547. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 13 September 1800

547. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 13 September 1800 ⁠* 

Saturday. Sept. 13. 1800. Cintra

My dear Rickman

The King George sails on Monday without Thalaba. [1]  the Captain [2]  to whom I could have entrusted it did not come this voyage, & I know no Passenger. The parcel therefore must remain for the first opportunity that offers. I have worked at it very laboriously, & rewritten six hundred lines in the two last books, which dissatisfied me. Your letter reached me not till mine had been dispatched. for the future omit my name in the direction, & write only The Revd H. Hill, Chaplain to the British Forces, this will frank it thro the Portugueze office. an S by the wafer may mark it as mine.

We are in the midst of rumours & alarms. Of the wise expedition to Ferrol [3]  we only know that it ended as all such expeditions have ended, & will end till the end of the chapter. we know nothing certain of what has been done at Vigo – except that their only possible motive in going there must have been to make a Gazette, & varnish over the failure of the principal object. where they are now we do not know, tho they are so near! Of our probable campaign I said enough in my last. things remain in status quo, but these marauding schemes of the English will probably precipitate Spain into a war with this country, if only to secure her own coasts by drawing our attention here. A more serious danger alarms us. You must have heard of the plague at Cadiz. what the disorder is we know not – it is said to be the Black Vomit which some centuries since made great ravages in Europe – I recollect no disease of that name in history. however it is ravaging all Andalusia. they say it is epidemic, not contagious. if so we shall escape – if not, we are in hourly & imminent danger. No precautions are taken. a man just arrived from Cadiz who has recovered from the disease, is daily on the Exchange at Lisbon, & his baggage underwent no fumigation: indeed no precautions could be effectual. there is no natural frontier; – where the birds & the foxes pass – the smugglers also find their way. an immense contraband trade is carried on thro byepasses; – had the disease been infectious I think it must ere this have arrived. The Siroc blew for nine weeks at Cadiz – a place always unwholesome in summer. if this was the cause – the rains will remove it; but other accounts ascribe its origin to a ship from Charlestown, & the importation of the Yellow Fever. so little do we know of what is next door to us! If it reaches Lisbon we shall remove into the country – somewhere North among the mountains.

So much for War & Pestilence. It was a saying of John 5th [4] of this country. God preserve Portugal from pestilence. I will preserve it from Famine & War. About Buchans book [5]  my information may have been false. but it was positive – the man had read the prohibition. That the translation of Adam Smith [6]  is mutilated I have not the slightest doubt. the principles of his work are so subversive of their whole colonial system that it is not possible they should pass with impunity thro a Spanish Press. probably the notes mentioned by your correspondent are controversial – his opinions mangled & opposed. I shall perhaps be able to see the book.

I told you the mines had failed. this was incorrect. you know they are worked by adventurers, & that the King receives a fifth of the produce. they grow annually less & less productive, because the Brasilians have found out that it is more profitable to raise sugar & cotton &c, near the coasts or within reach of exportation, than to go mine-hunting among the Savages. in the one case the profit is all their own. Brasil produces spices, inferior indeed to what the Dutch monopolized, but still good enough, I should have thought, to have been profitably used in England.

