter takes over from the translator. For Borrow only mentions the potential of the Seven Bellotas for a holy hermit’s life to emphasize that there is not a single hermit there! He himself puts it thus: “‘Fine places would some of these dingles prove for hermitages,’ said I to Martin of Rivadeo. ‘Holy men might lead a happy life there on roots and water, and pass many years absorbed in heavenly contemplation, without ever being disturbed by the noise and turmoil of the world.’
‘True, your worship,’ replied Martin; ‘and perhaps on that very account there are no hermitages in the barrancos of the Seven Bellotas. Our hermits had little inclination for roots and water, and had no kind of objection to be occasionally disturbed in their meditations. (...) Hermits are not fond of living in dingles, amongst wolves and foxes.’”
[CC]Not a “family” at all, but a single Russian hunch-back and his giant man-servant, probably a pair of diplomats or spies trying to contact the Carlist insurgents (The Bible in Spain chapter 32)
[DD]Father Benito Feijoo (1676 - 1764) was born in Galicia and died in Oviedo. He is Spain’s greatest enlightenment author, who wrote the monumental Teatro Critico Universal on themes of religion, history, science and superstition (The Bible in Spain chapter 33), a book well worth reading and a veritable pleasure to read!
[EE]Here Balbin really lost the thread. The books were not Bibles, they had been translated by a Spaniard - Father Scio de San Miguel - and they had failed to arrived in Santander (The Bible in Spain chapters 34 and 35).
[10.]Those who leaf through the pages of The Bible in Spain, will soon regard its author as a traveller, happy to observe sights and customs, rather than a missionary, zealous to further the religion which he preaches. He distributed Bibles, performed his tasks and gained his salary; yet cared very little if his readers were converted. But if, as an Apostle, he deserves no further tribute, as a scholar and an author he is most worthy of praise. Galicia and Asturias especially are not accustomed to receive judgements such as those which Borrow offers, basing himself on the strictest impartiality, and showing to many Spaniards the true worth of these neglected provinces [FF]. [There follows one more large paragraph of repetitive generalities and praise.]
[FF]Borrow’s description of the two provinces certainly stands out for its rich and curious detail. But only the most extreme misrepresentation of what he really said could qualify him for the sobriquet Impartial!