The Circassian Exodus
New Zealand Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian, Volume XIX, Issue 1987, 17 August 1864, Page 4 (From The Times, May 9, 1864, p.11.)
Constantinople, April 28.
Official intimation has been received here of the capitulation or Vardar, the last stronghold of the Circassians, and of the consequent submission of all the tribes. I had occasion in a previous letter to refer to the flood of immigration which was pouring into the Turkish dominions from the Caucasus, and to the defeats which had been experienced by these gallant mountaineers; and although there could be no doubt at that time that the cause of the Circassians was hopeless, there was not sufficient ground for anticipating the extraordinary movement which has since developed itself, and which threatens, unless immediate relief and succour be obtained, to degenerate, as regards these poor people, into an awful disaster.
Whether this movement is to be attributed to a panic consequent on defeat, or to the hatred inspired by the Russians, it is rather difficult to determine; but there is no doubt that the three tribes known as the ‘’Shabsoukhs,’’ and ‘’Oboukhs’’ and ‘’Abazehs’’ have determined to abandon their country to a man, and take refuge on Turkish territory. Already the outflowing tide of emigrants it to great as to place the Turkish Government in the greatest embarrassment. 27,000 of these unfortunate creatures, in the most utter destitution, have poured into Trebizonde. The privations of the voyage in a most inclement season have produced disease of the very worst kind among them, which is not only committing fearful ravages in their own famished ranks, but it is extending to the local population. Typhus and smallpox are raging at Trebizonde, and the place is threatened with a famine. The Turkish Government is willing and anxious to receive the fugitives, and incorporated them into their own population, but the movement has been so sudden and so extensive that it bas been impossible to make provision for the hosts that are daily pouring in. It is calculated that no less than 300,000 will, within the next two or three months, seek shelter in this country, and half that number are now seeking the means of transporting themselves to the Turkish coast of the Black Sea. Unfortunately, it is found most difficult to obtain transports for this purpose. The Turkish Government has offered every pecuniary inducement for obtaining it, without avail. It is now their intention to disarm some of their men-of-war, and employ them for this service; but even this resource will not be sufficient to meet the difficulty. Some idea may be formed of the mortality raging among them when it is known that out of 600 Circassians who took passage in a steam transport, after a voyage of three or four days 370 only arrived at their destination. The accounts that are received of the helpless and destitute state of these unhappy beings surpass in misery and horror anything I have ever seen recorded in connexion with suffering humanity. Women in childbirth exposed to the inclemencies of a Black Sea journey, without assistance or the bare necessaries of life, enveloping their newborn in a corner of their own ragged garment; sturdy warriors who had achieved many a gallant deed lying prostrate in the agonies of a horrible death, decks swarming with the dead and dying. These are things now of everyday occurrence in the waters of the Euxine. I do not wish to excite unnecessary horror by a faithful description of the awful visitation which has fallen upon the Circassian race; indeed, no description, however minute and accurate, could convey a sense of the fearful sufferings of this now-proscribed people; but I should be failing in public duty if I did not put upon record the dreadful calamity of which I have such abundant evidence. I have been appealed to, moreover, from every quarter to give publicity to this awful state of things as a means of concentrating attention on a subject the present and future importance of which is great, and in the hope also that it may elicit seme manifestation of public sympathy.
Justice must be done to the Government and to the people of Turkey for good charitable intentions in this emergency. Unfortunately these intentions cannot be carried out effectively. Organization is not the peculiar attribute of Oriental institutions. When the ultimate defeat and surrender of the Circassians become apparent the Russian Government made overtures to the Porte, in view of ascertaining whether the Sultan would receive into his dominions such proportion of the Circassian tribes as would desire to leave their country. The Turkish Government consented to receive them on the condition that the emigration should be gradual and should not commence before the fine season. It was then believed that 40,000 or 50,000 would avail themselves of this refuge. The progress of events, however, has been so rapid that these stipulations heve been totally disregarded, and the successive victories cf the Russian army in the Caucasus produced the panic and the flight which lmve been recorded above. Such arrangements have been made as could be devised in the exigency of the moment for procuring shelter and nourishment, but they are so inadequate to actual requirements that considerable alarm is felt for the future. It is proposed to provide for a certain number of the emigrants by quartering them upon the population in the proportion of ten families to every Turkish village of 100 families. The wisdom of such a measure is, I think, doubtful. It will impose upon the people an obligation which they are hardly in a position to assume — that of partially providing for a helpless and destitute class, who, for a time, at least, must prey opon the limited resources of the local inhabitants. It will lead, moreover, to the propagation of disease the infection of which has, to a certain extent, reached even the capital. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the decision may be modified. If a proper system of succour be established, the Turkish Government might make considerable capital of this movement. There are vast and fertile plains and tracts of land in Asia Minor, and other parts of the empire, comparatively denuded of population, to which the Circassians may be drafted with advantage. The rapid development in the growth of cotton, which only requires bands for its further extension, could bring into immediate requisition and profit the employment of a vast number of the people; but something must be done immediately, and the most practical and useful mode of proceeding is to provide abundant means of transport. Dissatisfaction and mutiny make rapid strides among a large number of men massed together in one particular spot, when they find themselves the prey of misery and destitution; and there have already been threatening indications of such a spirit among those who have taken ground at Trebizonde and other localities. All these considerations have forced themselves upon the Government, and there is no question of political import which at this moment engrosses so much of their attention. Negotiations are in progress with the Russian Government to induce them to open their ports in the Black Sea, so as to give a regular end systematic course to the movement, instead of driving the unfortunate emigrants to the unprotected beach in search of small coasting vessels, which are crowded to excess, and soon become the scenes of death and desolation.
