Points of view/Scanderbeg

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Clio is the most shamelessly unreliable of the Muses. She selects her favorites with the autocratic partiality of the Russian Catherine, decorates them with questionable honors, enriches them with other people's spoils, admires them to her heart's content, and thrusts them serenely to the front to receive the approbation of the world. Occasionally she wearies of one or the other, and flings him lightly down from the pedestal he has adorned so bravely. Occasionally, having a fine feminine sense of humor, she is pleased to play with our credulity, and, dressing up a man of straw, she assures us smilingly that he is real flesh and blood, and worthy of our sincerest admiration. And all this while, her best and noblest meet with stiffly measured praise, and her strong sons are passed indifferently by. It is at least amusing to think of the relative positions occupied by the true mountaineer Scanderbeg, and the mythical mountaineer William Tell. The one sleeps unremembered with scanty, hard-won fame; the other carries such a weight of laurels that poets, wearied with singing his praises, have been driven in despair to sing the praises of those who praise him, as Coleridge piped to the Duchess of Devonshire,—

"Splendor's fondly fostered child,"

because, in a moment of mild enthusiasm, she addressed some well-meant but highly inefficient verses to the platform from which Tell did not shoot the tyrant Gessler.

If the heroic struggle for a national life is at all times the most engrossing picture the world's history has to show us, where shall we look for a more vivid illustration of the theme than in the long and bitter contest between cross and crescent, between the steady, relentless encroachment of the Turkoman power, and the vain and dauntless courage which opposed it? The story of the early Ottomans is one of wasteful and inexorable conquest, unrelieved by any touches of humanity, or any impulses towards a higher civilization. To the ferocious and impetuous pride of the barbarian they added an almost inconceivable wariness and patience; they knew when to wait and when to strike; they were never unduly elated by victory, and never demoralized by defeat. That strange dream of their founder Othman which won for him his Cilician wife, the mysterious vision of the full moon resting in his bosom, and of the stately tree that sprang therefrom, must have dimly hinted to the savage chief of the glory that was to be. When in his sleep he placed Constantinople as a jewel upon his swarthy finger, he felt the coming of shrouded things, and, believing the prophecy would be fulfilled in his descendant, he saluted his bride as the mother of a mighty race of kings. It was this firm conviction of future greatness which made him seek for his son Orchan a fairer and nobler wife than could be found in the black tents of his followers; and, true to the instincts of his race, he despoiled an enemy to enrich his own hearth. A Greek captain, in command of the castle of Belecoma, was betrothed to the beautiful daughter of a neighboring Christian chief. On their marriage night Othman surprised the wedding party as they rode through the dark mountain passes. The short and desperate conflict which ensued could have but one bitter ending. "The bridegroom was slain, and his Greek bride, the Lotus-flower of Brusa, was swept off by the Turkoman robbers to their lair, to become the spouse of their leader's son."[1]

Orchan was a mere boy when he received this ravished prize, the fair booty of a barbarous strife. Fifty years later, when hair and beard were white with age, he married again; and this time his bride was the daughter of a Christian emperor, not stolen away from friends and kindred, but given to him publicly with superb ceremonies, and a ghastly mockery of rejoicing. In fifty years the Ottoman power had grown into such fierce and sinister lustihood that Theodora, daughter of the Emperor Cantacuzene, was assigned as a precious hostage and seal of friendship between her father and his dreaded Turkish ally. The church refused her blessing to this unholy sacrifice, and, amid the pomp and majesty of imperial nuptials, there was lacking even the outward form of Christian marriage. From that date the tide of Turkish conquest spread with devastating rapidity. The impetuous encroachments of Orchan, the steady and irresistible advances of Amurath, became under Bajazet a struggle for life and death, not with the enfeebled powers of Greece, but with a rival conqueror who had swept from the broad Tartar steppes to subdue and lay waste the Eastern world. Eight dynasties had already been destroyed, eight crowned heads had been laid low, when Timour, grimly ready for a ninth victim, encountered the hitherto invincible sultan. They met, and Bajazet, who had seen the flower of French and German chivalry perish at his command, who had sat at his tent-door to witness the day-long massacre of Christian prisoners, and who had shadowed the very walls of Constantinople,—Bajazet was crushed like a worm by the lame, white-haired old Tartar, and, eating out his heart with dull fury, died in shameful captivity. But his race survived, vigorous, elastic, defiant, and renewed its strength with amazing swiftness under Mahommed the Restorer and Amurath the Second, whose reign was one long conflict with the Greek Emperor Manuel, with Sigismund of Hungary, and, hardest of all to subdue, with those warlike Sclavonic tribes who, often defeated but never conquered, maintained with superb courage the freedom of their mountain fastnesses. It was an unknown Servian soldier who slew Amurath the First in the very moment of his triumph; it was the Albanian chief Scanderbeg who repulsed Amurath the Second, and hurled him back to die, shamed and heart-broken, at Adrianople.

