Sunday, 29 May 2011

Tales from Elsewhere - The Tough Guy and the Sis

John was the youngest of four children – three brothers and a sister, and was somewhat younger than his closest sibling in age,  Peter, who was 5 years older.  Despite this gap they were good friends and had a complex language and series of games invented mainly by Peter which they continued to joke about right up until Peter died in 2010 at the age of 87. 

When they were young...
Left - Peter
Right - John

One of them was that they called each other the Tough Guy and the Sis (i.e. the sissy) – but who was what was open to interpretation.  It generally related to the luck of the draw, who was first to perform a particular action, who was fastest in a particular activity, and so on. 

It was clearly the most enduring one of their mutual teasing games, which Peter’s wife Eva and I joined in with because we the women would sometimes answer the phone when they rang each other.   Peter would ask to speak to The Sis, and I would hear John say “You must have a wrong number, there’s only The Tough Guy here”. 

I would reply to e-mails on John’s behalf because his computer is only used for card games and indignant letters to newspapers;  on my contact list Peter was listed as The Sis, and when he e-mailed John he would sign his messages as TTG. 

This good natured banter kept their brotherly relationship warm and often on the edge of laughter, and it was a very sad time for John when his brother died.  He had intended to make the long journey to visit him but we heard how ill he was, and hesitated too long.

We attended the funeral in Southwold, Suffolk, where the family foregathered the night before at their beach hut and lit Chinese lanterns in his memory.  As the delicate, glowing  paper boxes drifted up into the night autumn sky many stories were told about his life, his quirks, his humour – it was a healing time for all. 

The following day at the funeral various tributes were read out, including John who gave a very moving account of his much loved brother, with anecdotes of their incomprehensible language and their Tough-Guy-Sis mantras.  It was strange yet comforting to hear the sound of laughter among the formerly subdued congregation who had come to say goodbye.  Peter’s children, John’s nephews and nieces, told him later that he had made their father live briefly for them again.  These are the final paragraphs of John’s speech, which was given at the lectern of St Margaret’s Church in Reydon:

“Just once in my life, as a spoilt, petulant schoolboy who was furious at not being allowed his own way by his elder brother, I played a dirty trick on Peter, inserting a pin into one tyre of his bicycle.  Our maid – a buxom, earnest Irish lady called May East (who had nothing whatever in common, I might add, with Mae West) saw me lurking near Peter’s bike and accused me of plotting mischief – which I hotly denied, as schoolboys do.  Later on she told me suspiciously that Peter had found that he had a flat tyre and had been in trouble for being late for school.

These childhood memories stay with us for the rest of our lives, and in recent years it has bothered me that I never confessed to Peter and apologised.  Believe it or not, this troubled me so much in recent times that I was determined to confess to Peter this September when my partner Caroline and I hoped to visit Peter and Eva.  So what can I do now except to say –

Peter, I’m truly sorry; and as part of that final confession may I add that you, Peter, are and really always were the real Tough Guy.  Right now it will probably be obvious to everyone present that I am indeed “The Sis”.”




Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Some more images of Bristol


Sunday, 22 May 2011

Tales from Elsewhere – The Psychic

Sandy wrote about people with psychic abilities some weeks ago, and since then I’ve been meaning to tell you this story, as told to me by my partner John.  It happened to him in 1980, before I knew him.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Before he retired John was a civil engineer specialising in dams.  This took him all over the world during his working life and he met many interesting people, but Mrs Ponraja was special.

In the late 1970s the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka commenced the Kirindi Oya Irrigation and Settlement Project near Kataragama in the Southern Province, at the south east end of the island, to develop under-utilised land in the dry zone of the country.  The objectives were to increase food and fibre production, and to provide employment for Sri Lankans.  The first phase was to construct an earthfill dam with a gated spillway and irrigation canals, and loans were secured from various overseas sources, among which was the Asian Development Bank (ADB) based in Manila, Philippines.  Subsequent phases continue to this day.

The function of ADB was to finance development projects and provide consultants when required.  John was registered with ADB as one of their external consultants.  In 1980 ADB had appointed Indian consultants to supervise the scheme designed by the Department of Irrigation of Sri Lanka, which organisation was under the leadership of Engineer A J P Ponraja, a knowledgeable Sri Lankan professional who was greatly respected in his field.

Indians and Sri Lankans have at times had an uneasy relationship, and at the beginning of this project there had been disagreement between the Indian consultants and Sri Lankan engineers.  ADB sent a team out to Colombo to investigate the matter and report back on the progress of the scheme.  The team consisted of a Japanese irrigation engineer, a Cambodian economist and a British dam specialist.  John was the latter. 

The timing was good for John.  He had been divorced for some years although was still on good terms with his ex wife, but was in a relationship which was not going anywhere; consequently he was confused and sad as well as worried about his three children.  This visit promised a release from his troubled thoughts for a while.

