Light on the Dark Horses of the Camargue

The South African poet, adventurer, romanticist and bullfighter Roy Campbell wrote his bravura autobiography Light on a Dark Horse, after a spell wandering the French Camargue in the 1930s, riding wild horses, fighting local bulls and retreating from the Spanish Civil War.


Camargue Horses (Credit: Wikipedia)

The flora and fauna, flaming pink flamingos at sunset and strong  smell of the sea, would all have been familiar to the Durban-born Campbell, a descendant of 1820 settlers who made the then British Colony of Natal their home. He was educated at the Durban High School, still one of country’s leading schools and was a fluent Zulu speaker.

. . . the silver runaways of Neptune’s car
Racing, spray-curbed, like waves before the wind,
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea.
– Campbell’s “Horses on the Camargue’

Cover of Sons of the Mistral


“He was considered by T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell to have been one of the best poets of the period between the First and Second World Wars. Campbell’s vocal attacks upon the Marxism and Freudianism popular among the British intelligentsia made him a controversial figure during his own lifetime. It has been suggested by some critics and his daughters in their memoirs that his support for Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War led him to be labelled politically incorrect and blacklisted from modern poetry anthologies,” according to his Wikipedia entry .

A generous tribute to Campbell and his swashbuckling life of poetry and adventure can be found here.

Today the Camargue is little changed from those wilder times. Now it is a spot popular with tourists keen to learn to ride Camargue horses, and watch the annual Gypsy pilgrimage festival or one of the many bull fights associated with the region. The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the gardians, the cowboys of the Camargue who herd black Camargue bulls ahead of regular bull fights.

According to the All Horses go to Heaven website: “Camargue horses are always gray. This means that they have black skin underlying a white hair coat as adult horses. They are born with a hair coat that is black or dark brown in colour, but as they grow to adulthood, their hair coat becomes ever more intermingled with white hairs until it is completely white. They are small horses, generally standing 1.35–1.50 metres (13.1–14.3 hands) at the withers, and weighing 350 to 500 kg (770 to 1,100 lb). Despite their small size, they have the strength to carry grown men. Rugged and intelligent, they have a short neck, deep chest, compact body, well-jointed, strong limbs and a full mane and tail.

“Some researchers believe the Camargue are descended from the ancient Solutré horse hunted during the Upper Paleolithic period. Extensive archaeological evidence has been found in the present-day Burgundy region of France. The Camargue breed was appreciated by the Celtic and Roman invaders who entered the Iberian Peninsula. Their genealogy is closely tied with Iberian horses, especially those of the northern part of the peninsula.”

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a commune in the Bouches-du-Rhône department is the capital of the Camargue. It sits on the Mediterranean and each year in May hosts a major Gypsy religious and cultural festival.

Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer is where gypsies (gitans) gather each year — 24-25 May for a religious celebration

Spine Television’s short December 2011 film, Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer: A Gypsy Pilgrimage, (below) examines life at the annual gypsy festival held in honour of Saint Sara. Over the two day celebration at the seaside Camargue town, gypsies of all origins gather to reassert their faith and pay their respects. The film directed by Leo Leigh & Leo Marks, is a close and revealing study of an obscured society rarely observed by outsiders:

The map shows the Carmague located near the southern bullfighting centres of Arles and Nimes:

The Camargue also known to some as France’s Spanish Riveira or Little Texas.

If Campbell, who died in a car crash in Portugal in 1957 — his daughters still live there — were alive today, he would no doubt recognise much of the folklore, tradition and life-style depicted in the next three videos which focus on Camargue horses, their role in local history and tradition and their attraction to visitors who come to learn to ride:

Crin Blanc par le Theatre Equestre Camarkas en Camargue:

The Centre équestre les Arnelles or horse riding school La Camargue:

says it offers professional help in grooming and learning to ride Camargue horses:

The clip below shows la course camarguaise or the use of horses in herding the young bulls with whom they share a habitat.

Campbell’s poetry:
Listen here to a reading of Campbell’s Three Sisters

and here is his ‘Horses’ poem inspired by the time he and his family spent in the Camargue:
Horses on the Camargue by Roy Campbell

In the grey wastes of dread,
The haunt of shattered gulls where nothing moves
But in a shroud of silence like the dead,
I heard a sudden harmony of hooves,
And, turning, saw afar
A hundred snowy horses unconfined,
The silver runaways of Neptune’s car
Racing, spray-curled, like waves before the wind.
Sons of the Mistral, fleet
As him with whose strong gusts they love to flee,
Who shod the flying thunders on their feet
And plumed them with the snortings of the sea;
Theirs is no earthly breed
Who only haunts the verges of the earth
And only on the sea’s salt herbage feed-
Surely the great white breakers gave them birth.
For when for years a slave,
A horse of the Camargue, in alien lands,
Should catch some far-off fragrance of the wave
Carried far inland from this native sands,
Many have told the tale
Of how in fury, foaming at the rein,
He hurls his rider; and with lifted tail,
With coal-red eyes and catarcating mane,
Heading his course for home,
Though sixty foreign leagues before him sweep,
Will never rest until he breathes the foam
And hears the native thunder of the deep.
And when the great gusts rise
And lash their anger on these arid coasts,
When the scared gulls career with mournful cries
And whirl across the waste like driven ghosts;
When hail and fire converge,
The only souls to which they strike no pain
Are the white crested fillies of the surge
And the white horses of the windy plain.
Then in their strength and pride
The stallions of the wilderness rejoice;
They feel their Master’s trident in their side,
And high and shrill they answer to his voice.
With white tails smoking free,
Long streaming manes, and arching necks, they show
Their kinship to their sisters of the sea-
And forward hurl their thunderbolts of snow.
Still out of hardship bred,
Spirits of power and beauty and delight
Have ever on such frugal pasture fed
And loved to course with tempests through the night.

Story: Ken Pottinger

Enhanced by Zemanta

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to our RSS feed!