Project Gutenberg's Twenty Years Of Balkan Tangle, by Durham M. Edith
"Where rougher climes a nobler race displayed."--BYRON.
Study of the Macedonian question had shown me that one of the most important factors of the Near Eastern question was the Albanian, and that the fact that he was always left out of consideration was a constant source of difficulty. The Balkan Committee had recently been formed, and I therefore decided to explore right through Albania, then but little known, in order to be able to acquire first-hand information as to the aspirations and ideas of the Albanians.
Throughout the relief work in Macedonia we had employed Albanians in every post of trust--as interpreters, guides, kavasses and clerks.
The depot of the British and Foreign Bible Society at Monastir was entirely in Albanian hands. The Albanian was invaluable to the Bible Society, and the Bible Society was invaluable to the Albanians.
Albania was suffering very heavily. Every other of the Sultan subject races had its own schools--schools that were, moreover, heavily subsidized from abroad. The Bulgarian schools in particular were surprisingly well equipped. Each school was an active centre of Nationalist propaganda. All the schoolmasters were revolutionary leaders. All were protected by various consulates which insisted on opening new schools and protested when any were interfered with.
Only when it was too late to stop the schools did the Turks perceive their danger. First came the school, then the revolution, then foreign intervention--and another piece of the Turkish' Empire was carved off. This had happened with Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. The Turks resolved it should not happen in the case of Albania.
Albania was faced by two enemies. Not only the Turk dreaded the uprising of Albania, but Russia had already determined that the Balkan Peninsula was to be Slav and Orthodox. Greece as Orthodox might be tolerated. No one else.
The Turkish Government prohibited the printing and teaching of the Albanian language under most severe penalties. Turkish schools were established for the Moslem Albanians, and every effort made to bring up the children to believe they were Turks. In South Albania, where the Christians belong to the Orthodox Church, the Greeks were encouraged to found schools and work a Greek propaganda. The Turks hoped thus to prevent the rise of a strong national Albanian party.
The Greek Patriarch went so far as to threaten with excommunication any Orthodox Albanian who should use the "accursed language" in church or school. In North Albania, where the whole of the Christians are Catholics, the Austrians, who had been charged by Europe with the duty of protecting the Catholics, established religious schools in which the teaching was in Albanian, and with which the Turkish Government was unable to interfere. The Jesuits,
under Austrian protection, established a printing press in Scutari for the printing in Albanian of religious books. But this movement, being strictly Catholic, was confined to the North. It was, moreover, initiated with the intent of winning over the Northern Christians to Austria, and was directed rather to dividing the Christians from the Moslems and to weakening rather than strengthening the sense of Albanian nationality. The results of this
we will trace later.
None of these efforts on the part of Albania's enemies killed the strong race instinct which has enabled the Albanian to survive the Roman Empire and the fall of Byzantium, outlive the fleeting mediaeval Empires of Bulgar and Serb, and finally emerge from the wreck of the mighty Ottoman Empire, retaining his language, his Customs and his primitive vigour--a rock over which the tides of invasion have washed in vain.
When threatened with loss of much Albanian territory by the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, the Albanians rose in force and demanded the recognition of their rights. There is a popular ballad in Albanian cursing Lord Beaconsfield, who went to Berlin in order to ruin Albania and give her lands to her pitiless enemy the Slav. The Treaty did nothing for Albania, but it caused the formation of the Albanian League and a national uprising by means of which the Albanians retained some of the said lands in spite of the Powers.
This induced Abdul Hamid for a short time to relax the ban upon the Albanian language. At once national schools were opened, and books and papers came from Albanian presses. The Sultan, alarmed by the rapid success of the national movement, again prohibited the language. Schoolmasters were condemned to long terms of imprisonment. As much as fifteen years was the sentence that could be, and was, inflicted upon any one found in possession of an Albanian paper, and the Greek priests entered enthusiastically into the persecution. But Albanian was not killed. Leaders of the movement went to Bucarest, to Sofia, to Brussels, to London, and set to work. With much difficulty and at great personal risk books and papers published abroad were smuggled into Albania by Moslem Albanian officials, many of whom suffered exile and confiscation of all their property in consequence.
