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Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8

Question at issue becomes European - Fleets ordered to Besika Bay- Russian Duplicity and Pretensions - The Czar and Lord Stratford - Nesselrode's "Last Effort" - Ultimatum sent to the Porte - -Attitude of England - Negotiation - Firm Resolves of the Czar - The Porte rejects the Ultimatum - The Russians cross the Pruth - The Czar's Manifesto - Protest of the Sultan - The Four Powers - Their Efforts - Austrian Mediation - Conference at Vienna - Growth of the Anglo- French Alliance - The Western Powers committed to the Defence of Turkey - Preparations of the Porte - The Four Powers frame the Vienna Note - The Czar, but not the Porte consulted - The Czar accepts, the Porte rejects the Note - Wrath of Nicholas - Anger of the Powers - Nesselrode's Interpretation of the Note justifies the Porte - Position of the German Powers - Nature of the Vienna Note Explained - Alarm at Constantinople - Precipitate Conduct of M. de la Cour - The Fleets ordered within the Straits - Royal Conference at Olmutz - Fresh Russian Scheme - Lord Stratford's Plan of a Settlement - The Porte declares War, but still names Peace Preliminaries - Summons from Omar Pasha to Prince Gortschakoff - Its Rejection - Rejection accepted as a Declaration of War.
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When Prince Menschikoff presented his ultimatum, the Eastern question underwent a complete change. Up to that moment the quarrel had been confined, first to Russia and France, next to Russia and the Porte; and the struggle, although supported on one side by the advance of armies, was still a diplomatic struggle. Prince Menschikoff's formal demand for a protectorate, the violence of his language, and his imperious request for an answer in a limited time, converted the question at once into a European question of the first magnitude.

The earliest news that the Prince had presented an ultimatum to the Porte, created a profound impression in the Courts of Paris and London, and even in the Courts of Berlin and Vienna, where Russia had so many friends. The British Government heard of it with " extreme surprise and regret." They had been wronged by the conduct of the Czar, and a strong revulsion followed from confidence to mistrust. The " gentleman " had broken his word. Count Buol, on behalf of Austria, had also received " solemn assurances," and finding how little they were worth, one link in the chain which bound Austria to Russia gave way. Baron Manteuffel, on behalf of Prussia, even so late as the 30th of May, declared himself unprepared for the news which had arrived. He, too, had been led to believe that the sole question of negotiation was that of the Holy Places; and he " wished to believe that Prince Menschikoff, who had gone beyond everything they were given to expect," had overstepped his instructions, and would be disavowed - as if disavowals were usual in Russian diplomacy! The French Government, though much moved, were less surprised and less alarmed. The first thought of M. Drouyn de Lhuys was of a contingent alliance with England - the Emperor desired it; but while there was an apparent unwillingness to act alone, and an apparent disposition to acquiesce, if Turkey acquiesced, in reality, as it afterwards turned out, the French fleet had been at the disposal of M. de la Cour ever since the 22nd of March.

The intelligence of the last violence offered to the Porte by Prince Menschikoff reached England on the 30th of May. The British Cabinet took a decisive resolution. On the 31st of May a despatch went forth from the Foreign Office, placing the fleet under Admiral Dundas at the "disposal" of Lord Stratford, to be ordered whithersoever he would, but not to be allowed to enter the Dardanelles, except on the express demand of the Sultan. Two days afterwards, by a direct order, Admiral Dundas was instructed to proceed at once from Malta to the neighbourhood of the Dardanelles; and three days later, the French Government learning this, and being desirous of acting in concert, the Emperor sent orders to his squadron to quit Salamis, and proceed to Besika Bay. It was not possible - it was not, at that stage of the question, desirable - to do more. The two fleets were placed within call of the Sultan, and the treaty of 1841 was not broken or strained.