Pride of race, love for his native land, shame at prolonged captivity, and fury at heaped-up wrongs,—all these conflicting passions united themselves in the breast of this implacable warrior, and urged him relentlessly along his appointed path. He was the outcome of that ruthless policy by which the Turks turned the children of the cross into defenders of the crescent, a policy pursued with almost undeviating success since Black Halil, a century and a half before, had urged the training of Christian boys into a school of Moslem soldiers. What gives to the history of Scanderbeg its peculiar significance, and its peculiar ethical and artistic value is the fact that he avenged, not only his own injuries, but the injuries of countless children who, for over a hundred and fifty years, had been snatched from their homes, families, and faith to swell the ranks of an infidel foe. Wherever the tide of Ottoman battle raged most fiercely, there, savage, dark, invincible, stood the Janissaries, men suckled on Christian breasts and signed with Christian baptism, now flinging away their lives for an alien cause and an alien creed, fighting with the irresistible courage of fanaticism against their birthright and their kindred. Never before or since, in the history of all the nations, has a system of proselytizing been attended with such tremendous results. The life-blood of Christendom was drained to supply fresh triumphs for its enemies, and the rigorous discipline of a monastic training moulded these innocent young captives into a soldiery whose every thought and every action was subordinate to one overpowering influence, an austere, unquestioning obedience to the cause of Islam.

With the example of this extraordinary success always before their eyes, it is little wonder that the Turks regarded the children of the vanquished as so many docile instruments to be fashioned by rigid tutelage into faithful followers of the Prophet, and the first step towards this desired goal lay in their early adoption of the Mohammedan faith. No pang of pity, no sentiment of honor, interfered with this relentless purpose. When John Castriota, the hereditary lord of Croia, yielded up his four sons as hostages to Amurath the Second, he relied on the abundant promises made him by that sovereign, who had, on the whole, a fair reputation for keeping his royal word. The lads were carried to Adrianople and reared in the sultan's palace, where one at least of the little prisoners attracted dangerous notice by his vivacity and grace,—inheritances, it is said, from his beautiful mother, Voisava. The fair-haired boy, then only eight years old, became first the plaything of the seraglio, and afterwards the jealously guarded favorite of Amurath himself. He was carefully taught, and was forced to conform to the ceremonial rites of the Ottomans, and to make an open profession of his new creed, receiving on this occasion the name of Scanderbeg, a name destined to carry with it a just retribution in the universal terror it excited. How much of Christian belief still lingered in the child's soul, or how much he gained afterwards from the Albanian soldiers who had access to him, it is impossible to say. Young as he was, he had learned, amid the unutterable treachery and corruption of an Eastern court, to hide his emotions under an impenetrable mask, so that even Amurath, cruel, wily, and suspicious, found himself baffled by this Greek boy, whose handsome face betrayed to none the impetuous anger that consumed him. At nineteen he had command of five thousand horsemen, and enjoyed the title of pasha, a barren honor for one soon to be robbed of his birthright. After the close of the Hungarian war John Castriota died, and Amurath, ignoring his plighted faith, seized Croia in the name of the captive princes, ruthlessly extinguished its civil and religious liberties, turned the churches into mosques, and treated the whole country as a defeated and dependent province. Scanderbeg's three brothers were conveniently removed by poison; he himself, the object of a curious affection on the sultan's part, was watched with jealous and exacting eyes, and for a while it seemed as though the free-born mountain chief would add one more to the long list of Turkish proselytes and favorites, silenced with doubtful titles, bought with dishonorable wealth.