They stopped in Delhi on the way to talk to the Indian consulting firm first, and then travelled on to the Kirindi Oya site in southern Sri Lanka.  The main problem appeared to be that the Indian consultants had required tests to be carried out by the Sri Lankan engineers on a model of the dam spillway and had complained that they had seen no results of any such test. 

In Colombo John put this point to the Sri Lankans, who showed him the test results, which were satisfactory.  They explained that these had been sent by their engineer to his Indian counterpart – however the two had had a minor squabble and the Indian had refused to accept or even acknowledge the test results.  This was just one of several examples discovered by the team, who were agreed that regrettably the problem seemed to stem from the patronising attitude of the Indians towards the Sri Lankans, reinforced on their way home when they stopped off again in Delhi and met with the senior partner of the firm of consultants, who was of the opinion that the Sri Lankans were ‘not sufficiently humble’.  The Indian consultant who was supposed to be monitoring site supervision told John that he had not in fact actually visited the site yet. 

While in Colombo, Mr A J P Ponraja did his best to ensure that the team were comfortable, and one evening invited them round to his home for a dinner party, together with one of the  Indians.   The evening proved to be full of surprises. 

After introducing them to his wife and family, one of his young sons, Anton, sat down at the piano and played Chopin’s Minute Waltz with perfect accuracy and flair – and at full speed.  Afterwards, while still clapping enthusiastically, they were told that he had been taught by his mother, herself a piano teacher, and that although he had been offered a scholarship to Moscow, he had turned it down because he didn’t want to leave home.

After an excellent dinner John observed Mrs Ponraja talking quietly with each guest in turn, and that from their reactions she clearly had some sort of insight into the family lives of each one, without there having been any discussion of families during the evening.  She astonished the Cambodian by expressing the hope that his son was now getting over his school problems – which had not been referred to at all.

As she went on round the room producing metaphorical rabbits out of the hat in this way, noticing John’s amazement Mr Ponraja smiled and said proudly “My wife has the Gift”.  As she was within earshot, John laughed uneasily – “I don’t think you’ll have much to say about my family, will you Mrs Ponraja?”  Kindly and sadly she replied “I don’t think you would want me to talk about your problems in public, would you Mr Humphreys?”

Some time later it became clear that she was taking the guests, one at a time, to a quiet corner of the lounge, where she was telling them her vision of their future.  When it was John’s turn, he was reluctant to take part, but not wishing to be impolite he agreed to do so and took a seat facing her, grateful that at least nobody else would hear what passed between them.

His awkwardness prompted him to say somewhat foolishly “What will you do, read my palms?”

“No Mr Humphreys, there’s no need – it’s written all over your face”…

She then told him quietly and sympathetically what had been on his mind for the past few weeks, and how torn apart he felt between his ex wife and his newer fragile relationship.

“You know”, she said, “you have a good brain but you’re not using it.  You’re following your heart, and you really should use your brain.  Anyway,” she continued, “you needn’t bother about either lady; you will end up with someone else altogether, who comes from a surprising distance away from England.”

She added “Now, you have three children, haven’t you?  Two girls and a boy”.  He nodded, dumbfounded.  She spoke with sudden gravity and concern – “I’m afraid one of them is going to have the most terrible medical problems.”

At the time there was nothing physically wrong with any of his children, except that his elder daughter Alison had suffered from polio as a small child, a traumatic and painfully sad time for her and her parents, but she had long since recovered and was now 27 years of age and happily living in Crete as an English teacher.  He put it out of his mind, though could not forget the extraordinary accuracy of her assessment of his emotional problems. 

Some days later the team had finished its work and the men travelled on to Manila to report to ADB, carrying with them good memories of the kind people they had met.

While compiling the report over the next couple of days he took time off to have a swim in the hotel pool, when he met an English lady sitting by herself on a sun lounger reading a book.  He had just been reading a book himself by the same author and they got talking; he offered to lend her his book and when she returned it a few days later they had dinner.  She was returning to her job in Hong Kong the following day. 

Coincidentally, ADB asked him to stay on to write a report on a different project, offering as compensation an all expenses paid weekend in Hong Kong en route home to Britain.  It was as if it had been pre-ordained.  She was to be his partner for the next seven years – she was indeed far from England when he met her.

A few months’ later that same year, while living in Crete his older daughter Alison was cruelly struck down by a stroke and had to be flown home in an air ambulance.  Over the next 16 years this was followed by a terrible chain of medical misfortunes involving several brain and heart tumours, which taken together with other symptoms was discovered to be a previously unidentified condition.  She eventually died of it in October 1996.


While preparing to write this story I did some searching on the internet, and was pleased to find that Mr A J P Ponraja had a very successful career in the Irrigation Department of the Sri Lankan Government, and wrote several papers.  Mrs T R K Ponraja presumably continued to teach the piano, and they both must have been justly proud of their three successful sons. 

