URQUHART'S PILLARS OF HERCULES.
The Pillars of Hercules. By David Urquhart, M. P. Harper & Bros.
We shall not wonder at the learning of this book, if we reflect upon the antiquity of the author's family, which is clearly traced by his ancestor, Sir Thomas Urquhart, it is said, all the way down quite from its founder Adam. Antiquarian lore must have come to such a man as an inheritance; and the Hebrew and other roots been the daily fare of his childhood. The family, by all accounts, appear to have suffered little from the accidents of time, so unfortunate to the Cæsars and Plantagenets of modern days, and to have happily weathered the deluge without material damage. Escaping the difficulty which occurred at Babel, and luckily declining to join the party of ten tribes that left Judea with Shalmanezer on a visit to Assyria, and never have been heard of since, they continued safe through all the perils of the siege of Jerusalem, as they had formerly done in that of Troy. It is surprising that they should not have been crushed, as so many other ancient houses were, in the terrible Fall of the Roman Empire, or distracted by the uproar of the French Revolution; but the book before us is good evidence that they sustained no material hurt from either, but continue in existence still, as vigorous as ever.
The travels commemorated in the "Pillars of Hercules" will be discovered, on perusal, to differ considerably from ordinary ones. The unities of time and space are as severely preserved in them as in an ancient tragedy or epic. After musing upon its pages for many an hour, the reader is surprised, on coming to himself, to notice that so little ground has been gone over, and so few days spent. The truth is, that when he gets to the end of the volumes, he has been hardly anywhere after all, save to a dozen places or so, skirting the north and south shores of the Mediterranean Sea. How, then, is the reader cheated into thinking himself a traveller, when he has actually made little more advance in space during the whole time, than an Erie locomotive would carry him in four-and-twenty hours? In this way. He is introduced within a Louvre of reliquiæ, which have floated upon the stream of time, principally, the author thinks, from Phenicia or thereabouts, down to the parts of Spain and Morocco washed by the great Inland Sea. Their antiquities of dress, arts, names, and customs, he seizes and discourses on, as a professor does on specimens of minerals, both dug up alike from the overlying debris of ages.
There is an amusing play of the imagination among etymologists and antiquarian travellers, in running up the genealogies of speech and customs to their tiny sources among the shadows of the dim and distant past. Our traveller is, perhaps, not entirely exempt from a slight degree of quixotism, any more than the many others who have bestridden their Rosinantes before him. But though enthusiasts, deep-grounded in ethnology, are very serious themselves in their laborious excavations of long-interred knowledge, they nevertheless exhibit a smack of humor to lookers-on like us. Does not genuine wit, for instance, flow from the ingenious lucubrations of Horne Tooke, or the learned Noah Webster, when, with a flash of light, they reveal the dark relationship of obscure, forgotten etymologies, and tickle us by sudden shifts of phrase with unexpected surprises, which everybody knows to be the soul of wit?
To inquisitive people, of our traveller's turn of mind, the present is of little or no other consequence than as it reminds them of something that has existed a long while ago. Should an individual of this description happen to be an American, he does not make himself uncomfortable at home, till he has gone abroad, actually crossed the Atlantic, seen an English dwelling-house, and eaten a French roll. Not he. It would not be the object of such a person to witness the improvements of modern ingenuity, but to get as near as possible to the imperfect originals from which they sprang. Accordingly he stops not for anything by the way, but presses on his journey till he has attained the summit of his wishes, by sleeping in an Arab tent upon the desert, eating there his kus-couss-oo, and putting on the haik of Barbary. In these he recognises the primitive clothes, bread, and shelter--the three prime essentials of existence--in the unadulterated condition in which Abraham himself enjoyed them; and has the satisfaction at the same time of having turned his back upon the labors of more than a hundred generations that have succeeded.
The honorable member has learnt in Parliament, or elsewhere, to speak his mind quite frankly on all matters he encounters, from gunpowder and Gibraltar to a lady's fan and foot. At one time he compliments the Mediterranean Sea, as follows:--
"This is a spot which has influenced the destinies and formed the character, not of one but of many people.... The doubtful inquirer came hither to see if the sky met and rested upon the earth; if Atlas did indeed bear a starry burden; to discover what the world was; whether an interminable plain, or a ball launched in space, or floated on the water; whether the ocean was a portion of it, or supported it; whether beyond the 'Pillars' was the origin of present things, or the receptacle of departed ones; whether the road lay to Chaos, or to Hades.
