Practice of Physic - Astrology - Poetry - Entertainment given by the Author to the Moors - Their Astonishment at the Effects of Electricity.


I shall now speak of their principal or rather only studies, which are, physic, astrology, and poetry. First then of physic, to give you an accurate idea of the extent of their knowledge in which, it will be sufficient to describe their practice of it; and I am sure you, my dear D - - , and every other friend to humanity, will agree with me, that it would have been better for their countrymen if they had never attempted it at all, as unassisted nature would do more, for those afflicted with disease, than such bunglers.

The general practice adopted by the Moorish physicians, or Tweebs, is, bleeding ad deliquium in all fevers; administering excessive doses of drastic medicines, plenty of emulsions, and a watery diet. They order vinegar in cases of quinsies and ardent fevers, and garlic in those of a putrid, malignant, and pestilential kind. They prescribe alum in cases of hemorrhage and dysentery; hot spices and long abstinences in chronic diseases; recent ox-gall to kill worms and cure dropsies; castor and myrrh in all hysteric affections; asses milk in slow fevers and consumptions; oranges, honey, eggs, mint, and myrrh, in cases of typhus; poppy-juice in convulsive disorders and fluxes of the bowels; pitch or tar water and pennyroyal in common fevers; rose-leaves in cases of diabetes; and sulphur in all cutaneous disorders. This is the whole of the Moorish materia medica. In simple diseases, where little medical ability is necessary, and the good habit of body of these people in general contributes to their success, they may effect a cure; but in desperate cases, where nothing but the skill of the physician can relieve oppressed nature, it is not astonishing that they should fail. These men are in some measure astrologers: most probably, being gifted with a greater degree of cunning than their neighbours, they have discovered the weak side of their countrymen, together with their own insufficiency, to cover which they pretend to a knowledge of the stars, which has the greatest weight with the superstitious Moors; consequently, when a patient, either by their improper treatment, or the violence of his disease, evinces symptoms of approaching dissolution, the doctor, with infinite gravity, points out to the surrounding relations the star which, he positively asserts, appears to summon the dying man to the bosom of his Prophet. By this means he avoids reproach, since he has made it so evident, that the poor man's time was come, and that nothing could ward off the shafts of destiny. This apparently wonderful faculty of prognostication, added to their exemplary mode of living, and liberal donations to the poor and afflicted, operating upon the minds of the blind and fanatic Moors, induces them to consider their physicians next to their saints, and to worship them with nearly as much reverence.

The Tweebs have each from two to six disciples, whom they instruct and initiate in their secrets of the healing art. In their regular visits to any town, they parade the streets with great pomp and gravity, followed by a train of miserable objects, who pretend to have been recently recovered from a long and dangerous illness by the extraordinary skill of the doctor; while, in fact, their cadaverous countenances and emaciated bodies seem to contradict their assertions, and bear ample testimony that they are hurrying fast to that country, "from whose bourne no traveller returns." Under the pretence of charity, these poor wretches are supported by this Moorish Aesculapius, while his views in so doing are entirely selfish; that by their means he may better impose on the credulous, and obtain considerable sums of money. When any one of them (by chance) effects what he considers a great cure, it is communicated in a circular letter to all the doctors in Barbary.

They select one of their elders every year, and appoint him to preside over them. His business, for the time being, is to settle all their controversies: he is the fountain of all justice among them; for as they are looked upon to be petty saints, they are a privileged set of men, and not in the least subject to either civil or military jurisdiction. They possess the art of taming the monstrous serpents of the country, and rendering them perfectly harmless: in short, their profession is nothing but a system of the grossest empiricism.

Formerly the country could boast of having scientific astronomers; for, like the ancient Egyptians, the inhabitants of Barbary cultivated the science of astronomy with great success; but as it was communicated from generation to generation by tradition only, it is not surprising that the increasing indolence of the Moors should have made them relinquish the more abstruse parts, and that now it is dwindled into mere astrology. Their habitual mode of living, frequently exposed at night, during all weathers, in the open air, enables them without difficulty to observe the fixed stars, and their influence on the weather, and they have thence ascribed to every one some peculiar property, by which the events of human life, good or bad, are regulated.

In poetry I am told the Moors are very successful. The subjects of their poems are mostly eulogies of the great men who have belonged to the tribe of which the poet is a member: these compositions are all extempore, like those of our ancient bards, or those of the Celts, spoken of by Julius Caesar, who wandered about in Gaul and other parts of the continent with their harps. The poets of Barbary have no settled home, but with an instrument somewhat resembling a mandolin they wander from place to place, and house to house, composing and singing pieces improviso, on the honour and antiquity of their tribe. From persons acquainted with the language, I have heard, that they are very happy in this species of poetry, which is far from deficient in point of harmony. For myself I can say, that though unable to enter into the spirit of it from the circumstance of not perfectly understanding the language, yet I was much pleased with the effect.

I shall conclude this letter with a short description of an entertainment which I gave to several of the inhabitants of this place a few days since. Having invited as many as I could conveniently accommodate, I regaled them with all the most exquisite things the market afforded. I passed the bottle pretty briskly, telling them the liquor was a favourite decoction of mine, which they might drink without any scruple. They did not seem to wish to doubt this assertion; and having raised their spirits to a flow of mirth and jollity, I told them, that, as they had done me the honour of coming to dine with me, I would endeavour to amuse them with a small specimen of what the doctors in England commonly make use of in certain chronical complaints. I then placed my electric machine in the centre of the court, and having loaded it with a sufficient quantity of electric fluid, produced such a powerful shock to about a dozen of the stoutest, that, either from surprise or terror, they fell apparently senseless on the floor. The consternation and confusion which ensued were beyond description; the rest were all retiring precipitately with the most dreadful yells and cries imaginable, expecting to share the fate of their companions. With much difficulty I prevailed on them to remain, and, raising the men from the ground, I convinced them they had received no injury; upon which they unanimously attributed it to my great skill in magic, and loaded me with a thousand compliments, I repeated the experiment three or four times, to their inexpressible wonder, and I was at length almost hailed as a supernatural being. The report of this extraordinary phenomenon soon spread abroad, and a vast concourse of people assembled; but my guard would not allow any one to enter without my permission. In the evening I sent for a band of music, and my company continued dancing and rioting till morning. They brought in several Jewish women, and carried the farce to such a length, that I was completely rejoiced to get rid of them, determining, in my own mind, never again to venture such another entertainment.