While two of them emigrated to different parts of the globe when they grew up, to go to university and pursue their careers, Anton the piano player stayed in Colombo, for as his father had told John all those years before, he was reluctant to leave his home town.  He studied medicine and became a dedicated doctor and was described as an exceptionally kind man. 

If the story I have read on the internet is true, in July 2004 he was helping a Sinhalese member of his staff build his house and was travelling between Colombo and his home town of Badulla in a three-wheeler (a cross between a scooter and a car, with the passenger behind the driver in a canopied seat) when it was crushed by a van being driven by a man many times over the alcohol limit. 

Although he was rushed to the nearest hospital, the doctors were on strike and there was no one in the Emergency Room on duty.  There was no doctor to help the doctor, and he died as a result of the delayed medical attention. 

For legal reasons his funeral had to be held in Colombo, but thousands attended from Badulla to pay their last respects to a much loved community doctor.  His wife, also in the same profession, has been trying to seek justice for her husband ever since.  His parents had died some years before and fortunately never knew what happened to him, though I do wonder whether Mrs Ponraja's gift could have given her an inkling of what was to come.  I hope not.


John has told me this story of Mrs Ponraja’s psychic powers several times over the years, and I could not help but remark to him once that the lady had told him he would “end up with…someone from a surprising distance away”, and I am after all from Argentina, and he has – well, ended up with me…


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Tales from Argentina – The O’Gormans......... (Part 6 of 6)


They were received like royalty at the party.  Esteban Perichon took a shine to Camila when she encouraged him to talk about his family and he even found himself commenting on her chipped tooth, telling her they had a good dentist in the village.  She knew he was her great uncle, and though unable to say so, felt particularly happy to have met him at last.  Fortune was truly smiling upon them.

But like sand in an hourglass their fortune very suddenly ran out.  An Irish priest by the name of Father Michael Gannon was present at the party and he had recognised them instantly.  As in a dream Camila heard Gannon say to Ladislao “I know you are the apostate Ladislao Gutiérrez and that woman is Camila O’Gorman” and Ladislao’s reply “You must be mistaken, I am Máximo Brandier and I’m from Jujuy” and then Gannon brushing past him to speak to the hosts.

The party was thrown into disarray.  Ladislao kept repeating that he was Máximo Brandier from Jujuy, and Camila kept repeating that she was Valentina San from Buenos Aires, but nobody seemed to listen.  She thought she would wake from a nightmare, but she didn’t.

“What’s going on?” she asked Ladislao.

“Our punishment has begun” he replied.

As she was ushered out of the house into a waiting carriage, old Perichon put a shawl around her shoulders.  “It might get cool later” he said.  Those were the last kind words she was ever to hear.


The Governor of Corrientes decreed that they should be interrogated locally first and all their belongings confiscated and catalogued precisely.  Father Gutiérrez was to be kept in shackles at all times, and Camila to be put in a separate secure establishment.

The list of their belongings was pathetically short – they had so little.  Seeing the list was particularly humiliating for Camila and she felt violated.  When ransacking their home the officers had not noticed or cared to see the evidence of the love or the courage with which they had lived their lives. 
Her complaints however were in vain, as were her demands to see her husband.  She began to realise that their situation was far more serious than she had at first supposed.  She worried for her baby.  Then they put shackles on her too and she sensed that all three of them were to be used as scapegoats.

There is an unsubstantiated rumour from around this time that they were offered a means of escape to the border, but that they turned it down because they trusted to the fact that an honest explanation and apology to the Governor of Buenos Aires would resolve the matter.

In Buenos Aires the news spread that they had been caught.  The gossip was about whose fault it was, what jewels had been stolen, that she was merely 23 and must therefore have been raped, that there would be an illegitimate child.  No one gossiped about love.

Camila was allowed to write to her friend Manuelita, and she asked her to intercede with her father on her behalf, for she did not believe that what she had done deserved an excessively cruel punishment.  This unfortunately told Rosas that she was unrepentant, and hardened his resolve to send them straight to Santos Lugares, a military detention centre for criminals and Rosas’s political opponents on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. 

Manuelita replied to her, but along the lines instructed by her father.  She felt lacerated by her friend’s pain, she would do what she could, but in the meantime she told her to be strong, and sent her a thousand kisses as her affectionate and loving friend.  Also following instructions she saw to it that the cell where she was to be put was redecorated and made as comfortable as possible, with even a piano installed.

There were only two people close to Rosas who did not turn their backs on Camila.  His dead wife’s sister María Josefa Ezcurra entreated him by letter to send her to a convent, and she offered to see to it herself.  It was the O’Gormans’ fault, she said, they had not monitored her actions closely, and had now abandoned her to her fate. 

