Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Representative men: Last champions of tribes - Cheetoo, Nana Sahib, Schamyl, Abd-El-Kader
Last Champions of Tribes.
Through all times, and all stages of civilisation, the sympathies of men of every order of mind are with the last representative of a race, nation, or tribe, against his conquerors. Whether the devoted champions of an overwhelmed people are combing their long hair in Thermopylæ, or wading through a Florida swamp, or in ambush in a cavern on Atlas, or making a lair in an Indian jungle, or holding the long bridges round Mexico against Cortez, or a pass of the Caucasus against successive Czars, the vain good wishes about events long decided, the exulting admiration and tender pity of all hearers of the story wait upon the resistants, about to be the vanquished. A handful of such heroes, out of the mass of dead generations, seem set like burning gems along the vista of human story,—the magical carbuncles of the old legend, reared aloft to shed a glow over the whole scene and time in which they lived. When our thoughts turn upon such men, we are wont to revert to history, not only because the old examples are most familiar, but because we have an unconscious impression that the time is past for the manifestation of that particular act of heroism. Such a mistake should never be made in the age in which Schamyl and Abd-el-Kader are living. The romance of human life, and of the life of nations, is not over, and never can be at an end; and whenever the age of commerce and the age of peace shall have set in, all over the world, there will no doubt be as much romance, under one form or another of human experience, as when the patriarchs were star-gazing in the Chaldæan plains, or the Romans were reaching Ultima Thule with hearts beating thick and fast under their armour.
In our own age there is certainly tragedy enough of this very kind to move all hearts to their depths: there are instances of resistance to a foreign yoke as noble as any on record. Our posterity will think so; and we may guess what they will say of us, if we do not know heroism when we see it, simply because it is modern.
As conquest is always going on somewhere or other, there would be always more or fewer such heroes before our eyes if there were not conditions through which the noble quality must be, as it were, strained, to prove and exalt its virtue. Mere resistance to an aggressor is no great matter. Almost every animal in creation is capable of it. The resistance must be sustained, deliberate, patient, honourable in its means, and patriotic in its aim, to make it heroic. It may remain a romance, and an entertaining story, if mixed up with treachery and falsehood; but its moving quality is gone. The facts then become a mere narrative, and cease to be a tragedy. We shall see this plainly enough by the shortest study of the most conspicuous Last Chiefs of our own time. I will take those only whose adventures I have myself followed, as our young generation is now following with the eye the fate of young Duke Robert of Parma and the old Pope.
When I was young, there was Cheetoo, the last of the Pindarrees. It is impossible for the most romantic to get up much sympathy for the Pindarrees. Those who like the Jack Sheppard style of literature might possibly, if their reading extend so far, get excited over the deeds of the Indian robber tribes, and fancy the leaders great heroes: but people of any cultivation can feel little beyond curiosity about tribes whose business was plunder, and cruelty their pleasure. Every year the Pindarrees assembled on the northern bank of the Nerbudda river, to the number of from ten to fifteen thousand horsemen; and thence they would part off to sweep over wide ranges of the country, seizing whatever property they could carry off, and destroying the rest. They would burn fifty villages in a day; and they subjected the inhabitants to tortures which no one would wish to tell or hear of. The tramp of their horses was listened for by ears laid along the ground, more fearfully than the first rumble of the earthquake. Their dark line far off on the plain was the signal for all who could run to fly to the mountains or hide in the jungle; and the sick and aged implored to be put to death rather than left to the tender mercies of the Pindarrees. When the freebooters bivouacked in the woods, or on the river bank, they were sure that none but wild beasts would come near them; for there was not a man, woman, or child who did not quake at the sight of their watchfires from miles off. Such were the Pindarrees that a certain Arthur Wellesley used to send home accounts of when I was young : and they had a chief who suited them exactly in the man whom we at last called “poor Cheetoo.”
