When we last left our hero, 13 year-old James Silk Buckingham, he was being transported from the French corvette that had captured his packet ship to the Spanish city of Corunna, where he was to be imprisoned. What dire fate is in store for our young hero?! Read on…
Autobiography of James Silk Buckingham
Chapter VI (continued) and VII
We landed at the fine quay in the harbour, and were marched through the lower town – there being an upper one on an elevated site, strongly fortified; and we observed Fort Anthony protecting the harbour, and the Iron Tower of Hercules, nearly 100 feet high, independently of the elevated site on which it stands, forming a lighthouse which is said to be visible at the great distance of twenty leagues at sea – our English lighthouses being rarely visible more than a third of that distance, or twenty miles.
We saw also the royal manufactory of cigars (tobacco being a royal monopoly in Spain), where more than five hundred women and children are said to be employed in preparing these articles in a manner so filthy and disgusting that it is said by those who witness the process are often deterred from using them.
The population of Corunna, exceeding 20,000, afforded an infinite variety of figures, complexions, and costumes – all characterised by greater variety and brighter colours than in England, – and interspersed with such a number of priests, monks, and nuns, in the varied dresses of their respective orders, as to mark, by this change more than any other, the difference between an English and a Spanish crowd.
The noises in the streets, from the screaming cries of all the vendors of different articles, especially fresh water, ices, and fruits, and the continued clang of bells, as at Lisbon, at all hours of the day and night, was another marked feature of contrast with the more sober quiet of English towns.
We arrived at length at the large building appropriated for our reception, apparently an old palace or mansion, then vacant; and as far as room or space was concerned, we had no reason to complain. Each man had slung his hammock from wall to wall when night came. In the morning they were taken down and lashed up as on board ship; while cleanliness was strictly enforced, by frequent washing of the floors, as the ship’s decks are washed, and ventilation was amply secured by open windows day and night continuously.
The provender supplied us by the government authorities was, however, miserably stinted in quantity, and, to our well-fed stomachs and English taste, abominable in quality. Pulse , small beans, called ‘calavances,’ coarse vegetables, oil and garlic, formed the chief ingredients, bread so rough and sandy as to grit against the teeth, and a thin wine, more like vinegar, constituted our daily food.
The men soon began to catch young dogs, cats, and even rats, and convert them into soups, stews, and ragouts, which were far from unpalatable, and which extreme hunger made almost acceptable; and when these failed, they parted, day by day, with some article of apparel in barter for something to eke out their scanty meal.
For myself I was fortunate to be amply provided, not merely with an abundance, but with even delicacies, from another source. The governor or superintendent of the prison had a handsome and dark-eyed young daughter about my own age – a little past ten years old – but in Spain girls at ten are as mature as English girls at sixteen.
She occasionally attended the prisoners with their food, and conceived, as she afterwards confessed, a violent passion for me, which she found it impossible to control. I may observe that even in England I was considered to be a very handsome boy, and the charm of a clear complexion, rosy cheeks, light blue eyes, and light brown curly hair, so unusual in Spain, made me appear, it would seem, a perfect Adonis in her love-seeing eyes. She therefore revealed to me her inmost thoughts in her own impassioned language, which I had learnt during my voyages to Lisbon in conjunction with the Portuguese, and which I now sufficiently understood to comprehend every one of her burning phrases, impressed as they often were by kisses of the most thrilling intensity.
By her kind hand I was furnished at every meal with all the delicacies of her father’s table, of which she contrived to abstract some portion daily; and with an ingenuity which left all my inventive powers far in the rear, she contrived twenty times a day to find some pretext for calling me out of the room for some pretended message or errand, to get a squeeze of the hand only if others were near, or if in any passage where we were not likely to be seen, a warm and fond embrace, by which she pressed me to her bosom as if never intending to relax her grasp, and kisses and tears rained in equal abundance.
At length the fascinated Senorita actually devised a mode of escape for me, and offered to accompany me in my flight. But though I was scarcely less enamoured than herself, I had yet sufficient prudence left to think where we should go to escape detection and capture – how we should subsist, even if we were fortunate enough to elude discovery – and how I could answer to her parents under such hopeless circumstances, I was obliged therefore to temporise with my tender-hearted Dona Isabella Dolores (for such was her name), and, under pretence of waiting for some safer opportunity, to procrastinate and defer what I had not the courage or the cruelty to oppose.
Several months passed away in this agreeable manner – for surely never did a captive’s fetters sit more lightly on a prisoner of war than mine did on me – when the authorities of Corunna, finding our maintenance, scanty as it was, too burthensome to be continued, proposed to give us our liberty, on condition of our leaving their city and going by land to Oporto or Lisbon, where we might find the means of returning to our native country, they paying the expenses of our journey and giving us an escort to the Portuguese frontier, and leaving to the government of Portugal, or to the British consuls in that country, to provide for us when we had passed the Spanish borders; for at that period (1797), though Spain was allied to France, Portugal still maintained her friendly relations with England.
The proposition was received with the greatest joy by all the prisoners and not with entire indifference by myself; for, attached as I now began to feel to the young heroine who had done so much to lighten the evils of my captivity, still the love of home and the desire to return to it was not wholly extinguished within me. To her, however, the tidings came like a death-warrant, and its first announcement, which was made by myself, was met with a shriek and a swoon, which called the members of the family to her relief. An explanation was demanded, and it could not be refused. There was a little manifestation of anger on the part of the father, but much more of sympathy and pity on the part of the mother; and in the end all was forgiven, as our separation was so near, and as no evil consequences were likely to ensue.
When the day of our departure arrived, as all were to march on foot, every one reduced his baggage to the smallest possible dimensions, so as to be carried in a knapsack on his back, as no cart or waggon was to be provided to carry us.
A sort of public sale, therefore, took place at the door of the prison, of the surplus shirts, jackets, trowsers, hammocks, bedding, and other articles impossible to be taken on the journey; but as the sale was known to be one of necessity, in which there could be no reservation, the prices produced were ridiculously small; and the whole united mass of things sold produced only a few ‘pistareens.’
In my own case, I was here again favoured by my enthusiastic young admirer. My stock of wearing apparel, books, nautical instruments, etc., with which I had been liberally supplied by my dear mother and sisters, could not have cost less than £100 sterling. For the whole, except the change of linen and a few small articles retained for my knapsack, a dealer offered five Spanish dollars!
The mother of Dona Isabella vented on him such a volley of invectives for his cruelty, in thus seeking to take advantage of a poor little stranger, whom everybody ought to help, instead of to wrong, that he slunk away in shame, amid the hisses and reproaches of the bystanders; and the Spanish is richer in opprobrious epithets than most other languages of Europe. Not content with this, she consented to take the whole of my stock herself, and risk the chance of selling it after we were gone, putting into my hands about a dozen gold coins, in pistoles (sic) and half-pistoles, with strict injunctions to take care not to lose them on the journey, but reserve them to buy food whenever the rations allowed to the prisoners should be insufficient. The daughter, who witnessed this, fell on her mother’s neck and wept bitterly, gratitude for her bounty and pain at our parting mingling together in her sobs. I too was permitted, even in the presence of her mother (an unusual privilege in Spain), to kiss the sorrowing Senorita’s hand – though we had secretly embraced and sighed out our adieus before.
From The Autobiography of James Silk Buckingham, printed in London in 1855 by Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. Courtesy of The Falmouth Packet Archives.
Image: A Prison Scene by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. While this accurately depicts a Spanish prison around the time of Buckingham’s incarceration, clearly his experience was far more enjoyable.