II. Village life in Macedonia
1. Industry and External Conditions of the Villagers
IT was once my good fortune to obtain from the Vali of Salonica - an explanation of the Macedonian problem as concise as it was true. "It is all the fault of the Bulgarian schools," he declared. "In these nests of vice the sons of the peasants are maintained for a number of years in idleness and luxury. Indeed, they actually sleep on beds. And then they go back to their villages. There are no beds in their fathers' cottages, and these young gentlemen are much too fine to sleep on the floor. They try the life for a little, and then they go off and join the revolutionary bands. What they want is a nice fat Government appointment." The Vali succeeded in condensing in these brief and characteristic sentences the main facts of the situation, and his summary had the merit of illustrating not merely the Bulgarian, but also the Turkish standpoint. The question of beds (to adopt the Vali's formula) is at the root of the Macedonian difficulty. The motive of revolt, in other words, lies as much in the economic grievances of the peasantry as in the political aspirations of the educated class. In a land which ought to be one of the richest corners of Europe the villagers are sunk in a hopeless poverty — a poverty, moreover, which their rulers regard as their natural and predestined lot. On the other hand, there are the Bulgarian schools busily at work in every important centre and engaged in giving to thousands of teachable lads an education which would fit them for a modern and civilised society. They leave the school to plunge into the Middle Ages. There is no scope for their energy in their
native village. Official careers are closed to them, and in the long run, finding themselves unfitted for their environment, the only course which remains to them is to alter the environment itself. It is this stagnation, tempered by anarchy and varied by famine, which is the real fact behind Macedonian revolts. The massacres and atrocities on which Europe is apt to fix its attention are only the symptoms of a much graver and more chronic disorder. They are not the causes, but the consequences of revolution. If one would know why it is that the peasants acquire arms, enrol themselves in bands and expose themselves to the hazards of a general rising, one must inquire a little into the daily realities of village life.
There is nothing in the approach to the average Macedonian village to suggest poverty or distress. It is a genial climate, and the soil will grow all that the peasant need use and much that he might export. Rice flourishes in the low-lying plains. Maize has found a second home in these regions, and wheat is nearly everywhere abundant. Wine, tobacco, and opium yield a plentiful revenue; and to reach the village you must often pierce through a thick verdure of fruit trees. On the downs around it you will meet the lads of the hamlet playing on their home-made flutes of reed among a herd of sheep. In the ponds and ditches outside it hideous black buffaloes with white eyes are standing immersed in mud. Pigs tumble against your legs, the only creatures which seem quite free, since no Moslem marauder will touch them. There is an air of obtrusive untidiness, but even untidiness demands a certain quantity of gear. The houses are of mud, or in a hilly country of rough undressed stone. The roofs are carelessly thatched and everything speaks of squalor, but it is none the less a disorder which brilliant sunshine and balmy air may render picturesque. It is only when you hint that you would like to rest for a while beneath a roof that the revelation begins. The villagers, from an instinct of hospitality, will conduct you to the house of the wealthiest inhabitant; but in truth the shades of difference are imperceptible to the eyes of a stranger. Windows are often non-existent, and where they
are to be found they are excessively small. The floor is of undulating earth, and for beds there are home-made mats of straw. A three-legged stool or two and a few pots of earthenware or tin are all the property that is visible. There may perhaps be a box which contains the home-made gala dresses of the women. One by one the family flocks in, and presently it dawns upon you that in the obscurity of this single room dwell, it may be, seventeen or eighteen persons — married couples of two generations, and young children of three or four mothers. And then at length one realises the meaning of the Vali's economic theory. Late and early, winter and summer, these seventeen peasants are out in the fields, planting their maize and tobacco with scrupulous fingers, driving behind the wooden plough the old ox on whose life hangs the hope of harvest, cutting wood on the mountain leagues away, or, it may be, tramping ten miles to market to sell six eggs for threepence — and here are the fruits of their toil. The labour and the parsimony of generations, the joint work of brothers and sisters, the inheritance of a whole growing tribe of little ones — they are all represented by the mud hovel with the earthen pots and the mats of straw.
What, then, becomes of all the stolid industry of the Macedonian peasant? Watch him from your train as it creeps through the country in the grey dawn, and as soon as you can see anything you will see him faring afield with his oxen and his plough. He takes no siesta at noon, and he labours till sundown. Much of his toil no doubt is unremunerative and he can seldom reach the best market. His plough is the wooden thing which Cain may have used in Eden, and the roads that should bring his produce to town serve also as channels for the winter cataracts. But for all that, he makes much wealth which he does not enjoy. His first complaint to you will be of the tax-collector. The fiscal system of Turkey begins with a heavy indirect tax of 8 or 11 per cent, on all imports — a serious burden, since it is levied not only upon foreign produce, but even upon native merchandise transported from one Turkish province to another. It rakes in a little gain by a monopoly
of tobacco. But it presses on the peasant chiefly by direct imposts
which must be paid in cash. There are taxes on landed property, on cattle,
on sheep, and on fruit trees, tithes on every species of harvest, and a
poll-tax to which only Christians are liable, amounting to ten shillings
per annum for every male. To complete these exactions with a touch of irony,
there is also an education tax and a heavy road-tax for the maintenance
of the indescribable highways.
[Back to Index]