Besides being a freebooter, Cheetoo was a usurper. He raised himself on the ruin of Kureem, another chief, and collected several bands under his own leadership. When Kureem got his head above water again, Cheetoo sold himself to the enemies of both, for the sake of vengeance: and thus we need not suffer from too keen a sympathy with the man. Again he got his rival’s neck under his heel, and became the chief of the last of the Pindarrees. The Company’s troops had a world of trouble with him and his force. By their swiftness, boldness, and cunning, and their knowledge of every pass and ford in the country, the marauders were always escaping when they seemed to be in a trap. When Sir John Malcolm undertook the case in 1816, their raids had become insufferable. They had inflicted horrible torture on above three thousand persons in twelve days, while plundering three hundred and thirty-nine villages. They were hunted across country, over rivers, and through forests, and separated from the Mahrattas, who had aided them powerfully. One retreat after another was broken up; and lastly Cheetoo’s. He sprang on his horse and made off; but he had only two hundred men left, and they were perpetually urging him to surrender to the English. The reason why he did not was his dread of the sea. Every Hindoo dreads a voyage more than death; and Cheetoo fancied that he should be sent beyond sea if once a prisoner. His followers at length left him, and made their own terms; and they told the English that in Cheetoo’s snatches of sleep, disturbed by horrors, he was often heard fearfully muttering, “The dark sea! O! the dark sea!” This was in 1818; and for a few months more he flitted about the dominions of the Company and the neighbouring potentates, now sounding some Nabob about mediating for him, and now slipping from under the very grasp of his hunters and waylayers. The horses of his attendants were rarely unsaddled, and the men slept with the bridles in their hands. In February, 1819, he appealed for admittance to a fortress into which a late ally had escaped. He had rendered services to this Apa Sahib; and he carried in a pocket of his saddle letters from Apa Sahib, full of fine promises for the future: so he came to the gates in certain expectation of a shelter. He was turned away; and alone he entered the jungle, for a bivouac. He did not renew his application the next morning; on the next and the next he troubled nobody,—to the surprise of his treacherous ally. A few days afterwards, his horse, saddled and bridled, was seen grazing on the verge of the forest. The money and the letters and the chief’s signet ring were safe in the saddle: but where was Cheetoo?
The first trace was some bloody clothing; then some human bones; then Cheetoo’s head, entire. A tiger had sprung on him. The chief of tribes which had lately afforded him an army of 20,000 men had been left alone, to be torn to pieces by a wild beast.
Cheetoo, the last of the Pindarrees, has impressed the imagination, and aroused the pity of thousands of our elderly generation: but he was not enough of a hero for sympathy. He had no country, and therefore no patriotism; and he could win no admiration on the ground of devotedness. Who comes next?
I am sorry to have to name him: but I must. In the sort of review that we are making, we must look beyond our own notions and feelings, because such stories belong to the world; and there are not only multitudes of people in India, but a great many in Ireland, France, America, and elsewhere, who imagine Nana Sahib to be a vindicator of some country or race,—a champion and patriot in his own way, and therefore to be sympathised with, and watched with interest in his extinction. It is as well that the error should be pointed out, and the true position of the man understood, that his actual treachery may be duly apparent.
His admirers in Europe and America suppose Nana Sahib to have been the son by adoption of an Indian prince, entering into the ambition and pride of princes, and having feelings of nationality and patriotism which make him hate the conquerors of India. This is a mistake of ignorance. The subjects of the princes of India had no country, in the patriotic sense. They had a religion and a method of society; and these they enjoy with more completeness and security under English rule than they ever did before. There was nothing in the way of laws, dynasty, rights, and liberties that this man, or any other native, could even allege as a subject of struggle. Nor could it be for religion that he contended; for he accepted the aid of the Mohammedans,—themselves the conquerors of the Hindoos. He was ambitious and revengeful; and no higher ground than this can be asserted for his rebellion. He was no native prince, invested with traditional greatness, and living in subjection to usurpers. He was a wealthy native gentleman, of no mark or merit, and therefore incapable of a lofty object, and living entirely out of the sphere of patriotic objects.
