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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

An Albanian Affair

You might wonder why I am writing about Bashibazouks in Albania as reported in a newspaper published in Cape Town in 1911. The answer is easy. During my researches into the life of my great-grandfather the late Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) who migrated from Prussia to the Cape Colony in 1880, I needed to leaf through the pages of South African newspapers that are stored in London’s British Library. So it was that I happened by chance to spot a small item about the struggle between the Ottoman Turks and the Albanian independence fighters in a 1911 edition of the Cape Times Weekly.

The Bashibazouks[i] (the Turkish word başıbozuk, literally means ‘damaged head’) were Turkish irregular soldiers, who often lived off loot. Some of them were not Turkish. They included Circassians, Kurds, Arabs, and also Albanians. Incidentally, the word ‘bashibazouk’ appears often (as a term of abuse used by Captain Haddock) in the English language versions of the adventures of Tintin by the Belgian cartoonist George Hergé (1907-1983).

‘Tusi’ is a spelling of the town of Tuzi (‘Tuz’ in Albanian), which is now in the Republic of Montenegro and is close to the border of modern Albania. The news item that I found in the Cape Times Weekly refers to an incident during the events, which led eventually to the First Balkan War (1912-1913). In the last days of March 1911, the (Roman Catholic) mountain people residing in northern Albania were called to arms by one of their leaders Ded Gjo Luli (1840–1915), and revolted against the Turks[ii]. During this uprising, the flag of Albania bearing Skanderbeg’s two-headed eagle was raised on the summit of Mount Dečić (Deçiq). This is said to be the first time that the flag had been flown on Albanian soil since the death of George Castrioti Skanderbeg. This revolt was considered premature by various committees of Albanians which were planning a larger scale, coordinated effort against the Turks. It was considered to have damaged the plans of the other groups. Edith Durham wrote[iii] that in March 1911:
I left Egypt for Constantinople in March, and found on arriving that the revolt had broken out prematurely amongst the Maltsors of Maltsia e madhe only, and they were carrying all before them – had chased away the scanty Turkish garrison and taken Tuzi. This sudden commencement before due preparation was a fatal error, engineered possibly by folk who meant the revolt to fail.”

Maltsors in Tuzi (from Durham's book)

The ‘folk’ who might have ‘engineered’ this could well have been the Montenegrins, whose King Nikola might well have supplied the rebels with weapons[iv]. That Tuzi was not held for too long by the Albanian rebels is evident in the small article that I found in the South African newspaper.

Although Tuzi had been recaptured by the Turks, it was not free of trouble. In about July, after a rising in Djakova during which the Turkish Kaimmakan (an Ottoman official, a sort of ‘sub-Governor’) was killed, Albanian rebels:
… made a successful raid, and cut off the water-supply of Tuzi.[v]
Soon after this, according to Durham, the Turkish Government offered the rebels terms, which included that an Albanian-speaking Kaimmakan be appointed at Tuzi, and that he should be a Christian. Mihilaki Effendi was appointed[vi].

Tuzi figures in Durham’s book again, but after the events described above. She wrote that eleven political prisoners who had been involved in the Bomb Affair in 1907 had burrowed their way to freedom under the walls of the prison at Podgoritza, and:
“…taken refuge with Mihilaki Effendi, the Kaimmakam, who brought them at once by steamer to Scutari.[vii]
The ‘Bomb Affair’ was an attempt by pro-Serb radicals to assassinate the Montenegrin Prince Nikola in his capital Cetinje[viii].

Tuzi, which was on territory granted to Montenegro by the Treaty of Berlin (1878), was retaken by the Montenegrins from the Turks in October 1911. Their soldiers captured the nearby Fort of Shipchanik, and occupied the town. Edith Durham wrote[ix] soon after this:
The woe of the conquered land had already begun. The newly appointed Montenegrin Governor of Tuzi - Gjurashkovich – proceeded to “rub it in” by hanging a portrait of King Nikola in the hospital, and joyfully informing the Turkish staff that the Montenegrins had occupied Plava and Gusinje, and, of 2000 Moslems who had endeavoured to take Berani, (they) had slaughtered all but 250.”