The temper of the British Government now underwent a great change. Its trust in the Emperor Nicholas was gone. On the same day that Lord Clarendon entrusted the fleet to Lord Stratford, he wrote a despatch to Sir Hamilton Seymour, recapitulating, with trenchant brevity, those "most solemn assurances " which the Czar had given over and over again. It is a long catalogue; there are no less than sixteen distinct pledges that the question of the Holy Places, and that alone, required to be resolved. Count Nesselrode went so far as to say on one occasion, when challenged to state whether he knew of any other grievances except those appertaining to the Holy Places, that there were "none except such as might exist between any two friendly governments, and form part of the current business of every Chancery. The Emperor respected the independence of Turkey, and if his views changed, he would be the first to say so." Yet at this very time the Czar was urging on Prince Menschikoff to extort from the Porte a treaty which would have laid that independence at his feet. The "explicit, precise, and satisfactory assurances" which came day by day from St. Petersburg, were day by day proved to be worthless at Constantinople. The assurances of the Czar, and the language and acts of his minister at the Porte, were in flagrant contradiction. Count Nesselrode did not tell direct lies. He only deceived. He used language to which, in his own mind, he gave a peculiar signification, knowing, as he must have known, that it conveyed a far other meaning to the person addressed. This flagrant " discrepancy," as the British Secretary of State mildly called it, he did not fail to set forth as the ground of a demand for explanations; nor did he fail to remark that Prince Menschikoff had been supported by a display of force, with what object he desired the Russian Government to explain. At the same time Lord Clarendon distinctly informed the Russian Government that England was determined to abide by that policy which held the preservation of Turkish independence and integrity to be essential to the peace of Europe. The French Minister exhibited an equally heavy bill of indictment against Russia, and enumerated an equally imposing catalogue of broken vows.

Sir Hamilton Seymour had already confronted Count Nesselrode with his promises. Nothing can exceed the cool effrontery with which the wily old Chancellor maintained that he had concealed nothing. His language, he averred, had always pointed to the exact reparation which Prince Menschikoff had demanded, and against which the Turkish Ministry and the English Ambassador had raised such "unaccountable" objections. When it was observed that the effect of the proposed treaty would have been to make ten millions of Greeks look up to a foreign sovereign and not to their own master, he answered with ill-concealed triumph, " Have they looked for the last hundred years in any other direction? " The treaty would change nothing in the state of affairs - a confession that Nicholas already regarded himself as sovereign and the Sultan as vassal. Well might Sir Hamilton remark that "a long-cherished object" had been " sought by a tortuous path." Indeed, few finer specimens of treacherous diplomacy can be found than those which are furnished by the authentic records of the correspondence between the Czar and the British Government in the first five months of 1853.

The anger and violence of the Emperor Nicholas at his defeat were augmented by the fact that Lord Stratford was the British Envoy at the Porte. In spite of the evidence pouring in upon him from day to day, the Czar would believe that Lord Stratford, overawing the Ministers, and coercing the Sultan, had alone been the cause of the rejection of the treaty. The Czar writhed at the thought. Count Nesselrode - and in reading his words, we read, no doubt, the words of Nicholas - imputes the failure of Menschikoff to the vehemence of "the Queen's Ambassador." Lord Stratford was accused of displaying an " incurable mistrust, a vehement activity." Russia was aware of the efforts he employed with the Sultan and the Council, and how deaf he had proved to the prayers of Reschid Pasha. No; the rupture had been brought about by "passion," by "a blind obstinacy," by forcing the Porte " to brave us," by " distrust as unfounded as it was offensive." In short, the Czar believed or affected to believe, that he had suffered a moral defeat at the hands of Lord Strafford; and that he would not endure. If it were not so like the rage of an ill-tempered schoolboy, the wrath of the Czar would be sublime, so intense, so devouring were the feelings called forth by a painful delusion. It can hardly be doubted that the totally unfounded calumnies which the Czar chose to believe, gave a spur to execution of the designs he had already formed. In a certain sense, too, he had been defeated by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe; but the methods of Lord Stratford were as honourable and as straightforward as those of the Czar had been dishonourable and underhanded; not that, in so acting, he was faithful to the instructions he had received, and to the spirit of his Government.