This would be enough; but there is the positive presence of such unheroic qualities as should have saved all Europeans and Americans from the disgrace of believing in Nana Sahib for a moment . He obtained gratification for his vanity by courting the English up to the moment of the mutiny. He went out shooting with British officers: and made splendid fêtes at Bithoor for their reception. He sent his confidential friend and agent to England to enjoy London society, and listened to the accounts his friend brought back of English gullibility, of the readiness of ladies of rank to fall in love with him, and so forth. Next, he accepted the charge of refugees from the regions of the mutiny, and had them slaughtered like cattle; and his way of revelling in blood from that time forward needs no description; for the story of Cawnpore is burnt in upon every British heart and brain. He issued a proclamation, worthy of the fellow who had been adjudged the forger of a will in his own favour. The setting aside of that will, and consequent division of property between three which he had intended to take for himself, was sufficient to account for any degree of revenge in such a man as he: and the proclamation exhibits an audacity and ingenuity of falsehood which must consign the man beyond appeal to the order of mere rogues. Enough of the real standpoint of the forger, traitor, and butcher, of whom some would make a hero! He was never invaded, never attacked, never conquered, in his own person or that of his tribe. He tried to explode by treachery, and swamp in bloodshed a state of society far more tolerable than any other the country had ever known: and when he failed, he sank utterly, as he deserved to sink. When be believed the British authority overthrown, he turned against it: and when his fellow-subjects believed his authority overthrown, they forsook him. When no longer feared, it appeared how he was hated. His fate so far is generally known. We cannot say that the end is known; for, while he lives, there is no saying what he may try to do. But what we do know is that he was driven back and back till he could live nowhere hut in the malarious region in Nepaul, where life is & curse, from disease and discomfort. There, guarded only by the disease which prostrated him and his followers, and suffering under privation of every kind, he lingered on till he could perceive no further hope of rescue or return. Then, at length, he resolved on the course which every Hindoo abhors,—expatriation. He and such leaders as remained cut off each a little finger, to leave behind as a representative of their entire selves as inhabiting Holy India, and passed over the Himalaya into Thibet. What he will do there—whether he will adopt a freebooting life on the steppes, amidst a climate which must be to him like that of the poles, or whether he will turn eastwards into China, or westwards into Bokhara, or whether he will be enslaved by Turcomans; or whether he will attempt to drop down into India from the region of snows, there is no conjecturing. What we can conjecture is the mood of mind in which an outcast like Nana Sahib, conscious of the reprobation of the ruling race in his own country, and of the bitter hatred of the Hindoos and Moslems whom he misled,—a grandee in his way, a despot, a sensualist, and in some sort a cultivated man—is now wandering in the wilds, without comfort in the present, solace in the past, or hope in the future. Let us hope that the world will hear of him no more.
In a life as wild as we can find in India we next light upon a hero as genuine as any old Greek, braving the forces of Persia, or any Crusader of the Middle Ages, warring for his faith and the Sepulchre.
The people of the Caucasus have been made heroic and interesting by persecution, as has often been the case with individuals in all societies. The mountain tribes of that region were once mere banditti, continually afflicting neighbouring states by their raids. The Russian sovereigns have chosen to educate them into patriotism by a severe discipline, and to engage the sympathies of the world on their behalf. Peter the Great was bent on obtaining the two great routes to India, one of which lay through the Caucasus, Georgia, Persia, and Herat. As we know, he did not succeed; but he annexed a good deal of territory, and united the mountain tribes by their common fear of Russia. As the Greek Church appeared wherever the new frontier extended, the opposition to the invader naturally took the form of a religious war. A Moslem dervish roused the whole population between the Black Sea and the Caspian, as Peter the Hermit once roused Christendom; and, from the time of his agitation against Russia, the people of the Caucasus had a country and a cause to which to devote their valour, and on which to nourish their patriotic growth. It was about eighty years ago that Sheik Mansur, the dervish, was reciting the Kuran, and declaiming pious verses (to the number of 20,000) on the steppes of the Don and the shores of the Caspian: and when he was captured, and was known to have died in a Russian fortress, his followers were like sheep without a shepherd. It was necessary to them to have a religious leader; and till Schamyl, the prophet chief, presented himself, they could do little more than worry the enemy by incursions, in which they burned the Russian posts and carried off prisoners.
Schamyl’s career began with a miracle—not invented by himself, but assumed by those about him. The great Moslem priest who was his instructor, and the voice of all the tribes in their protest against the invader, was shot dead while kneeling, and stretching out his hand to heaven on behalf of his country. His pupil lay dead before him, we are told; and his body was left lying when the Russians carried off that of his master, to be paraded before the troops. Yet Schamyl reappeared ere long, in full vigour; and it never became known how he was restored. This was in 1832. More than one singular escape followed; and in 1834 he was acknowledged as Sultan of the Eastern Caucasus and the Second Prophet of Allah.
