'Rebels, Believers, Survivors: Studies in the History of the Albanians',
by Noel Malcolm (published by Oxford University Press)
This collection of essays is meticulously researched. Noel Malcolm traces original sources, in a plethora of European libraries and archives, sometimes uncovering previously unpublished manuscripts. The essays cover various aspects of Albanian history, from the eliding contours of religious adhesion, to the equally slippery borders of countries where Albanians lived (including Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro). Malcolm unpicks myths that have grown up around the Albanians, their customs and values, their movements and migrations and he introduces us to innovative and important literary and political figures.
In chronological order, the book begins with an essay on the 15th-century Pilgrim Narratives
, written by those on their way to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, whose route took them past the coastline of Albania (then known as 'Venetian Albania' as the main cities were under Venetian rule). Very few of these pilgrims actually landed in Albania, so their accounts are often brief. But as they sail past the spectacular landscape, some of the more imaginative writers speculate on the nature of the land and its inhabitants. Hans Bernard von Eptingen for example, writing in 1460 about the coastline south of Vlore, where 'many large, tall fires' burned, wondered if 'it was signalling by the Turks' and concluded that 'the most reliable explanation' was that 'it was the sort of mountain that burns by itself'. This coastline can certainly stir people's imaginations, with the mountains rising straight out of the water in some places, sombre and silent guardians, hiding the interior.
In Myths of Albanian National Identity
, Malcolm examines the situation in Albania where national identity and adherence to a particular religion are not one and the same. He refers to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, writing in 1717, who concluded, after speaking to Albanian soldiers, that their attitudes to religion was casual, even 'indifferent'. But Faik Bey Konitza, writing in the early 20th century, corrects this assumption. He says that Lady Mary 'failed to perceive the dry humour of her informants' and that it was the Albanian way – 'an ironical and nonchalant way' of avoiding any religious controversy. And I have certainly found Albanians to have a tremendous sense of humour, rich in irony and self-deprecation.
I was glad to get to know Ernesto Cozzi, Catholic priest, anthropologist and part-time medic, who lived in Albania for many years (Ernesto Cozzi, 1870-1926: A Neglected Figure
). His anthropological interests led him to collect local folk tales, traditions and customs. While some of his writing survived, much of it was lost in the various uprisings and wars that raged in the Balkans from 1910 on.
An intelligent and erudite man, his years in Albania were dedicated to improving the lives of Catholic Albanians, through literacy and education programmes, food distribution during wartime when many were starving, and working for peaceful reconciliation between various tribes and religious factions. He made efforts to resolve disputes involving the blood feud, trying to instil the idea that financial settlement was better than taking the life of a male member of the clan with whom they were in conflict. But he was not always successful, as he was up against long-held Albanian traditions and values which despised discussion and financial settlement, seeing such means as running counter to their ideals of honour.
Cozzi met Edith Durham on several occasions (Malcolm describes him as 'one of her most trustworthy sources of information') earning him a mention in her journals and letters. Edith Durham was another convert to the Albanian cause, furiously fighting for justice in their struggles for independence, and for basic necessities – food, shelter and clothing – when their crops and houses were burned down by various invading armies. Edith Durham's blunt, detailed and often acerbic language is a delight to read, though the content of her journals and letters in the early years of the 20th century all too often described massacres and the plight of refugees.
Other essays include the accounts of Albanians questioned by the Roman Inquisition, known as Sant'Uffizio or Holy Office (Early Modern Albanians in the Hands of the Inquisition
). These were usually people who claimed they had been forcibly converted to Islam and wished to reclaim their Christian identity. The 'Great Migration' of the Serbs from Kosovo (1690)
gives the background to the movements of Serbian people from Kosovo, closely examining the sources to separate truth from myth. Pjetër Bogdani's Cuneus prophetarum (The Band of the Prophets) 1685,
gives an account of this important work of the eponymous Catholic bishop which was, says Malcolm, 'the first substantial original prose work' written in Albanian. Bogdani's purpose was to teach Christian doctrine, making it available to Albanians in their own language thus, in Bogdani's words 'warding off… those errors... snaking their way among the people'.
