27 October 2018

Joseph Blanco White,
an Irish writer
who was born in Seville

The house in Seville where Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841) was born (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Each day, as I walked from Las Casas de la Judería, the hotel where I was staying this week, and Seville Cathedral, I noticed a plaque on a street corner marking the birthplace of José María Blaco y Crespo, or Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841), , born José María Blanco y Crespo (1775-1841), an interesting an often controversial Irish and Spanish theologian and poet.

Joseph Blanco White was born in this house in Seville on the corner of Jamierdana and Ximenez de Enciso on 11 July 1775. His grandfather, William White, and his father, also William White, were Irish merchants who fled from Waterford after the Treaty of Limerick, to escape the Penal Laws in the early 18th century, and to establish themselves as merchants in the wine trade. His father William White, had served briefly as the British Vice-Consul in Seville, and had changed his name to Guillermo Blanco, while his mother, María Gertrudis Crespo y Neve, was Spanish-born.

José María Blanco y Crespo had worked in Seville with Melchor de Jovellanos, an adviser to the king who advocated reform, and was educated for the Roman Catholic priesthood.

However, after his ordination in 1800, White had religious doubts led him to leave Spain and he moved to England on 3 March 1810. By 30 April, he had started to anglicise his name, which stirred controversy in Seville and Cadiz, where he was seen abandoning his Spanish identity, although White was the family’s original Irish name when they settled in Andalusia.

The plaque commemorating the birth of Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841) in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

From 1810 to 1814, Blanco White edited El Español (‘The Spaniard’), a monthly Spanish magazine in London, which strongly advocated independence for the colonies in Spanish America. He also wrote in favour of free trade and religious freedom, criticised the despotism of the monarchy, and advocated the separation of Church and State. His publications were banned in Spain, and the Inquisition initiated a ferocious campaign against him and his ideas, branding him as an anti-patriot and traitor.

Shortly after his arrival in England, his search for truth had led him to embrace Anglicanism. He studied theology at Oxford, where he received an MA in 1825. There he came under the influence of Thomas Arnold, John Henry Newman, Richard Whately (1787-1863), a future Archbishop of Dublin, and other leading lights in the Oxford Movement. Within a couple of years, he was officiating in the University Church of Saint Mary’s in Oxford.

Whately was elected as Drummond Professor of Political Economy at Oxford in 1829, and he was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1831. White moved to Dublin with the family as a tutor to Whately’s only son Edward.

White spent four years at the Archbishop’s house at Redesdale, in Kilmacud, Co Dublin. During this time, however, his theological ideas were still developing, and he began to stray from Anglican orthodoxy, taking an interest in Socinianism or Unitarianism.

Eventually, White left Dublin to join the Unitarian community in Liverpool, first staying with Clemente de Zulueta, a Spanish merchant and intellectual, and making friends with the Revd James Martineau, minister at the Paradise Street congregation, who had been ordained as a junior minister of Eustace Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Dublin in 1828.

However, White found himself in disagreement with some members of the Unitarian community within four months of arriving in Liverpool.

His Observations on Heresy and Orthodoxy, published in London in 1835, was a deeply controversial text, and cemented the rift between Blanco White and John Henry Newman.

Despite all this, Whately still continued to support White for the rest of his life with an annual subsidy of £100, as well as helping to secure for him a queen’s bounty of £300 in 1838. While died in Liverpool on 20 May 1841.

As a writer, White is best remembered for his sonnet ‘Night and Death’ (1828), with its opening words: ‘Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew,’ and dedicated to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

His principal writings are Doblado’s Letters from Spain (1822), written under the pseudonym of Don Leucado Doblado, and written in part at Holland House in London; Evidence against Catholicism (1825), Second Travels of an Irish Gentleman in Search of a Religion (two volumes, 1833), written as a riposte to Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and Observations on Heresy and Orthodoxy (1835). He also translated Paley’s Evidences and the Book of Common Prayer into Spanish.

A collection of manuscripts and books about the life of Blanco White is in the Representative Church Body Library (the RCB Library) in Dublin, tracing his life and his journey in faith.

Mysterious Night! when our first Parent knew
Thee, from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely Frame,
This glorious canopy of Light and Blue?
Yet ’neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting Flame,
Hesperus with the Host of Heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened on Man’s view.
Who could have thought such Darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst flower, and leaf, and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless Orbs thou mad’st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?

An image of Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841) in the Jewish Interpretative Centre near his birthplace (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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