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Crimean War page 3


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The first warning of this line of conduct reached Lord John Russell on the 23rd of January, and the next day Baron Brunnow handed in a despatch, dated January 14, which disclosed the temper of the Russian Government, if not the scope of its designs. In this important document Count Nesselrode pointed out that the question had undergone a total change. The French Ambassador at Constantinople had "triumphed." Not only had " the firman, sanctioned by the Sultan's hatti-scherif, not been executed at Jerusalem," but it had been " treated with derision by his Highness's Ministers. To the indignation of the whole Greek population," continued Count Nesselrode, " the key of the Church of Bethlehem has been made over to the Latins, so as publicly to demonstrate their religious supremacy in the East." This language showed that Russia still resented vehemently the infraction of the status quo. And the subsequent language revealed a determined purpose to exact ample reparation. " The mischief then is done, M. le Baron," the Russian Minister went on, " and there is no longer any question of preventing it. It is now necessary to remedy it. The immunities of the orthodox religion, which have been injured, the promise which the Sultan had solemnly given to the Emperor, and which has been violated, require some reparation. We must labour to obtain it." And then come fierce attacks on the violent conduct of the French Government - which used the cannon as its first argument, which risked the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. The Emperor of Russia would not take that course. He desired to maintain the independence of the Sultan against foreign dictation. Ho would make " one -further, one last conciliatory endeavour; " but in order to guard against a Government which presented its least demands at the cannon's mouth - " a Government accustomed to act by surprises " - he would take precautionary measures, that is, he would move his troops up to the frontier. England was advised to dispel the panic fear of the Turks, and to bring back the French Cabinet to prudent counsels. Now, what could language of this kind mean, except that the Emperor of Russia was possessed by passion, and that he was resolved on a victory over France, or a quarrel with her? The Aberdeen Cabinet did not so read the despatch. Lord John Russell complied with the advice it contained. He wrote a soothing letter to Colonel Rose; and, through Lord Cowley, he pointed out how France had troubled the relations of friendly powers, and had used menaces to enforce demands upon the Porte. Then he informed Lord Cowley that the Government would not enter into the merits of the question; that it disapproved of threats, and still more of the employment of force; and that "both parties should be told, that if they were sincere in their professions of a desire to maintain the independence of the Porte, they ought to abstain from the employment of any means calculated to display the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. Above all, they ought to refrain from putting armies and fleets in motion for the purpose of making the Tomb of Christ a cause of quarrel among Christians." The French Government appears to have seen more deeply into the controversy, or to have known better in what directions it was going; for, on the very day when Lord John Russell was penning this letter of good counsel, M. Drouyn de Lhuys was telling Lord Cowley that he thought the time had come when " the two Governments should endeavour to arrive at a common understanding as to what their common policy should be under every contingency which might happen to Turkey;" and that "the first object should be to preserve the integrity of the Ottoman Empire." Lord John answered this overture, in the name of the Government, by saying, it was desirable that" some understanding should be arrived at between the great powers on this important subject" - a reply which was quite satisfactory to M. Drouyn de Lhuys. And at this very time, as we shall notice at more length presently, the Russian Emperor was taking most unusual steps on his side to draw England into an alliance with him to the exclusion of France. It was evidently the intention of the Aberdeen Cabinet to form no exclusive alliance with any power on the Eastern Question, but the vehemence of the Czar soon drove the English ministers closer and closer to France. Meantime it was the cue of the Russian diplomatists to talk softly and affect ignorance; and this mildness was all the more remarkable since it was accompanied by concurrent testimony that fleets were fitting out in Sebastopol and Nicolaief, and armies were concentrating a few miles from the Moldavian frontier.