But it was a time of waiting, a time ominous with delay. The heir of Croia, mute, patient, and resolved, bided with steady self-control the hour when he could strike a single blow for faith and freedom. It came with the breaking out of fresh Hungarian troubles: with the defiance sent by John Hunyadi and his forces drawn up on the banks of the Moravia. While the Ottoman armies were engaged in this most disastrous conflict, Scanderbeg threw off his long-endured disguise, possessed himself by an unscrupulous device of his native city, and put all who opposed him to the sword. From that day until his death, forty years later, the record of his life is one perpetual heroic struggle to preserve the hard-won liberty of Epeiros, a struggle without intermission or relief, without rest for the victor or pity for the vanquished. His scornful indifference to pressing dangers was in itself the best of tonics to a people naturally brave, but taught by bitter experience to fear the inexorable Turkish yoke. Scanderbeg feared nothing; with him, indeed, fear was swallowed up in hatred. He understood perfectly the nature of the warfare in which he was engaged; he knew that, with adroitness and vigilance, every dark pass and every rocky crag became his friend and ally. He knew, too, the slender resources of the country, and never committed the mistake of taking more men into the field than he could manage and support. When Amurath sent an army of forty thousand soldiers to punish Croia, and bring back the rebel chief "alive or dead" to Adrianople, Scanderbeg limited his own forces to seven thousand foot and eight thousand horse, when he might, had he chosen, have trebled that number. With this compact body of picked and hardy warriors he lay in wait for the enemy, entrapped them by a feigned retreat into a narrow defile, and, hemming them in on either side, filled up the valley with their slain. Over twenty thousand Turks perished in that dreadful snare, many of them being trampled down by their helpless and panic-stricken countrymen. It was Scanderbeg's first decisive victory, and a grim warning to Amurath of the possibilities that awaited him in the future. It gave to Croia a breathing spell, and to its victorious army the rich spoils of an Ottoman camp, so that those who had gone forth meagrely on foot returned well armed and bravely mounted to their rock-built citadel.

Had this sudden and bewildering success been followed up by a vigorous aggressive warfare on the part of Servia, Hungary, and Poland, then all in arms against their common foe; had the allied powers listened to the mountain chiefs, or to the burning remonstrances of Cardinal Julian, the pope's legate, the Turks might have been driven forcibly back from Europe, and long centuries of suffering and dishonor spared to Christendom. But the lord of Servia, George Brankovich, yearned for his children whom Amurath held as hostages; Ladislaw, king of Hungary and Poland, was weary of the perpetual strife; even Hunyadi's fiery voice was silenced; and a treaty of peace was signed with an enemy who might then, and then only, have been crushed. This treaty, shameful in itself, was still more shamefully broken in the following year, when the Christian hosts again took the field, only to be utterly routed in the terrible battle of St. Martin's Eve. Never was disaster more complete: Ladislaw's severed head, borne on a pike over the Ottoman ranks, struck terror and despair into the hearts of his followers; Hunyadi, after a vain, furious effort to redeem this ghastly symbol of defeat, fled from a field red with his countrymen's blood; the papal legate and two Hungarian bishops perished in the thickest of the fray. It was the beginning of the end, and four years later the cause of Christendom received its deathblow at Kossova, when Hunyadi, beaten finally back from Servia, was taught by the bitterness of defeat that his name no longer sounded ominously, as of old, in the ears of his Moslem foe. Only Scanderbeg remained unsubdued amid his mountain peaks, and Amurath, flushed with conquest, now turned his whole attention to the final punishment of this audacious rebel.

The scale on which the invasion of Croia was planned shows in itself how deep-seated was the sultan's anger, and how relentless his purpose. One hundred and sixty thousand men were assembled in Adrianople, the ablest generals were united in command, and Mohammed, his savage son and successor, accompanied the expedition, filled with fierce hopes of vengeance. Resistance seemed almost vain, but Scanderbeg, in no way disturbed by the coming storm, prepared with characteristic coolness to meet it at every point. He ordered all who dwelt in the open country or in unprotected villages to destroy their harvests and to quit their homes, so that the enemy might find no resources in the scorched and deserted fields. The women and children, the aged and infirm, were sent either to the sea-coast or out of the kingdom, many of them as far away as Venice. The fortifications of Croia were repaired; the garrison was strengthened and put under command of a brave and able governor, and Scanderbeg himself, with only ten thousand men, took the field, ready to waylay and harass Amurath at every step of his difficult and dangerous march. The first severe fighting was done before the walls of Setigrade, a strongly guarded town which made a gallant resistance, repulsing the Turks again and again, and only yielding when a traitor, bought by the sultan's gold, poisoned the fountains which supplied the city with water. From this point the invading army marched on to Croia, covered the surrounding plains, planted their cannon—then an imposing novelty in warfare—before its massive gates, and summoned the garrison to surrender. A defiant refusal was returned; the Ottomans stormed the walls, and were repulsed with such fury that over eight thousand Janissaries perished in the combat, while Scanderbeg, poised like an eagle on the cliffs, waited until the battle was at its height, and then sweeping down on the unconscious foe, forced their trenches, fired the camp, and drove all before him with terrible havoc and slaughter. By the time Mohammed could rally his scattered forces, the Epeirots were off and away, with little scathe or damage to themselves; and this exasperating method of attack was the weapon with which the mountain chief finally wore out the courage and endurance of the invaders. Every inch of ground was familiar to him, and a snare to his enemies. Did Mohammed, burning with rage, scale the hills in pursuit, a handful of men held him at bay; while Scanderbeg, appearing as if by magic on the other side of the camp, chose this propitious moment for an attack. By day or night he gave the enemy no truce, no respite, no quarter. Two hours out of the twenty-four he slept, and all the rest he spent in unceasing, unwearying, unpitying warfare; until the Turks, harassed by a danger ever present but never visible, lost heart and trembled before the breathless energy of their foe. They were beginning also to suffer from a scarcity of provisions, and Scanderbeg took excellent care that this trouble should not be too speedily relieved. The supplies, brought at an immense cost from Desia, were intercepted and carried off triumphantly to the hills, and the unhappy Ottomans, starved in camp and slaughtered out of it, realized with ever-increasing dismay the unenviable nature of their position.

