Chateaubriand's memoirs, VI, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VI - Chapter 4
Francis Tulloch – Christopher Columbus - Camoëns

When Gonzalo Villo, Camoëns’ maternal grandfather, discovered part of the Azores archipelago, he should, if he had foreseen the future, have reserved a six foot plot of earth to cover the bones of his grandson.

We anchored in a poor roadstead with a rocky bottom, in forty-five fathoms of water. The island of Graciosa, in front of which we moored, displayed hills swelling a little in outline like the ellipses of an Etruscan amphora: they were draped in the green of their cornfields, and gave off a pleasant odour of wheat peculiar to the harvests of the Azores. In the midst of these tapestries we could see the boundaries of the fields, formed of volcanic stone, half-black and half-white, and piled one on top of another. An abbey, monument of an old world on new soil, crowned the summit of a mound; at the foot of this mound, the red roofs of the town of Santa Cruz were mirrored in a pebbly creek. The whole island, with its indentations of bays, capes, coves and promontories, replicated its inverted landscape in the sea. As an outer defence it had a girdle of rocks jutting vertically from the waves. In the background, the volcanic cone of Pico, planted on a cupola of clouds, pierced the aerial perspective beyond Graciosa.

It was decided that I should go ashore with Tulloch and the mate; the longboat was lowered into the water: it was rowed to the shore which was about two miles away. We saw some movement on the beach; a flat-bottomed boat advanced towards us. As soon as it was within earshot, we made out a number of monks on board. They hailed us in Portuguese, Italian, English and French, and we replied in all four languages. The alarm bell was ringing: our vessel was the first large sailing ship that had ventured to anchor in the dangerous roadstead where we were riding the tide. What is more, the islanders were seeing a tricolour flag for the first time: they wondered if we were corsairs from Algiers or Tunis! Neptune had not recognised the standard carried so proudly by Cybele. When they saw we had human forms, and understood what was said to us, their joy was extreme. The monks helped us into their boat, and we rowed gaily towards Santa Cruz: we landed there with some difficulty, because of the violence of the surf.

The whole island ran to meet us. Four or five alguazils (Portuguese warrant-officers), armed with rusty pikes, took charge of us. The uniform of His Majesty attracted the honours in my direction, and I was taken for the most important member of the delegation. We were escorted to the Governor’s residence, a hovel, where His Excellency wearing a shabby green uniform, which had once possessed gold lace, granted us solemn audience: he gave us permission to re-victual.

The monks took us to their monastery, a roomy well-lit building with balconies. Tulloch had found a fellow countryman: the principal brother, who did everything to accommodate us, was a sailor from Jersey, whose ship had gone down with all hands off Graciosa. Sole survivor of the wreck, and not lacking in intellect, he had become a willing pupil of the catechists; he had learnt Portuguese and a few words of Latin; his English origins had told in his favour, they had converted him and made a monk of him. The sailor from Jersey found it much more to his liking to be lodged, clothed and boarded at the altar than to climb the rigging to take in the mizzen topsail. He still remembered his former trade: since it was a long time since he had heard his language spoken, he was delighted to meet someone who understood it; he laughed and swore like a true acolyte. It was he who showed us over the island.

The houses in the villages, built of wood and stone, were adorned with outer galleries which gave a clean look to these huts because they let in a great deal of light. The peasants, nearly all of them vine-growers, were half-naked, and bronzed by the sun; the women, small and yellow-skinned like mulattoes, but lively, were naively coquettish with their bouquets of mock-orange, and their rosaries worn as coronets or necklaces.

The hillsides were covered with vine-stocks, the wine obtained from which resembled that of Fayal. Water was scarce, but wherever a spring welled a fig tree grew and there was an oratory with a portico painted in fresco. The arches of the portico framed views of the island and the sea. It was on one of these fig trees I saw a flock of blue teal settle, a species lacking webbed feet. The tree had no leaves, but it bore red fruit set like crystals. When it was adorned with the cerulean birds, with wings at rest, its fruits appeared bright crimson, while the tree seemed to have suddenly sent out azure foliage.

It is likely that the Azores were known to the Carthaginians; certainly Phoenician coins have been uncovered on the island of Corvo. They say that the modern navigators who first landed on the island found an equestrian statue, the right arm extended and pointing towards the west, if, that is, the statue is not merely the engraved design which decorates ancient prints of harbours.

I have it, in the manuscript of Les Natchez, that Chactas returning from Europe touched land at the island of Corvo, and that he there encountered the mysterious statue. He expresses the feelings which filled me on Graciosa, recalling the legend: ‘I approached this extraordinary monument. On its base, bathed with foam from the waves, unknown characters were engraved: the moisture and saltpetre of the waters had eaten into the surface of the ancient bronze; the Halcyon, perched on the helmet of the colossus, uttered, at intervals, languid cries; molluscs had stuck to its sides and in its steed’s bronze mane, and when one approached the grooves of its flaring nostrils, one imagined one heard confused rumours.’

A good supper was served to us by the monks, after our excursion; we spent the night drinking with our hosts. Next day, about noon, our stores having been loaded, we returned on board. The monks were entrusted with our letters for Europe. The ship had been placed in danger by a strong south-westerly which had risen. We weighed anchor: but it was caught and lost among the rocks as anticipated. We set sail; the wind continued to freshen, and soon we left the Azores behind.