"And something, too of these feelings crept over me, even although I came hither merely to ruminate on the past deeds of men.... The Mediterranean has made the world such as it is. Ancient history has been balanced on its bosom; and without the passage connecting it with the ocean, none of the events of recent history could have happened.
* * * *
"Let us suppose that the gap" (the gut of Gibraltar) "had been just wide enough to supply the water lost by evaporation, for which the thousandth part of the present passage would suffice, the Mediterranean would have been a salt-pan." [Pillars of Hercules volume 1 pages 8-9]
He afterwards speaks of this respectable piece of water in terms not so courteous--indeed, not a little blunt:--
"The Mediterranean," says he, "is like a bag with two necks, filling at both ends. The current through the Dardanelles presents exciting varieties, but no perplexing mysteries.... At Gibraltar all is disorder--the stream incessant--the level on both sides the same. The tide rises and falls, yet the current always runs out of the ocean, and into the Mediterranean..... What becomes of all this water? It cannot go to the Black Sea, from which the Mediterranean receives water; it cannot escape by a subterranean passage into the Red Sea, for the level of the Red Sea is higher by thirty feet. Then there is an under current discharging the water back again into the ocean."
But how is the extraordinary phenomenon of two opposing currents to be accounted for? Says Mr. Urquhart: "the solution is, an under current, produced by a difference of specific gravity between the water of the Mediterranean and the ocean. Sitting on Partridge Island (a small rock within the Straits), the question occurred to me, What became of the salt? If the water evaporates, the salt remains. Here then is the sluice of a mighty salt-pan--where is the produce?" As it is not deposited, his conclusion is, that by increasing the density of the surface and settling, a counter-current is produced, which returns to the ocean.
Though the rock of Gibraltar, by a rough calculation he has made, has cost his country upwards of 250 millions of dollars, he does not deem it after all a very valuable stone in the British diadem. On the contrary, "if any one were to do us the favor of taking it off our hands, we should save 150 millions more, for the interest of that sum is absorbed by its yearly outlay."
At times, there is something exceedingly refreshing in the positive tone of Mr. Urquhart upon controversial points, whether trivial or important. It steadies one's nerves very much to see a trembling balance of dubiety settled one way or the other with decision. This grace our traveller has in a conspicuous degree, and exhibits it on all questions, no matter whether they relate to the Stone of Hercules, or the discovery of soap. Assuming him to be a mere civilian, he certainly pronounces with admirable assurance upon the military capabilities of the works of Gibraltar, and their value to the British crown. He is convinced that, if not exchanged for Cuba, they ought unquestionably to be given up, being used at present only as an engine to irritate the Dons, for plundering the treasury, and encouraging and protecting a smuggling traffic into Spain. Everybody except a few English, that he has spoken to, he represents as being of the same opinion. If that celebrated rock reflects glory upon any people, it is upon the Moor, who made it what it is, and not on those who have obtained it by fraud or force.
In a short excursion in the vicinity of the Rock, the writer falls in with foul weather, and has a taste of the perilous want of harbors on the coast:--
"During three months I had seen nothing but clear skies and smooth seas. I could now feelingly revert to the words of a Spaniard, who, when Philip V. asked which were the principal harbors of Spain, answered-- 'June, July, and Cadiz.'"
Of Mr. Borrow, whose "Bible in Spain" was once much read in this country, the Spanish people are represented to entertain no favorable reminiscences:--
They imagined him to be a gipsy, he says, by his talking their language. I consequently, inquired about him as the English Gipsy. They did not comprehend me; but recollected a tall man, who was always writing; holding up their hands, they exclaimed, 'we thought he was writing some learned things, and not lies about poor people like us.'” .... "It is the misfortune of Spain to be misrepresented. She has been the subject of two standard and classical works—Don Quixote and Gil Blas. The former, by its sterling worth has made its way into the literature of other countries. Being a satire upon a particular temper and habit of mind, the scene and personages of which are Spanish, it is accepted as a description of Spain. As well might England be studied in 'Dr. Syntax.' Those peculiarities which it is intended to ridicule, and those extravagancies which are exaggerated in order that they may be exposed, are, to the stranger, the instructive portion of the work.
