George Borrow's The Bible in Spain was published on this day, December 10, 1842. The author was an agent for the British and Foreign Bible Society. His book sold wildly, and remains one of the finest adventures yarns in the English language, made all the more interesting because it is a true story. A Protestant distributing Bibles in a hostile Catholic nation in the middle of a civil war...What could be more exciting?
Borrow seemed created for adventure. He was fascinated by gypsies and mastered their language. Eventually he wrote several books about them. Something of a loner, he was always most comfortable with outcasts and loved the exhilaration of danger. Once he rescued a friend from drowning. (Later he saved another man in thirty foot waves.) He became a cragsman in Scotland. A gypsy poisoned him.
His genius was for language. By the time he was eighteen, he had learned Romany from the gypsies, French from an émigré priest, Erse while his father was stationed in Ireland, Welsh by reading Paradise Lost in it, Danish by reading a Danish Bible, and, by one means or another, had acquired Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian and Saxon.
His love of languages made him what he became. As a young man he was a freethinker. He tried to make his living translating heroic stories from Scandinavian languages, but was only able to get hackwork. This included writing a six volume series on notorious criminals, which worsened his melancholy. Reconsidering Christianity, he offered himself to the British and Foreign Bible Society. His first task was the "impossible" job of translating the Bible into Manchu, the court language of China. He did not even know Manchu, but nineteen weeks later demonstrated such a mastery that he was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia, to complete the task. In less than two years, he overcame all obstacles (such as paper shortages) to see it into print.
His next assignment was Iberia. Landing in Portugal, he made a survey of its spiritual needs and headed for Spain. Adventure began at once. A saddle girth snapped, nearly killing him. He was shot at when he laughed aloud at an official who mistook him for a Frenchman.
In Spain he met gypsies and read them the gospel in their own tongue. Roman clergy in the big Spanish cities resisted his distribution of Bibles. So he rode through the most dangerous regions of a nation at civil war, selling Bibles. He witnessed grisly atrocities. Threats abounded. He was arrested, but refused to accept release except on his own terms, causing an international incident. An attempt was made to assassinate him. He survived.
His Bibles were seized, but demand for them was so great that the greedy officials became the distributors, selling the confiscated books to the highest bidders and lining their own pockets with the receipts. In a customs house, Borrow spoke so convincingly to officials who were instructed to seize his wares that they themselves bought Bibles.
After years of danger and daring--and much bickering with his home office--Borrow left Spain "forever," having done "for her all that lay in the power of a lone man, who had never in this world anything to depend on but God and his own slight strength."
As interesting as The Bible in Spain is, it is only fair to point out that it shows more love of adventure and hatred of the Roman Church than spiritual feeling.
- Borrow, George. The Bible in Spain.
- -----------Lavengro, or, The Romany Rye.
- "Borrow, George." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921-1996.
- Jenkins, Herbert. Life of George Borrow. Putnam, 1912.
- Kunitz, Stanley L. British authors of the nineteenth century. New York: H. W. Wilson company, 1936.
Last updated May, 2007.