The real policy of the Czar was steadily developing itself. It was on the 4th of February, 1853, that Count Nesselrode informed Sir Hamilton Seymour of the intention of the Czar to send Prince Menschikoff to Constantinople, and at the same time gave assurances that the Prince would be provided with instructions of a conciliatory nature; and that "although bred to arms," the negotiator was " animated by intentions the most pacific." A few days later Count Nesselrode again declared that the Prince's instructions, though " necessarily vague," were moderate; and he volunteered the further information, that there would be no question of attempting to regain from the Latins any privileges which they might have acquired since the year before. Subsequent events showed what this studied moderation and vagueness were intended to cover, and how the Czar was aiming at larger game than the privileges conferred by the acquisition of keys and the affixing of stars. At the same time the Russian Government, preparing for a grand coup, resolved not to prosecute further the direct negotiation with France opened at St. Petersburg, but to transact the business in hand at Constantinople. For the great conflict, the scope of which none but the Russians foresaw, all the Governments prepared. England, at the end of February, directed Lord Stratford to proceed to Constantinople by way of Paris and Vienna. The Earl of Clarendon had succeeded Lord John Russell at the Foreign Office, although the latter still remained in the Ministry. It was Lord Clarendon's duty to draw up the instructions to Lord Stratford; they were broad and wise; they left the accomplished diplomatist a large discretion; they entrusted to him the power of ordering Admiral Dundas to hold his fleet in readiness; but at this stage of the dispute, the Ambassador was not to direct the Admiral to approach the Dardanelles without positive instructions from Her Majesty's Government. Although Austria had interfered somewhat roughly between the Porte and Montenegro, she had told the British Government that she would not depart from her conservative policy in the East; and although France had thrust the Porte into so deep a peril, she had in the opening of 1853 officially stated that she regarded her interests in the East as identical with those of England, and it was everywhere given out that the two Western Powers were acting in concert. To carry out her objects in the East, France sent, as successor to M. de Lavalette, M. de la Cour, a mild diplomatist, who had none of the fiery qualities of his predecessor, and who was not likely to quarrel with Lord Stratford. The British Government believed it would be able to neutralise, by moral influence, the evils springing from the action of France and Russia, and thus, by imposing moderation on both, stave off a catastrophe involving all. But at this juncture, as Russia grew more menacing, France grew more moderate; indeed, for some time to come she hardly appears in the quarrel at all; the original question of the Holy Places fades rapidly out of sight, and a new one arises, in which the opponents are Russia and Turkey, with Lord Stratford as the supporter of the Sultan. In fact, France, supposing her ruler desired war, had no need to stir a finger, for the rage of the Czar had got the better of his judgment, and he was bent on working out his will.

Before narrating the incidents of the brief and stormy career of Prince Menschikoff at Constantinople, it is needful that we should look into the mind of his master at St. Petersburg, and take note of the ideas and prepossessions brooding therein. This we are enabled to do, because circumstances rendered it desirable, in the follow in 9 year, to publish officially the authentic records of what occurred at St. Petersburg in January and February, 1853. The Emperor Nicholas, knowing that he was about to enter upon a very hazardous policy in the East, sought, on the 9th of January, an apparently accidental meeting with Sir Hamilton Seymour, at the palace of the Grand Duchess Helen. His obj ect was to convey to Sir Hamilton his opinion how very essential it was, especially at that moment, that Russia and England should be on the best terms. "When we are agreed," he said, "I am quite without anxiety as to the West of Europe; it is immaterial what others may think or do. As to Turkey, that is another question: that country is in a critical state, and may give us all a great deal of trouble." He was about to go, when Sir Hamilton, seizing the opportunity with much tact, begged the Czar to say a few words which might tend to calm anxiety with regard to Turkey. With some hesitation the Emperor came, not exactly to the point, but very near it. He spoke of Turkey as about to fall to pieces. "The fall," he said, "will be a great misfortune, and it is very important that England and Russia should come to a perfectly good understanding upon these affairs, and that neither should take any decisive step of which the other was not apprised. But," he added, " we have on our hands a sick man - a very sick man - and it will be a great misfortune if, one of these days, he should slip away from us, especially before all necessary arrangements were made." Here was a singular revelation, and it was probably the fact that Lord Aberdeen was in office, an old friend, which made the Czar thus open his mind. Five days later the Emperor sent for the British Minister, and this time spoke out more fully. He disclaimed the dreams and plans of the Empress Catherine, but he pictured Turkey again as sinking into decrepitude, as likely to die suddenly; as likely to fall, and if to fall, to rise no more. Would it not be better, therefore, to be provided beforehand? Sir Hamilton replied that "England objected to contingent arrangements, and would not like to discount the succession of an old friend and ally." " The rule," said the Emperor, " is a good one; but the two powers must not allow themselves to be taken by surprise. Now," he continued, " I desire to speak to you as a friend and as a gentleman. If England and I arrive at an understanding in this matter, as regards the rest, it matters little to me; it is indifferent to me what others do or think. Frankly, then, I tell you plainly, that if England thinks of establishing herself one of these days at Constantinople, I will not allow it. I do not attribute this, intention to you; but it is better on these occasions to speak plainly. For my part, I am equally disposed to take the engagement not to establish myself there - as proprietor, that is to say; for as occupier I do not say. It might happen that circumstances, if no previous provision were made, if everything should be left to chance, might place me in the position of occupying Constantinople. " This was the second time of asking, and Sir Hamilton rightly thought that the British Government could not permit this overture to go unanswered. Lord John Russell, then still in the Foreign Office, replied on the 9th of February. In a masterly State paper he showed the extreme danger attending the kind of convention or understanding the Czar required, and courteously, but firmly, indicated how unfriendly - he might have said dishonest - -it would be towards the Sultan, to dispose of his provinces beforehand. Nor did he think the fall of Turkey near at hand; but he was ready to assure the Czar that England would not enter into any agreement to provide for that contingency without previous communication with His Majesty. the Czar declined to take this for an answer. Meeting Sir Hamilton at another evening party, he again repeated, this time with more emphasis, that the sick man was not only sick, but sick unto death; adding, "We must come to some understanding." He did not want a treaty or a protocol - a general understanding was sufficient among "gentlemen." Let Sir Hamilton call the next day and read the answer from his Government.

