Three Hundred and Fifty
Translated from the Portuguese
By a Pioneer
The book bears an 1887 copyright in the name of Samuel Carson & Company. In an opening paragraph (“In Lieu of Preface”) the author (who identifies himself as Escritor, an odd use of the word in this context) explains, in fewer than eighty words, why he has not written a preface. The opening chapter notes that Manuelo’s Narrative is based on a manuscript discovered in a monastery in Evora “prior to 1847.” This less-than- exact dating is explained: “While the precise date of the discovery cannot now be ascertained, it is known with certainty to have occurred before the breaking out of the great gold excitement in the United States, in 1848 and 1849, for had it been subsequent to that important event, the notoriety of California, on that account, would have riveted attention to it at once, and fixed the date with certainty.”
Manuelo’s Narrative did not make a splash. It seems not to have been much reviewed, and when it was noticed it was not handled gently. The review in the Evening Bulletin, a California newspaper, on February 25, 1888, reads:
Under this title some one who signs himself “A Pioneer,” professes to give a translation of an ancient document discovered in the cloisters of the cathedral of the Portuguese city of Evora. The document purports to be the adventures of a Spanish [sic] sailor in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay 350 years ago. Shortly after the conquest of Mexico a Spanish ship enters the bay, lands a boat’s crew, and in an engagement with the natives “Manuelo” is wounded and captured. He is well treated by his captors, subsequently becomes a leader among them and goes through many adventures in pre-historic California. He finally leaves the country on a Spanish ship which happens into San Francisco Bay, and details his experiences, and observations to an old priest at Acapulco, who reduces them to writing, and the manuscript ultimately finds its way to Evora and publicity. It must be confessed that this attempt at a legitimate form of literary hoax is a lamentable failure. It is not altogether bad in design, but it is very faulty and inartistic in execution. The author even pays so little attention to details as to clothe his hero with “pantaloons.” In the early part of the Sixteenth century, and in the frontispiece represents him in full, modern man-o’-war rig, with rolling, sailor collar, loose trousers, pumps, etc. In other respects, on every page of the narrative, its pretense is exposed to the critically minded. Of course, the only excuse for a book of this kind is that it shall have the appearance of verity. That is just what this story lacks.
In October the Overland Monthly offered a longer notice. An unsigned review of ten works of fiction-including both cheap ten-cent books and the more expensive “bound” books, it offers an accurate characterization of the book’s episodic plot, along with observations about its style and shortcomings:
Fairly among the bound books at last, we give the first place to Manuelo’s Narrative, which purports to be a translation of a manuscript found in a Portuguese monastery, as deciphered by the monks of Evora. The writer of the scroll was supposed to be Father Justino, who obtained the narrative from the lips of Manuelo, a Portuguese sailor, three hundred and fifty years ago. Manuelo was left for dead on the shores of San Francisco Bay by his ship-mates, who while on a search for water had rashly provoked the natives. But the brave sailor was not dead, of course, and came to, to enter on a remarkable chain of adventures among the Indians of the newly discovered country. First he dwelt on the Marin shore, and then by various flights, occasioned generally by love matters, he went among the Santos,-the Oaklanders of that day,-and southward among the barbos, the Anglos, and the Dagos. In every place his civilized intelligence served him in good stead, and he became finally a king and generalissimo in a grand series of wars, which are duly celebrated in the narrative. He was not only skilled in matters of the heart and in war, but was a prophet of no small pretensions.
Standing on Mount Tamalpais he viewed “all the wonder that should be” across the Golden Gate, and this so accurately that he foretold San Francisco life and customs down to the little things, even the pavements and fashions being described. It will be seen that it is not a probable plot, and the narrator is not able to keep his face entirely straight in telling it. The style is remarkable for an intimate mixture of prose and verse; it often drops into rhyme and metre for a few lines spontaneously, with no warning, even in the manner of setting the type. Then it takes to verse openly, and runs in that fashion for chapters together, dropping back into prose again with no word of apology, when the stock of rhymes is exhausted. Verse and rhyme enough there is, but that does not indicate anything poetic; for the style of the narrative differs not at all, except for inversions to make the rhyme, in the two forms. Readable is not exactly the word to apply to the book, and the chief satisfaction from it is that gained by the “Pioneer” in writing it.