Montenegrins near the Fort at Shipchanik after taking it from the Turks
(from Durham's book)

Edith Durham visited this hospital again in 1912. According to one of her biographers Marcus Tanner:
In a filthy hospital in Tuzi, a recently captured village on the Ottoman side of the border, Durham was horrified to discover why the bandaged faces of eight captives were curiously flat. Removing the bandages she found that their noses had been cut off.[x]
She tended to these unfortunates and many other similarly mutilated victims as part of the humanitarian work for which she is so well known in the Balkans.

So much for Tuzi, a place which I had not heard of until I chanced upon it in an old South African newspaper. The little article was written during a revolt of the Albanians, which had been encouraged not only by the Montenegrins but also by an Italian of Albanian ancestry, an Arbëresh man from the region of Cosenza in the South of Italy. Terenzio Tocci (1880-1945), who was eventually executed by Enver Hoxha, travelled to the Balkans in April 1911 to participate in the Albanian uprising. According to Robert Elsie:
On 26 April 1911, he gathered the chieftains of Mirdita near Orosh and proclaimed the independence of Albania, hoisting the Albanian flag for the first time since the death of Scanderbeg, and formed a provisional government, which had the support of much of northern Albania.[xi]
Tocci returned to Italy before becoming involved with the administration of first Zog’s, then later Mussolini’s, Albania. His collaboration with the Italian Fascists led to his death in Albania in the hands of the young Communist regime led by Enver Hoxha. When I visited the Arbëresh town of Piana degli Albanesi in Sicily in 2014, I was told that even when being led to be shot Tocci maintained his dignity, and was most concerned that his polished shoes would not be soiled[xii].

My ‘discovery’ of an item of long out-of-date news whilst researching a quite different topic, namely the biography of a Jewish immigrant in South Africa, led to the exploration of an aspect of Balkan history that is new to me. It is serendipitous revelations such as this that adds much enjoyment to researching historical topics and almost anything else.

Adam Yamey has written two books about Albania:

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[i] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bashi-bazouk, accessed 25th August 2015.
[ii] See: The History of Albania by S Pollo and A Puto, publ. by Routledge & Kegan Paul, London: 1981
[iii] See DURHAM: The Struggle for Scutari, by ME Durham, publ. by Edward Arnold, London: 1914
[iv] See: The Albanians, by M Vickers, publ. by IB Tauris, London: 1997
[v] See: DURHAM
[vi] See: DURHAM
[vii] See: DURHAM
[viii] See: Montenegro: A Modern History, by K Morrison, publ. by IB Tauris, London: 2009
[ix] See: DURHAM
[x] See: Albania’s Mountain Queen, by M Tanner, publ. by IB Tauris, London: 2014
[xi] See: Historical Dictionary of Albania (2nd. Ed.), by R Elsie, publ. by The Scarecrow Press, Plymouth (UK): 2010
[xii] See: From Albania to Sicily, by A Yamey, publ. by Adam Yamey, London: 2014

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Between profit and philanthropy

This is an introduction to a book that I am currently writing. There is much more work to be done before my manuscript is completed, let alone edited.  Any comments or reflections on this will be gratefully accepted.

Steve Biko (1946-1977), the black anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement was callously murdered by the South African police. He was born ten years after my great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) died in South Africa.

At first sight, there would appear to be little to link a German Jewish immigrant, such as Franz was, with a martyr to the cause of freedom of the black people in South Africa. However, there is a connection. Biko was born, and also lived in, an African ‘township’ in King Williams Town, a major industrial town in the eastern part of the Cape Province. Steve’s birthplace, Ginsberg Township, was named to honour my great-grandfather. The founding of this township and (others like it) marked a significant stage in the evolution of apartheid, an evil which Biko and his colleagues strove to combat.

