George Borrow (1803–1881) Threatens an International Incident when Held in Spanish Prison

[ABOVE—Street scene in Segovia, Spain, from George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, vol II (London: John Murray, 1896).]

George Borrow had been a friend of gypsies, an agnostic, a brilliant, self-taught linguist and starving author before abruptly professing a conversion to Christianity and offering his services to the British and Foreign Bible Society. His first assignment was in Russia, where he prepared a Manchu translation of the Bible in an astonishingly short time.

On his second assignment, in Spain, Borrow risked his life in adventures across the country, during a civil war, distributing Bibles. At the instigation of priests, he was arrested. An arrogant man (as his own words show), he used the situation to tweak the noses of the Spanish authorities, and viewed himself as a martyr, although it is hard to see him in that light since he could easily have eluded arrest and because he suffered no real hardship or danger while imprisoned. Indeed, he had great leverage, for his imprisonment threatened an international incident. In this unusual case, the prisoner was more powerful than his captors.

Nonetheless, his interesting experiences formed the basis of a vivid book. Here are excerpts from the pertinent chapters (39-42) of his instant best-seller The Bible in Spain.

The Bible In Spain

Chapter 39

At length the Gospel of Saint Luke in the Gypsy language was in a state of readiness. I therefore deposited a certain number of copies in the despacho, and announced them for sale. The Basque, which was by this time also printed, was likewise advertised. For this last work there was little demand. Not so, however, for the Gypsy Luke, of which I could have easily disposed of the whole edition in less than a fortnight. Long, however, before this period had expired, the clergy were up in arms.

[The clergy cause the police to confiscate Borrow’s Bibles. The corrupt police sell them for high prices; Borrow is visited by an official who warns him he is in danger of arrest. Borrow forces him from his apartment and sends him his sombrero by his landlady.]

“A trampa has been laid for you, Don Jorge,” said Maria Diaz [Borrow’s landlady], when she had reascended from the street; “that corchete came here with no other intention than to have a dispute with you; out of every word you have said he will make a long history, as is the custom with these people: indeed he said, as I handed him his hat, that ere twenty-four hours were over, you should see the inside of the prison of Madrid.”

In effect, during the course of the morning, I was told that a warrant had been issued for my apprehension. The prospect of incarceration, however, did not fill me with much dismay; an adventurous life and inveterate habits of wandering having long familiarized me to situations of every kind, so much so as to feel myself quite as comfortable in a prison as in the gilded chamber of palaces; indeed more so, as in the former place I can always add to my store of useful information, whereas in the latter, ennui frequently assails me. I had, moreover, been thinking for some time past of paying a visit to the prison, partly in the hope of being able to say a few words of Christian instruction to the criminals, and partly with the view of making certain investigations in the robber language of Spain, a subject about which I had long felt much curiosity; indeed, I had already made application for admittance into the Carcel de la Corte, but had found the matter surrounded with difficulties, as my friend Ofalia would have said. I rather rejoiced then in the opportunity which was now about to present itself of entering the prison, not in the character of a visitor for an hour, but as a martyr, and as one suffering in the holy cause of religion. I was determined, however, to disappoint my enemies for that day at least, and to render null the threat of the alguazil, that I should be imprisoned within twenty-four hours. I therefore took up my abode for the rest of the day in a celebrated French tavern in the Calle del Caballero de Gracia, which, as it was one of the most fashionable and public places in Madrid, I naturally concluded was one of the last where the corregidor would think of seeking me.

About ten at night, Maria Diaz, to whom I had communicated the place of my retreat, arrived with her son, Juan Lopez. “O senor,” said she on seeing me, “they are already in quest of you; the alcalde of the barrio, with a large comitiva of alguazils and such like people, have just been at our house with a warrant for your imprisonment from the corregidor. They searched the whole house, and were much disappointed at not finding you. Woe is me, what will they do when they catch you?”

“Be under no apprehensions, good Maria,” said I; “you forget that I am an Englishman, and so it seems does the corregidor. Whenever he catches me, depend upon it he will be glad enough to let me go. For the present, however, we will permit him to follow his own course, for the spirit of folly seems to have seized him.”

