Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Four men and a tent in Albania in 1879


One day last autumn I was sitting in my Temple chambers, wondering what I should do with myself in the Long Vacation, when I was aroused from my reverie by the entrance of my clerk...
And so begins for E. F. Knight the journey that led him to write 'Albania: A Narrative of Recent Travel', which he published in 1880. A friend showed me a first edition of the book a couple of years ago. I loved the flavour of Oxford, Cambridge, public school and England at the zenith of her imperial self-confidence. In many ways 1879 does not seem so very long ago - it's on the horizon that separates the recent from the distant past. Buildings built in 1879 we do not consider old. Yet how very distant the world that Knight describes. 

He and his three companions, whom he calls Brown, Jones and Robinson, say good-bye to their friends at Spiers and Pond's refreshment-bar at Victoria Station and take the boat train to Paris, a train to Venice and thence a ferry along the Adriatic coast of Austria Hungary. They disembark and ride to post-war Montenegro, which the Congress of Berlin had made an independent kingdom the year before. They take with them across the continent a number of Robinson's cumbersome inventions, including a huge unwieldy tent they call the White Elephant. They sleep in it for a total of two nights.

it's slightly like Jerome K. Jerome but our four are upper middle class, not lower middle class and the laughs are fewer. Though Knight can be funny.

Victorians were usually careful observers. They are disparaged now by terrifying women who write critical apparati detecting sexism and racism, but their comments generally sound perceptive to me, often more so than those of contemporary academics.

The four travellers were repeatedly told that they would not come back from Albania alive. I was told that in Hungary before I came to Romania for the first time in 1990. What impression did the first Albanian city, Scutari, now Shkoder, make on them?
The first thing that strikes one is the utter lawlessness of the people. The Turks have never assimilated their remoter possessions. It is not in their character to do so. They seem, even after so many centuries, to be merely temporarily encamped in Albania.
An Albanian gendarme who befriends them points out
an ill-featured Albanian Mussulman
to the travellers and says,
This is a brave man ; much respected ; has killed more of his follow-townsmen than any other Scutarino.
An Albanian Christian, however, assures Knight that Albania is safer than Trieste, despite the fact that the police have been on strike for months. He says that blood feuds, whereby the family of a murder victim is required to revenge him, keep the peace more effectively than the police.
"Does not this system lead to a good many lives being sacrificed over one quarrel?"
"It acts well as a rule. But, as you say, it does lead to some bloodshed. Just before I left Scutari a man shot another's pig, which had strayed into his field; the owner of the pig immediately walked over to the other man's house and blew his brains out, which he was bound to do as a man of honour; then a relation of the slain man shot a relation of the other behind his back as he strolled into the bazaar,totally unaware of the existence of any quarrel between the families." 
"Was that looked upon as fair play?"
"Everything is fair in our blood feuds. This very man was himself shot a few days afterwards as he was coming out of a mosque, by the brother of the man he had killed, who was waiting for him behind a wall.Several others on both sides were killed in this pig dispute, till at last the two families met and settled the matter amicably, and without dishonour to either party, for it was shown that an equal amount of damage had been inflicted on both families--ten men of one having been slain; nine men, one woman, and a pig of the other."
Blood feuds were suppressed in Albania under Communism but sprung up again as soon as Communism was overthrown.

It is a mistake to imagine the Ottoman Empire assimilated her subjects, as some clever men nowadays think. Muslims, Christians, Jews and gypsies  lived in separate quarters of towns, in different villages and under their own laws.

interestingly, the way of life of the Christians and the status of Christian women was thoroughly Oriental. In Albania Christian women lived in purdah. Marriages were arranged in the following way.

