527. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 23 May 1800

527. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 23 May 1800 ⁠* 

Friday 23 May. Lisbon 1800.

Lisbon has twice been clean since the creation. Noahs flood washed it once, & the fire after the earthquake [1]  purified it. when it will be clean again would be difficult to say. probably not till the general conflagration. A house at which I called yesterday has a drain running round one of the sides, which actually empts all the filth before the entrance. the New Convents [2]  drain opens into one of the streets – more generous than the Grand Lama, [3]  he sells his holy filth, but the Nuns scatter theirs liberally & the catholic & the heretic partake its odours, as the sun shines upon the just & the unjust. there is a Board appointed to keep the city clean – Government takes their revenue & they will neither clean the city themselves nor suffer any one else to do it. An English Merchant [4]  applied lately for permission to clean the street in which he lived – & it was refused. this is one of the curious absurdities of the P. government. an English invalid who was terribly shaken in his carriage by the ragged pavement in his street, applied to the proper officers to have it mended. they would not do it. he was a man of fortune & expence no object so said he, “well, I’ll mend the road myself, & accordingly he set men to work. the second morning they were all apprehended for mending the street without orders from government.

The filthiest offices in the place are performed by negroes – they carry out from the decent houses the anonymous utensils. these poor people were brought as slaves into Portugal, till Pombal prohibited all future importation, still leaving those already in the country slaves, that property might not be invaded. [5]  once since a petition was presented that the town wanted Negroes – & a few were imported in consequence. When they have grown old in service & slavery the trick of Portugueze generosity is to give them their liberty. that is as if in England a man when his horse was grown old should turn him adrift, instead of giving the old animal the run of his park. Of course black beggars are numerous – grey-headed & with grey beards they look strangely – & some that have the leprosy are the most hideous objects imaginable. the xx women wear nothing on their heads, & this what with their woolly hair, & their broad features look sometimes so fearfully ugly that I do not wonder at the frequency of Negresses in Romance. A Priest in this country sold his own daughter by a negress. The Portugueze despise the Negroes, & by way of insult sneeze at them as they pass. this is their strongest mark of contempt. – Our phrase “a fig for him!” is explained by an amulet in use here against witchcraft, called a figa. the mules & asses bear it. it is the figure of a hand, closed, the thumb cocked out between the fore & middle fingers. I first saw it mentioned in a curious poem by Vieira, the famous, & indeed only good, Portugueze Painter. [6]  he had one given him when a child to save him from an evil eye, for he was more in danger on account of his being handsome & quick. as we say a child is too clever to live. – the gift of the gab – must also be of Portugueze extraction. gabar is to praise – to coax.

No doubt this is a regular government. it is an old monarchy – & has an established church. if the monarchy be despotic, if the clergy have an inquisition – so much the better a lawyer in England wrote a book to prove that our monarchy was absolute also [7]  – & Hughes <Hughes> [8]  – the clergyman at Clifton whom you may have seen at my Aunts – lamented in a pamphlet that that aweful tribunal the Inquisition had relaxed its vigilance, but you may rob, forge, & murder with impunity. An acquaintance of mine, (Tennant [9]  – well known for some famous chemical experiments on the diamond) met an Irishman in Switzerland who had been at Rome. he said it was the most lainient government in the world. you might kill a man in the streets & nobody would take the laist notice of it. This also is a lainient government; a man stabs his antagonist – wipes the knife in his cloak & walks quietly away. it is a point of honour in the spectators to give no information. if one servant steals robs his master, it is a point of honour in his fellow servants never to inform the master. both these points of honours are inviolable – from prudence, for a stab would be the consequence. One method of revenge used in the provinces is ingeniously wicked. they beat a man with sand bags. these do not inflict so much immediate pain as a cane would do, but they so bruise all the fine vessels, that unless the poor wretch be immediately scarified, lingering death is the consequence. my Uncle has known instances at Porto. For all useful purposes of society this is a complete anarchy. in the police every individual is interested – security is the object of political institutions, & here every man is at the mercy of every ruffian he meets. these thugs make no noise here. a man was murdered this week within thirty yards of our house – & we only heard it, ten days afterwards. by mere accident. yet all goes on smoothly – as the Tagus flows over the dead bodies that <are> thrown into it. they talk of clogging the wheels of government in England – as if government were a mighty complex piece of clockwork. but the wheels of government, only oil them well – are not easily clogged. even if the liberties of the people stand in their way, they crush them – as a broad wheeled waggon would pass over the head of a child – & feel no jolt.