“Gil Blas is a romance by a Paris bookmaker, and owes its celebrity to an admirable sketch of a great minister, another of his successor, and an episode portraying Spanish manners. The barber Olivarez, the Count-Duke, and the story of the adventurer himself, in his retirement, are all taken from the Spanish, and give to the work its value. It is then dressed up with Spanish peculiarities, and Madrid or Paris morals, and passes from hand to hand as a mirror of the Spanish mind."
[Pillars of Hercules volume 1 pages 72-3.]
Mr. Urquhart visits a certain club.
"I was invited," says he, "in the evening to what I was told was a club. The place was an apothecary's shop. I was introduced into a sort of vault, and I found myself in a gambling establishment." This was at Tarifa in Spain. "Their cards were like those used by the Greeks; the club being represented not by the French trefoil, but by a club; the spade by a sword; the heart by a cup; and the diamond by a gold coin. The names being Bastones, Espados, Copas, Oros. The conversation having turned upon cards, I mentioned its supposed astronomical origin; the four seasons represented by the four suits; the fifty-two weeks by the number of the cards, and the thirteen lunar months by the thirteen tricks, proving whist to be the original game. I was here stopped. They had only twelve tricks and forty-eight cards; and 'of course,' said a Spanish Major (a Mr. Kennedy), 'our game is more scientific, because adapted to the Julian Calendar ! ”
So frail is the fabric of antiquarian theories. The grave politicians of this club
"could not recover from their astonishment at perceiving that there existed a human being who could question the wisdom, far less the sanity, of their imitating England and France.... 'England and France,' said they, 'are great and powerful; must we not imitate them and become so too?' I submitted, that imitation is more difficult than invention; that it requires a perfect knowledge of the thing imitated, in which case there could be no reason to copy; besides, it was impossible to copy institutions. 'In what particular,' I asked, 'would you copy us? Two things only have we to offer you as sanctioned by English consent—the Guelph Family, and Johnson's Dictionary! Will you have them in lieu of the Bourbons and the Castilian?'" [Pillars of Hercules volume 1 pages 76-7.]This view of imitation appears to us original.
"At Porta St. Maria, opposite Cadiz, I found a similar Moorish ruin. This is the point of embarkation of Xeres, or the Port of Sherry. It is the place for tasting wines; the Pacharete, Montillado, and most noble Mansanilla. The cellars are worth seeing; if spacious and lofty edifices can be so called.
"The people of Cadiz neither put their bodies in graves, nor their wines in cellars; the dead are built up in walls, resembling bins of a wine cellar; their wines are deposited in structures like cathedrals. The niches are like the dwellings of the living, some for ever and a day, others for a term of years; after which the fragments of the former tenant are ejected, and the place swept clean for another.
"I observed, on a placard, the two following signs of progress and civilization, in titles of new works— 'The Defender of the Fair Sex,' and 'The Ass, a beastly periodical.' The words were, “Il Burro, periodico bestial.'
"You may see a long row of boys, very small at one end and full grown at the other, dressed out in the sprucest and gayest uniforms—blue coat, single breasted, with standing collar and large flaps ; gold buttons and lace, white trousers mathematically cut, and strapped down on very camp-like boots; and, on inquiring what military institution this belongs to, you are answered, 'It is a boarding-school !'
"They have, in connection with schools, a practice which might suit 'Modern Athens.' I mean the hyperborean one. A person from each school goes the round of the town, calling for the boys in the morning, and dropping them in the evening; just as sheep, goats, or cows are collected by a common herd."
[Pillars of Hercules volume 1 page 131.]
The declension of Spain has been truly marvellous.