There is a project also of draughting some 20,000 of these men into the Turkish army: the Grand Vizier and Minister of War, Fuad Pasha, has sent a military commission to the Black Sea, with this object, headed by Ali Pasha, a general officer of Circassian origin, who is said to have weight and authority with them. The execution ot this measure will enable the War department to relax considerably the system of recruiting, which would be an incalculable boon to the country at large; and judging by the past exploits of the Circassian race, neither the army nor the general population of the empire will suffer by the infusion of this new blood into their ranks. This is certainly an execellent idea, and one that may work well in time, but the urgent, the almost imperative want of the moment is to obtain immediate relief, and by the adoption of stringent sanitary measures to check the progress of the disease which is destroying these unfortunate creatures in the proportion of twenty per cent., and is spreading itself among the indigenous population. A commission for this special object, under the suspices of the Government, is in existence. Private contributions have not been wanting. The Sultan’s Ministers have contributed to the limit of their means. The Sultan himself, to hit honour be it recorded, has given as much as £50,000 from his privy purse. The Government have estimated that an outlay of more that one million sterling will have to be voted by the state in older to provide for the permanent establishment of the emigrants.
Some interest will naturally be manifested as to the causes which have led the Circassian people to abandon their hearths and property, and to take refuge, under fearful difficulties and dangers, on a foreign territory. On tbis subject it is rather difficult, as I have already stated, to arrive at the accurate truth. The privations, the hardships, and the loss of life which have attended the first stages of the emigration have not weakened the determination of those left behind to brave the same dangers, rather than remain on their native soil. There is ample ground for inference, therefore — and the Circassians so represent it — that the Russian rule in the Caucasus is of a nature which cannot be endured. The sacrifice of independence alone would surely not have induced 300,000 people to fly in a body from their country; and supposing their national feeling impelled them to do it, it is probable that the movement would bave been effected in such a manner as not to expose them to the cruel fate which they have met. It is generally believed that the Russians bave been anxious to drive them out of the country, and to colonise the territory with the Cossack element. On the other hand, the Russian account is that they bave endeavoured in every way to conciliate these tribes, and to induce them to remain in their homes. Be that as it may, their failure in this attempt— supposing they were in earnest about it — does not argue favorably as to the means which they have adopted to enforce their rule upon the bulk of these populations; and there remains this startling fact unprecedented in the annals of modern times, — of a vast and warlike population, under the influence of those symptoms which are generated by tyranny and oppression, flying in a body to a strange land rather than remain in the power of their conquerors.
Captain L. Oliphant, in a letter to the Times of May 12, says: — ,
“The heartrending narrative of the Circassian exodus, which appeared in the Times of Monday, must have appealed to the sympathies of every reader, and I had hoped that ere this an abler pen than mine would have pleaded the cause in behalf of which I now venture to ask your support. Some years ago I travelled in Circassia, and was hospitably entertained by those very tribes of Shabsoukhs, Oboukhs, and Abazehs, who have now preferred a great national suicide to the horrors of the Russian rule. Sebastopol fell while I was still in the country, and those valiant mountaineers vainly hoped that one result of the allied success would be a stipulation prohibiting the Russians from rebuilding those forts upon the eastern shores of the Black Sea, which completed the blockade of their country, and rendered their final subjugation a mere question of time. Had we insisted upon this point in our treaty — then a very easy matter — the Circassians would never bave been driven out by Russia. To a certain extent, therefore, upon us falls the responsibility of a calamity gigantic in its proportions and unequilled in the horror of its details. At last the Western tribes have broken, but they have scorned to bend. For upwards of forty years they have kept the whole armies of the Czar at bay, and now they have abandoned the loveliest valleys in the world to perish of destitution and pestilence, but to die as they have lived, free and unconquered. It is impossible that so grand an instance of heroism should not find a responsive chord in the heart of every Englishman. There are not so many nations in the world who prefer death to slavery, that we should withhold in this instance sympathy and money which might relieve the sufferings of those 300,000 persons who, according to your correspondent, will be thrown destitute during the next two or three months upon the shores of Asiatic Turkey. It is probable that a large proportion of them will die on the way, since, according to the same authority, out of 600 during a voyage of four days only 370 arrived at their destination. And he goes on to say, — ‘The accounts that are received of the helpless and destitute state of these unhappy beings surpass in misery and horror anything I have ever seen recorded in connexion with suffering humanity. Women in childbirth, exposed to the inclemencies of a Black Sea journey, without assistance or the bare necesaaries of life, enveloping their new-born in a corner of their own ragged garment ; sturdy warriors who had achieved many a gallant deed, lying prostrate in the agonies of a horrible death; decks swarming with dead and dying — these are things of everyday occurrence on the waters of the Euxine.’ In Circassia, as in Poland, Russia has not shrunk from applying that unrelenting policy which in the end extinguishes the obnoxious race. There have been moments when by stretching out the band we might have saved both victims. Now all that is left to us is, by the display of that individual generosity which partially redeems our national character for selfishness, to alleviate as far as possible their dying agonies. I have already received from many quarters promises of subscriptions. I now most earnestly trust that this appeal will be responded to by the public.”
Source: National Library of New Zealand