A. B. (Alfred Burdon) Ellis.

West African islands online

. (page 13 of 22)
Online LibraryA. B. (Alfred Burdon) EllisWest African islands → online text (page 13 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and saints' days occur frequently, and the people seem
nothing loth to be idle and to take advantage of these
numerous holidays. The most popular saints with
the peasants are the agricultural ones, Isidro Labrador
and Maria, his wife. The Jiesta of these celestial
luminaries takes place at AVhitsuntide. On Whit-
Sunday the two images are removed from their niches
in their various hermitages or chapels, and carried in
procession round the villages, escorted by bands of
music, priests, legions of superstitious peasants, and,
in districts where there are any stationed, by detach-
ments of soldiers, who are lent by the authorities to
swell the pageant. In the evening the images are
replaced in their chapels, there to remain amidst dust
and cobwebs until the next year. As this saint is not
much known out of Spain and her colonies, the
following history may be new to the reader.

In the tenth century there resided at Caravanchel,
near Madrid, a wealthy landed proprietor, whose name
has, very properly, not been handed down to posterity.
This man had in his employ a certain farm labourer
named Isidro Labrador, who was remarkable for his


extreme piety, in that lie never neglected the welfare
of his soul, or the duties of the Church, to labour for
his employer. Thus, often when his master imagined
that Isidro was driving the plough, or hoeing up the
weeds in the fields, that zealous son of the Church.
might be found sunk into sweet spiritual contempla-
tion in the cool shadow of a neighbouring chapel.
And so earnest was he in the performance of his
devotions, that every day he passed two or three
hours in prayer in the chapel ; but, being of a modest
disposition, and not seeking commendation from man,
he never mentioned this praiseworthy custom to his
employer when he went to him to receive his weekly
wages. Such, however, is the depravity of the world
that men will turn even the most estimable virtues
into causes of accusation ; and it happened that
certain slanderers informed the land-owner of Isidro's
pious habit, so distorting the truth as to make it
appear that it was through idleness and hypocrisy
that he went to the chapel, so as to avoid his just
labour in the fields. The master was much enraged
when he heard this, and it would have fared badly
with Isidro had not the saints warned him of his
danger; so he fled to the chapel and remained in
adoration there till nightfall. That very night the
saints caused the land-owner to dream, that everyday,
while Isidro was discharging his religious duties at


the chapel, the plough that he had left was guided by
angels wearing silver crowns ; and, as he was not an
utterly impious and abandoned man, he was satisfied
in his mind by this dream, and troubled Isidro no
more. Thus was the saint miraculously preserved
from persecution. Not long after this the proprietor
was walking over his estate, watching his men at
work and looking at his crops, when he suddenly felt
thirsty, and none of his people had any water to give
him. Isidro, hearing his complaints, took pity on
him ; and, returning good for evil, led him to a fertile
valley which lay in the lower part of the estate.
There digging a pit with his shovel, a miracle was at
once performed, for water appeared in it, and the
deeper he dug into the earth the more water flowed
into the pit. Upon this the master at once per-
ceived that Isidro was a saint, and, his fame and his
miracles being bruited abroad, he was held in great

When Isidro was well stricken in years he married
a young and buxom damsel ; and, although she was
exceedingly virtuous and discreet, he was much
troubled in mind about her. For they had not
been married many months when the saint dis-
covered that his wife put into his evening porridge
of lentils certain potions to make him sleep soundly ;
and then, in the night, she would silently quit the


nuptial couch, and, leaving the house, not return till
nearly daybreak. Much disturbed in mind, Isidro
sought the advice of his brother saints as to how he
should act in this matter ; and they counselled him
to say nothing about it to his wife, but to watch her
and follow her when she left the house. Accordingly,
next evening, while pretending to eat his porridge as
usual, he poured it under the table; and then, in the
dead of the night, when his wife slipped noiselessly
from the bed and went out without waiting to put
on any clothes, he got up and followed her.
Although the night was dark, he observed that she
bore in her hand the alcuza, or vessel containing oil,
which was reserved for use in the house. On leaving
the house his wife walked to the banks of the river
Manzanares, where Isidro saw a young and rubicund
priest, waiting for her with a small boat. The young
priest assisted her into the boat, and they both
crossed the river to a shrine which was upon the
opposite bank ; but as Isidro had no boat he could
go no farther, so he sat down on the bank and
waited. Before cock-crow his w^ife and the young
priest recrossed tlie river, and the latter, wishing her
farewell and promising to meet her again next night,
went away. Directly he had gone, Isidro came out
from the bushes where he had been hiding, and, con-
fronting his wife, asked her what took her to tlic