Lord Clarendon's catalogue of Count Nesselrode's worthless promises was crossed on its way to St. Petersburg by a despatch from that Minister to Baron Brunnow, quite as insolent as any Prince Menschikoff had addressed to the Porte. It was dated June 1st, and it began by a fierce attack upon the English Ambassador. It boasted of the moderation, the conciliatory spirit of the Emperor; it professed to give a history of what had occurred, and it announced that his Imperial Majesty had determined to make a "last effort" to bring Turkey to reason. That effort consisted in the dispatch of an ultimatum to Reschid Pasha, demanding the signature of the Sultan to the obnoxious note, and granting him a week for reflection. " At the expiration of that period," wrote the Chancellor, "the Emperor will only consult the honour and dignity of Russia. He will order his troops to occupy the Danubian Principalities, which he will retain as a deposit until he has obtained the satisfaction above mentioned." England was coolly advised not to create bugbears, and contend against phantoms, and instead of urging the Porte to brave it out, the Queen's Government was ostentatiously recommended to induce the Turks "to trust to the Emperor's moderation the care of not abusing his influence." And then the fact was flaunted in the face of the British Government that all the opposition, all the marked affectation of precautions against it, could not do away with the sympathy which bound a population of fifty millions of orthodox believers in Russia to the twelve millions and more which compose the majority of the Sultan's subjects. In the most haughty style of the Russian Foreign Office, England was warned not to drive the Porte, by a policy of mistrust, to the verge of an abyss m which the moderation of the Emperor had alone prevented her from being swallowed up. This heated language, this avowal that the Czar regarded himself as the destiny of Turkey, did not open the eyes of Lord Aberdeen, did not enable him to see that the Czar was resolved, cost what it would, to have his will obeyed. Nor did the ultimatum addressed to Reschid Pasha. insolent and peremptory as it was, reveal to Lord Aberdeen the true state of the case. Declaring that the Czar had been always friendly, and generous, and moderate, and that by opposing his intentions, by showing distrust without cause, by giving refusals without excuse, a serious offence had been committed against "a sincere ally and well-disposed neighbour," Count Nesselrode had the tact to appeal, not only to the wisdom, but to the "patriotism" of the Turkish Minister, and almost ordered him to surrender without delay, under penalty of seeing a portion of the dominions of his master taken, and held as a " material guarantee!" Such was the character of the "last effort" made by this moderate, this conciliatory, this generous potentate, this " sincere ally and well-disposed neighbour," to extort from a weak power the essence of sovereignty over twelve millions of subjects!

The fiery ultimatum went on its way to Constantinople. The force to back it received fresh marching orders. Baron Manteuffel told Lord Bloomfield that Prince Gortschakoff had been appointed to command the Russian army on the frontier of Turkey; and that his horses and baggage had, on the 5th of June, already reached head-quarters. A strong force of gunboats went up the Danube to Ismail, to prepare a means of crossing the river, and the merchants at Odessa were warned to wind up their affairs. The Turks also were bent on making ready for the worst. The small squadron of Turkish men-of-war took up a position in the Black Sea mouth of the Bosphorus. A flying camp was established between the Black Sea and Kilia, and Omar Pasha was ordered to Shumla. But Varna was defenceless, and the works at the mouth of the Bosphorus were out of repair, and the guns worthless; and except the resistance which the Anglo-French fleet might offer- there was none which the navy and army of Nicholas could not overcome. The whole disposable force of the Sultan consisted of 80,000 men, mainly militia. In the face of the menacing preparations of Russia, the English Government did nothing but form a camp for 10,000 men at Chobham!

For they did not believe in the outbreak of a war. Lord Clarendon's despatches breathed of nothing but peace. The English Government could not shake off its old confidence in Nicholas, although he was in arms at the threshold of Constantinople. The policy of England, it was said, was " essentially pacific." No hostile feelings were entertained towards Russia, but every allowance was made for the difficulty m which the Emperor "had been placed" - by his own acts, in the main, the Foreign Secretary should have said. The British Government seemed to regard the threatened occupation of the Principalities as something inevitable, and while they still hoped to bring about a peaceful settlement, they did nothing and said nothing to prevent this further violation of right. It was a matter of course, that they should appeal to the German Powers, telling them that France and England, in sending their fleets to Besika Bay, and in approving of the stand made by the Porte, were actuated by the sole desire to uphold Turkish independence, and begging them, especially Austria, to exert their influence upon the Czar in favour of peace. It is strange, indeed, that the British Ministers did not see the drift and persistency of Russia; and that, from the temper of the Czar, war was so probable that they could not do too much to place themselves in a position to bear a part becoming England. Lord Stratford saw more distinctly. He told the Ministers that the master view of the Czar was to obtain a predominant influence over the counsels of the Porte, as a means of securing, if not hastening, its downfall; and he said rightly that if Turkey were to be left to struggle single-handed, the sooner the Porte were apprised of its helpless condition the better. But the British Government had taken up the weak position of desiring, almost resolving, to defend the Sultan, yet of neglecting to provide the means, lest that very act should precipitate war. And so, while they went on the road to war, by thwarting the Emperor's designs over the Ottoman Empire, they prevented themselves from making war with effect by abstaining from the smallest preparation. We beg pardon, there was the never-to-be-forgotten camp at Chobham; and the determination to have that was come to, not as a preparation for war, but as a reform in our military system!

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Pictures for Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 8

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