Ginsberg arrived in South Africa aged eighteen with a basic education, and then began work as a photographer’s assistant. Within a few years, he became one of King Williams Town’s leading industrialists. Soon after that, he entered local, and then national politics. By 1927, he was awarded with South Africa’s highest honour: he was elected a Senator.

He left Germany both to seek his fortune and also to escape anti-Semitic persecution. In his adopted country, South Africa, he found himself privileged to be a white man accepted by others on the basis of merit rather than religious beliefs. Unlike many – if not most – of his white contemporaries in South Africa who regarded non-white people as members of an inferior species worthy of suppression and servitude, Ginsberg regarded them as fellow human beings. There is no doubt that he felt that the ‘white man’ should remain in charge in South Africa, and not risk being in competition with people whose background was not European.  However, he was a man of conscience with great sympathy for his non-white neighbours. During his life in South Africa, he tried hard and earnestly to balance his interests in safeguarding the advantages of the white people against his desire to ease the lot of their severely disadvantaged non-white neighbours.

My forthcoming book, which is at an early embryonic stage in its life, will describe the many-faceted life of my great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg – a patriotic capitalist with a philanthropic heart.

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Tuesday, 4 August 2015


The Gypsies (aka ‘Roma’ or ‘Rom’) are much maligned and misunderstood. Two books written by the Belgian Jan Yoors present the nomads of Europe in a positive and life-enhancing light. 
Here are my reviews of his two books.
I first learned of the existence of this extraordinarily fascinating book by Jan Yoors when I was reading Fonseca's book about gypsies (Roma), "Bury me Standing". Published in 1967, this book is available from on-line second-hand stores.
Sometime in between the 2 world wars, Jan Yoor, a young Belgian teenager, did something very unusual. He ran away with the gypsies. He joined a group ('kumpania') of Roma camping near to his home, and was eventually adopted by them. His understanding parents did not seem to mind him being away from home and school for long periods whilst he wandered around Europe with his new companions.
Yoor's first-hand experiences of living the life of a young gypsy were not wasted. Years later, he described them in his book "The Gypsies". His account of living with the Roma is detailed and seems accurate. Yet, it is not a dispassionate anthropological study. As I read his book, I felt that I was almost experiencing the trials and tribulations of life on the road with the gypsies. Yoors shows a deep understanding of the subtleties of the Roma mentality, and describes their beliefs, traditions, and daily life, exquisitely. At times, his writing has a poetic quality, yet it never becomes trite or flowery. The Roma could not have wished for a more sympathetic yet objective description of their lives than that written by Yoors.
Read this gracious book, and you will see the Roma in an entirely new light.


This book is written by the Belgian Jan Yoors. It is the second of his books that I have read. In his first book “The Gypsies” he describes how he began living with a gypsy (Rom) ‘cumpania’ as a teenager, and begun to learn about their ways of life whilst they gradually accepted him as one of their own kind. In the second book, “Crossing”, Yoors, by now regarded as a fully-fledged Rom by the cumpania that had adopted him and also by other Rom that he met, writes about his experiences with the Rom community during the Second World War (‘WW2’).
The Allied authorities fighting the Germans realised that the Rom were eminently suited to assist the efforts of the Resistance in France. Monsieur Henri recruits Yoors to become an intermediary between the Rom and the mysterious groups who worked incognito to organise acts of resistance against the Germans. All goes well for a while, but inevitably Yoors is arrested by the Nazi security police.
As in his first book, Yoors writes lyrically and sensitively about the Rom and what he learned about their idiosyncratic philosophy of life. It was what he learnt from his fellow Rom that helped him survive the most horrendous imprisonment and interrogations.
The last and very exciting part of the book describes Yoors’s role in smuggling people from Axis-occupied Europe across the Pyrenees into Franco’s neutral Spain.
After the war, Yoors became an artist in the USA, specialising in tapestry. This book, like his first, is a work of - art a fascinating tapestry of words beautifully woven together.
Read more about Jan Yoors on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Yoors

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