María Josefa Ezcurra,
sister-in-law to Rosas

The other was Eugenia Castro, Rosas’s humble mistress and Camila’s erstwhile pupil who tried to reason with him and got shouted at for her pains.  Recognising the danger they were in, she did all that was in her power to do – she sent a messenger to La Matanza to warn Blanquita and Pedro.

The lovers saw each other briefly as they boarded a river boat that would return them to Buenos Aires, but they were not allowed to speak and she was shoved unceremoniously on board.  The very last time they were able to hold each other was later on the journey thanks to the kindness of the captain, who allowed them some time alone.  They shared bittersweet moments safe in each other’s arms, wondering what the future would hold for their child, but trusting that justice would prevail.  When a storm closed in the boat was forced to seek shelter on the river bank, and they had to continue their journey shackled and in separate carts.

Ladislao wept for his broken vows, his sin, his love for Camila and for the child she was bearing.  He longed for the warmth of her body yet wished he could be in Quilmes on a spiritual retreat.  He was very lonely.

So was Camila, but she hugged her belly and spoke to her child, and somehow there were two of them together facing the nightmare.  She was determined to be strong enough for all three of them.

When the messenger reached Rosas and reported to him that the runaways were in Santos Lugares, he sent him back immediately with the order that they should both be executed without delay.

The general in charge of the camp, a hardened man, found this haste unseemly and cruel, accustomed though he was to carrying out these sorts of orders.  He awoke the doctor of the camp and asked him if it was not illegal to execute a pregnant woman.  This being confirmed he sent another carriage back to Rosas to inform him that Camila was eight months with child and that they should wait until the child was born. 

This second carriage crossed with Blanquita, Pedro and Belisario, who were making their way to Santos Lugares to find out what was going on, and in the hope that they would be able to see Camila.

Rosas was furious that his orders had been questioned and sent the messenger back again with the instruction that the couple should be shot immediately after they had received whatever spiritual assistance was appropriate.

A way round the delicate spiritual issue was found.  If the problem was that it was illegal to kill an innocent child, then baptising the unborn child by ensuring that water reached it, would ensure its purity as it entered the next life.  The couple were told separately of Rosas’s verdict.

Camila was forced to drink a substantial amount of water and ashes were put on her head, which she was told was baptising her unborn child.  Shielding her belly with her hands, she cried inconsolably.  She wept for his unborn innocence, for her own in not understanding what was happening to her, for the man she loved.

Camila is forced to drink holy water
to baptise her unborn child 

Ladislao, who had been more fearful of celestial than earthly punishment, now felt at peace.  He would die with Camila and he felt a sense of serenity coming over him.  He asked to see her once more but this was denied, so he wrote to her instead.

“Camila my darling, I have just learned that you are to die with me.  As we could not live together on earth, we will be united in heaven before God.  I embrace you.  Your Gutiérrez.”

At 9.30 the following morning, Friday 18th August 1848, they sat Camila and Ladislao in carrying chairs and put blindfolds on them.  It was observed that two rows of tears were sliding down the girl’s face from under the blindfold as they were carried.  Neither of them saw the firing squad, though they could hear them.

Camila and Ladislao are transported blindfolded
in chairs to the scene of their execution.
Lithograph by Rodolfo Kratzenstein

The blindfold made her remember the moistened handkerchief her mother wore on her forehead when she suffered from her headaches, and she called to mind her grandmother’s legacy – all the love still unused within her.  She too would die without having used a fraction of it.

When she felt the chair being put to rest on the floor she called out  -

“Ladislao, are you there?”

“At your side, Camila.”

He shouted at them “Murder me without a fair trial, but not her, not in her condition, you scoundrels!”

They executed him first, and it was said that the squad had hesitated when it came to executing Camila, and the Captain had to shout at them to do their duty.  On the other side of the wall where Blanquita, Pedro and the baby stood uncomprehendingly, wondering who was being shot. Blanquita nearly fainted when she recognised her charge’s cry of anguish when her lover was shot and then her supplication that they should shoot her quickly, and then her final high-pitched scream. 



Such an atrocity could not however be the end of the story.  While recognising that such defiance to family, church and state would not have gone unpunished, the contemporary view was that the case had been mishandled and the law ignored.  More importantly for a devoutly catholic country, Rosas had wanted to punish two people but had killed three.

Camila O’Gorman was the first woman ever to be executed by the state in Argentina.  It was illegal to execute a pregnant woman, and in a democracy it would have been illegal for the head of state, personally and without challenge, to order the death of another human being.  Finally, it was illegal for these two people to have been executed peremptorily without due legal process, whatever that may have been at the time.

This small stone marks the spot
 where they were shot

Juan Manuel de Rosas would not be disrespected, and certainly in the short term he made his point.  This stance, confirmed by him on many subsequent occasions as being the right decision and his alone, eventually cost him dear and was one of the factors that lead to his downfall four years later in 1852 when he was defeated by Urquiza at the battle of Caseros. Even Rosas’s staunchest supporters could not defend the death of an innocent unborn child – the ‘Restorer of the Law’ had gone too far. 