In England you will imagine that this insecurity must occasion perpetual disquiet. not so. as I do not quarrel, & nobody has any interest in sending me to the next world there is no danger. we are indeed safer than in England, because there is not so much ingenuity exerted in villainy. instruments for picking pockets & breaking open houses have not yet been introduced into Portugal. you meet no counterfeit money in circulation – the country is not civilised enough to produce coiners. xxxx a man may as easily escape being assassinated here, as he can fighting a duel in England.

On Sunday some boys dressed like blue boys [10]  went under our window with baskets begging provisions & money. A man has set up this charity school on speculation, & without funds, trusting to chance alms. The Emperor of the Holy Ghost [11]  also passed us in person. his flags are new, & his retinue magnificent in their new dresses of white & scarlet. his musicians were all negroes. before him went a grave & comely personage, carrying a gilt wand of about ten feet high. The Emperor is about six years old, exceedingly thin dressed like a man in full dress, silk stockings, large buckles, a sword, & an enormous cocked hat – bigger than yours – edged with white fringe. on either side marched a gentleman usher, from time to time adjusting xxx his hat, as its heavy corners preponderated. the attendants carried silver salvers, on which they had collected much copper money, few poor people passing who did not give something. – Lately a Negro went along our street with a Christ in a glass case which he showed to every one whom he met. they usually kissed the glass & gave him money. Pombal in his time prohibited such follies. these im[MS torn] have all been blessed by the Pope & are therefore thus respected. I was [MS torn] a shop the other day waiting for change, when a beggar woma[MS torn] came in. as I did not give her anything she turned to an image of our Lady, prayed to it & kissed it – & then turned round to beg again. Religion is kept alive here by these images &c. like a fire perpetually supplied with fuel. they have a Saints for every <thing> – we poor heretics have only our Trinity & all things xxx are attributed to Providence – but here one saint preserves from lightning xxxxx another from fire – a third clears the clouds & so on – a salve for every sore. it is a fine religion for an enthusiast – for one who can let his feelings remain awake, & opiate his reason. never was Goddess so calculated to win upon the human heart as the Virgin Mary – & devotees – Moravians [12]  as well as Catholics – not infrequently mingle the feelings of earthly & spiritual love as strangely – as our bible has mixed the language in Solomons song. [13]  We have an instance in Crashaw the poets Hymn to St Theresa. [14] 

One of the New Convent towers is miserably disfigured by a projecting screen of wood. the man who rings the bell stands close by it, & this ugly thing is put there lest he should see the Nuns walking in the Garden – or least they should see him, for a Nun has nothing but Love to think of – & powder magazines must be guarded warily. a million sterling has been expended upon the Convent. it is magnificent within – wholly of marble & the colours well disposed. A million sterling! & the Great Square is unfinished, & the City without flagstones – without lamps – without drains.

I meet the galley slaves sometimes, & have looked at them with a physiognomic eye to see if they suffered from the rest of the people. it appeared to me that they had been found out – & the others had not. The Port. face, when fine, is very fine, & it rarely wants the expression of intellect.