shrine at night. She at once answered, without
hesitation, that she went there to replenish the
votive lamps with oil ; and, in proof, she showed
her alcuza, which was now empty. Now as the
holy man well knew that all wrong-doers are covered
with confusion when suddenly interrogated concern-
ing their conduct, he at once saw that his wife was
speaking the truth, and that she also was a saint ;
so he confessed to her his unworthy suspicion and
entreated her forgiveness, which she gave very
readily. After this they lived for the remainder
of their days in great harmony and mutual confi-
dence, and Isidro gave his wife permission to go
out at night and replenish all the lamps at all the
shrines in the neighbourhood. She, being a pious
and excellent woman, gladly availed herself of this
liberty and looked after all the shrines ; but the one
by the banks of the Manzanares was her especial
care, and the one she visited most frequently. Thus
her reputation grew great, and the fame of herself
and her husband spread so far that the Pope gave
orders for their canonisation, and their names were
inscribed in the calendar of the Church as San Isidro
Labrador and Santa Maria de la Cabeza.

After death, Isidro performed another miracle,
which is thus described. The Queen, Isabel la Catolica,
having; recovered from a serious illness thoudi his


intercession, made a pilgrimage to his tomb to return
tlianks. One of the maids of honour with the Queen,
when kissing the foot of the saint, bit off his great
toe, and held it in her mouth to keep as a relic ;
thinking thereby to show the great respect in which
she held him. But the saint was displeased, and she
was instantly so far deprived of speech as to be un-
able to articulate sufficiently clearly to be understood.
Being frightened at this, she ejected the holy morsel ;
and, by a second miracle, the power of speech was
restored to her. All this was seen and testified to by
many witnesses.

Apparently the principal thing aimed at by the
clergy in their religious services in these islands is
theatrical effect. Strolling into the cathedral of Las
Palmas one morning a little before noon, I found the
altar, which stands back from the body of the building
in a kind of recess, completely veiled by a black
curtain, which was drawn across the proscenium, like
the drop-scene of a theatre. Behind this screen,
hidden from the few people in the cathedral, were
some persons, priests probably, intoning in Latin ; and
the responses were taken up at the further end of the
cathedral by choristers, who were also hidden from
view, in a little edifice built on acoustic principles.
The building was dimly lighted with tapers, and the
atmosphere faint and heavy with the odour of incense


which was being burned somewhere out of sight ;
and the reverberations of the voices of the concealed
performers, as they now rose and now fell in waves
of sound which rolled round the vast central dome,
certainly had a very striking effect ; which, taken in
conjunction with the dim, mysterious light, and the
stupefying narcotic of the incense, seemed to strongly
affect some hysterical women who were kneeling on
the marble pavement. I do not know if similar
services are common in Eoman Catholic jDlaces of
worship, or if they are ever held in Europe ; but it
was quite new to me, and, for a moment, I almost
imagined I was standing in an Egyptian temple,
assisting at some mystic rite in honour of Osiris ; and
the whole performance seemed to me to strongly
resemble a theatrical incantation scene.

Among other extraordinary clerical effigies in this
island is a most strange one in the church of Teror,
a small but picturesque village, about eleven miles
from Las Palmas. It is a wooden image, covered
with gems, and furnished with four arms ; and which
any one acquainted with the deities of India would
suppose to be intended to represent the Hindoo god
Vishnu. It is, however, only meant for the Virgin,
and tradition asserts that it was found miraculously
nailed to a pine tree in a neighbouring wood, some
centuries ago. Why, though, she should have four



arms is a riddle whicli I doubt if even a priest could
solve satisfactorily.