This was also the year when Joaquina died at 55, finally yielding to the accumulated stress and her headaches.  Her husband, Adolfo O’Gorman Perichon de Vendeuil, Camila’s father, had died two years earlier aged 57.  No doubt the scandal had led to their early demise.  No doubt they were buried with all the honours due to high society people known for their rectitude, in the O’Gorman vault at La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, where all such people are buried.  Not so Camila O’Gorman.  Like her grandmother Anita, La Perichona, there are records to show that her name is listed as being there, but no one knows where her grave is, and present-day O’Gormans confirm she is not in their vault either.

A composite picture showing the front of the
O'Gorman vault at the cemetery of La Recoleta,
Buenos Aires

Feelings remained strong after 1852.  Camila’s death sparked off a series of international protests against the dictator.  They were both known to be staunch Federalists, she of the cream of society, he the nephew of the Governor of Tucumán.  And yet it was shocking to 19th century sensibilities, and the story was effectively banned for generations.

After the battle of Caseros, when Rosas was defeated by Justo José de Urquiza, he went into exile in England.  The British Government applied a principle which had worked well before, which was to hold your enemies close to you.  By keeping him under surveillance they could ensure that he did not return to Argentina.  He rented a farm with 20 acres in Swaythling near Southampton, where it has been recorded that he repaired the leaky roof and constructed various outbuildings and corrals until – so it was said - the property almost looked like a farm in Argentina. 
The farmhouse in Swaythling near Southampton,
England where Rosas lived for the last 25 years of his life.

He ran out of money after a few years and did all the work himself, eventually dying in relative poverty of pneumonia in 1877.  His daughter Manuelita was exiled with him, and she married a fellow Argentine and had two children; she was with him at his death. 
Manuelita and her two sons
round about the time of Rosas' death

Throughout those years, when asked he defended his actions in the O’Gorman-Gutiérrez case, remarking bitterly that at the time everybody urged him to execute them, but later turned against him.  The issue of the double standards during his time of office was never dealt with.

Today in Argentina her story is now very well known, and the subject of two films, the most recent of which being in 1984.  Rosas as a ruler has been the subject of much revisionism by historians, but no one is in doubt as to the rights and wrongs of his treatment of these two lovers who perished by his orders.


1.  Wikipedia;
2.  Google images, with artists of paintings given where known;
3.  Stills from the film Camila, 1984, directed by María Luisa Bemberg.
4. Camila O’Gorman, La Historia de un Amor Inoportuno by Marta Merkin, Editorial Sudamericana, 1997: (my principal source)
The story of Camila has been partly fictionalised by Marta Merkin, an Argentine writer and journalist who died in 2005.  She has used her excellently written version expertly as a device to link episodes, but her story is based on contemporary documents and newspaper articles when witnesses had been interviewed.  I have incorporated my own research from the internet to try and include in this story as much as is known about the affair, and I have told it in my own words – but much of the story is Ms Merkin’s interpretation of it, and I am indebted to her for that.  The only parts of my story which contain direct translations from Ms Merkins's book are in some of the spoken dialogue. 


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive


Friday, 13 May 2011

Tales from Argentina – The O’Gormans......... (Part 5 of 6)


La Perichona started to fail in 1847, when she was 72.  Camila visited her as often as she could, and while she was away Ladislao followed a pattern.  He would pine for her and then grow in resolve that this dangerous clandestine relationship should end.  She would return and realise whence his thoughts had been turning and would bring him back to her in the first few minutes of their meeting.  They desired each other, that much was not in question, but aside from the fact that there were no opportunities when they could be alone for long enough to love each other physically, Ladislao was too tortured by what he was doing to think beyond his mind and his heart.  It could not continue… and yet it had to.

After several months of travelling to Matanza to see her grandmother and the tortured yet sweet conversations with him on her return, she made a bold suggestion.

“Come with me on my next visit” she coaxed “I want you to meet my grandmother before it is too late.”

In reply to his concerns on how they would explain his presence, it was clear that she had thought it through from every angle.  She had no qualms about the lies they would have to tell.  Her grandmother she knew would be the only person who would not judge them and she desperately wanted her blessing.

She was the stronger of the two, the protector, the thinker, the planner.  Ladislao was fearful of divine retribution and knew beyond doubt that he was destined to suffer it.  For having known such happiness he was resigned to it.  He did not doubt that at some point he would find the strength and the way to overcome the power of his attraction.

Camila for her part was fearless in the face of the inevitable condemnation of the society they lived in and trusted that after a difficult time things would resolve themselves in the end.  However she felt powerless before his fear of the wrath of God.  People she could fight, but not his belief in God.

