Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The Montenegrins

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The tiniest member of the European community of nations, so insignificant as to be forgotten in peace-time, has just now become famous. The Montenegrins, always ready to seize hold of their weapons, and find occasion for vindicating old claims and avenging past injuries, are again at war with the Porte. Without venturing upon the troubled ground of politics, or guessing at the issue of that contest, we may pick a few facts in illustration of their character out of the note-books of Sir Gardner Wilkinson, M. Kohl, and other travellers.

They are a rough, uncouth, almost barbarous set of men; in their temper exactly harmonising with the rugged nature of their residence. The country is an extended surface of small hills and valleys, with here and there a loftier eminence jutting up. Sometimes the mountains are steep and smooth like glaciers: often the valleys are traversed by rapid torrents. So rocky is the whole place that the inhabitants have made up a queer story to account for the peculiarity. When God, they say, was traversing the newly-made world, and apportioning stones to the different parts, the bag in which the stones were kept burst as He passed over Tzernagora, and, in consequence, they all fell there.

The district, situated in the north-west portion of Turkey, and hemmed in by the Turkish provinces of Herzogovina, Bosnia and Albania, is scarcely larger than our English county of Kent, and not altogether unlike it in shape. It measures some sixty miles in length and thirty or thirty-five in breadth. It gets its name of Black Mountain—for so the Venetian word, Montenegro, and the native word, Tzernagora, both signify—from the dark pine forests which once almost covered it, and of which traces still exist. Five centuries ago, before the unwieldy structure was broken in pieces by the Mussulmans, it formed part of the Slavonic empire of Servia. But while the Turkish nation was growing up, and spreading its roots in the parts all round them, the hardy little people of the Black Mountain could never be brought under subjection. Ever since that time, they have been always at feud—generally at open war—with their angry enemies, and a most intense, unwavering hatred has been maintained between the two races. In the late Russian war this animosity overcame their partiality for the English, and led them at once to take part against the allies of the Turks.

Till very recently the chief power has been vested in the bishop. The present governor, or Vladika, however, Prince Daniel, is a layman, the change having been considered expedient, in order that, by marrying, he may have children who can form a regular dynasty, and thus avoid the squabbles of an election at each vacancy. In the year 1712, fearing to rely solely on their own strength, the people placed themselves under the protection of Russia, Peter the Great being then Czar, an alliance which was encouraged both by affinity of race and by communion of religion; for the Montenegrins are zealous Christians belonging to the Greek Church, a fact which naturally heightens the opposition of the Turks.

Though nominally governed by Vladikas, these officers have very little real power. In the senates of the chiefs, the answer to every proposal is: “Be it as thou wishest, Vladika!” and there the submissiveness ends. Each man does as is right in his own eyes. The two Vladikas who preceded the present one made great efforts, and with some success, to secure order by instituting correct systems of trial for offences. But all attempts are rendered very difficult by the strong prejudice against bringing any one to justice. If a man is wronged, it is thought that he must revenge the injury with his own hand. It is the most sacred duty of the eldest son to avenge the murder of his father. If he is too young to set about the work at once, he is instructed to regard himself as a divinely appointed minister of retribution. Unless he is an infant, in which case the mother acts as his proxy, the widowed parent holds before the boy his father’s blood-stained clothing, and makes him swear in the presence of his kinsmen and a priest, that he will seek before everything to punish the murderer. The garment, or any other relic that is procurable, is then hung up as a lasting memento of the unrequited wrong. In 1851, when M. Kohl was travelling through the country, a little fellow was brought up as a witness in a trial before an Austrian court, when the following dialogue took place:

The Judge asked, “What is your name?”

“Savva Markovich,” was the answer.

“How old are you?”

“Seven years.”

“Who is your father?”

“Marko Gregorovich: he is no longer alive.”

“When did he die?”

“He did not die.”

“How so?”

“He was murdered. We all know it. He was murdered by Spiro Jurovich, from Saroschi; and when I am a man I will shoot Jurovich.”

“Stop, stop, my little man. How can you think of such a dreadful thing? who put it into your head?”