Sir Hamilton Seymour called accordingly on the 21st of February, and he has left a vivid report of the conversation which ensued. But the main point is still the same. The Emperor dwelt on the fall of Turkey as if, to use the words of the British Minister, he had " settled in his own mind that the hour, if not of its dissolution, at all events for its dissolution, must be at hand;" and he urged his project of an understanding between " the English Government and me, and me and the English Government" - on the faith of a gentleman - with singular persistence. And when Sir Hamilton remarked, " The great difference between us is this: that you continue to dwell upon the fall of Turkey, and the arrangements requisite before and after the fall; and that we, on the contrary, look to Turkey remaining where she is, and to the precautions which are necessary to prevent her condition from becoming worse " - " Ah," replied the Emperor, " that is what the Chancellor (Nesselrode) is perpetually telling me." Sir Hamilton was not surprised to hear the Czar speak scornfully of the French - he had done so before; but he was surprised to hear the Czar say, " When I speak of Russia, I speak of Austria as well: what suits one suits the other; our interests, as regards Turkey, are identical." This remark led the British Minister to surmise that Austria had entered into the engagement which England declined, and that it was the intention of the Imperial Courts to exclude France. At length, after further repetition of the idea that Turkey must fall, " the Emperor went on to say that, in the event of a dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, he thought it might be less difficult to arrive at a satisfactory territorial arrangement than was commonly believed." " The Principalities are," he said, " in fact, an independent state under my protection: this might continue. Servia might receive the same form of government. So again with Bulgaria: there seems to be no reason why this province should not form an independent state. As to Egypt, I quite understand the importance to England of that territory. I can, then, only say, that if, in the event of the distribution of the Ottoman succession upon the fall of the empire, you should take possession of Egypt, I shall have no objection to offer. I would say the same thing of Candia: that island might suit you, and I do not know why it should not become an English possession." Here, then, was a disclosure implying the kind of understanding which the Czar, as a gentleman, desired to arrive at; and it need not be said that the British Government adhered to its old views, and declined to be a party to any such understanding. But these conversations had one effect - they created in the minds of the British Ministers a baseless confidence in the honour of the Czar. Before these secret transactions closed, the Emperor, it is necessary to remark, solemnly undertook not to harass the Porte by overbearing demands, and, provided others would obey the same rule, to labour at the work of prolonging the existence of the Turkish empire. And he gave this pledge at the very moment when Prince Menschikoff was on his way to the Porte to extort, by intimidation, a secret treaty which would have laid the Turkish empire at the feet of the Czar of all the Russias.

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