The Portugueze merchants have advanced so much as to promise something for their country: they will infallibly take their trade out of the hands of the English & Germans who have so long enriched themselves here at the expence of the indolent natives. xxxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx government but this is the sole symptom of improvement. when they acquire wealth they know not how to employ it. they have neither arts nor sciences to encourage. country-gentlemen are things unknown. the nobleman perhaps visits the mansion – (house I should say) or his estate perhaps, when the fruits are ripe. he squanders his incomes in frippery & dangling about the court – of course has no money for improvements, & distresses his tenants, who cannot improve & dare not – if they could. Therefore the church lands are the only well-managed estates. One of these wealthy men wanted some pictures. there happened to be a foreign artist at Lisbon of some merit. he sent for him, mentioned the size of the pictures he wanted, & asked at what price he would execute them. the Painter said 20 Moidores each. 20 Moidores! replied the Patron of the Arts – I can get a Portugueze to do them for a six & thirty! The wealthiest of the native merchants came lately to Cintra & brought down a whole tribe of acquaintance to enjoy this Paradise. how think you they spent their time? literally at cards from breakfast till supper. this lasted a fortnight – his tavern bill amounted to more than 200 pounds & then he returned to Lisbon. Read they will not. indeed if they would they have scarcely a book in their own language fit to be read. I would our novel-mongers & Lane [7]  of Leadenhall Street along with them, were transported here & condemned to manufacture trash for the Portugueze. Any thing that would teach them to read! – The Academy began a dictionary: [8]  a national work – & upon a huge scale. a large folio only contained the letter A – & beyond the letter A they have never got tho six years have elapsed since that appeared. I shall shew you in England this volume & its almost unbelievable absurdity. a century & half ago Portugal was not behind the rest of Europe – her country towns had their presses, & if what was done was not good, very little better was performed elsewhere. There is now a man who [MS torn] a sort of contraband circulating library: but his subscribers are chiefly English; – I doubt whether he has a Portugueze book, & do not doubt that he will soon be imprisoned. The cock & – a – bull stories of superstition would little interest you. yet there is one which you should know. Portugal is infested with witches who delight in killing infants – they kill them always in the night, & it is known by the children being black in the face. this is believed – but this cannot be superstition on the part of the mothers & the nurses who overlay the infants. you cannot imagine the how these people sleep. the driver whom we always use sleeps upon his mule as he drives us – we wake him – the passers-by wake him – still he has more than once endangered us, & was once driving my Uncle into the river. A servant of an Englishman caught his death lately by the thus – it rained into his room – profu violently – without waking him. he slept in a bed half full of water till his usual hour, & woke with a cold that killed him. I have heard often of servants whom it is impossible to awaken by any noise: they must be pulled & shaken. does your servant wait at the door when you make a morning visit? in five minutes he is stretched on the stones & snoring. a dog does not slumber more readily. it is an act of volition with them. the moment they cease from animal action, they have no alternative.

There is a sort of general Hospital Board of which on my return I shall hunt out all particulars. but you can not easily conceive how ignorant the English here are of the country they live in, & how difficult it is to learn any thing. I believe its funds are chiefly derived from legacies – however that may be, they communicate with every municipality, & in every town a Physician, a Surgeon, & a Apothecary receive either from the funds of the corporation, or from this Board a certain annuity: small indeed, but still enough to prevent a man from starving & encourage him to settle there for this thus he attends the paupers. Popery is a charitable religion, & begging must be a good trade, where alms-giving is an atonement. Every-body whom we meet in the country begs – they affix no ignominy to it – the very man who sells you meat or poultry takes his money & then begs for the love of God!

Ediths remembrances. Thalaba will come by the first opportunity.

Yrs truly

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Mr John Rickman/ 33 Southampton Buildings/ Holburn/ London/ Single
Stamped: LISBON
Postmark: FOREIGN OFFICE/ SE/ 27/ 1800
Endorsement: Sept 13. 1800
MS: Huntington Library, RS 9. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 122–127. BACK

[1] A manuscript copy of the Islamic romance Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[2] Edward Bayntun Yescombe (1765–1803), Captain of the Packet, King George, which sailed between Falmouth and Lisbon. BACK

[3] The British government was increasingly convinced that Spain would ally with France and declare war on Britain. As a pre-emptive strike, a fleet under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren (1753–1822; DNB) unsuccessfully attempted to capture the Spanish port of Ferrol on 25–27 August 1800. BACK

[4] John V (1689–1750; King of Portugal 1706–1750). BACK

[5] William Buchan (1729–1805; DNB), Domestic Medicine, or the Family Physician (1769). BACK

[6] Adam Smith (1723–1790; DNB), The Wealth of Nations (1776). BACK

[7] William Lane (1745–1814; DNB), publisher of light romantic novels and promoter of circulating libraries. BACK

[8] The Royal Academy of Sciences published only the first volume of their proposed Portuguese dictionary, covering the letter A, in 1793. It was largely the work of Pedro Jose da Fonseca (1737–1816). BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 2 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 2 times)