The etymology of the word Canary is a subject of
some dispute. Pliny said that the island was so
named on account of its aboundiner with do2;s of a
very large size ; yet, when the Spaniards first had
intercourse with the island, the dog was an animal
unknown to the inhabitants. The epithet of Grand
was added by John de Betancour in 1405, not on
account of its size, for it is not the largest of the
group, but because of the warlike nature of its
inhabitants. This addition, however, has led to a
very natural error ; and, in most encyclopedias,
Grand Canary is described as being the largest of
the Canary Islands, whereas that distinction really
belongs to Teneriflfe.

Any description of the Canaries would be incom-
plete without some reference to that strange optical
illusion, which caused the islanders to fancy they saw
an island out in the ocean to the westward of the
group. Washington Irving says : " One of the most
singular geographical illusions on record is that which,
for a while, haunted the imaginations of the inhabi-
tants of the Canaries. They fancied they beheld a
mountainous island, of about ninety leagues in
length, lying far to the westward. It was only seen
at intervals, though in perfectly clear and serene


weather. To some it appeared one hundred leagues
distant, to others forty, to others only fifteen or
eighteen. On attempting to reach it, however, it
somehow or other eluded the search, and was no-
where to be found."

This miraculous island was called St. Brandan,
and was supposed by some to be a terrestrial paradise,
in which Enoch and Elijah resided in a state of
beatitude ; being attended by a retinue of ravens,
attired in shovel hats and half-clerical habiliments of
rusty black, and having a chariot of fire at hand,
ready to supply that carriage exercise so suitable
for their advanced age. Others maintained that it
was the fabled island of the Seven Cities, where, in
days bygone, seven bishops, with a large following of
monks, had taken refuge from the Moors ; each pre-
late founding a city for himself and his particular
followers, who contrived, in some extraordinary
manner, to perpetuate their species without the
assistance of any of the fairer half of creation. It
w^as also said to be the Atlantis of Plato, the Antilla
of Aristotle, and the Garden of Eden, in which
the brothers of Adam, who do not appear to have
had a morbid craving for fruit, still existed in a
state of primitive ignorance ; but the belief which
became most current was that the island was one on
which a Scotch abbot, named St. Brandan, had landed


in the sixth century. In course of time it became
known by his name, and was actually laid down to
the west of the Canaries in maps.

Various expeditions were despatched by the
Spaniards in search of this island, one as late as
1721 ; naturally all were without result. In 1570,
persons were not wanting who were ready to swear
that they had landed on the isle. These witnesses
were generally Portuguese, a nation endowed with
a highly imaginative character combined with a
startling disregard of probabilities.

Pedro Velio, the pilot of a Portuguese vessel,
declared that his ship was driven in a storm close
to St. Brandan ; and that, anchoring in a bay, he
went ashore with several of the crew. A limpid
stream ran down to the bay from a wooded valley,
close to which they discovered the footprints of an
individual who must have had unusually large feet,
since they left an impression in the sand thirty-six
inches in length. They naturally found a piece of
the true cross, and then, perceiving some sheep at
a distance, two of the party proceeded to hunt them
with the stimulating spear. These sheep were, no
doubt, holy ; for, while this sacrilegious act was
being perpetrated, the heavens began to darken, and
a violent tempest arose. Two men on board the
ship calling out that she was dragging her anchor,


Yello sfot into his boat, and went on board in sucli
a liiirry that he neglected to call in the gallant sports-
men. Directly he set foot on board, the day became
obscured, the skv lowered ano-rilv, and the island
suddenly disappeared ; while, as the ship was whirled
away in a terrific hurricane, a deep and ominous voice
was heard pronouncing upon his two companions a
doom which may be rendered in this modern
equivalent : "All persons found trespassing in pur-
suit of game will be prosecuted with the utmost rigour
of the hxw."

An inquisitor of Grand Canary, with that aptitude
for extracting information from witnesses which so
distinguished his kindly class, gleaned some further
particulars concerning the island from one Marcos
Verde, whom he had summoned to appear before him.
He deposed that he was sailing from Morocco to the
Canaries, when, somehow or other, he chanced on the
island, which lay quite out of his proper course.
Filled with honest pride, he landed with several of
the crew, and directed two men to cut down a tree, so
that he might carry it to the Canaries, as a proof that
he had visited St. Brandan. This tree, like the sheep,
was also holy ; for no sooner had the sacrilegious axe
bitten into the trunk, than the lieaveus assumed a
dark and threatening aspect, and the terrified mariners
hurried to their vessel, just in time to reach her


