566. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 12 February-28 March 1801

566. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 12 February-28 March 1801 ⁠* 

Thursday Feby. 12. 1801. Lisbon.

On Tuesday we crossed the river to Casilhas point – procured jack asses & proceeded to a place called Costa [1]  to dinner. you know the castle in the mouth of the Tagus – the state prison [2]  – where the man is confined that beat the King. [3]  the Costa is a collection of fishermens huts on the sand, in a line with it, on the south side of the river. the ride is about seven miles, over a hilly country, that every where displayed novel & striking views. for the foreground huge aloes & the prickly pear – the broom & furze in blossom – broad-headed firs every where where the sandy soil was not cultivated for vines or olives – the sweep of the bay southward skirted by the pine-covered plains – & the mountain boundary – behind us Lisbon on its heights – & the river blue & boundless as a sea. thro a cleft in a sand bank – a winter ravine way for the rains, we first saw the Costa at about half a mile below us, the most singular view I ever beheld – huts all of thatch scatterd upon the sand – we descended by a very steep way cut thro the sand hill – the sand on either side fretted by the weather like xx old sculpture long weather worn. all below belongs to the sea – but on the bare sands a numerous tribe have fixed their habitations – which exactly resemble the wigwams of the Nootka savages. [4]  – a wooden frame all thatched – is all. most commonly the door descends – for warmth – & the window often on a level with the ground without – two only symptoms showed us that we were in a Xtian country – a church – the only stone building – & a party stretched upon the sand at cards. the men live by fishing – & a stronger race I never saw – or more prolific, for children seemed to swarm. as parties from Lisbon are frequent here there are two or three hovels of entertainment. ours had ragged rhymes upon its walls recommending us to drink by the barrel & not by the quart ale-house advice in lines almost as long as the poem upon Pharaoh King of Egypt. [5]  one is worth noting – it was Love & Jollity for ever & St Joseph & the Virgin Mary. we took our dinner – added fish to it there – rode about two miles & reembarked at the Trifana – & returned after as pleasant a day as ever-pleasure-party experienced.

In riding to Odivellas I saw somewhat curious – it was a Padroña by the road side. we have no other word in English – & it occurs often in romance – for a place raised by the wayside where a station or inscription is placed: there was an image of Christ there – & some unaccountable inscriptions about robbery & hiding heaven in the earth, which a series of pictures in tiles behind, explained. A hundred years ago the church at Odivellas was robbed of the church plate & of the sacrament – then I saw the thief playing at skittles when the sacristan of the church past by – whom he followed in & hid himself – then I saw him robbing the altar – next “you shall see how he hid the church-dresses in the house of a woman – & here he is burying the sacrament plate in a vineyard upon this very spot. here he is examined upon suspicion & denies all, & says who ever did the sacrilege ought to have his hands cut off. here he is taken in the act of stealing the fowls of the convent – & he confesses all. here they dig up the hidden treasure & carry it back in a solemn procession – here he is going to execution – here you see his hands cut off according to his own sentence – & here he is strangled & burnt. It is remarkable that in almost all these tiles the face of the criminal is broken to pieces – probably in abhorrence of his guilt. The loss of the Wafer has been ever regarded as a national calamity – to be lamented with public prayers & fasts & processions. It happened at Mexico in the Conquerors days, & Cortez [6]  himself paraded with the monks & the mob. –––

Saturday March 28. In the long interval that has elapsed since this letter was begun we have travelled about three hundred & fifty miles. [7]  Waterhouse [8]  & I took charge of Edith & three ladies. [9]  a Doctor at Aldea da Cruz of whom we besought houseroom one night in distress told us with more truth than politeness that four women were a mighty inconvenience. We did not find them so – they made our chocolate at morning. laughed with us by day – enjoyed the scenery, packed our provisions basket, & at night endured flea-biting with a patience that entitles them to an honourable place in the next martyrology. All Lisbon I believe thought us mad when we set out – & they now regard our return with equal envy as only our complections have suffered – to detail the journey would be too long – we asked at Santarem if they had room for us – they said plenty – we begged to see them – they had two rooms – four men a-bed in one – one fellow a bed in the other, at Pombal Waterhouse & I slept in public – in a room that served as a passage for the family. Men & women indiscriminately made the Ladies beds. one night we passed thro a room wherein eight men were sleeping – who rose up to look at us – something like a picture of the resurrection. these facts will enable you to judge of the comforts & decencies of Portugueze – they once wanted us – 4 women & two men – to sleep in two beds in one room.