But there was another means by which printed Albanian was brought into the country. During the short interval when the printing of Albanian had been permitted, a translation of the Bible was made for the British and Foreign Bible Society. This Society had the permission of the Turkish Government to circulate its publications freely. When the interdict on the language was again imposed a nice question arose. Had the Society the right to circulate Albanian Testaments? The Turkish Government had not the least objection to the Gospels--only they must not be in Albanian. A constant war on the subject went on. The director of the Bible Depot in Monastir was an Albanian of high standing both as regards culture and energy. Grasping the fact that by means of these publications an immense national propaganda could be worked, he spared no pains, and by carefully selecting and training Albanian colporteurs, whose business it was to learn in which districts the officials were dangerous, where they were sympathetic, and where there were Nationalists willing themselves to risk receiving and distributing books, succeeded to a remarkable degree.
The Greeks, of course, opposed the work. A Greek Bishop is, in fact, declared to have denounced the dissemination of "the New Testament and other works contrary to the teaching of the Holy and Orthodox Church." Nevertheless it continued. It was with one of the Society's colporteurs that I rode through Albania. I was thus enabled everywhere to meet the Nationalists and to observe how very widely spread was the movement. The journey was extremely interesting, and as exciting in many respects as Borrow's Bible in Spain.
Leaving Monastir in a carriage and driving through much of the devastated Slav area I was greatly struck on descending into the plain land by Lake Malik to see the marked difference in the type of man that swung past on the road. I saw again the lean, strong figure and the easy stride of the Albanian, the man akin to my old friends of Scutari, a wholly different type from the Bulgar peasants among whom I had been working, and I felt at home.
Koritza, the home of Nationalism in the South, was my first halting-place. It was celebrated as being the only southern town in which there was still an Albanian school in spite of Turk and Greek. Like the schools of Scutari, it owed its existence to foreign protection. It was founded by the American Mission. Its plucky teacher, Miss Kyrias (now Mrs. Dako), conducted it with an ability and enthusiasm worthy of the highest praise. And in spite of the fact that attendance at the school meant that parents and children risked persecution by the Turk and excommunication by the Greek priest, yet the school was always full. The girls learned to read and write Albanian and taught their brothers. Many parents told me very earnestly how they longed for a boys' school too. The unfortunate master of the Albanian boys' school, permitted during the short period when the interdiction was removed, was still in prison serving his term of fifteen years. Could not England, I was asked, open a school? Now either a child must learn Greek or not learn to read at all. And the Greek teachers even told children that it was useless to pray in Albanian, for Christ was a Greek, and did not understand any other language.
Everywhere it was the same. Deputations came to me begging for schools. Even Orthodox priests, who were Albanian, ventured to explain that what they wanted was an independent Church. Roumania, Serbia, Greece, even Montenegro, each was free to elect its own clergy and to preach and conduct the service in its own language. At Leskoviki and Premeti folk were particularly urgent both for schools and church.
Not only among the Christians, but among the Moslems too, there was a marked sense of nationality. A very large proportion of the Moslems of the south were by no means, orthodox Moslems, but were members of one of the Dervish sects, the Bektashi, and as such suspect by the powers, at Constantinople. Between the Bektashi and the Christians there appeared to be no friction. Mosques were not very plentiful. I was assured by the Kaimmakam of Leskoviki that many of the Moslem officials were Bektashi and attended mosque only as a form without which they could not hold office. He was much puzzled about Christianity and asked me to explain why the Greeks and Bulgars, who were both Christian, were always killing each other. "They say to Europe," he said, "that they object to Moslem rule. But they would certainly massacre each other if we went away. What good is this Christianity to them?" I told him I could no more understand it than he did.