The longest essay, Ali Pasha and Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars
, describes the eponymous leader, probably the best known character in Albanian history, and his sinuous diplomatic relationships with Britain in the early 1800s. In this essay, we read how Ali was constantly involved in diplomatic talks and relationships with whichever power in Europe was in the ascendant at the time. In the 1800s, Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars – France, Russia and Great Britain were all interested in the Western edge of the Ottoman Empire – the Adriatic coast, the Ionian Islands and the mainland of Albania and Greece.
The Sultan in Istanbul was the nominal ruler of the entire Ottoman Empire. But Ali Pasha wielded great power and authority, and ruled as a semi-autonomous pasha over the territories of Epirus (now northern Greece) and much of Albania. In his attempts to hold onto this territory, and acquire more, he held meetings with representatives of France, Britain and Russia playing a juggling game of quid pro quo. Not knowing which country would turn out to be victorious in these wars, he had to keep them all as sweet as possible, so they would help him both to keep his position as pasha, and to gain other territories, pockets of resistance to him.
We are given a detailed account of the comings and goings of envoys from Britain, France and Russia, Ali's terms, demands and promises in return for help, and denials of similar promises and deals with the other countries. Ali depended on revenues from rents and trade tariffs (and they were substantial). This income meant that he could make payments (bribes) to his overlord the Sultan – or those in his employ – and fund his armies. He could then offer practical support to Britain – supplying timber for shipbuilding – and military backup to protect against the French, should Napoleon decide to invade via the north of Albania, or from Corfu, which the French held at that time.
Former Venetian ports on the mainland – Parga, Prevesa and others as well as the islands of Lefkada and Corfu itself – were coveted by Ali for their strategic importance for trade and control of the seas. He was persistent in his desire for these territories but knew he needed alliances with the power-in-control (at first Russian, then French, then, after Napoleon's defeat, the British) in order to possess them, hence his assiduous cultivation of his relations with them.
At the same time, he was waging wars against other local beys and pashas in more northern areas of Albania such as Vlore, Berat and Shkodra, always wanting to increase his domains. He also kept the flow of huge bribes going to the government in Istanbul, so they would not see him as a troublemaker in the Ottoman domains. (This was very important – troublemakers became the equivalent of insurgents or rebels and could turn into enemies overnight and would be ruthlessly obliterated.)
It was in the interests of France and Britain to keep friendly relationships with him. Initially (from Britain's point of view) as an ally against possible invading French forces, and in the longer term, should the Ottoman Empire break up, for assistance in gaining territory or influence.
The British did eventually gain the Protectorship of Corfu (in 1814) and the other Ionian Islands, but a few years later Ali took possession of the city of Parga, turning all the several thousands of Greek Orthodox inhabitants into refugees. The Parganots had no desire to live under the Muslim Ali Pasha, doubting their lives would be spared (even though he said they would), knowing his reputation for deception and ruthless butchery. The British did stipulate that the citizens should be allowed to leave freely and should be compensated, which Ali grudgingly agreed to. But this assent of the British to Ali's takeover of Parga, despite the conditions they laid down, 'were widely seen as a stain on the honour of British foreign policy'.
Ali's victory in gaining the coveted territory of Parga was something he would not enjoy for long. The Sultan Mahmud II, stronger than his predecessor, felt that Ali had become too powerful and independent for his liking, and declared Ali a 'rebel'. This meant that the power of the Ottoman army was turned against Ali. All Ali's machinations and protestations of loyalty were of no use now. No longer a servant of the Porte, but now its enemy, Ali was hunted down and was eventually killed on the island in Lake Jannina in 1822.
It's fascinating to read about such very different characters: those dedicated to improving the lives of the people in general such as Pjeter Bogdani and Ernesto Cozzi, and then Ali Pasha, master of diplomatic intrigue. He could be charming to those he wished to impress (and Lord Byron was only one of many who fell for his charm offensive) but ruthless to those who opposed him.
Noel Malcolm's book is the best resource you can find on these different aspects of early Albanian history and cultural origins. He documents and lays bare the diplomatic background and interweavings in Albania's struggle for survival, and eventual independence in the early 20th century.
Morelle Smith is a poet and writer