All this and more they discussed in the carriage on the way to Matanza; conscious of the coachman they sat opposite each other with legs touching, comforted by each other's warmth.  Blanquita was waiting for them when they arrived, excited with her news that she was expecting a child after many years of believing that she was barren.  She took it as a sign from God that He had given her a child once she had done the right thing and married Pedro.

Camila asked her grandmother “what should I do when I don’t know what to do?”

Without hesitation the old lady replied “Simulate dementia, like me.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Then be a great lady”.

Later she brought Ladislao to meet her and they toasted each other’s health with brandy.   Camila noted with delight that her grandmother and Ladislao instantly understood one another.  When the alcohol had made her drowsy she told them she had a ‘favour’ to ask them.  Because it was dark and cold outside and they were some way from the house, she wanted them to stay the night in the room at the back of her cottage.

And so it was that Camila and Ladislao loved each other at last in a dusty room which contained only a crystal chandelier, a crucifix and the four-poster bed that former viceroy Liniers had had built specially for her all those years before, with its faded drapes and gilded columns.  The awkwardness and joy and the blessed sleep were such as they had never known.

There was a new determination in Ladislao when they returned to Buenos Aires.  For the first time he was giving serious consideration to the possibility of leaving the church and marrying Camila.  From a practical point of view his immediate problem was money.  Although he was loth to do so, he wrote to his uncle, the governor of Tucumán, asking him for funds.

In October the British blockade of the port of Buenos Aires was lifted, and Rosas received much praise, and a month later his greatest opponent Urquiza defeated the governor of Corrientes in battle, strengthening his hold on the province of Corrientes.

In that same month of November La Perichona refused to get out of bed.  They said of her “That old crone was the Viceroy’s mistress”, and there she lay in her bed made of jacaranda wood, no longer coquettish and triumphant but weighed down by the years and heartaches.

Camila spent time at her side, but she would barely open her eyes.  One day she was able to speak and indicated to Camila that she wanted to go.

“Why?” asked Camila despairingly “I need you”.

“No you don’t” she said in a firmer voice than of late.  “I was waiting till you no longer needed me, and that time has come.  Your affair with the priest has made you strong.”  She closed her eyes.

She died a few days later on the first day of December, and with sadness Camila travelled back to Buenos Aires with the coffin, her grandmother’s written legacy resounding in her ears.  With La Perichona’s death something had settled in her mind.  She felt her grandmother’s strength within her despite the ache of losing her. 

Like the other famous viceroy’s mistress in Peru, La Perichola,  they dressed her in white sackcloth for the wake and she was buried at La Recoleta cemetery the following day.  Although she is listed as being there, no one to this day knows exactly where she was buried.  What is  known is that she is not in the O’Gorman vault.

The young lovers’ discussions about their future became more urgent.  A blow for Ladislao was the knowledge from Camila that even if the Governor of Tucumán sent him money, as far as the O’Gormans were concerned it would make no difference.  They would never allow them to marry.  This put them on an equal footing; both would have to give up everything to be together - he the security of being a priest, she the security of being an O’Gorman.

They would flee to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they decided.  La Perichona had often extolled its charms to Camila.  Adolfo O’Gorman would be setting off for the farm in Matanza on 7th December, and the clergy in Buenos Aires would be in mid exodus at the village of Luján for a few days to celebrate the festival of the Virgin of Luján on Sunday 5th December.  The dates seemed propitious.  They decided that Saturday 11th  would be the day they would flee together.

It was near midnight by the time Camila had been able to slip out of the house unseen, get to the Socorro church and change into the travelling clothes she had left the day before.  Ladislao fetched the horses and they mounted and rode in silence for several hours, their excitement at what they were doing carefully subdued.

After several days they reached the cathedral of Luján where the festival of the virgin had taken place the week before.  Here they conducted their own marriage ceremony officiated by Ladislao himself.  Before God they swore to be faithful and to look after each other always.

They continued with their journey at dawn the following morning, having to pay a local to tell them the way to the Pilar river, where they intended to get a boat.  The local was curious to see a young couple out and about so early, and Ladislao was surprised and impressed when Camila replied to his questions telling lies naturally and confidently.  Her name was Florentina and her merchant husband of a year was named José, she explained, and they were from the northern province of Jujuy.  Buenos Aires didn’t suit her husband and her mother-in-law didn’t suit her, so they were looking to make a fresh start somewhere else.

At a price, the local offered to take them to Rosario in the province of Santa Fé – nice place, he said – and they accepted.  When they arrived several days later they put in motion the next part of the plan – they reported that they had lost their passports and needed new documents.

In the meantime Doña Joaquina was beside herself with worry when Camila had not returned home.  She was thankful at first that her husband was away, since his anger did not bear thinking about.  The church was the first place she looked, but the caretaker told her that Father Gutiérrez would not know either because he was also away on retreat.  And then they looked at each other with horror, and knew what the other was thinking. 