before she was swept miles out to sea by a furious

Another Portuguese, whose name has been lost to
fame, asserted that, being driven out of his proper
course by a gale, he had lighted upon St. Brandan. He
attempted to land upon the island, which was but of
small extent; but the beach of smooth black rock was
so steep and slippery, that it was with the utmost
difficulty he could clamber up. Having reached the
summit of the isle, he commenced boring a hole in
the ground with an auger, intending to plant therein
a pole bearing a notice to the effect that the island
had been taken possession of in the name of His
Most Christian Majesty ; when he was horrified and
filled with dread at observins^ a blood-red fluid flowino-
from the hole. At the same moment he felt the earth
under his feet move as in the shock of an earthquake,
and, his hair standing on end, he fled to his boat and
cast off from the island. Scarcely had he pulled half-
a-dozen strokes from the shore, when a violent
convulsion of nature ensued. Vast cascades of water
were hurled into the air from a submarine volcano at
one extremity of the island, while a j^romontory at
the other extremity was reared up on end ; then the
entire island slowly sank in the ocean and dis-
appeared from view.

Since the last expedition sent in search of St.


Brandan in October, 1721, under the command of
Don Gaspar de Dominguez, who was accompanied by
two friars with holy water to exorcise the unquiet
spirit of the island, the mysterious isle has been seen
several times, A record of the testimony of persons
who have seen it is preserved in a book in Las Palmas
de Gran Canaria, from which I have extracted the

"Pero Diaz, monk of the holy order of San
Francisco, deposeth : That, at 6 a.m. on the third day
of May of this year of grace (1759), he observed, from
the village of Alaxero, in the island of Gomera, the
enchanted island of St. Brandan ; the general moun-
tainous outline of which appeared to him to be
marvellously like unto the head and shoulders of the
blessed St. Anthony, playing upon a dulcimer.

" Fernando Correa, fisherman, deposeth : That, at
the same hour and place, the saints graciously per-
mitted him to partake of the said manifestation ; but,
to his more carnal eyes, the island assumed the
appearance of the head of a mule, playing upon a

Here follows the name of Antonio Josef Manrique,
curate of Alaxero, and those of thirty-nine other
persons, who were summoned by Pero Diaz to observe
the miraculous isle.

" This day, the 5th of June, 1801, Thomas Smith,


an Englishman, dcposetli : That he resides in the
island of Palma; that seventeen days ago, when
returning to his abode by night from a merry-making
in the city of Santa Cruz de la Palma, he saw
distinctly, about forty leagues to the westward, two
unknown islands rising out of the ocean. His
Holiness the Cardinal Archbishop is of opinion, that
the unusual spectacle of two islands may be designed
by the blessed saints as a warning to this follower of
a pernicious heresy to recant his errors, and take
refuge in the bosom of the true Church."

The next entry is in 1825, when Pedro Gomez, a
muleteer, saw St. Brandan, at dawn, from the summit
of the Peak of Teneriffe, to which place he had
resorted to fill his panniers with snow. He described
it as lying about three hundred miles to the west of
Teneriffe, and resembling a roast kid stuffed with

"In this year, 1841, it is reported that three blind
men, in the vicinity of the Convent of Our Blessed
Lady of Grief, in the island of Palma, distinctly saw
the enchanted island of St. Brandan, about one
thousand miles to the west, during a momentary
miraculous recovery of their sight. Being pressed to
describe its appearance, they averred that the vision
had lasted such a short duration of time, that they
were incapable of delineating its form."


This is the last entry recorded ; but it is announced
that the island has been seen many times since by
favoured individuals, full of the spirit of grace and
aguardiente ; and the existence of St. Brandan is still
an article of faith among the credulous peasantry of
the Canaries.



Santa Cruz — Spanish Soldiers — Plaza de la Constitucion — The Town
— The Alameda — The Cathedral — N"elson's Eepulse at Santa
Crnz— Our Lady of Candelaria — Comparative Superstitions.