Courtship is curiously managed among the Scutarine Christians. The lover--if he can be so called--never sees his intended till the day of his marriage. A young girl is confined in her father's house for a few years before she arrives at a marriageable age. No men but her nearest relatives ever see her. When her parents consider she is old enough, they let it be known among their friends that they have a marriageable daughter on hand. Probably the young lady's brother will come up to you--if you are a good catch--some day in the street, and say,
"You are just the man I wanted to see. My sister is now fourteen years of age. You must marry her."
It is an insult to refuse such an offer, for it is generally looked upon as a great honour. However, if the Benedick be rather doubtful as to the advantages of the match, and is desirous of ascertaining whether his proposed bride be endowed with personal attractions, he goes off to an old woman, whose profession it is to intervene in such cases. She calls on the bride, inspects her, and returns to give him an unbiassed summing-up of the young lady's qualities. If he is satisfied, the wedding-day is fixed, but not till the last moment does he view his bride.
I like this compliment to Albanian and English womanhood by Knight, which is accurate. 
The women of this country do not wither up into old hags by the time they are thirty, as do most orientals and southerners, but preserve their peachy complexions and youthful beauty as long as do the women of our own island.
This comment seems topical. 
In this valley are Ipek [Peja], Jakova [Gjakova], and Priserin [Prizren], three of the most interesting cities of Albania.... But the population of these towns is ferociously fanatical. Surrounded as they are by Christians, knowing that the day is not far off when the rising ambitions and energies of the oppressed race will drive them from their homes eastwards and southwards, the Mohammedans here hate the Christians with a hatred more intense than even the followers of this fanatical creed entertain in other parts.
But there is more to it than Mohammedan fanaticism. These towns are in northern and eastern Kosovo. The newly independent Kingdom of Serbia, then as now, considered Kosovo her ancestral homeland. I am told by a friend who knows Kosovo that this conflict was always more ethnic than religious. The Christians in those regions were Serbs and the Muslims were Albanians. Elsewhere in Kosovo Catholic Albanians had no more wish to be ruled by the Serbs than did the Muslims.

At one point Knight is advised by a diplomat to go back to Montenegro to witness the outbreak of war between Montenegro and Turkey. He does goes back to Podgorica but to his disappointment the war is inconveniently delayed and he returns to Scutari.

Knight and friends were travelling in the aftermath of the Bulgarian Atrocities, committed by Muslims against Balkan Christians, which had led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, Mr Gladstone's Midlothian campaign and almost to a rerun of the Crimean War between Britain and Russia. In the London music halls, the words of the great hit song of 1877, sung by the Great MacDermott, went:
'We don't want to fight,
'But by jingo if we do,
'We've got the ships,
'We've got the men,
'We've got the money too.'
I once heard an ancient recording of the Great MacDermott singing it in a very thin voice. How poignant the past is.

As every schoolboy used to know, Mr. Gladstone declared to a crowd in the Midlothian campaign that he wanted to get rid of the Turks from Europe 
bag and baggage. 
He meant, I assume, Muslims rather than Turks, though Englishmen in his day tended to think all Balkan Christians were Greeks and all Muslims Turks. In any case, Gladstone was arguing for ethnic cleansing. 

Odd how what is liberal in one age becomes illiberal later. But this happens a lot.

Disraeli, who had travelled around Albania as a young man, knew much better and was pro-Turk because the Sublime Porte was the legitimate ruler of his domains. Disraeli was not a classicist like Gladstone and was possibly a less sincere Christian. 

Disraeli's views on ethnic cleansing were expressed with his customary feline playfulness in his account of his Albanian journey in the 1830s. He spoke of the pleasure, when he was the guest of Ali Pasha,
of being made much of by a man who is daily decapitating half the country.
Funny, almost Wildean, but unpleasant. 

Very unpleasant indeed.


  1. Gladstone was arguing against (not for) ethnic cleansing (the slaughters practiced by the Ottoman Empire and its tribal allies). He was against the political power of Islam (the Ottoman Empire and so on). He was not in favour of killing (or driving out) everyone who happened to be a Muslim. As for the Albanians - many were Christian (King Zog and all that) although their culture had been influenced by centuries of occupation (occupation that brought little benefit - not even order). Victorian travel accounts are interesting - for example accounts of visits to the Holy Land in the mid 19th century say the land was largely empty (a bit of problem for people take your political postion Sir).
    Paul Marks

    1. Ethnic cleansing certainly was being practised by the Bashi-bazouks. The Christians did their share too, later on. King Zog was Muslim. Largely empty is not the same as empty.

  2. Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    An earlier review in The Spectator here:


  3. i like the photo you chose for the blog. pretty girl, cables, capitalism, socialist buildings..

    1. I like the photo more every time I see it. So Buchurest :).

    2. So do I! Taken by a young genius called Davin Ellicson, an American who loves Bucharest.

  4. Sounds like a book I must get my hands on somehow! As you know, I love the Victorian travel genre. I've read Lear's book on his travels in Albania but this one sounds more down to earth.

    1. Here is it for free, Kim. http://www.amazon.com/Albania-A-narrative-recent-travel-ebook/dp/B00AQMJ26U

      I bought Lear's book, illustrated in Berat in 2008, and intend to read it now. I once skimmed Disraeli's account of his journey. That was thirty years ago!

  5. Are you upper middle class ?

  6. It follows that woman+pig=man, and that therefore if you take the pig out of a man you're left with a woman. Razvan Stoica