II. Village life in Macedonia
6. The Daily Round of Petty Tyranny
What in practice is this relation? It must vary, of course, from village to village, but the ruling factor is always force. To begin with, few Moslem landlords possess title-deeds. They are simply "squatters," whose fathers have annexed their estates as a sequel to some local massacre. Many cases of the kind have happened within living memory. I visited one village (Treska), only two hours' ride from Uskub, which was a populous Christian community fifty years ago, where the peasants owned their own land. About the time when we were "putting our money on the wrong horse" in the Crimea, some enterprising Albanians swooped down on the place, massacred one-half of the population, settled in their cottages, and annexed the lands of the survivors. The men of the present generation hew wood and draw water for the son of the brigand of the fifties, who is now a notable magnate. He allows them one-half of the proceeds of their labour on the lands that were their fathers . The peasants are serfs without leisure, security, or rights. There are, roughly, about eighty days in the year when no good Bulgarian will do much work in his fields — Sundays and the greater saints' days. The Bey of Treska has hit on the ingenious plan of
1. There are, of course, exceptions. I have known three Albanian beys of whom even their own Bulgarian peasants spoke well. One even housed and fed his peasants for some months after their village had been burned during the insurrection by the Turkish troops. I must add that this case was unique.
forcing his peasants to work for him in his private fields on every one of these eighty days. For this work he pays no wages in money or kind, and no share of the produce is allotted to the labourer. The village policeman is the bey's retainer. Half the population of the village is now Moslem. It is exempt from this corvée, and naturally it is ready to use its arms to keep its unarmed Christian neighbours in subjection. Before I left this village, where there is no Sunday in the daily round of fruitless toil, I came on a vivid little illustration of the manner of life which its inhabitants lead. An old man, sturdily built, but clothed in rags and with the air of the driven beast, which all these peasants wear until they are given a rifle and join an insurgent band, came up to me as I was leaving the place. Thinking that I might have some medical skill, he bared his arm and showed me a nasty wound that had begun to fester. And then, with two neighbours to corroborate his tale, he told me how he had come by it. He was working two days before in his field, when a Turk in the next field summoned him peremptorily to come and help him. The Bulgarian could not well leave what he was at for the moment, and offered to come in five minutes. The Turk, incensed at this display of independence, rushed at him and stabbed him with his knife. That morning the Bulgarian had started to tramp into Uskub to have the unhealthy wound dressed. The Turk had met him in the road, and driven him back. I offered to take him to town with me, but he dared not come — I could not guarantee him against the subsequent vengeance of his enemy. The man's story was undoubtedly true — when a Bulgarian peasant lies, he does not tell dull tales like this. Here, then, was a little specimen of the daily life of Treska. I do not suppose the bey and his retainers are often obliged to use their knives. The knowledge that they can do so whenever they choose, without risk of punishment, or vengeance, is probably enough to make their mastery respected. Once in a while it may be necessary to beat, or wound, or murder, and then the old round of trivial malice, petty robbery, and vulgar lust runs its smooth course once more. The consuls hear nothing of these little
village tragedies — the stolen sheepskin coat, the hamstrung ox, the shady tree cut down, the watercourse diverted, the wife insulted, and it may be violated while the husband is in the field. They go on unmarked from day to day, and it is only when one sits down at leisure in a peasant hut, and overcomes the shyness and suspicions of the owner, that one hears of them at all. They are neither interesting nor sensational, but it is this daily domestic oppression, much more than the startling and wholesale outrages, that has ground down the peasantry of Macedonia, crushed its spirit, its intelligence, its humanity, and made it what it is to-day — a maddened race of slaves, which is ready at length to commit any crime, to suffer any torture, if only it may be rid of the little tyrants of its fields, who eat its bread, consume its labour, and destroy its soul.
The Macedonian problem is desperate mainly because it has been overlaid with abstractions. We talk of "trouble in the Balkans," of insurgent excesses, and Turkish atrocities, without realising that these occasional and startling phenomena are the product of a misery that is as constant as it is uninteresting — and unbearable. We think of Turkish misrule as an isolated and irrational fact, without comprehending that it is a highly organised and quite intelligent system, designed to promote the profit of a small minority of officials, tax-farmers, and landlords. It rests on a substantial basis of corrupt and anti-social interest. The political mismanagement is the least of all the evils it produces. The reality behind the whole muddle of racial conflicts, beyond the Chauvinism of the Balkan peoples and the calculations of the greater Powers, is the unregarded figure of the Macedonian peasant, harried, exploited, enslaved, careless of national programmes, and anxious only for a day when he may keep his warm sheepskin coat upon his back, give his daughter in marriage without dishonour, and eat in peace the bread of his own unceasing labour. All our efforts might fail to bestow upon him an ideal government. But politics are, after all, a mere fraction of life. While Servia earns the contempt of the civilised world, the Servian peasant sows in hope and reaps in peace,
keeping for winter evenings the tale of murdered forbears, and ravished
ancestors. While Bulgaria exiles her Prince, and her capital seethes with
the disquieting warfare of parties, her peasantry is for ever bringing
fresh fields beneath the plough, rid of the fears which used to paralyse
its energy and enslave its spirit. The mere business of government, the
struggles, the intrigues, the reforms which engage Parliaments and excite
the press, count for little in the tranquil round of the villager's existence.
It is the domestic tyranny of an alien dominion that affects him. To rid
him of this daily obsession will be the real emancipation.
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