“Oh! yes: I will kill Spiro Jurovich. I must do so. My uncle, the priest, Peter Gregorovich, has told me so. I will shoot him with the rifle that hangs in my uncle’s room. When I am a man my uncle will give me the rifle, that I may avenge my father, and punish his murderer.”

Nor is the necessity of blood-revenge confined to cases of bloodshed. Another incident was brought under the notice of the same traveller. A pretty girl had been long affianced to a young man; but the marriage was deferred owing to his poverty. Things were in this state, when another youth, wealthier than the former, came to live in the village. Before long, having succeeded in drawing off the girl’s affections, he made her his wife. For a while, the insulted youth took no steps to gain redress, probably thinking himself happily rid of the money-loving lady. However, he found that everybody avoided him; his relations looked black at him, and even whispered audible reproaches. Then, one day, it was noised abroad, that the stranger had been found dead in his garden. Suspicion at once fell on the young man who had been wronged. He was apprehended and brought up for trial; but, no evidence being forthcoming, was speedily released. Abundant testimony existed; but it was kept back by the relations of the deceased, who were loth to have the luxury of retaliation snatched from them. It is in ways like these that feuds start up, and grow from generation to generation.

But the chief outlet for their ferocity, or rather, perhaps, the secret cause of their lawlessness at home, is to be found in their continual struggle with the Turks. Liable to an inroad at any moment, it is necessary that all the men should be skilled in arms. Out of a population of about 120,000, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 armed men might be collected in the course of a few hours, and that this number could be increased by the addition of old men and boys. In cases of emergency, even the cripples are borne on the backs of women and lodged behind bits of rock, whence they can load and discharge their guns. None of these, however, can be considered regular troops. At the moment of extreme peril they waive their jealousies and obey their officers, but at other times they have no law but their own will. Being inured to privations, they perform with ease and alacrity very long and forced marches. They do not scruple to use their long rifles as leaping-poles, and so are able to cross wide ditches and scramble up steep rocks, which would greatly impede more disciplined soldiers. On foot, they can pursue the enemy with almost as much rapidity as a body of cavalry. When he is marching towards them, they conceal themselves in ravines, and send out small parties, who advance a little and then feign a retreat, until he is enticed into the ambush. Here they surround him and fight, chiefly with their broad-swords, much more like the heroes of Homer’s time than modern Christians, each man relying solely on his own strength, and following pretty much his own way. Their favourite time of attack is the night, that suiting best for surprises. When they meet a foe in pitched battle, they rush furiously into the squares, and, if they do not succeed in destroying the ranks, they at any rate greatly discompose them by their rapid manœuvres.

No one can ever expect mercy at their hands: they take prisoners only those who yield before battle; all the rest have their heads cut off on the spot. A story is told of two Austrian riflemen whose corps was worsted in an engagement with the Montenegrins in 1840. Being detached from their comrades, and seeing no other chance of escape, they threw themselves on the ground and pretended to be dead. Some of the enemy at once approached them, and cut off the head of the nearest one of the two. The other, “finding it no use to be dead,” started up and rushed down the precipices, running as he never ran before. In the battle of Grahovo, fought three years ago, Mirko, the commander-in-chief, and brother of Prince Daniel, wrote to tell him that out of the Turkish army of 13,000, 7000 heads were felled. “It was a terrible spectacle,” says a Russian officer, an eye-witness of their mode of combat in former instances, “to see them rushing forward, with the heads of their slaughtered enemies suspended from their necks and shoulders, and uttering savage yells.” These heads serve as trophies of the prowess of their possessors.