I slept at the tavern, and in the forenoon of the following day repaired to the embassy, where I had an interview with Sir George, to whom I related every circumstance of the affair. He said that he could scarcely believe that the corregidor entertained any serious intentions of imprisoning me: in the first place, because I had committed no offence; and in the second, because I was not under the jurisdiction of that functionary, but under that of the captain-general, who was alone empowered to decide upon matters which relate to foreigners, and before whom I must be brought in the presence of the consul of my nation. “However,” said he, “there is no knowing to what length these jacks in office may go. I therefore advise you, if you are under any apprehension, to remain as my guest at the embassy for a few days, for here you will be quite safe.” I assured him that I was under no apprehension whatever, having long been accustomed to adventures of this kind. From the apartment of Sir George, I proceeded to that of the first secretary of embassy, Mr. Southern, with whom I entered into conversation. I had scarcely been there a minute when my servant Francisco rushed in, much out of breath, and in violent agitation, exclaiming in Basque, “Niri jauna (master mine), the alguaziloac and the corchetoac, and all the other lapurrac (thieves) are again at the house. They seem half mad, and not being able to find you, are searching your papers, thinking, I suppose, that you are hid among them.”

Mr. Southern here interrupting him, inquired of me what all this meant. Whereupon I told him, saying at the same time, that it was my intention to proceed at once to my lodgings. “But perhaps these fellows will arrest you,” said Mr. S., “before we can interfere.”

“I must take my chance as to that,” I replied, and presently afterwards departed.

Ere, however, I had reached the middle of the street of Alcala, two fellows came up to me, and telling me that I was their prisoner, commanded me to follow them to the office of the corregidor…

[He describes his captors in unflattering terms.]

I waited patiently on the bench at least one hour, expecting every moment to be summoned before my lord the corregidor. I suppose, however, that I was not deemed worthy of being permitted to see so exalted a personage, for at the end of that time, an elderly man, one however evidently of the alguazil genus, came into the room and advanced directly towards me. “Stand up,” said he. I obeyed. “What is your name?” he demanded. I told him. “Then,” he replied, exhibiting a paper which he held in his hand, “Senor, it is the will of his excellency the corregidor that you be forthwith sent to prison.”

He looked at me steadfastly as he spoke, perhaps expecting that I should sink into the earth at the formidable name of prison; I however only smiled. He then delivered the paper, which I suppose was the warrant for my committal, into the hand of one of my two captors, and obeying a sign which they made, I followed them.…

[He describes the efforts made by the British consul to keep him out of prison, and his thoughts on passing a site where reformers were burned in an earlier century.]

We arrived at the prison, which stands in a narrow street not far from the great square. We entered a dusky passage, at the end of which was a wicket door. My conductors knocked, a fierce visage peered through the wicket; there was an exchange of words, and in a few moments I found myself within the prison of Madrid, in a kind of corridor which overlooked at a considerable altitude what appeared to be a court, from which arose a hubbub of voices, and occasionally wild shouts and cries. Within the corridor which served as a kind of office, were several people; one of them sat behind a desk, and to him the alguazils went up, and after discoursing with him some time in low tones, delivered the warrant into his hands. He perused it with attention, then rising he advanced to me. What a figure! He was about forty years of age, and his height might have amounted to some six feet two inches, had he not been curved much after the fashion of the letter S. No weasel ever appeared lanker, and he looked as if a breath of air would have been sufficient to blow him away; his face might certainly have been called handsome, had it not been for its extraordinary and portentous meagreness; his nose was like an eagle’s bill, his teeth white as ivory, his eyes black (Oh how black!) and fraught with a strange expression, his skin was dark, and the hair of his head like the plumage of the raven. A deep quiet smile dwelt continually on his features; but with all the quiet it was a cruel smile, such a one as would have graced the countenance of a Nero. “Mais en revanche personne n’ etoit plus honnete.

“Caballero,” said he, “allow me to introduce myself to you as the alcayde of this prison. I perceive by this paper that I am to have the honor of your company for a time, a short time doubtless, beneath this roof; I hope you will banish every apprehension from your mind. I am charged to treat you with all the respect which is due to the illustrious nation to which you belong, and which a cavalier of such exalted category as yourself is entitled to expect. A needless charge, it is true, as I should only have been too happy of my own accord to have afforded you every comfort and attention. Caballero, you will rather consider yourself here as a guest than a prisoner; you will be permitted to roam over every part of this house whenever you think proper. You will find matters here not altogether below the attention of a philosophic mind! Pray, issue whatever commands you may think fit to the turnkeys and officials, even as if they were your own servants. I will now have the honor of conducting you to your apartment—the only one at present unoccupied. We invariably reserve it for cavaliers of distinction. I am happy to say that my orders are again in consonance with my inclination. No charge whatever will be made for it to you, though the daily hire of it is not unfrequently an ounce of gold. I entreat you, therefore, to follow me, cavalier, who am at all times and seasons the most obedient and devoted of your servants.” Here he took off his hat and bowed profoundly.

