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DownING STREET, August 26, 1853. MY DEAR LORD JOHN,—I always expected some difficulties to arise at Constantinople, but those which have taken place are very vexatious. We received yesterday a telegraphic despatch from Lord Stratford of the 19th, in which he said that the Turks proposed to make some modifications of the note sent by the four powers for their acceptance, but he did not mention what they were. To-day we have a message from Lord Westmorland, who gives us the proposed alterations. . . . They are not of great importance; but, after what the Emperor has already done, I doubt if he will accept them. At all events, after his prompt acceptance of our note, and his ready agreement to the alterations made by the English Government in the interests of the Porte, it is clear that we have no right to ask him. It is just possible however, that for the sake of peace he may yield; and perhaps it may be right to make the attempt. Should it fail, we are bound to make the Turks agree to the terms we have prescribed, or to let them take their own course. . . .—Ever most sincerely,
The course which Lord Aberdeen thus suggested was not entirely in accordance with the opinion which Lord John had expressed, and to which the Prime Minister had assented. Instead of insisting on the Porte accepting the note as it was originally drawn, the Prime Minister was already hoping that Russia, for the sake of peace, might adopt Lord Stratford's modifications. And this distinction, slight as it seemed at the time, was pregnant with mighty consequences. For it soon became plain to Lord John that, however possible it might have been to insist upon the note without modification, it was impossible to do so after the English Government had once pressed those modifications on Russia. The Ministry ought therefore to have persevered with the policy on which Lord John had himself insisted in the preceding month, and which, singularly enough, in his later years, when his memory had partially failed, he thought that he had continued to urge." It is certain, however, that at the time he thought differently. He wrote to Lord Clarendon on August 27–
1 See the curious correspondence between Lord John and Sir A. Gordon, published originally in the Times, and republished in Kinglake's History of the Crimean War, vol. i. Appendix.
Your letter and Lord Aberdeen's on the Turkish question are very unsatisfactory. The Turks are immense fools not to snap at what has been offered them. But still I hope the Emperor of Russia will accept the modifications.
He added on the 29th—
I think this Eastern question has got into as entangled a position as can well be. If we act against Russia, it seems a bad return for her last compliance. If against the Turk, it will be considered that we have given him false hopes and allowed him to fall a victim to our shabbiness. Add to this that a retreat re infecta from the Dardanelles will lower us in the sight of Europe, and we shall at the same time abandon our interests, which are bound up in the exclusion of Russia from the Dardanelles. I keep to my opinion that we ought to endeavour to gain the winter for further negotiation. But, if this cannot be done, I am for the Turk against the Russian.
On the following day (the 30th) he wrote to Lord Aberdeen—
Hitherto we have shown great forbearance to Russia. It now becomes us to show a similar indulgence towards Turkey, when she becomes in her turn wilful and wrong-headed.
And he attached so much importance to the fresh crisis that he left Scotland and hurried up to London to consult those of his colleagues who were in town. Upon his arrival in London Lord John laid a memorandum, dated September 3, before Lord Aberdeen, Lord Clarendon, and Lord Palmerston, who met him at the Foreign Office, dealing with what he called two questions of great importance.
The first is, supposing the Eastern question to be still unsettled, what is to be done respecting the fleets The second is, supposing the Emperor of Russia not to agree to the altered note, what is to be the next step on our part 2
The decision of the first point Lord John thought could be deferred for three weeks.
But, when the time comes, I can have no doubt what the instructions ought to be. Firmans ought to be asked of the Sultan for the entry of the fleets within the outer castles of the Dardanelles. If he refuses them our honour is safe, and we may retire to any good anchorage farther off.
On the second point Lord John was more emphatic:—
Supposing the Emperor of Russia to agree to some of the amendments and reject others, there remains a fair ground for the conference to attempt a compromise. But, if he reject altogether the amended note, we must recur to the original pretexts of quarrel. The pretence of the Emperor of Russia was that his influence in behalf of the Greek Church in Turkey, as sanctioned by treaty and confirmed by long usage, had been treated with neglect. His demand was that concessions should be made to him such as could only be made as the fruit of a successful war. . . . When the Sultan, astonished at this demand, asked his allies for advice, they said he was the best judge of his own honour and dignity. All he now asks is to make some amendments to save his honour and dignity in a note presented to him by these four powers. Such being the case, we surely cannot again present to him the same note unamended, with whatever explanations we may accompany it. What we might do is to forward to Petersburg through the conference the note of Reshid Pacha of July 23. It is a very good and sufficient note. If the Emperor of Russia rejects both the amended note of the conference and the Turkish note of July 23, we must conclude that he is bent on war, and prepare our measures accordingly, J. RUSSELL.
