Thursday, 1 March 2018

An Island Without Wheels

     For twenty years before I was married I travelled the world - from Greenland to Madagascar to Easter Island. Even so, I had the constant feeling that I had come in too late. Everywhere was starting to look like Everywhere Else. For example, I shall probably never get a chance to visit Madeira, but I see from Google Earth that its capital, Funchal now has normal roads, with normal cars to run on them. Now, if I had arrived 110 years ago, I wouldn't even have found a horse and buggy.
    For example, after his visit in 1907, a man called David Fairchild described an island of breathtaking beauty and quaintness, but one which the negligence of the distant government in Portugal had left in a hard scrabble, poverty stricken state, one of whose major exports was economic refugees. A single steamer took away a thousand farm hands to seek work in Hawaii. Well, I can't say all the places I have visited were prosperous. However, the most interesting parts of his report were the descriptions of the means of transport.
     All vehicles in Madeira are upon runners. If you go calling, it is in a bullock sledge, with canopy top and comfortable seats. If you move a bank safe or a steam-boiler, it is carried on a "stone-boat", or sledge of poles, and you might have to get forty oxen to pull it. If you are in a villa on the hillside and want to get downtown, you take a running car and slide down over the cobblestones.
     A ride in a running car is an experience to be ranked with the initial ride in an auto. You sit down in a comfortably cushioned seat in a low basket on wooden runners and brace yourself for the slide.  Two strong men, each holding a guide rope, pull your car over a bag of grease to grease your runners, and then give you a running shove, and jump each on a runner behind, as the car shoots down at break-neck pace over the cobblestones. The men yell, hens and dogs scamper, foot passengers cling close to the wall of the narrow street, the runners get hot and fill the air with odor of burning wood, as you shoot around sharp corners, down the busy thoroughfare, past gorgeous masses of flowering creepers, which hang over the walls of the private villas which border your street.
     But oh the change when you get to the bottom! You are obliged either to walk or take a carro, slowest of all slow vehicles, drawn by slow-moving bullocks, squeaking and slipping over the stones, now shoved by main strength of the drivers away from the curb, now jolting over unusually bad bits of cobblestones, until at a snail's pace you reach your destination.
     That word, carro strikes a chord. I would bet anything it derives from ancient Gaulish, by way of Latin. According to Roman accounts, the Gauls possessed a four-wheeled vehicle called a carrus, a term which got adopted into Latin. In Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian the Latin masculine ending, -us changes to -o, so "carro" would be its modern incarnation. After a lengthy sojourn in French, where it accumulated a variety of suffixes, "carrus" gave us the English words, "chariot", "carry", "carriage", and, of course, "car", which is just a horseless carriage. I bet you never thought the modern car you drive took its name from a Gaulish word 2,000 years ago! (Other Gaulish words which have entered English are "mutton", "vassal", "garter" and "gaiter".)
     But to return to Madeira, according to the author, if you wanted to leave the town and travel down the roads and trails of the mountainous countryside, you had two choices: walk, or hire people to carry you in a hammock!

Reference: David Fairchild, 'Madeira, on the way to Italy', National Geographic, Dec. 1907, pp 751 - 771. Below are three illustrations. The National Geographic Society holds the copyright.

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