It must be admitted, in justice to the Epeirots, that the success of Scanderbeg's manœuvres rested exclusively on their absolute and unquestioned fidelity. Swift and sure information was brought him of every movement on the enemy's part, and vigilant eyes kept watch over every rocky pass that gave access to his haunts. For once Amurath's gold was powerless to buy a single traitor, and the systematic perfidy by which the Turks were accustomed to steal what they could not grasp failed for once of its prey. After a fruitless effort to undermine the rock on which Croia was founded, the sultan sought to corrupt first the governor and then the garrison with dazzling offers of advancement, but all the wealth in Adrianople could not purchase one poor Christian soldier. Baffled and heart-sick with repeated failure, Amurath at last offered to raise the siege and depart, on payment of a small yearly sum, a mere nominal tribute to salve his wounded pride. Even this trifling concession was sternly refused by Scanderbeg, who would yield nothing to his hated foe. Then for the first time the sultan understood the relentless nature of this man whom he had petted as a child and wronged as a boy, whom he had held a helpless hostage in his hands, and who now defied him with unutterable aversion and scorn. Abandoning himself to grief, fury, and despair, he tore his white beard, and recalled his countless triumphs in the past, only to compare them with this shameful overthrow. He who had seen the allied powers of Christendom suing at his feet, to be humbled in his old age by an insignificant Illyrian chieftain! The blow broke his proud heart, and on his death-bed he conjured his son to avenge his name and honor. Gladly Mohammed undertook the task, but the present was no time for its fulfillment. The siege of Croia was raised, the dejected Moslem army straggled homewards, cruelly harassed at every step by their unwearied foe, and Scanderbeg once more entered his native city amid the acclamations of a brave people, born again to freedom, and wild to welcome their deliverer.

It is pleasant to think that, before being called a third time into the field, even this indomitable fighter found a little leisure in which to marry a wife, and to cultivate the arts of peace. Domestic tranquillity ran but a slender chance of palling on its possessor in those stirring days; but Scanderbeg made the most of his limited opportunities. He carried his bride in triumph to every corner of his little kingdom, he labored hard to restore those habits of thrift and industry which perpetual warfare roots out of every nation, and he wisely refrained from overtaxing the narrow resources of his people. When his purse was empty, he looked to his enemies and not to his friends for its replenishment; and that stout old adage, "The Turk's dominions are Scanderbeg's revenues," is a sufficient witness to his admirable financiering. He realized fully that the legacy of hate bequeathed by Amurath to Mohammed would bear bitter fruits in the hands of that fierce and able monarch, and so employed every interval of peace in strengthening himself for the struggle that was to follow. Twice again during his lifetime was Epeiros invaded by the Ottomans; and Scanderbeg, driven from his lair, was hunted like a deer from hill to hill, now lying in covert, now fiercely resisting, but unconquered always. Wily offers of friendship from the sultan were received with a not unnatural suspicion, and courteously declined; hired assassins were detected, and delivered up to a prompt and pitiless justice. For forty years this Albanian soldier defended his mountain eyrie from a power vast enough to destroy two empires, and cruel enough to make the whole Eastern world tremble. Constantinople fell, while Croia stood unharmed. The last news brought to Scanderbeg, as he lay dying at Lyssa, was that the Turks had invaded the Venetian dominions. The feeble warrior raised himself in bed, and called for his sword and armor. "Tell them," he gasped, "that I will be with them to-morrow," and fell back fainting on his pillows. On the morrow he was dead.

  1. The Early Ottomans, by Dean Church.