The gardens have usually vine covered walks, stone pillars supporting the trellis-poles. some you see in the old fashioned stile. borders of box cut into patterns like the zig-zag-twirling of a Turkey carpet pattern. the Convent of the Necessidades [15]  has a very large & fine garden, open to men – n[MS obscured by binding] to women. this is laid out in shady walks like the spokes of a wheels – that centre in x fount[MS obscured by binding] the spaces between the walks occupied with oranges, lemons, & other fruit trees. every where innumerable lizards are to be seen sporting in the sun – grey or green – from two inches to 20 in length – nimble – harmless – beautiful animals. –

Edith has begun to copy Thalaba for you. [16]  young Hawkers [17]  wife says she saw you at Portsm[MS obscured by binding] she is a pert – affected, little-eyed – disagreable woman. he seems very good natured – we are to dine with them one day – very conveniently, for they are quartered at Belem & there is much to be seen within half a mile of the barracks. – Rundell [18]  returns in a week & I shall make a postman of him tho alas (my third letter) goes by <a> privat hand.

God bless you –



* Address: To/ Lieutenant Thomas Southey./ Bellona./ Plymouth Dock/ or elsewhere/ Single
Stamped: [illegible]
Endorsement: 3d
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927. ALS; 4p.
Published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 68–74 [in part]. BACK

[1] The earthquake of 1755. BACK

[2] Convent of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, founded in 1779 by Maria I (1734–1816; Queen of Portugal 1777–1816). BACK

[3] The practice of collecting the excrement of the Tibetan Dalai Lama in a golden pot and then making it into medicines to sell to devotees was widely known in Europe. See, for example, William Julius Mickle’s (1734/5–1788; DNB), The Lusiad: or the Discovery of India (Oxford, 1778), p. 484. BACK

[4] Either William or John Mayne (dates of both unknown), prominent British merchants (Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), p. 9, n. 2). BACK

[5] Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699–1782; Prime Minister of Portugal 1750–1777) prohibited the importation of slaves into Portugal in 1761. BACK

[6] Francisco Vieira (1699–1783), O Insigne Pintor e Leal Esposo Vieira Lusitano (Lisbon, 1780), p. 24. BACK

[7] John Reeves (1752–1829; DNB), conservative, barrister and founder in 1792 of the Association for Protecting Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. His Thoughts on the English Government, addressed to the quiet good sense of the People of England in a Series of Letters (1795) asserted that the Monarch could legally govern without Parliament. This comment led the House of Commons to order his prosecution for seditious libel. Though Reeves was acquitted, the jury censured his publication. BACK

[8] Probably the Baptist minister Joseph Hughes (1769-1833; DNB), who had worked as a pastor at Broadmead Baptist church, Bristol until 1796. His pamphlet is unidentified, but was probably published under the auspices of the Religious Tract Society, of which Hughes was a co-founder, in 1799, and the first secretary. BACK

[9] Smithson Tennant (1761–1815; DNB), chemist who discovered diamonds and charcoal have the same chemical composition. He farmed at Shipham in Somerset. BACK

[10] Pupils of Christ’s Hospital School in London. BACK

[11] A boy who was chosen to preside over the festivities at the Feast of the Holy Ghost. BACK

[12] The Moravian Church, or Unity of the Brethren, derived from followers of the religious reformer Jan Hus (1372–1415) in central Europe in the 14th century. In the 1720s they experienced a huge revival, spreading out from their new settlement at Herrnhut in Germany, which emphasised communal living and missionary work. A group settled in Bristol in 1755. BACK

[13] The Song of Solomon. BACK

[14] Richard Crashaw (1613–1649; DNB), ‘A Hymn to the Name and Honour of the Admirable St Theresa’ (1646). BACK

[15] Convent of Necessidades, founded in 1750. BACK

[16] This copy of Thalaba is now Pierpont Morgan Library, LHMS MA 415. BACK

[17] Lieutenant Francis Hawker (dates unknown) of the 12th Light Dragoons. He and his wife (née Cripps) were friendly with Herbert Hill. Southey met them again in France in 1838 (Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 210–211). BACK

[18] Rundell (first name and dates unknown) travelled to Portugal with Southey. He was possibly a member of a prominent Bath family of silversmiths, jewellers and surgeons. BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)