Teneriffe, as seen from the outside, is rather grand
than picturesque. Rounding Anagra Point, the most
northerly point of the island, with its white light-
house standing on the summit of the dark cliff, a
rugged and majestic view is opened up. Trees there
are none, and but a scanty verdure clings to the stony
faces of the mountains ; but there are stupendous
precipices and craggy heights, piled up one above
another, and intersected by deep and dark ravines
that appear inaccessible to man. The chaotic confusion
of the volcanic rocks is astounding, and where the base
of the mountain has been worn down by the ceaseless
fretting of the waves into bald scarps, the traces of
mighty convulsions are patent. Here and there molten
trcams have been shot up from below, forcing the


superincumbent rocks into all kinds of unusual
positions, sometimes vertical and sometimes diagonal ;
while at the cloud-capped summits of the heights, the
ragged outline assumes the appearance of Titanic
fortifications, forming a chain of ruined turrets and

Gliding closely past this wild and gloomy coast,
we come to an anchor in the roadstead of Santa
Cruz. In the foreground is the mole, over which
the masts of small vessels lying under its shelter
project like a clump of spears ; while behind the
batteries which fringe the shore, the town stretches
back in a gradual ascent of gray and white build-
ings with red roofs. Landing behind the mole, where
the sea still sets in with a heavy swell, we leave the
square fort of St. Philip on the left hand, and
passing a number of warehouses, customs offices, and
cafes, ascend a flight of stone steps and stand upon
the Plaza de la Constitucion, the principal square
of the city. It is early morning; the church and
cathedral bells are ringing musically for matins, dark-
eyed Spanish women in mantillas are coming and
going from prayers, peasants attired in long j^onchos
are arriving from the country districts with fruit and
vegetables, carried on mules in pack-saddles decorated
with strings of bells that jingle pleasantly down
the quiet street ; while townswomen of the working


class, with white shawls thrown over their heads,
and whose ruddy brown cheeks, reddish hair, and
gray eyes seem to indicate a preponderance of
Guanche over Spanish blood, pass to and fro in
parties of two and three.

The sentries come out of their tent- shaped sentry
boxes, painted with vertical stripes of alternate green
and wdiite, which stand in front of the Governor's
house on the right of the Plaza. They yawn and
stretch themselves after their nap, and proceed to
roll the matutinal cigarette, giving their rifles to
a friendly idler to hold in the meanwhile. Pre-
sently more soldiers come strolling round ; the lines-
men attired in immensely long and immeasurably
shabby old blue tunics, embellished with green
worsted epaulettes, and in trowsers of coarse red
serge that are, on the other hand, far too short;
while the artillerymen rejoice in short blue shell-
jackets, adorned with diminutive pointed tails. From
the general air of shabbiness about the uniforms,
you infer that the exchequer is in a consumptive
condition ; and you account, in your own mind,
fur the undue length of the one garment and the
scantiness of the other, by the theory that a certain
quantity of cloth is served out to each man, and
that as the Government were short of the red
material, they made up the deficiency by issuing.


an extra yard of the blue. The home-made appear-
ance of the uniforms lends this supposition additional
weight. Notwithstanding the absence of that smart-
ness which is so dear to the British officer, these
soldiers are evidently made of good stuff. They
are bronzed, bearded, and sturdy men, averaging
apparently from twenty-five to thirty-five years of
age ; and they look as if they could march four
miles for every two that could be accomplished by
the boys who form the first line of our own army,
which, as the success of campaigns depends at
least as much upon legs as upon arms, is a matter
of some importance. The v/hole available force in
the Canary Islands is, including the militia, said
to be about 20,000 men.

I cannot sufficiently admire the wisdom of the
local authorities in designating their square. Plaza
de la Constitucion. The first time that I visited
Teneriffe it bore the legend " Plaza del Key ; " at
my next visit it was called " Plaza de la Republica,"
and on the third occasion it again rejoiced in the
appellation of *' Plaza del Rey." Now this perpetual
alteration of the sign, in compliance with the rise
and fall of the numerous mushroom Governments
in the mother-country, was so expensive that at
last, to the disgust of all sign-painters in Santa
Cruz, who vainly attempted to get up a pronuncia-


^niento^ tlie authorities wisely fixed upon the title
of " Plazca de la Constituciou ; " constitution being
a comprehensive epithet which suits any kind of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryA. B. (Alfred Burdon) EllisWest African islands → online text (page 13 of 22)