This reviewer has got it pretty much right, down to the mixture of prose and poetry and the quality of the verse. The plot is a farrago of largely repetitive adventures for Manuelo, who moves back and forth among warring tribes, somehow managing to become a leader of each one of those tribes in turn. But it is not the plot that matters to us. What makes it of moderate interest is that the author has chosen to make the hero of his fiction a native of Portugal and to shipwreck him on California shores in the early sixteenth century. One of today’s anonymous commentators on the net describes this “imaginative tale of early exploration”: “Being apparently a weird fiction, to ascertain its purpose would be as difficult as to find the individual who has read it. Pp. 131-186 are occupied by a remarkable poem in a superlative doggerel, relating chiefly to San Francisco, from the arrival of the San Carlos to the Advent of Denis Kearney and the Spring Valley water ring, which is only one of the numerous incongruities found in the Narrative.” The book fares a bit better in the description provided by the Pacific Book Auction Galleries: Manuelo’s Narrative is “undoubtedly a spoof,” but “still, an interesting account telling much of 19th century perceptions of California’s history prior to colonization.”
More interesting, however, is the identity of the book’s author. He reveals himself only as “a pioneer,” the translator of a manuscript written in Spanish and Portuguese. Since it is abundantly clear that no such manuscript exists (or ever existed) in Evora (or anywhere else), one can only conclude that the “pioneer” credited with its “translation” stands in for the author, who does not wish to reveal his true identity.
It is uncertain when the identity of the book’s author was first revealed. It may have been in his memoirs, published in 1908, but whenever it was that the information was made public, the book is attributed, as library entries show, to Cornelius Cole (1822-1924), a figure who made his mark not as a writer but as a politician. A graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he made his way west in 1849 to get in on the rush for gold in California. That alone might have qualified him as a “pioneer,” especially since he remained behind after the Rush had run its course. But he was also a “pioneer” in that he was among a handful of individuals who toiled as newspaper editors and writers in San Francisco, contemporaries such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain. When Cole turned to politics he helped organize the Republican Party in California, efforts that led to service in the U. S. House of Representatives and the U. S. Senate. At the age of 101 he argued his last court case, and on his 102nd birthday he delivered to his publisher a manuscript entitled Ideals in Verse, a “wisdom” book of original aphorisms in couplet form. At the time of his death he was the oldest living alumnus of his college, as well as the oldest living survivor of the federal government during the Lincoln administration.
Manuelo’s Narrative appears to have been Cole’s principal, perhaps his only, venture into fiction. Why it was published anonymously remains uncertain. Perhaps his political career, depending on the approval of voters, had something to do with it, although there seems to be nothing potentially damaging to a political career anywhere in the book. And why Cole chose to make the hero of his sixteenth-century narrative “a Portuguese sailor” goes unexplained. There is nothing of the matter in his memoir (which runs to 1872, some years short of the publication of Manuelo’s Narrative) or in the account of his life given by his biographer, Catherine Coffin Phillips, who says only that Cole “had amused himself with writing Manuelo’s Narrative.”
The matter is open to speculation. It is possible that Cole had been impressed by the Portuguese emigrants he encountered over the years in California, including those-most likely Azoreans-near or around the gold-fields in 1849 and later in enclaves elsewhere. For after the Gold Rush, the Portuguese fanned out to places like Newark, San Leandro, San Jose and Santa Clara, where they settled down to dairying and other forms of farming. Of course, in subsequent years Cole had ample opportunity to meet many of them while campaigning for public office.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.
NOTE: “The First American ‘Gee'” was published on this blog Comunidades on February 1st, 2009. This month of February, Comunidades celebrates its third anniversary, and to commemorate this date we will be reviewing some original versions of texts published here in the last three years.