859. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 2 December [1803] ⁠* 

Dear Rickman

You have corrected me about Phæacia. [1]  Your solution of the Espingarda  [2]  will not answer. the word contains no r, & now signifies a common musket or fowling piece. I suspected there ought to be some old word answering to it which was not in my memory. What you say about Bartholomeu Diaz [3]  is perfectly accurate – except that any honour was ever taken from him. he is the acknowledged discoverer of the Cape, & would have gone on to India if his officers & men would have permitted. when obliged to turn back, he left the last Island when he set up his Cross (+ the mark of B Diaz), weeping says the historian [4]  like a man who left the grave of his only son. The celebrity of Vasco da Gama [5]  is the work of Camoens. [6]  having now gone thro all the existing documents I can say that the fidalgo possessed in common with all men of his age & country, & with most men of all ages & all countries, a sufficient quantum of courage. Stupid he must have been to mistake a Hindoo temple for a Xtian Church & say his prayers to figures with more arms than Briareus [7]  & more heads than ever Jack Γιγαντολοιγος [8]  had the trouble of cutting from one pair of shoulders, & for deliberate cruelty I think him more atrocious than Pizarro. [9]  The Portugueze had a physical-European superiority to the people of the East, & plied their guns better, in every thing else they were lamentably behind hand.

I believe I am right as to the orthography of the Circumnavigator [10]  – that manner of termination is common in Portugueze as in Camoẽs, nacoẽs, [11]  &c – but the spelling of names varies very absurdly in their authors. I can find no better rule than to follow the author nearest in point of time, & so xxxxxx alter chronologically – for instance Tareja in the twelfth century – Teresa in the sixteenth. I shall be much obliged to Capt. B. for the passage from Ramusio. [12]  That the Arabians had the compass in Gamas time is expressly asserted by Castanheda. [13]  genoese needles is his phrase, “because they direct themselves by quadrants & sea-cards, cartas de mareas.  [14]  I shall be very curious to see Nicola di Conti’s voyage. [15]  that stupid Clarke [16]  never mentions it. I have made minced meat of his most ignorant & knavish book.

We have had John Thelwall [17]  here on his way to Edinburgh. he is on a course of Lectures on Elocution. I know not which be the more amusing his marvellous ignorance, or his still more marvellous vanity. however my gentleman drives his own gig, gets money & is very happy, & as he is an honest-hearted fellow at the bottom, I am heartily glad the world goes so well with him. Not but the man is the worse for the deterioration of his pursuits. they are now wholly self-centering, & unconnected with the exertion of any one virtue or with any one good hope. It would probably have been better for him in the next world had John been hanged in 1794 – but not believing in another world John is exceedingly well satisfied to have been left in this.


I did not think to finish my letter so unpleasantly as must needs be done. My whelp of a brother has left the Brig & is ashore living by what I can learn upon the charity of some Mr Barham at Exeter! [18]  Nothing is to be done but to get him aboard again. I have inclosed his letter to John May, desiring him to use his interest, telling him at the same time that I should write to you to the same purpose. Will you have the goodness to let May know if you think you can float him. Mays address is Richmond. the Boy is less to blame than his Aunt, but both are inexcusable. you will see that the ship should be at Plymouth if possible. I am sadly vexed. Tom is cruising, & if in port so far off that any application to him would be useless, & here am I at the utter most parts of the North!

for these ten years past I have always had some home-canker or other to fret & fever me.


I have just received intelligence that George Burnett has applied to May – whom he has never seen – to lend him 30£ to fit him out for the Militia – upon the strength of his intimacy with me! poor Devil he is perplexed – but this does provoke me.

God bless you.


Dec. 2. Friday.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS/ Dec 2d/ 1803
MS: Huntington Library, RS 45
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 336-338. BACK

[1] In Southey to Rickman, 18 November 1803 (Letter 853) Southey had mentioned Homer’s Phocaea, a Greek town in western Anatolia. However, Rickman had replied that the Odyssey in fact refers to a mythical city called Phaeacia; John Rickman to Southey 23 November 1803, Huntington Library, Rickman MSS. BACK

[2] Southey inserts note: + I think the Espringal is among my battering train in Joan of Arc. [Editor’s note: Joan of Arc (1798), Book 8, line 252. The meaning of espingarda had been debated in Southey to Rickman, 18 November 1803, Letter 853.] BACK

[3] Bartholomew Diaz (c. 1451-1500), Portuguese explorer who commanded the first European fleet to sail round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean in 1487-1488. BACK

[4] João de Barros (1496-1570), Decadas da Asia, 24 vols (Lisbon, 1778-1788), I, p. 189; no. 3180 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[5] Vasco de Gama (1460/1469-1524), commander of the first ships to sail from Europe, round the Cape of Good Hope, to India. BACK

[6] Luis Vaz de Camoes (c. 1524-1580), Os Lusiadas (1572). BACK

[7] In Greek mythology, Briareus was one of the Hecatonchires, giants with a hundred hands. On arrival at the port of Calicut in May 1498, Vasco de Gama was alleged to have mistaken a Hindu temple to the multi-armed and multi-headed goddess Kali for a Christian church. BACK

[8] Jack the Giant-Killer, a well-known fairy tale about a farmer’s son who despatched a whole series of giants. BACK

[9] Francisco Pizarro (c. 1471/1476-1541), Spanish conqueror of the Incan empire. BACK

[10] Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521), Portuguese explorer who commanded the first European ships to sail from the Atlantic into the Pacific and to cross the Pacific ocean. BACK

[11] The Portuguese translates as ‘nations’. BACK

[12] Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485-1557), Navigatione e Viaggi (1556-1588), no. 2382 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[13] Fernao Lopes de Castanheda (c. 1500-1559), Historia do Descobrimento, e Conquista da India pelos Portuguezas (1554); for an English translation see The First Booke of the Historie of the Discoverie and Conquest of the East Indias (London, 1582), p. [14]. The translation from the Portuguese original in this letter is Southey’s own. BACK

[14] A navigation map indicating tides. BACK

[15] Nicola di Conti (fl. 1440s), a Venetian merchant who visited India and south-east Asia. An account of his travels was published in Ramusio’s Navigatione e Viaggi. BACK

[16] James Stanier Clarke (1766-1834; DNB), The Progress of Maritime Discovery (1803). Southey reviewed the book in Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 12-20. BACK

[17] John Thelwall (1764–1834: DNB), radical, writer and elocutionist. In 1794 he was tried for High Treason, but acquitted. BACK

[18] John Barham Foster-Barham (1763-1822), a wealthy merchant in the West India trade and partner in Plummer, Barham and Co. BACK

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August 2011