Coronation of Abdul Hamid.
[Authorities: As before, also Kinglake, "The Crimean War"; Bliss, "Turkey and the Armenian Atrocities"; Stevens, "With the Conquering Turk"; Hidden, "The Ottoman Dynasty."]
Two generations have passed since the death of Sultan Mahmud, and his tottering empire still lives. It is indeed, far stronger in our day than it was in his. The credit of this, if credit it be, must be given to the Western Powers of Europe. Many critics, however, insist that the efforts of England and France have only temporarily galvanized the dead body of the Turkish Empire, which cannot long retain even this faint semblance of life.
In 1839 the Powers interfered to prevent the rebellious Mehemet All from marching for the second time against Constantinople. When he resisted their decree, English ships bombarded his ports and soon forced him to submission. The East, admitting itself crushed and helpless, was taken wholly under Western tutelage. Sultan Abdul Mejid (1839-1861), who succeeded his father Mahmud upon the throne, consented to be modernized. His subjects no longer offered objection.
To Abdul, a dreamy, idle-minded, impracticable man, the change consisted mainly in wearing European clothes, importing a Parisian tailor, and falling into all the elegancies and extravagances of the French. His suite followed his example; it was a new game and they were charmed with it. They readily learned to talk the shibboleth of government reform, and their western mentors, highly pleased, accommodated them with large national loans to be employed upon the work of reorganizing the empire. Little real reform was attempted. Talk was so much simpler; and the easily acquired money was lavishly spent upon the pleasures of the court. The Sultan acquired a taste for draperies and decorations, and the inmates of his harem were bejewelled in a way that recalled the days of Ibrahim. Taxes were heavily increased, but of course it was all in the interests of "reform," and the Sultan issued the much-lauded hatti-scheriff, or proclamation of Gulhana, assuring his subjects that their government had become and would continue to be the most enlightened in the world.
His western friends asked for treasury reports showing what had been done with the funds they had supplied, what definite progress had been made in the good work. The Ottoman officials obligingly invented a series of replies, not taking the trouble to make actual count of what they or their friends or the Sultan might have squandered in thoughtlessness, but putting down whatever figures they thought would be most pleasing to this kind-hearted Europe. In fact so wholly ignorant of what might come after, so blindly indifferent to the future, were these children of the East, that when the chief minister of finance was gently reproved for printing off several million dollars more of bank notes than he had money to redeem, he replied in surprise that the Sultan had asked him for more notes, and he saw no objection to printing them since the press was already in operation!
The Turkish parliament of 1876.
In this opium dream of pleasure, the Turkish officials would gladly have continued forever. It was interrupted by Russia. Her leaders do not forget; they have Constantinople ever before their eyes. Moreover the government of the Czar and also that of Austria were directly antagonized by the refusal of the Turks to surrender Kossuth and the other fugitive rebels who fled to them for shelter after the overthrow of Hungary in 1849. This alone was scarce cause for war; but the increase of taxes in the Christian provinces of Turkey brought murmurings of which Russia became the voice. She declared herself the protector of all Christians within the Moslem empire; she demanded reforms on their behalf. Abdul Mejid, encouraged by his western allies, refused to admit Russia's right to interfere, and once more the armies of the Czar invaded Turkish territory (1853).
The Turkish navy was easily destroyed at Sinope, but the new Moslem army created by Selim and Mahmud displayed unexpected powers of resistance. The Russians were repelled from the Danube. England and France hasted to the aid of their ward; and the aggressive war, which Russia had planned to make a repetition of that of 1828, became for her a struggle of defense. England and France assailed her in the Crimea. The Turks drew back and let their kind friends fight for them, and by the treaty of peace of 1856, a portion of the territory beyond the Danube was taken from Russia and restored to its former possessors.
Could the delighted Sultan have held his own subjects in check, he might nave found no further trouble, but it was impossible to convince the common Turk that his Christian servants, his slaves, his rayahs, whom he had treated for centuries with contempt, were really on an equality with himself. This equality the Western Powers insisted upon. Abdul Mejid readily admitted it in theory and proclaimed another hatti-scheriff abolishing among his subjects all distinctions based on religion or race. This encouraged the Christians to assert themselves a little in various places, and where they did so the indignant and insulted Moslems massacred them.
Reports of these slaughters began to reach the West. They roused protest and ever-increasing horror. The easy-going Sultan undoubtedly did his best to check these annoyances to his good friends; but his efforts amounted to little and he died in 1861.
Turkish troops crossing the grecian frontier.
His successor, his son Abdul Aziz (1861-1876), was a man of different stamp, a Moslem fanatic, stiff and fierce, who fawned a little where he must, but in secret approved and encouraged these massacres. He saw that the Christian subjects of the empire, once slavish and submissive, had become changed, were inspirited almost to the point of rebellion. If they could only be exterminated in a body, his realm would be far stronger to resist the Christian Powers beyond. So the slaughter increased, the oppression grew dark and hideous. Rebellion after rebellion sprang up in Bosnia, in Montenegro, in Crete. Russia was accused of instigating these in her own interests. The bewildered Powers of the West seeing their promising pupil fallen into such evil ways, knew not what to do. They threatened, they demanded reforms. Abdul Aziz promised these, and having thus lulled his mentors into inaction, was able to suppress the Christian uprisings. But the reforms failed to follow. The massacres went on.
