Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reader Ointe pointed me – well, all of us actually – to the English translation of a memoir written by a French officer not long after the end of The Peninsular War/War of Spanish Independence. This is available on line and I’ve posted bits about Galicia’s key role in this war on my Galicia site, here. I’m re-formatting the whole thing, for posting tomorrow, but right now here’s a lovely description of the hotch-potch that was Madrid in 1808. With the obligatory reference – albeit indirectly – to the noise levels of the city in the final sentence:-

One is astonished on entering Madrid . . . at the tumultuous concourse of people from the country and the provinces, diversely clothed, going, coming, arriving and departing. Here a Castilian gathers up the ample folds of his cloak with the dignity of a Roman senator wrapped in his toga. There a drover from La Mancha, with a long goad in his hand and clad in a kilt of hide, which also resembles the ancient form of the tunic worn by the Roman and Gothic warriors. Farther on are seen men whose hair is bound with long silken fillets, and others wearing a sort of short brown vest, chequered with blue and red, which reminds one of the Morisco garb. The men who wear this habit come from Andalusia; they are distinguished by their black lively eyes, their expressive and animated looks, and the rapidity of their utterance. Women, sitting in the corners of the streets and in the public places, are occupied preparing food for this passing crowd, whose homes are not in Madrid. One sees long strings of mules laden with skins of wine or of oil, or droves of asses led by a single man, who talks to them unceasingly. One also meets carriages drawn by eight or ten mules, ornamented with little bells, driven with surprising address by one coachman, either on the trot, or galloping, without reins, and by means of his voice only, using the wildest cries. One long sharp whistle serves to stop all the mules at the same moment. By their slender legs, their tall stature, their proudly raised heads, one would take them for teams of stags or elks. The vociferations of the drivers and the muleteers, the ringing of the church bells, which is unceasing, unceasing, the various vesture of the men, the superabundance of southern activity, manifested by expressive gestures or shouts in a sonorous language of which we were ignorant, manners so different from our own, all contributed to make the appearance of the capital of Spain strange to men coming from the north, where all goes on so silently.

If you go to the above extract of Galicia’s role in the war, you'll see that the author was rather critical of the British General, Sir John Moore, who died in the engagement at La Coruña and who is buried in a little grove there, kindly maintained by the city council. His comments – though reasonable-sounding to me – proved too much for the translator, who felt obliged to insert this paragraph:- [These causes are sufficiently known to the English reader; yet it is impossible for the translator, who has the honour to call Sir John Moore a countryman, to pass over this passage without a protest against any censure, or implied censure, conveyed in Mr. Rocca’s pages; and without entreating the reader to turn to the narrative of Sir John Moore’s campaign, where the griefs and vexations of that noble heart are recorded, and the bright page of his military career laid open for the admiration and example of his countrymen.] Which is a relief to those of us who had to learn off by heart as kids a long poem about the unfortunate man's internment.

Commenting on French failures in the mountains of North Iberia, our French officer candidly opines – “In Galicia, Portugal, and the Asturias, we had lost, among the insurgent peasants, that reputation of invincibility, more powerful still than the real force which had conquered so many nations.” You’d think this would have been compulsory reading for the British, Russian and American armchair generals who’ve sent troops into the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan for the last hundred years or more. But apparently not.

Finally . . . I was intrigued by George Borrow’s observation that both the Basque people and their language came to Iberia from the steppes of Tartary. And I wonder what the current view on this hypothesis is.

And, of course, I continue to be impressed by his huge regard for the ‘common man’ of Spain . . .

Who was it said that "Cervantes sneered Spain's chivalry away?" I know not; and the author of such a line scarcely deserves to be remembered. How the rage for scribbling tempts people at the present day to write about lands and nations of which they know nothing, or worse than nothing. Vaya! It is not from having seen a bull-fight at Seville or Madrid, or having spent a handful of ounces at a posada in either of those places, kept perhaps by a Genoese or a Frenchman, that you are competent to write about such a people as the Spaniards, and to tell the world how they think, how they speak, and how they act! Spain's chivalry sneered away! Why, there is every probability that the great body of the Spanish nation speak, think, and live precisely as their forefathers did six centuries ago. . . He who wishes to become acquainted with the genuine Spaniard, must seek him not in seaports and large towns, but in lone and remote villages, like those of the Sagra. There he will find all that gravity of deportment and chivalry of disposition which Cervantes is said to have sneered away; and there he will hear, in everyday conversation, those grandiose expressions, which, when met with in the romances of chivalry, are scoffed at as ridiculous exaggerations.