Such was the speech of the alcayde of the prison of Madrid; a speech delivered in pure sonorous Castilian, with calmness, gravity, and almost with dignity; a speech which would have done honor to a gentleman of high birth, to Monsieur Basompierre, of the Old Bastile, receiving an Italian prince, or the high constable of the Tower an English duke attainted of high treason. Now, who in the name of wonder was this alcayde?

One of the greatest rascals in all Spain. A fellow who had more than once by his grasping cupidity, and by his curtailment of the miserable rations of the prisoners, caused an insurrection in the court below only to be repressed by bloodshed, and by summoning military aid; a fellow of low birth, who, only five years previous, had been DRUMMER to a band of royalist volunteers!

But Spain is the land of extraordinary characters.

I followed the alcayde to the end of the corridor, where was a massive grated door, on each side of which sat a grim fellow of a turnkey. The door was opened, and turning to the right we proceeded down another corridor, in which were many people walking about, whom I subsequently discovered to be prisoners like myself, but for political offences. At the end of this corridor, which extended the whole length of the patio, we turned into another, and the first apartment in this was the one destined for myself. It was large and lofty, but totally destitute of every species of furniture, with the exception of a huge wooden pitcher, intended to hold my daily allowance of water. “Caballero,”said the alcayde, “the apartment is without furniture, as you see. It is already the third hour of the tarde, I therefore advise you to lose no time in sending to your lodgings for a bed and whatever you may stand in need of, the llavero here shall do your bidding. Caballero, adieu till I see you again.”

I followed his advice, and writing a note in pencil to Maria Diaz, I dispatched it by the llavero, and then sitting down on the wooden pitcher, I fell into a reverie, which continued for a considerable time.

Night arrived, and so did Maria Diaz, attended by two porters and Francisco, all loaded with furniture. A lamp was lighted, charcoal was kindled in the brasero, and the prison gloom was to a certain degree dispelled.

I now left my seat on the pitcher, and sitting down on a chair, proceeded to dispatch some wine and viands, which my good hostess had not forgotten to bring with her. Suddenly Mr. Southern entered. He laughed heartily at finding me engaged in the manner I have described. “B-,” said he, “you are the man to get through the world, for you appear to take all things coolly, and as matters of course.…”

He then informed me that Sir George had already sent in an official note to Ofalia, demanding redress for such a wanton outrage on the person of a British subject. “You must remain in prison,’said he, “tonight, but depend upon it that tomorrow, if you are disposed, you may quit in triumph.”

“I am by no means disposed for any such thing,” I replied. “They have put me in prison for their pleasure, and I intend to remain here for my own.”

“If the confinement is not irksome to you,” said Mr. Southern, “I think, indeed, it will be your wisest plan; the government have committed themselves sadly with regard to you; and, to speak plainly, we are by no means sorry for it. They have on more than one occasion treated ourselves very cavalierly, and we have now, if you continue firm, an excellent opportunity of humbling their insolence. I will instantly acquaint Sir George with your determination, and you shall hear from us early on the morrow.” He then bade me farewell; and flinging myself on my bed, I was soon asleep in the prison of Madrid.

Chapter 40

Ofalia quickly perceived that the imprisonment of a British subject in a manner so illegal as that which had attended my own, was likely to be followed by rather serious consequences.…

[he describes the situation, and a visit from an authority]

I turned to the alcayde, who stood at the door: “Take notice,’said I, “that I will not quit this prison till I have received full satisfaction for being sent hither uncondemned. You may expel me if you please, but any attempt to do so shall be resisted with all the bodily strength of which I am possessed.”

“Your worship is right,” said the alcayde with a bow, but in a low voice.

Sir George, on hearing of this affair, sent me a letter in which he highly commanded my resolution not to leave the prison for the present, at the same time begging me to let him know if there were anything that he could send me from the embassy to render my situation more tolerable.

I will now leave for the present my own immediate affairs, and proceed to give some account of the prison of Madrid and its inmates. …

I shall not attempt to enter into a particular description of the prison of Madrid, indeed it would be quite impossible to describe so irregular and rambling an edifice. Its principal features consisted of two courts, the one behind the other, intended for the great body of the prisoners to take air and recreation in. Three large vaulted dungeons or calabozos occupied three sides of this court, immediately below the corridors of which I have already spoken. These dungeons were roomy enough to contain respectively from one hundred to one hundred and fifty prisoners, who were at night secured therein with lock and bar, but during the day were permitted to roam about the courts as they thought fit. The second court was considerably larger than the first, though it contained but two dungeons, horribly filthy and disgusting places; this second court being used for the reception of the lower grades of thieves. Of the two dungeons one was, if possible, yet more horrible than the other; it was called the gallineria, or chicken coop, and within it every night were pent up the young fry of the prison, wretched boys from seven to fifteen years of age, the greater part almost in a state of nudity. The common bed of all the inmates of these dungeons was the ground, between which and their bodies nothing intervened, save occasionally a manta or horse-cloth, or perhaps a small mattress; this latter luxury was, however, of exceedingly rare occurrence.