The policy which Lord John laid down in this memorandum may have been right or may have been wrong. But, whether right or wrong, there can be no doubt that it differed essentially both from the opinion which he had expressed three weeks before, and from the course which in the seclusion of his old age he fancied he had recommended, and he thought should have been adopted. The Czar's unconditional acceptance of the note, however, had given Russia an advantage which she was not likely to throw away. She could fairly claim that she had done all that the allies had thought it right
1 This note will be found in Eastern Papers, pt. ii. p. 31. It was drawn up by Lord Stratford. Reshid Pacha was the Sultan's Prime Minister,
to ask, and that they were not justified in asking her to do more. And so clear was this position that, when news reached London on September 13 that she refused to accept the Turkish modifications, Lord Aberdeen, Lord Clarendon, and Lord Palmerston—for Lord John, in the interval, had returned to Roseneath—agreed to urge the powers represented at Vienna to recommend the Porte to sign the unmodified note, declaring at the same time that the allies understood the note in the sense of the Turkish modifications. Lord Aberdeen wrote to Lord John–
ARGYLL House, September 16, 1853.
The Russian answer is such as we expected; indeed, more favourable, for the Emperor adheres to the Vienna Note, from which he might have been freed, according to the terms of his acceptance. He also expresses a desire to evacuate the Principalities. We have not yet received the despatch, but it appears to contain further statements of a conciliatory character.
Palmerston was with us yesterday; and we agreed to propose at Vienna that the four powers should declare that they adopted the Turkish modifications as their own interpretation of the note, and that they were prepared to adhere to this interpretation in all time hereafter. This would be a virtual guarantee to the Porte, of more value than any they could expect. Indeed, the declaration is so strong, that I entertain some doubt of its being agreed to by Austria and Prussia. But it is still more doubtful whether Lord Stratford will allow the Turks to accept it."
In asking the Porte to sign the unmodified note, Lord Aberdeen, Lord Clarendon, and Lord Palmerston were, like Lord John, guilty of inconsistency. If they had intended to take this course, they ought to have done so on September 1.
1 The letter goes on —
I entirely agree with you in thinking that Nesselrode has not established the points you mention in his notes; but I think you do not state them quite fairly. He wished to show that the occupation of the Principalities, however exceptional, did not establish an entirely new principle of action in Europe, as had been asserted, and that measures of violence and coercion, without actual war, were not rare. The bombardment of Antwerp, and blockade of the Scheldt, were of this kind, although constituting an undoubted casus belli for the King of the Netherlands. The French occupation of the Morea, in 1828,
By asking the Czar on that day to consent to the modification of the note, they made it possible for the Porte to argue that they had admitted the necessity for modifying it. And the terms 1 in which the Czar refused their request increased their difficulty; for he made it plain that he attached a meaning to the note different from that which the allies who drew it up had intended it to bear, and similar to that which Lord Stratford and the Porte had contended that it did bear. But the proposal of the three Ministers was not merely inconsistent with their previous decision; it was opposed to the course which Lord John had himself recommended in his memorandum of September 3, and on which, when he returned to Scotland, he believed that his colleagues had agreed. He not unnaturally, therefore, was intensely annoyed when he learned their decision. He wrote to Lord Clarendon on the 17th—
It is good to make attempts to retain the blessings of peace; but I own I cannot but think your proposal at Vienna premature. We do not yet know in what sense the Emperor may have rejected the modifications, and it would be strange to give an interpretation to the note at Constantinople which is contradicted by the very powers to whom it is to be offered.
As to the guarantees to Turkey, I confess I see none in your proposal. You only propose to say that the note does not confer any droit d'ingerence between the Sultan and his subjects. “To be sure not, the Czar may say, ‘it only admits and confirms a right I have always had and always exercised, and which I mean to keep and exercise. And, if so, what does the Porte gain?
I must say I much lament the step you have taken. I think it
and our destruction of the Turkish fleet, are similar instances. The object of these acts does not affect their character, for about that there may be great difference of opinion. Austria and Prussia thought we were wrong in coercing the Turks in 1828, and Russia, Austria, and Prussia thought we were wrong in coercing the King of the Netherlands in 1832. We think Russia wrong in the present occupation of the Principalities without being at war, not because there is anything new or unprecedented in the act itself, as the means of enforcing a demand, but because we think the demand itself unjust. 1 These terms were not known in England till a little later.