You didn’t really think I was going to write a post this week without mentioning him, did you?

And you'll appreciate that GB probably didn't include himself in the tribe of scribes writing about what they knew not . . .


Ferrolano said...

The hypothesis by GB that the Basques originated from the Tartar regions was certainly a view held by a lot of the people from Bilbao when I lived there in the late 60s / early 70s. Although I felt at the time that it was a feeling expressed to show and to demonstrate that they were not, and are not Spanish. I guess that belief still prevails with a high percentage of the Basque people.

Colin said...

Intriguing. I fancied it would have been long dismissed. But any port in a storm, I guess.

ointe said...

The sincere admiration that the memory of Mr. Moore has on Coruña is very justified, and his merits as a honorable man and warrior too.

On his retreat the good man had to deal with heavy indiscipline from his troops, that in Castile done many unfortunate excesses. The famine converted them in something as bad as an enemy of Spaniards. Being very severe with them many times, he recognized that his men (about 25000) could do nothing against 70000 (more or less) of the best army in Europe by then, and saved them for better times.

His death was very unfortunate, but in Elviña and Coruña at least 22000 soldiers were saved.

Talking of the comercial spirit of Catalonians, I found for example that they managed to be the main distribution point of the Refrey sewing machines (a galician industry). With respect to the fish industry , yes they were the first to introduce here a conservation process that used 30% less salt, in a time when the salt was scarce (try to get 1kg of salt from the sea here and you will know why). With the advent of refrigerated fishing ships the things changed and now , for example, the first fish industry on Europe is Pescanova, from Vigo. Anyway be warned that with enough money you can be the first entrepeneur on anything that you want, so, maybe some of the fortunes earned with speculation on construction on Madrid and other places, will be the next big mother fisher.

Talking of "individualismo" on spaniards, there are very old cites from Strabo , for example, that give the same perspective.

This remembers me that Cervantes, was very aware of this, and with the Quijote, not only had given the worst wound than a knight can stand, but a vision of the "indivitualismo" on Spain, very hilarious, with the fight between two villages. And by the way...the two surnames of Miguel: de Cervantes, and Saavedra are from Galicia. Cervantes is a little Council on the eastern part of Galicia. The family Saavedra (sala de piedra in castilian) were one of the most fortunate from this land, and get some high charges on the court of Madrid, and even in Lima, Perú. Of course Miguel was not one of the most fortunate members of this family.

And you can check it:

first page

or :

page 185

What makes me say that it was of galician family and not "probably" is that "saavedra" has no meaning on castilian or anyother peninsular language but in galician. Judge yourself.

Yes, It´s an irony that now we are -fighting- against the imposition of the "lengua de Cervantes" on Galicia.

Regarding your defy on quality of galician fish, clamfish etc. I suppose that everyone likes more the things that is accustomed to, from children. But, if this can be a prove of quality, "polbo", "necoras", "centolos" etc. are definitely different here than in most places I´ve visited. But, be aware that you have to be selective with the restaurants and the "lonjas", not everyone is good and the price is not a guarantee also.

Colin said...

Many thanks, Ointe. Most interesting. I will follow up your citations. I have more tonight from GB, on Catalans and Andalucians.

Forgive me for one comment - you English is excellent but you need to be clear on on/in. Both Spanish and French (and Galego) use the same word but English doesn't. While the distinction semms clear to us, I guess it can't be as many Spanish and French speakers confuse them. It should be 'in Coruña' for example. Cheers.

mike the trike said...

It must be hard for non native speakers of English to grasp the difference between in and on. In and on are two prepositions which are unfortunately idiomatic. That means they are expressions that are natural to a native speaker. The prepostion on is usually followed by a noun that is an object. Something that you can touch. Some examples are - My hat is on my head. The book is on the table. So if it is an object you can usually use on. If it is a place then usually use the prepostion in. Some examples are - La Coruña is in Galicia. Madrid is a city in Spain. Of course there are as usual some exceptions and they have to be learned.

ointe said...

@Mike, Colin:

Thanks. The use of english to write is very rare for me this years. The only perception that something is wrong is , most of the time, that it don´t "look" fine
(a kind of perception). What is more, i had no time to check all the post before sending. The exact link to the information, is sometimes the most time consuming part of the post.

Colin said...


Well, with no practice, your English is all the more impressive. I wish my Spanish were as good!

Midnight Golfer said...

@ ointe:
I also appreciate your knowledge
and your mastery of 'my' language.