Sometimes the women are as fierce as the men, as this popular song will show. It will serve, at the same time, as a specimen of the literature of the people, which consists almost entirely of war ballads and heroic songs:

“An outlaw lamented on the mountain: ‘Poor Stanisha! Acurst am I who have let thee fall unavenged;’ and in the valley of Zusa, the wife of Stanisha heard that voice, and knew that her husband had fallen.
“The fiery Christian woman at once seized a gun, and rushed forth, following the green path along which had come down the murderers of her husband—fifteen Turks and their leader, Chengish Aga. She discovered the Aga, fired, and killed him on the spot. The other Turks, frightened at her boldness, fled, and left her unmolested to cut off the head of their leader, which she took to her home.
“Fatima, the wife of Chengish, wrote to the widow of Stanisha: ‘Christian woman, thou didst tear out both my eyes when thou killedst my husband. If thou art a true Tzernagorka, thou wilt come to-morrow<!—see list of hyphenated words --> alone to the frontier, where, also alone, I will meet thee, that we may see which will approve herself the worthiest wife.’
“The Christian woman put away her female garments, and clad herself in man’s attire, in the garments of Chengish. She took his sword, his pistol, his splendid rifle; and, mounted on his prancing steed, she sped along the paths of Zusa. As she passed by each rock she cried: ‘If a brother lie here in ambush, kill me not; I am not a Turk—I am a child of the Black Mountain.’
“Arrived at the frontier, she found that the faithless Turkish woman had brought with her her husband’s brother, who, riding a great black steed, rushed madly on the young Christian woman: but she awaited him without fear, sent a sure bullet through his heart, and then cut his head from his body.
“She then pursued Chengish’s widow, bound her, and led her captive to her home, where she was obliged to rock asleep the orphan children of Stanisha. When she had served her thus for fifteen years, she sent her back to her own people.”

As might be expected, the arts of peace are not much cultivated by a people thus habituated to warfare. They have nothing which can be dignified with the name of a town, but the greater portion of the inhabitants are distributed in between two and three hundred villages or hamlets. The largest of these, Tzetinie, contains about 1200 inhabitants. It is the seat of government, and can boast of the Vladika’s house, which is an oblong building two storeys high, of an extensive monastery, and of two broad streets, all being enclosed by a tolerably lofty wall. In addition to the Vladika’s residence there are a few dwelling houses, here and there scattered through the country, which are built in the English method; but the mass of houses are mere huts composed of thatch or loose uncemented stones; they sometimes contain two rooms and a loft above, but more frequently consist of only one room, which serves for a whole family to cook, receive visitors, and sleep in. Beds are scarcely known: for most the bare floor or the mountain side is sufficient sleeping accommodation. The better class of houses, however—the residences of those whom wealth and luxury have enervated—often have benches or shelves on which are placed mattresses and blankets. Smoky chimneys are nuisances unknown in Montenegro: the fire is kindled on a paved portion of the floor, and the smoke escapes by the door, or settles gracefully on the walls and roof. Two or three wooden and home-made chairs and tables, with a few portions of the trunks of trees for stools, exhaust the catalogue of their furniture.

Their diet is equally simple. We have a description, written by one who was present, of a banquet given a few years back to Prince Daniel on the occasion of his return from St. Petersburg with the ratification of his authority. The host was one of the leading men of the state, and the character of the guest and nature of the occasion indicate a far more costly and finished entertainment than usual. In a large room the visitors were first served with cold water, coffee without milk, and raki (a kind of spirit). After this a low table, extemporised with rough planks, extending the whole length of the room, was laid with a cloth and surrounded by low benches. Prince Daniel was seated at the head, and those who sat nearest him were honoured with the usual appurtenances of an European dinner-table. The guests at the other end, however, had to go shares in a few wooden plates, goblets, and spoons. Every one used his own pocket-knife, and as for forks wherein are they better than an honest man’s fingers? The first dish was lamb, stewed up with rice; the second course consisted of boiled mutton; this was followed by roast lamb and mutton, and the repast was finished with cheese. The guests then retired from the table, and discharged their muskets, saying:—“We must thank our host, or it would look as if we were not pleased with the cheer, or did not feel grateful.” Who shall say that this simple act did not express a hundredfold more genuine pleasure than the graces and toasts which attend our civic and official banquets?

