England and the Eastern Insurgents

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England and the Eastern Insurgents

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, July 13, 1876)

An attempt is about to be made to elicit from the people of England an expression of sympathy with the struggling Slavonians of Eastern Europe, and a protest against giving any assistance to Turkey. A preliminary hearing is to be held shortly in London, over which Lord Shaftesbury will preside, and it will be followed by public meetings in various parts of the country.

We need hardly say that we wish the movement every success. The North Country, we hope, will not be lacking in contributing to the Godspeed which the free men of England are about to send across the waters to the Slavonians, who are risking their lives for freedom from the yoke of the oppressor. Our protest against the iniquity of lending support to the Ottomans ought to be clear and strong. North Countrymen, in spite of the diplomatists, who in every age have depreciated the emancipation of subject races, know too well that the Servian and the Montenegrin, the Bosnian and the Bulgarian, are fighting for the sacred rights of human beings, in obedience to one of the noblest instincts of humanity. It is not in the North where men are to be found to

“Cringe and temporize, and dumbly stand at rest,
While pity’s burning flood of words is red-hot in the breast.”

We leave that to the diplomatists and “statesmen” — save the mark— who are not ashamed to stand up in the House of Commons and apologize for the assassins of Bulgaria, and who have the effrontery to condemn the execrations excited by the atrocities of the Moslem by a reference to the misdeeds of that Governor Eyrk, whom they defended against the indignant impeachment of the English people. Here, at all events, men have not forgotten their manhood, and Englishmen have not forsaken their allegiance to that Liberty which used to be the crowning glory of our land. Witlings, cynics, and the whole tribe of moral eunuchs, who are only too numerous in many quarters, infest the North like other vermin, but they are recognised as vermin. Enthusiasm has not yet died out in our midst. The pitiable snob who has lost faith in the universe, and classifies his brother men as “mostly cads,” who is equally destitute of generous emotions and lofty conceptions, has but small influence in the North of England. The old watchwords still ring true in our ears. We believe in Liberty, we have not lost faith in Fraternity. We believe that the cause for which Cromwell fought and Hampden died is worthy of the sympathies, the prayers, and the assistance of every one worthy of the name of man. Strange although it may sound in the ears of some Cockney journalists and Conservative politicians, we in the North here esteem the liberties of men and the honour of women to be worth fighting for, and hence we regard with unfeigned sympathy the efforts which the Christians of the East are making to win the one and protect the other from the filthy and immoral despotism of the Turks.

It is time that the people of England spoke out on this question, for it is a question which appeals to every one of them. Especially does it appeal to the millions upon whose industry rests the stately edifice of England’s greatness. The sense of the solidarity of mankind, the consciousness of brotherhood is stronger among the toiling myriads than in the Upper Ten. Hence again and again, when the upper classes have extended their sympathies to oppressors and despots at home or abroad, the honest hearts of England’s working people have remained true to the good cause. It was so in the America war. It was so in the struggle for Italian liberty. Our cultured classes sneered at Garibaldi, but he was canonised by the popular heart. A section of our aristocracy paid court to Austria, but the draymen horsewhipped Haynau. We have always had good leaders in all good causes among the wealthy and the titled, but the great strength of every movement has been drawn from the people. As it has been, so it will be— it is now— it behoves every Englishman of whatsoever class or party he may belong, to make known in no faltering accents his determination that our Government of Tory landowners shall not use England’s name to bolster up the insupportable tyranny of the Ottoman in Eastern Europe. Fifty years ago all England kindled into enthusiasm at the thought of rescuing classic Greece from the Turkish yoke. Lord Byron sacrificed wealth, genius, and life at the alter of Greek independence. His poems rang through Europe, inspiring the “hereditary bondsmen” of the Sultan “themselves to strike the blow” which was to give them freedom. Greece was rescued from Turkey in a great measure through the English enthusiasm for liberty, and now the turn of Bosnia has come. The oppression which roused Byron to fury, and inspired some of the most stirring of his poems, was not one whit worse than that which has driven the Insurgents of the North to take to the hills. But as yet no thrilling cry of sympathy rings across the wave from England to the Adriatic. England, alas! stands aloof. Her Government, in the hands of a man who has no affection for our liberties, no sympathy for the struggles of nations for independence, appears to be using our influence on the side of the Turk, and no man says him nay. This must not be. It is time that this should cease, but unless Englishmen awake from their indifference and pronounce with unmistakable emphasis for the cause of the oppressed, it is even possible that before long they may be summoned to fight for the oppressor, and spend their blood and gold in rivetting the chains of the Moslem upon the Christians of the East.

Of course, we shall be told that the Christians of Eastern Europe are superstitious, fanatical, ignorant and savage. We do not ask for the sympathy of England for them as enlightened Christians, or as Christians at all. To us, they are simply men, and on the broad ground of humanity they appeal to us for our moral support. They are degraded— are semi-barbarians, some of them— they are as cruel, perhaps, as their Moslem lords. What then? Are we never to sympathise with a man who is struggling for liberty until he has acquired all the virtues and accomplishments of a civilized Englishman? If so, the tyrant has only to debase his victim to doom him to everlasting servitude. The lower those men are, the more degraded they are, the more brutal they are, the more we should delight to see the first indications of an aspiration after higher and better things. Such an aspiration is the desire for liberty. The extent of their degradation is the measure of Turkey’s guilt. These men, her subjects, are what she has made them. She reaps but as she has sown. She has made them slaves for four centuries, and then the fastidious and the cynical critics of the West denounce them because they have not the virtues of freemen. They are what we should have been if we, like them, had been subjected for four hundred years to the bandit rule of an Asiatic horde. Of course, we shall be told that these men are not fit for freedom. Will they ever be fitter for freedom until they are freed from the Moslem yoke? It is as absurd to deny them their liberty till they can use it properly as to prevent men going into the water until they learn to swim. Bad as they are, however, they are better than their masters, the lords of the Bashi Bazouks! They may be superstitious and cruel, but they have never given Bulgaria over to flames and satiated their lust upon the wives and daughters of a hardy peasantry. There will be scant mercy given by them in this war, but who could be surprised if they had been far worse than they are?

“They do as they are taught, not theirs the blame,
If men who scatter firebrands reap the flame!”

With all their shortcomings, they represent the cause of progress, of humanity, of civilization in Eastern Europe. Impartial observers and practised politicians admit that the future is theirs. It is Mr. Grant Duff who declares that it is their “manifest destiny” to oust the Turk from their provinces. They represent also the principle of nationality. Said Mazzini, a short time before his lamented death, “The Slavonian family is in movement upon a zone extending from the North Sea to the Adriatic, and eager to proffer the word at the fraternal European banquet. They ask aid from us,” and just now that aid is more necessary than ever, for the South Slavonians have risen in arms to break the yoke of an utterly intolerable despotism. Whatever their faults, their wrongs are greater. Whatever their shortcomings, their sufferings are a more than sufficient excuse. Yet at this crisis in the history of the Slavonian nationality, when our brethren in Eastern Europe are facing death rather than endure slavery, England’s voice is dumb, or rather it appears to be given on the side of those who are hounding on the offscourings of Asia to perpetuate nameless atrocities upon the peaceful peasants of these European provinces. This silence must be broken. England’s voice must be heard across the Continent uttering words of sympathy and encouragement to the brave men who have taken the field against the Turk. They ask for no more than our moral support— our influence shall not be exerted against them. That support they must have. They have a right to the neutrality of the state, to the sympathy of the people. It would be an evil day for England when she turned a deaf ear to such a request, for from the day when Englishmen cease to sympathise with those who are struggling for freedom will date the downfall of their own liberties.