In 1874, the Christians of Herzegovina were driven to desperate revolt. The flame spread to Bulgaria and thence to all the Balkan States. Many peaceful Turks met cruel death from the sudden savage revenge of their ancient victims. Encouraged by Russian promises, the Christians declared bitterly that they would die to the last man sooner than submit longer to Turkish oppression.
Meanwhile the financial difficulties of the government at Constantinople had reached a climax. Abdul Aziz had acquired a taste for building palaces, on which he squandered enormous sums. He had travelled with Oriental magnificence through Europe, being the first Ottoman Sultan who ever left his own domains except in war. From this venture amid western civilization the Sultan returned unenlightened, and only more ferocious and fanatical than before. He readily seized at an expedient proposed to him for escaping all financial worry, declared his government bankrupt (1875), and repudiated all its debts to the Western Powers.
Here was a crash indeed! England and France defied; the Balkans in revolt; Moslems and Christians massacring each other; the Sultan raging furiously at home! The Turkish officials knew not what to do, and then followed one of those obscure tragedies of the seraglio, whose exact details we may never know. Sultan Abdul Aziz disappeared, perhaps he abdicated, at any rate he was dead, and his nephew, Murad V, was proclaimed Sultan. The lad, who had once been intellectual enough, was now found to be an imbecile. What horrors had he passed through at his uncle's death? What had he endured? The Turks do not speak of these things. Murad was soon seen to be incapable of reigning, and his younger brother, the present Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, was made ruler in his stead (1876).
Meanwhile the Balkan rebellion had been almost crushed by Turkish armies; but the atrocities committed by the aroused and infuriated Moslems compelled Europe to interfere. The Porte was ready with promises, but these were no longer trusted. The new Sultan even went so far as to proclaim a complete revolution in the traditional form of Turkish government. He announced that his people were to rule, and summoned a parliament imitated upon those of Western Europe. The Powers, however, refused to be blinded any further, and the purely nominal "parliament" soon disappeared when Europe continued to insist upon effectual reform in the Christian provinces. The Powers demanded that these reforms should be placed under their supervision. This was refused, and Russia stepped forward as usual, eager to become the agent of the other Powers and enforce Turkish obedience. Then followed the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78.
Again as in 1853 the Ottoman troops displayed unexpected powers of resistance. They found an able general in Osman Pasha and for months held back the Moscovites at Plevna. The fortress surrendered at last, and in midwinter the Russians mastered the dangerous passes of the Balkans and crossed to the plains beyond. Adrianople was captured, the Turkish armies utterly dispersed, and under the very walls of Constantinople the Russians dictated terms of peace. Even the most ignorant and most obstinate of the European Osmanli could no longer believe in the invincibility of their nation.
England, intervening once more in Turkey's favor, made the terms less severe upon her and less profitable to Russia than they would otherwise have been. But all the Balkan States became practically independent, and Turkey in Europe was reduced to the territory it holds to-day.
Sealing the dinner of Abdul Hamid II
Twenty years followed of what we are assured was real reform. Then came the Greco-Turkish war, insisted upon by Greece in opposition to the mandate of Europe. The Turkish government shrewdly placed itself under the direction of the Powers, and these, having done everything possible to restrain the excited Greeks, felt compelled to permit Turkey to defend herself. Instantly her armies sprang forward with a vigor of action and excellence of discipline that astonished her sponsors. Here was no despicable force! The soldiers, stirred to their ancient religious enthusiasm, charged bravely forward shouting "Allah! Allah!" and paying no heed to the comrades who fell around them. They swept back the Greek army like crumpled paper; and then with rare self-restraint, when the Powers stretched forth interposing hands, the Turks stopped. They surrendered their conquests and peace was made (1898).
Since then the long-persisting "Eastern Question" has assumed new phases. The Sultan in his old age has become afraid of everything, suspicious of everyone. From his retirement in his favorite palace of Yildiz Kiosk, he peeps out upon the world in terror. Every dish that reaches his table is first examined and tested for poison by experts whose own lives hang upon the issue. Of what happens in the outer world of Turkey, he receives little information, and that little reaches him in garbled form. Asiatic missionaries in Syria and Armenia warn us that massacres of Christians still continue. The Sultan denies this, or belittles it. Apparently in good faith, he investigates the reports and strives to control his people.
Yet surely the end of all this evasion and procrastination is near. Russia reaches out her hand toward Constantinople. England still intervenes, and will not allow too severe a chastisement to fall upon "the unspeakable Turk!" Perhaps in his new strength, he intends to resort once more to armed resistance. In the fall of 1905, the ever-continuing tumult and bloodshed in Macedonia led the Powers to unite in insisting that the financial administration of the region should be placed in their hands. The Porte evaded this further surrender of its authority, until threats were employed, and cities seized by a European fleet. The final issue between East and West cannot be much longer delayed.