He was at once seen to be one of Nature’s kings. Not by original strength of body; for his fair complexion, small features, and moderate stature correspond with his original delicacy of health: but by indomitable strength of will, shown in the control of himself as much as of others. He was a dreamer in his childhood; lonely, meditative, and proud in his youth; and a patriot enthusiast always. He is a fatalist of the most positive type; a believer in his own inspiration to the full extent that fatalism requires; and so eloquent that others may naturally regard him as a prophet. Such an antagonism as his and the Russians, a quarter of a century ago, is something quite out of the common way. He believed the Russians not to be men, but feræ naturæ—wild beasts more resembling men than others do: and, at the same time, the Russian General Williamineff was sending forth a proclamation to the tribes under Schamyl which said, “Do you not know that there are two rulers of the universe—God in heaven, and the Czar on earth? Do you not know that the heavens themselves would fall, if they were not upheld by Russian bayonets?” We may imagine what the warfare was like between foes who so regarded each other and themselves.
It was a memorable war; and it will be so regarded by future generations. For nearly a quarter of a century, Schamyl kept at arms’ length the power of the largest and most purely military empire in the world. He learned the art of war by experience. If, nearly every year, the Russians cut down more of the sheltering woods which the natives could ill spare, Schamyl dug more trenches and raised more palisades. The children of exiled Poles, or young Polish exiles themselves, have been sent by the Czar to serve, or learn the military art, in Georgia or the Caucasus. Many of them were willing prisoners, or deserters, to Schamyl; and from them he learned many arts of war. His enemy could never attain the hardihood by means of which he and his troops could keep the passes in stormy seasons, and live in caverns when the Russians were crouching over the stoves in their forts. Now and then the enemy remained quiet for a year; and then there was sure to be a proclamation from Schamyl to his followers at the opening of the next season that the pack of “flax-haired Christian dogs” was coming down upon them. The struggle became more deadly and barbarous as the passions of both parties became more exasperated. The Russians burned out the old people and children, and would listen to no negotiation till Schamyl’s own son was delivered to them as a hostage. They were constantly reporting the completion of their conquest to be just at hand; but Schamyl was always gliding out between their hands, or passing over their heads by inaccessible heights, or assailing them from some ambush, or starting up before them when they were least ready. A long series of Russian generals, from Yermoloff to Woronzoff, tried to bring the Caucasus under the rule of the Czar, and failed; and perhaps there are some people who doubt whether Prince Bariatinsky has done so now,—thoroughly and permanently. But Schamyl is no longer there; and the second Prophet of Allah has been led captive away. The sacrifice of life and treasure on the part of three successive Czars has been enormous, and out of all visible proportion to the object: but the will and policy of Peter the Great must be carried out at any cost: so hundreds and thousands of Russians have been picked off by concealed marksmen, and crushed by fallen rocks, before their comrades could stop the slaughter. When scaling the heights, the Russians saw the men escaping by climbing to eyries almost out of sight, and the women preparing to baffle their invaders. On the rocky platforms stood groups of women, firing their last charges with excellent aim, and joining their strength to roll down masses of rock on the heads of their enemies; and when their retreat was scaled, the mothers would dash out their infants’ brains, throw them down the precipice, and leap after them. Prince Woronzoff met the Czar in the Crimea in 1845, and used his utmost influence to induce him to make no further attempts in the Caucasus; but the pride of Nicholas was enlisted in the struggle, and he commanded that Schamyl should be destroyed next season. It was, however, Schamyl’s most victorious year. He led out 10,000 soldiers, conducted a siege, gained all his points, and retired with a vast booty, leaving the Russians aghast.
The contest was not so desperate as it seemed at the time to us; for we were not aware how great Schamyl was as a lawgiver and civic ruler. He had extinguished the feuds of the tribes, and by a thorough organisation of the whole country, rendered the renewal of them almost impossible. He had made life and industry secure in places out of the line of invasion. He established an administration which rendered justice accessible to every inhabitant, and instituted a postal arrangement which harmonised distant districts and people. He obtained a revenue which amounted to so much more than his frugal expenditure, that his followers believed him to have concealed a great amount of treasure with which to carry on and extend the war. Thus did the prospects of the Caucasus improve, in the belief of friends and foes.