When she returned home she summoned her sons and told them what had happened and her suspicions.  They immediately sent an urgent message to their father in Matanza.  Adolfo O’Gorman sent for Blanquita and Pedro, who kept their thoughts to themselves and denied all knowledge of Camila’s whereabouts.

“She has her grandmother’s sluttish blood” he spat, “she’ll be going straight into that same cottage as soon as I catch up with her.  And as for you – “he shouted at Blanquita – “this would never have happened if you had stayed with your charge as was your duty.  This is entirely your fault!”  He then departed for the city.

If Joaquina had hoped for consolation from her husband on his arrival she was to be disappointed.  He blamed his wife for her lack of authority over her youngest daughter.  “All you were born for was to bear and rear children” he ranted “and you couldn’t even do that properly!”

The women cried and wailed – Joaquina because of the humiliation visited upon them by her daughter and the insults showered on her by her husband, Clara because her future in-laws, the well-to-do Riglos family, had already cancelled their invitation for the O’Gormans to share the Christmas festivities with them, and Carmen cried with upset to see her father so angry.

Things got worse.  Eduardo reported that in ecclesiastical circles the word was spreading that Ladislao Gutiérrez was incapable of doing anything like this, and that it had all been planned by Camila.  Adolfo viewed the whole thing as a massive conspiracy against him.  First of all he had suffered the indignity of his mother’s ruined reputation; when he had buried her three weeks earlier he had felt that his shame and pain could be buried with her at last, and now this.  History was repeating itself with his daughter, and he was being humiliated by another daughter’s future in-laws.  And the Governor of Buenos Aires didn’t know about it yet.

He sat down and wrote him a letter the following day, by which time the stress had hardened his feelings.  He assured him that he had been on the farm when the elopement had occurred, that his sense of rectitude and the shame felt by his family made it imperative that all resources be made available to ensure they were caught before Camila descended into infamy, and that the maximum penalties of the law should be applied to them.

Bishop Elortondo had worked hard to establish good relations between the Church and the government of Buenos Aires, and he greatly feared that this young man from Tucumán would be responsible for undoing all the good work.  Many other members of the clergy wrote to Rosas urging him to find and punish the couple for bringing the church’s reputation into disrepute, including representatives from the Irish clergy, who wanted her put to death.  Society ladies appealed to their diocesan bishops for reassurance because they felt that their daughters were no longer safe from priests who would prey upon them when they went to mass, the one place where they ought to be free from fear.  The rumour was that Camila had been abducted and raped.

Foreign nationals sought explanations from their embassies on the same subject, and wished to know whether their governments would protect them from this sort of infamy.  Even Sarmiento  from his exile in Chile published articles remarking on the abandonment of morals in Argentina and the culprit was the ‘Caligula of the River Plate’.

In Montevideo, Uruguay, where the anti-government faction had gathered, it was said that Camila had been kidnapped by the clergyman on Rosas’ orders.  The newspapers reported that she had planned to become a nun before the incident had occurred, and that before kidnapping her, Ladislao had stolen the jewels of the temple.

Chilean and Bolivian newspapers were now reporting on the case, seeing it as yet another sign of Rosas’ incompetent government and the spreading corruption in Argentina, where immoral clergymen were fleeing with young society ladies without the infamous Governor doing anything about it.

Questions were asked by the British Government.

All were agreed.  The couple needed to be found and an example made of them.

As for Rosas himself, he was incandescent with rage.  He cared little for the impropriety of the relationship.  He had after all been having an affair with a minor for many years and she had borne him children, Bishop Elortondo was living in a state of concubinage, and there were plenty of other examples where the clergy had not covered themselves with glory.  What angered  and upset him was that by running away they had, according to him, mocked his authority.  Ladislao was a representative of the clergy and Camila as a young girl of good family who had often been a guest at his home, and a friend of his daughter Manuelita – an insider.  He said as much to Eugenia, who tactfully tried to calm the situation.  When is was evident that he was intent upon the ultimate punishment she was shocked, and hurried to Manuelita to ask her to intercede.

“Not yet” Manuelita replied “he’s still too angry.  I’ll speak to them when they find her, he won’t have her shot.”

She had never dared marry for fear of her father’s anger, and this chit of a girl had given up her family and her world to be with the man she loved.  It was very perplexing.

Manuelita Rosas

Rosas was also angry that he had not been told of their elopement until 21st December, ten days after it had occurred, and received more letters from Bishop Elortondo and Adolfo O’Gorman explaining in very respectful terms why it hadn’t been their fault.  The situation had caught the church, the government and the O’Gorman family in complete disarray, and much energy was spent on blaming each other.