Besides the calabozos connected with the courts, were other dungeons in various parts of the prison; some of them quite dark, intended for the reception of those whom it might be deemed expedient to treat with peculiar severity. There was likewise a ward set apart for females. Connected with the principal corridor were many small apartments, where resided prisoners confined for debt or for political offences. And, lastly, there was a small capilla or chapel, in which prisoners cast for death passed the last three days of their existence in company of their ghostly advisers.

I shall not soon forget my first Sunday in prison. Sunday is the gala day of the prison, at least of that of Madrid, and whatever robber finery is to be found within it, is sure to be exhibited on that day of holiness. There is not a set of people in the world more vain than robbers in general, more fond of cutting a figure whenever they have an opportunity, and of attracting the eyes of their fellow creatures by the gallantry of their appearance…

[Borrow here describes several of the prisoners and their audacious crimes and bad ends. Chapter 41 consists almost entirely of Borrow’s interactions with his landlady and a former servant.]

Chapter 42

I remained about three weeks in the prison of Madrid, and then left it. If I had possessed any pride, or harbored any rancor against the party who had consigned me to durance, the manner in which I was restored to liberty would no doubt have been highly gratifying to those evil passions; the government having acknowledged, by a document transmitted to Sir George, that I had been incarcerated on insufficient grounds, and that no stigma attached itself to me from the imprisonment I had undergone; at the same time agreeing to defray all the expenses to which I had been subjected throughout the progress of this affair.

It moreover expressed its willingness to dismiss the individual owing to whose information I had been first arrested, namely, the corchete or police officer who had visited me in my apartments in the Calle de Santiago, and behaved himself in the manner which I have described in a former chapter. I declined, however, to avail myself of this condescension of the government, more especially as I was informed that the individual in question had a wife and family, who, if he were disgraced, would be at once reduced to want. I moreover considered that, in what he had done and said, he had probably only obeyed some private orders which he had received; I therefore freely forgave him, and if he does not retain his situation at the present moment, it is certainly no fault of mine.

[He refuses compensation for his incarceration, not wishing to accept money from the Spanish authorities.]

The heaviest loss which resulted from my confinement, and for which no indemnification could be either offered or received, was in the death of my affectionate and faithful Basque Francisco, who having attended me during the whole time of my imprisonment, caught the pestilential typhus or gaol fever, which was then raging in the Carcel de la Corte, of which he expired within a few days subsequent to my liberation…

It is reasonable to expect that after having been subjected to an imprisonment which my enemies themselves admitted to be unjust, I should in future experience more liberal treatment at their hands than that which they had hitherto adopted towards me. The sole object of my ambition at this time was to procure toleration for the sale of the Gospel in this unhappy and distracted kingdom, and to have attained this end I would not only have consented to twenty such imprisonments in succession, as that which I had undergone, but would gladly have sacrificed life itself. I soon perceived, however, that I was likely to gain nothing by my incarceration; on the contrary, I had become an object of personal dislike to the government since the termination of this affair, which it was probable I had never been before; their pride and vanity were humbled by the concessions which they had been obliged to make in order to avoid a rupture with England. This dislike they were now determined to gratify, by thwarting my views as much as possible. I had an interview with Ofalia on the subject uppermost in my mind: I found him morose and snappish. “It will be for your interest to be still,” said he; “beware! you have already thrown the whole corte into confusion; beware, I repeat; another time you may not escape so easily.”

“Perhaps not,” I replied, “and perhaps I do not wish it; it is a pleasant thing to be persecuted for the Gospel’s sake. I now take the liberty of inquiring whether, if I attempt to circulate the word of God, I am to be interrupted.”

“Of course,” exclaimed Ofalia; “the church forbids such circulation.”

“I shall make the attempt, however,” I exclaimed.

“Do you mean what you say?” demanded Ofalia, arching his eyebrows and elongating his mouth.

“Yes,” I continued, “I shall make the attempt in every village in Spain to which I can penetrate.”