It is unusual for this war-loving race to attain the natural limit of their lives; in fact, one of the greatest insults to a man is to say, “All your ancestors died in their beds.” But when they meet with no violent end, their simple mode of life promotes longevity. Colonel Vialla de Sommières says that he met with a family which comprised seven generations. There was an old man, one hundred and seventy years old; his son a hundred; his grandson eighty-two; his great-grandson sixty; his great-great-grandson forty-three; his great-great-great-grandson twenty-one; and his great-great-great-great-grandson, who had seen two years.

The Montenegrins are tall and handsome; and their natural beauty is set off by a very becoming style of dress;—full blue trousers, reaching to the knees; a red vest, and a red or green jacket, open in the front, richly embroidered, and without sleeves, with a scarlet cloak thrown over one shoulder. The women wear a sort of frock, of white cloth, reaching as far as the knees, and confined at the waist by a cornelian-studded girdle.

The males look upon war and pillage as their chief business. When not at open war, they repeatedly make little incursions on the Turkish provinces, the people of which retaliate in the same way. They spend their few intervals of peace in fishing and tillage. Most of the hard work is left to the women. It is the wife always who loads her back with the sheaves of maize, and carries them to the distant village for sale, or who trudges homeward on foot with the newly bought goods, while the better half rides easily on his mule; who collects bundles of wood, and gathers all that is needed for the house and granary, or goes forth at her lord’s bidding to get tobacco for his pipe, or powder for his rifle. It is considered unpolite for a man to speak to a visitor of his wife without apologising for introducing so vulgar a subject: and when she enters the room she has meekly to kiss his hand and that of his guest.

But, notwithstanding this mode of treatment, she is in a far better position than her sisters of the surrounding countries. She is still a Christian wife and a loved helpmate; not the toy of a harem, or the slave of a cruel master’s passions. Her honour is guarded with admirable efficiency. She is the surest protection to a band of travellers through lawless regions; and if she throws her body as a shield between any man and his antagonist, it would be the foulest crime to harm her. Any personal abuse of a man is a thousand times less an insult, than to speak evil of his mother: this is an injury which only death can repair.

Towards travellers who are not Turks the Montenegrins are always friendly. They rejoice to show kindness to strangers. When Sir Gardner Wilkinson was journeying in the interior, the poor ran out to meet him as he passed, bearing little presents of fruit, or whatever else they possessed, and always refusing remuneration. On one occasion, when he offered money, he was met by the rebuke, “This is to welcome you: we are at home; you are a stranger. If we had known you would offer to pay us, we would not have brought it.” They have, however, two modes of welcoming which did not quite please the traveller. They show their pleasure by firing volleys of powder and shot toward the visitor, as he approaches; and when expostulated with, as being likely to cause his death, they answer that life and death are in God’s hands, and that no act of theirs can bring about a man’s end a moment sooner or later than is decreed. The second objectionable feature is, that when the guest enters the house, he has to kiss every man on the mouth, while the welcomer lips of the fair sex are only applied to his hands. Who will not sympathise with Sir Gardner when he laments this barbarous inversion of the proprieties? Once he was indiscreet enough to give a piece of barley-sugar to a little child. Instantly the walls resounded with the echoes of the thank-kisses which were bestowed on him by every man of the company.

One singular custom has yet to be noticed. The shepherds sitting alone on the hill-tops have found means of communicating with each other, by adopting such a modulation of their voice as will make it audible at a great distance. The pitch is that of a deep howl, and travellers continually hear drawling sounds floating around them, which, though incomprehensible to them, are quite plain to the initiated half a mile off, and which perhaps give a full account of themselves. For not only is this practice adopted to relieve loneliness, but it has become a regular telegraphic system. If a message has to be conveyed to a distant part, it is echoed from mountain-top to mountain-top in an incredibly short time. If marauders have attacked a district, the alarm is spread all round, and in an hour or two, hundreds of armed warriors have assembled to pursue and punish the enemy. Or in peaceful times, often, the wild heroic songs of the country are repeated from voice to voice, through the quiet moonlit, starlit nights, till the whole region is filled with sounds, which, if strange and meaningless to the alien ear, are choice music to the patriot soul, or a fierce incentive to his flagging spirits.

H. F. B.