"Within a few months from the battle of Guadalete in Spain (which was decided in favor of the Mussulmans against the Christians), the Moorish troops had passed beyond the Pyrenees, and were encamped at Carcassone. There the tide of victory was arrested, not by the hammer of Martel, but by orders from Damascus. The empire established by this victory is the most remarkable instance of prosperity that the world has ever seen. The town of Corduba contained 200,000 houses; in its public library there were 600,000 volumes. It had 900 public baths. On the banks of the Guadalquivir there were 12,000 villages; and such were the fruits they drew from the soil, such the profits of their industry, which furnished to the East luxuries and arms, that the public revenue of Spain in the tenth century was equal to the collective revenues of all the other kings of Europe—twelve millions of dinars—a sum of gold which, calculating the dinar at 10 shillings, and multiplying by ten, to give the difference of the value of gold, is equal to sixty millions of pounds sterling of our present money!" [Pillars of Hercules vol 1 page 141.]
His learning in ladies' dresses is as conspicuous as in politics, antiquities, or war. What he says of the Montilla de Jiro and de Blonda, ought to be extracted, but there is no possibility of doing it on this occasion, without neglecting one or two other matters, which cannot be omitted. He must, however, be allowed to remark, that
"the mantilla is not spoken of as a piece of dress, that fits well or ill. Such a lady, they say, wears her mantilla well, just as if they were speaking of a ship carrying colors. The port of a Spanish lady is, indeed, like the bearing of a ship. The mantillas, reversing the effect of our costume—which is to impress the wearer with the feelings of a block — gives at once freedom and dexterity. The mantilla, fan, castanet, guitar, and dance—which last is not here the business of the legs only—keep the arms always busy. The head is disencumbered of bonnet, cap, ribands, and curls; hence that grace of the Spanish women, which all recognise and none can describe, for mere form or feature does not explain it.
"I need not say, that beneath a mantilla there are no curls; nor need I add, that where neither bonnets nor caps are worn, and the head is always exposed, the hair is well kept. A Spanish lady remarked to me, that what struck her principally when she travelled in other countries, was the want of cleanliness in the women's hair. It is (the Spanish lady's) always exposed, as hair was intended to be, to the air and wind, and it is every day in water, for they wet it before using the comb....
"A Spanish woman is no less attentive to her foot and shoe than to her hair; from below the saga comes forth the plump leg in its creaseless stocking.... The old Spanish shoe is very low, and scarcely held at all at the heel; like the slipper of the Easterns it requires the action of the toes to hold it on. The calf of the leg accordingly was full, because its muscles were called into play. So important is this to the grace and ease of the figure, that at Rome the models, male and female, lose their pension, if they wear a shoe with a thick sole. There still wants something to complete the Spanish costume, or, perhaps, I might say the Spanish woman—and that is THE FAN. Yet, how supply the want? at least, without herself—how convey her and it on paper? You might as well attempt to teach on paper how to roll a turban, make coffee, or hit the bull's-eye."
[Pillars of Hercules volume 1 page 148-154.]
The author's ardent attachment to Phœnicia and the Arabs, robs modern nations of the credit of many of the most splendid inventions, and readjusts the claims of some of the ancients to honors they have hitherto enjoyed, but are now in danger of forfeiting. The invention of glass is thus taken from the Tyrians or Egyptians, purely on the authority of Layard. The magnet, or stone of Hercules, the magnetic needle, and the compass, are, according to him, Arabian or Phœnician donations to mankind, driving the Celestials from the honor by a formidable attack from the heavy artillery of authors, arguments, and conjectures; scarcely conceding to them, and then not without great reluctance, the credit even of gunpowder itself. Dr. Franklin likewise will for aught we know, have to whistle for any reputation he will get hereafter for drawing lightning down from heaven, as Mr. Urquhart, we observe, has raised the ghosts of Salmoneus, Servius, and Sylvius Alladus, to call his claim in question. But the American philosopher, having, as is well known, given a large price for a whistle in his early days, will probably not lose his long worn honors, if whistling can prevent it. Besides all this, our traveller hints pretty strongly, that Americans should look upon the Phœnicians as the ancient discoverers of their country.
Much remains to be said even about the first volume of these interesting and learned travels, composed of a mosaic, where natural philosophy and imagination, archaeology, the arts, military and descriptive, ethnology, history, and political science, have each contributed a characteristic stone. But we cannot follow up the subject now. One thing we ought to notice--the argument or subject printed at the tops of all the pages. This, we believe, is by no means usual, but a very great convenience.
-- Literary World Volume 7 July 6, 1850 pages 5-7.
- David Urquhart, eccentric ideologist