The Bulgarian rising had had a strong repercussion in Albania. Our relief work was everywhere believed to be a British Government propaganda. Other Powers scattered money for their own purpose in Turkish territory. Why not Great Britain? It was a natural conclusion. Moreover the Bulgars themselves believed the help brought them was from England the Power. And the name Balkan Committee even was misleading. In the Near East a committee is a revolutionary committee, and consists of armed komitadjis. Times innumerable have I assured Balkan people of all races that the Balkan Committee did not run contraband rifles, but they have never believed it.
The Albanians everywhere asked me to assure Lord Lansdowne, then Secretary for Foreign Affairs, that if he would only supply them with as much money and as many arms as he had given the Bulgarians they would undertake to make a really successful rising.
As for our Albanian testaments, Moslems as well as Christians bought them; and the book of Genesis, with the tale of Potiphar's wife, sold like hot cakes.
At Berat, where there was a Greek Consul and a Turkish Kaimmakam, we were stopped by the police at the entrance of the town and all our Albanian books were taken from us. But no objection was made to those in Turkish and Greek. It was the language and not the contents of the book that was forbidden. But there were plenty of Nationalists in the town. It is noteworthy that though our errand was well known everywhere, and people hastened to tell "the Englishwoman" Albania's hopes and fears, not once did any one come to tell me that Albania wanted to be joined to Greece. It was always "Give us our own schools," "Free us from the Greek priest." At Elbasan we found a bale of publications awaiting us, sent from Monastir in anticipation of what would happen at Berat.
Here there was a charming old Albanian Mutasarrif, who did all he could to make my visit pleasant and begged me to send many English visitors. He had been Governor of Tripoli (now taken by Italy), and told me that on returning home to Albania after very many years' foreign service he was horrified to find his native land worse used than any other part of the Turkish Empire with which he was acquainted. He was hot on the school question, and declared his intention of having Albanian taught. As for our books we might sell as many as we pleased, the more the better. The little boys of the Moslem school flocked to buy them, and we sold, too, to several Albanians who wore the uniform of Turkish officers.
The Albanian periodical, published in London by Faik Bey, was known here. A definite effort was being made at Elbasan to break with the Greek Church. An Albanian priest had visited Rome, and there asked leave to establish at Elbasan a Uniate Church. He was the son of a rich man, and having obtained the assent of Rome returned with the intention of building the church himself, and had even bought a piece of land for it. But leave to erect a church had to be first obtained from the Turkish Government. This he was hoping to receive soon. The Turkish Government, aware that this was part of the Nationalist movement, never granted the permit, though characteristically
it kept the question open for a long while. The mountains of Spata near Elbasan are inhabited by a mountain folk in many ways resembling the Maltsors of the north, who preserved a sort of semi-independence. They were classed by the Christians as crypto-Christians. I saw neither church nor mosque in the district I visited. As for religion, each had two names. To a Moslem enquirer he said he was Suliman; to a Christian that he was Constantino. When called on to pay tax, as Christians in place of giving military service, the inhabitants declined on the grounds that they all had Moslem names and had no church. When on the other hand they were summoned for military service they protested they were Christians. And the Turks mostly left them alone. But they were Nationalists, and when the proposal for a Uniate Church was mooted, declared they would adhere to Rome. The news of this having spread, upset the Orthodox Powers to such an extent that a Russian Vice-Consul was sent hurriedly to the spot. The Spata men, however, who were vague enough about religious doctrines, were very certain that they did not want anything Russian, and the Russian who had been instructed to buy them with gold if necessary had to depart in a hurry.
It was a district scarcely ever visited by strangers, and my visit gave extraordinary delight.
So through Pekinj, Kavaia, Durazzo Tirana and Croia, the city of Skenderbeg and the stronghold now of Bektashism, I arrived at last at Scutari, and was welcomed by Mr. Summa, himself a descendant of one of the mountain clans, formerly dragoman to the Consulate, and now acting Vice-Consul. He was delighted about my journey, and told me he could pass me up into the mountains wherever I pleased. He explained to me that on my former visit, Mr. Prendergast being new to the country had consulted the Austrian Consulate as to the possibility of my travelling in the interior, and that the Austrians who wished to keep foreigners out of the mountains, though they sent plenty of their own tourists there, had given him such an alarming account of the dangers as had caused him to tell me it was impossible. He arranged at once for me to visit Mirdita.