Yet bad as these places are the Mail Coach has made them still worse. that is it has rendered the people less civil & made the expences heavier.

We crost the Zezere. a river of importance in the history of Portugal, as its banks form the great protection of Lisbon. it is the place where a stand might most effectually be made against an invading army. the river is fine – about our Avon width at Rownham, & flowing between hills of our Clifton & Leigh height that are covered with heath, & gum-cistus. the water is beautifully clear, & the bottom sand. like all mountain streams the Zezere is of irregular & untameable force. in summer horsemen ford it. in winter the ferry price varies according to the resistance of the current – from one vintem to nine – that is from a penny to a shilling. It then enters the Tagus with equal waters – sometimes with a larger body, for as the rains may have fallen heavier East or North, the one river with its rush almost stagnates the other.

At Pombal we saw Our Ladys Oven – where annually a fire is kindled – a wafer baked – & a man, the Shadrach [10]  of the town, walks round the glowing oven & comes out unhurt & unsinged by special miracle of our Lady of Cardal. At Thomar is a statue of St Christofer on the bridge. three grains of his leg – taken in a glass of water is a sovereign cure for the ague – & poor St Christofers legs are almost worn out by the extent of the practice. Torres Vedras is the place where Father Antony of the Wounds [11]  died – a man suspected of sanctity the pious mob attacked his body – stripped it naked – cut off all his hair, & tore up his nails – to keep for relics. I have seen relics of all the Saints – yea a thorn from the crown of crucifixion – & a drop of the Redemption-blood. All this you shall hereafter see at length in the regular journal.

A more interesting subject is our return. My Uncle will I think return with us – or at least speedily follow. We look forward to the expulsion of the English as only avoidable by a general peace – & this so little probable that all preparations are making for removal. My Uncle is sending away all his books – & I am now in the dirt of packing. I look on to his return as the only means of extricating my Mother from that miserable situation – to which she will else ever return like a dog to his vomit, in spite of all my intreaties & effort. [12]  in May I hope to be in Bristol – eager enough – God knows – to see old friends & old familiar scenes – xxxtter – but with no pleasant anticipation of English taxes & English climate & small beer – after this blessed sun – & the wines of Portugal. my health has received all the benefit I could & did expect. a longer residence would I think render the amendment permanent; & with this idea the prospect of an hereafter return to compleat the latter part of my history is by no means unpleasant.

God bless you & keep you from the North seas. I have written in haste – obliged to write letters on my return – & not having leisure to write half. Ediths love. I know not when or where we shall meet – but when I am on English ground the distance between us will not be so unpassable – farewell –

yrs truly

Robert Southey


* Address: [deletion and readdress in another hand] To/ Lieutenant Thomas Southey./ H. M. S. Bellona./ Plymouth Dock/ North Sea / Or elsewhere./ Single./ North Yarmouth
Stamped: [partial] OUTH
Postmark: [partial] 12
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849-1850), II, pp. 126-131 [in part]; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 146-149 [in part]. BACK

[1] Costa da Caparica. BACK

[2] The Belem Tower. BACK

[3] Unidentified. BACK

[4] Nootka was the name that Europeans gave to an island, an inlet and a group of peoples on the Pacific coast of Canada. BACK

[5] Identity uncertain; possible candidates include Edward Young (c. 1683-1765; DNB) Busiris, King of Egypt (1719); Charles Marsh (d. 1782), Amasis King of Egypt (1738); or the popular mummers’ play Alexander and the King of Egypt. BACK

[6] Hernan Cortes (1485-1547), conqueror of the Aztec empire. BACK

[7] For an account of this journey, see Southey’s journal, published in Adolfo Cabral, Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 15-33. BACK

[8] Samuel Waterhouse (dates unknown). Later a prominent member of the English community in Portugal. BACK

[9] Barbara Seton and the two Petrie sisters. The latter may have possibly been related to Martin Petrie (d. 1805), a Commissary in the British Army. BACK

[10] One of the three young men who survived being thrown into a furnace; see Daniel 3: 22-28. BACK

[11] Antonio da Fonseca Soares (1631-1682), a soldier and writer who became a Franciscan friar under the name Antonio das Chagas (‘Antony of the Wounds’). BACK

[12] A paraphrase of Proverbs 26: 11. Southey was hoping that Herbert Hill would be able to remove Margaret Southey from the baleful influence of her half-sister Elizabeth Tyler. BACK

People mentioned

Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 2 times)
Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 2 times)
Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 1 time)
Seton, Barbara (dates unknown) (mentioned 1 time)