Yet there were reverses; and in one of these, the imperilled people sent a deputation to beg permission to surrender, if they could not be rescued. It was death to propose to Schamyl to yield to the Russians. He had sworn this; and he was a man of his word. The deputies shrank from their task, and imposed it upon Schamyl’s aged mother.
With fear and trembling she put the petition before him; and with fear and trembling she told the deputies that the will of Allah was to determine the answer. For three days and nights the chief was shut up alone in the mosque; and the fasting people were collected round it, praying all day long. When Schamyl reappeared, he was so altered that the gazers could scarcely believe it was he. There was no escape from the horror of the divine command. The tempter must be punished with a hundred blows of the heavy whip; and the tempter was his mother! She died at the fifth blow. Schamyl stripped off his garment, and insisted on receiving the other ninety-five. The deputies dared not look in his face, and grovelled on the ground; but he raised them, and gently told them to go home, and tell their neighbours what they had seen that day.
Still the Russians went on sacrificing 20,000 men every year, and a vast amount of money, in this obstinate war, and there seemed to be no prospect of an end, when Schamyl’s son was taken prisoner. With politic kindness, he was well treated at St. Petersburg, carefully educated, and in course of time sent home. There was a visible change in Schamyl after that. The unity of his purpose was broken up. Gratitude to the Czar was a perplexing emotion to the Sultan of the Caucasus; and his ideas of the Russians must have been much modified by what his son had to tell. He certainly flagged in his military career latterly; and last year it was all over. He had retired with his family and his band of 400 Murids,—pupil followers in the faith,—to a remote fastness, where the Russians, in great force, followed them up. The Murids, posted in a wood, were surrounded. Not a man of them survived. They all chose to die in killing as many Russians as they could. Schamyl was conducting the defence of the dwellings, inclosed within a wall . When no chance of escape remained, and his family must perish if he did not yield, he surrendered. This was on the 26th of August, last year. Since that date we have only the accounts of Russian observers. According to them, Schamyl’s gratitude to the Czar, his astonishment at finding the Russians men, and religionists, and his bewilderment at the achievements of civilisation, have cowed his spirit. They may easily have confused and darkened his mind, always hitherto illuminated by singleness of purpose and a consciousness of inspiration. He appears to be leading a life of devotion, so quiet as to be interrupted only by acts of homage to the Czar. But all this is very uncertain, however probable. One’s natural impulse is to dwell upon the last scenes in the Caucasus at the real close of his life,—remembering, however, that life may be no more over for him than for Abd-el-Kader, when he was pining in a French prison.
It would not be just to allow the recent intellectual and moral perplexities of Schamyl to weaken our sympathy with him, or impair our admiration. Every great man might seem infirm of purpose, and irresolute in action, if the whole contrary of what he knows and thinks could be suddenly opened up at the most critical moment of his course. Great champions are not the men who see the most of both sides of a question. In religious wars, especially, the whole conflict proceeds on the supposition of an opposite point of view on the part of the adversaries; and if they could stand together on either, there would be no more war. Few, of the race of champions, ever see such a transmutation as that of “flax-haired Christian dogs” into hospitable hosts and accomplished gentlemen; and even a Schamyl may well be staggered by the experience. While ignorant of his actual state of mind, we must dwell on the history of his devotedness. His whole life has been pure from personal aims,—which is always the highest praise for the champion, as for the child. He was in earnest; he was faithful; he was wise as he was brave. We may hope that his old age will not be weak, really or apparently: but if it is, the weakness can in no way affect the strength, nor dim the glory of his entire manhood. He is supposed to be now about sixty-five years old. There may be work or experience in store for him yet, leading him forth from his retreat in the interior of Russia.
The parallel between his life and that of Abd-el-Kader is sufficiently close to enable me to describe most briefly the loftiest man of the group. It may be doubted whether he will not always head the glorious train of champions of conquered races. He has Schamyl’s martial qualities, his devotedness and devoutness, his natural princeliness, his gift of commanding reverence and winning adoration. Whether he could, like Schamyl, organise a group of barbaric tribes, so as to raise them into a capacity for civilised life, we have no means of knowing: but, on the other hand, it is certain that he has more enlargement of mind, and is fitter to take his place in counsel among the rulers of men. While all nations, from the Russians to the Americans, revere Schamyl, everybody feels a reverence as lofty, and more tender, towards Abd-el-Kader. Instead of the truculent Paynim knight of our imaginations, he is the Christian knight of the Middle Ages, still, by some accident, a Paynim, but as good as any Christian. We have heard his fame so long, and we enjoyed such enthusiasm about him when we were young, that we are apt to fancy him old; but he is yet only fifty-three; and the events of the day point to the possible opening of a new career for him—and a very great one.