The Abbot of the Mirdites, Premi Dochi, was a man of remarkable capacity. Exiled from Albania as a young man for participation in the Albanian league and inciting resistance to Turkish rule and the decrees of the Treaty of Berlin, he had passed his years of exile in Newfoundland and India as a priest, and had learned English and read much. He was the inventor of an excellent system of spelling Albanian by which he got rid of all accents and fancy letters and used ordinary Roman type. He had persuaded the Austrian authorities to use it in their schools, and was enthusiastic about the books that he was having prepared. His schemes were wide and included the translation of many standard English books into Albanian. And he had opened a small school hard by his church in the mountains.
His talk was wise. He Was perhaps the most far-seeing of the Albanian Nationalists. We stood on a height and looked over Albania -- range behind range like the stony waves of a great sea, sweeping towards the horizon intensely and marvellously blue, and fading finally into the sky in a pale mauve distance. He thrust out his hands towards it with pride and enthusiasm. It was a mistake, he said, now to work against Turkey. The Turk was no longer Albania's worst foe. Albania had suffered woefully from the Turk. But Albania was not dead. Far from it. There was another, and a far worse foe --one that grew ever stronger, and that was the Slav: Russia with her fanatical Church and her savage Serb and Bulgar cohorts ready to destroy Albania and wipe out Catholic and Moslem alike.
He waved his hand in the direction of Ipek. "Over yonder," he said, "is the land the Serbs called Old Serbia. But it is a much older Albania. Now it is peopled with Albanians, many of whom are the victims, or the children of the victims, of the Berlin Treaty: Albanians, who had lived for generations on lands that that Treaty handed over to the Serbs and Montenegrins, who drove them out to starve. Hundreds perished on the mountains. Look at Dulcigno--a purely Albanian town, threatened by the warships of the Great Powers, torn from us by force. How could we resist all Europe? Our people were treated by the invading Serb and Montenegrin with every kind of brutality. And the great Gladstone looked on! Now there is an outcry that the Albanians of Kosovo ill-treat the Slavs. Myself I regret it. But what can they do? What can you expect? They know very well that so long as ten Serbs exist in a place Russia will swear it is a wholly Serb district. And they have sworn to avenge the loss of Dulcigno.
"The spirit of the nation is awake in both Christian and Moslem. People ask why should not we, like the Bulgars and Serbs, rule our own land? But first we must learn, and organize. We must have time. If another war took place now the Slavs would overwhelm us. We must work our propaganda and teach Europe that there are other people to be liberated besides Bulgars and Serbs. The Turk is now our only bulwark against the Slav invader. I say therefore that we must do nothing to weaken the Turk till we are strong enough to stand alone and have European recognition. When the Turkish Empire breaks up, as break it must, we must not fall either into the hands of Austria nor
of the Slavs."
And to this policy, which time has shown to have been the wise one, he adhered steadily. He took no part in rising against the Turk, but he worked hard by means of spread of education and information, to attain ultimately the freedom of his country. His death during the Great War is a heavy loss to Albania.
I promised him then that I would do all that lay in my power to bring a knowledge of Albania to the English, and that I would work for its freedom. He offered to pass me on to Gusihje, Djakova, or any other district I wished, and to do all in his power to aid my travels But I had already far exceeded my usual holiday, and appeals to me to return to England were urgent.
I had to tear myself away from the wilderness and I was soon once more steaming up the Lake of Scutari to Rijeka.
I ARRIVED in Cetinje with a Turkish trooper's saddle and a pair of
saddle-bags that contained some flintlock pistols and some beautiful
ostrich feathers given me by the Mutasarrif of Elbasan and not much
else but rags.
The news that I had come right through Albania excited Cetinje
vastly. Every English tourist who wanted to go to Scutari was warned
by the Montenegrins that it was death to walk outside the town; that
murders took place every day in the bazar; any absurd tale, in
fact, to blacken the Albanians.