On 22nd December the foreign minister sent an urgent communication to all the governors of the territory advising of the disappearance of Camila and Ladislao and that it was thought they were heading for Bolivia.  For the sake of the ‘decorum of the Church’ and the ‘desolation of her family’, they needed to be caught as soon as possible and sent back to Buenos Aires to face the full punishment of the law.  Fifty leaflets were attached to each letter with their detailed descriptions.  Ladislao Gutiérrez was described as average height, slim, olive skin, large and prominent dark eyes, dark tight curly hair, short beard, Camila O’Gorman as tall, brown eyes, white skin, brown hair, slim, chipped front tooth.  Unusually for those days, the copy of Adolfo O’Gorman’s letter to Rosas was attached in which he begged for their capture and punishment.

Rather than defend himself through the newspapers, which he despised, Rosas wrote to a high ranking dignitary in the catholic church in the knowledge that the letter would be leaked.   On 17th January 1848 he told him that Gutiérrez’ bad behaviour did not implicate the Church, for there were good and bad people at every level of society.  What was important was to punish them, as an example to others and a clear message that disorder, immorality and libertine behaviour would not be tolerated.  However, the church was not going to be excused altogether.  He was surprised on two counts, he said.  Firstly that one so young at 24 should be ordained as priest.  He did not recall the government ever approving this.  Secondly that he had not been told for 10 days of their disappearance.  He could only assume it had been an oversight.

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Rosas evidently sensed that this scandal would have far-reaching consequences for him.  He sent police officers out far and wide, and one of them struck lucky.  In Luján they found the local who had taken them to Rosario.  He didn’t know what all the fuss was about, he said.  Florentina and José were a nice couple; she had sung with the driver most of the way.  He also reported that they both wore green spectacles.


On 30th January Blanquita gave birth to a boy, Belisario.  She would have liked Camila to be godmother, but Pedro wisely suggested that she should wait to see if they were caught.  After all, the most that could happen to her was that they would put her in a convent, and they could visit her there.

Camila and Ladislao meanwhile were happy and relieved to have obtained new documents.  He was now Máximo Brandier and she was Valentina San.  They continued to make their way north east upriver, towards the part of the country where Rosas’ enemy Urquiza had mustered his forces, the provinces of Entre Ríos and Corrientes.  There was no indication that anybody knew them, and they were relaxed.  On 3rd February they arrived at the river port of Goya, province of Corrientes.  They were far from Buenos Aires and felt safe at last.

Justo José de Urquiza

The O’Gorman family made their way to Matanza for the summer, as they had done every year, and as was her habit, when she arrived Joaquina went straight to her room.  Blanquita found her there and they cried together over Camila, though when she left her mistress to sleep, Blanquita reflected that they had been crying for different reasons.  Doña Joaquina was crying for the ruin of her family’s reputation and her other daughters’ future prospects.

Camila and Ladislao loved Goya – it was peaceful and reminded Ladislao of his home village in Tucumán.  They decided to stay there for a while to earn some money, which would enable them eventually to continue to their chosen destination, Rio de Janeiro.  She had decided that when they reached Brazil she would write letters to her father and to the governor, and she knew they would understand.

In Goya they learned that the local school had no teachers, and having found a building for rent, they decided to open their own school.  The landlord allowed them the first month rent free.  Soon their natural aptitude for teaching began to show, and they had almost more pupils than they could cope with. They were enjoying themselves in a way they had never thought possible.

Meanwhile Rosas was calling upon his legal advisors to scour medieval texts for punishments that matched the present day circumstances, and several were found which stated that the priest should be put to death.  There was one law which was found to fit the bill perfectly, handed down from the Castilian king Alfonso the Wise.  One of these advisors questioned the wisdom of applying 13th century Spanish law to 19th century circumstances in Argentina, but it was clear that Rosas was not going to listen.  As far as he was concerned he would merely be applying the law, it didn’t matter how old it was.

But they had to be found first, and he was furious that there were still no signs of them.

‘Valentina’ and ‘Máximo’ settled happily into their new life, his only problem being having to keep up with their fictitious former lives as invented by Camila.  He had troubled dreams, but as soon as he woke he would see Camila and all would be well.  In March she discovered with joy that she was expecting their child.

One day in June 1848 they found a letter slipped under their door when they returned home, from a local society lady inviting them to a party on 14th June.  It was hoped they would attend because the community wished to thank them personally for the wonderful work they were doing with the children of the village.  It was signed by Ana, the wife of the Justice of the Peace in Goya, Esteban Perichon.

Camila knew that surname well – it was her grandmother’s.  She remembered being told that when her family had arrived from the island of Réunion in 1792, some of them had headed north to Corrientes.  She realised that this family must be their descendants and this was her family.  From that point onwards it was a foregone conclusion that they would attend, whether or not it was wise.

Sources: Marta Merkin: Camila O'Gorman, La historia de un amor inoportuno (Editorial Sudamericana, 1997)

Images: from Google, and stills from the film Camila, Directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg
Next Post:  The net closes in on the runaways

Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

A Sunday in Bristol


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