He comes of a holy race; and his hereditary sanctity agrees well with his natural temperament. He saw things in his early childhood which might affect his whole future life. He traversed the deserts of Africa and Arabia with the pilgrim caravan to Mecca; and a second pilgrimage, in early manhood, renewed and revived the strongest impressions that a devout Moslem can receive. He is a man of as much learning as would have made him a dignified priest, if he had not been a soldier. Like Schamyl he was originally of feeble frame; and in his case too it was patriotism that made him an accomplished warrior. Seeing that every hand and eye would be needed to keep out invaders, he exercised himself diligently in riding, and the use of all the weapons of his tribe. His father had laboured to unite the tribes whose independence the French were hoping to devour in succession; and when they were ready to attempt the expulsion of the invaders, the old man presented his third son, Abd-el-Kader, as fit for the leadership which he declined for himself, on account of his years.
For many years from that time the life of Abd-el-Kader was much like Schamyl’s, except in as far as the Atlas and the African deserts differ from the Caucasus and the steppes of the Don. The French were from the beginning as savage in their warfare as the Russians ever became. It will never be forgotten how the commanders smoked a tribe to death in a cave, and carried fire and slaughter among the helpless when the strong were engaged elsewhere. They were visited in their turn. Abd el-Kader haunted them. He hovered round them all day, when on the march; and he was down upon their bivouac at night. If they ever lost their way, he was behind, to prevent their return. If there were storms in the sky, he kept them from shelter till the tempest had done its worst upon them. He was perpetually drawing them on in pursuit of him into fatal places, and then escaping by invisible paths. Sometimes he besieged a town at the head of 10,000 men; and next he was intercepting convoys with a handful of rapid riders whom it was vain to pursue. The enemy treated with him, and acknowledged him as Emir of Mascara, with a considerable territory; and this made him powerful at home. Not even he, however, could for ever cope with the forces of a great military nation. There was once a peace of two years; but he spent it in preparing for fresh warfare, as well as in making a beginning of agricultural settlement. When the conflict was resumed, the French brought larger forces into the field, just as the strength of the Arabs was dwindling away. The Emir’s situation became difficult—then perilous—then desperate; but he underwent everything short of destruction before he would yield. Hunger, wet, cold, exhaustion,—all these were slow in humbling him; but they compelled him at length to surrender. He did so on the strength of a promise of General Lamoricière’s, sanctioned by that of the Duc d’Aumale, then commanding in Algiers, that he should be permitted to retire to Alexandria or Acre. This was the condition on which he came into the French camp. The promise was broken, to the heartfelt grief of the Duc d’Aumale. Abd-el-Kader passed some years of imprisonment at the Castle of Amboise, inspiring awe by his dignity, and admiration by his exquisite courtesy. By strong importunity, and after much delay, the present French sovereign was induced to fulfil the promise of the Orleans prince, and Abd-el-Kader retired to a Moslem country. He lived at Broussa till repeated earthquakes ruined the place. Lately, as the Christian world has good reason to know, he has lived at Damascus. There is no need to tell how he has received hundreds of Christians within his gates, and fed them, to the utter exhaustion of his resources, and protected them at the risk of his influence and good name, and escorted them across the country in peril of his life.
Hence arises the question whether his career is really at an end. The grand difficulty of the time is how to rule Syria: and here is, in the heart of Syria, a Moslem prince who knows all the tribes and their tongues, and is living in special sanctity, who at the same time knows the Christians and their ways, and is friendly with all. If he is not the born ruler of Syria, we shall not find another. As patriot, human aggression was too strong for him, and he failed. As moderator,—as an impartial ruler,—he may prove strong enough to foil human passion. It would be wise to try; and if the experiment is tried, there may yet be more to tell of Abd-el-Kader.
Meantime, it is difficult to conceive of a nobler Representative Man.