1840 – Signed Manuscript Letters of British Traveler through Russian Crimea during the Caucasus War

Travels in Russian Crimea
During the Caucasus War
Kremenchug – Myklaiv – Odessa

Kalmyks and Cossacks
Quarantine – Brothels – Church
Russian Royal Family Imperial Scandal
Manuscript Letters


Kremenchuck, Myklaiv, Odessa, [Russian Crimea] 1840. Manuscript signed letter describing the adventures and encounters of a Scottish or English adventurer travelling through the Crimea during the Caucasus War of 1817-1864 and thirteen years prior to the start of the Crimean War. Quarto. Two double leafs measuring approximately 21 x 27 cm, one of these having a steel engraved frontis header illustration of a temple in the hills of the Crimea. Penned in English, there are three letters together comprising 15 pages of text, written perpendicularly across one another to save postage fees. The letters are dated with both Gregorian and Julian calendar dates. Two are signed by the writer. Some age-toning and creasing, otherwise in very good condition, superb content.

These leafs contain three letters written one upon the other, the first dated Krementhung [Kremenchug] on the Dnieper Monday 11 November 1840 (Julian calendar: 23 November 1840), the second dated Nicolayiev 21 November 1840 (Julian calendar: 3 December 1840), and the third dated Odessa 28 November 1840 (Julian calendar 10 December 1840).

The writer is an adventurer, travelling freely through the Crimea by horse-drawn carriage and by sledge, passing through remote and desolate regions of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, and staying with the locals. He is planning a long journey of trekking through mountainous regions, continuing to Italy, Spain, Switzerland and France, after his time in what is present-day Ukraine. Occasional remarks suggest that he hails from Scotland or England.

The recipient is only identified as a very dear friend, whom is being encouraged by the writer to meet in Sicily or France.

The first letter is written at Kremenchug [Kremenchuck] 11 November 1840, and contains information about life in the Crimea, with remarks on fantastic battlements, the church, Russian religious teachers, the Emperor, a scandalous situation with the former Empress, and more.

Saint Petersburg is mentioned, and the Kremlin in Moscow. Further reading may find him to have come from there to Kremenchug. He describes aspects of religion, and also writes of a curious and evidently controversial situation involving the Russian Imperial family. [The majority of the text remains to be discerned and will surely prove to be of historical significance.]

There is an air of caution as to what is divulged in this letter, evidently owing to censorship. Names are only written as a single letter abbreviation, for example.

A scant few excerpts from the text: 

“… he wanted to see my passport, money they had taken… from me at one of the ports into the city when I entered in the morning from Petersburg. Compound these nuisances, thought I was named ‘[….]’ from the hotel I was at… at last four or five hours pass… ‘take him by the cuffs’… ‘speak to this police officer’… I thought to myself it must be my hat they wanted… I took it off and walked through [barracks?]… Moscow… the blood rushed to my face… I have seen them all at Latvia before… and one day wandering about the Kremlin… I was suddenly at this gate… at the risk of being too late… made another exit…”

“… church here… it is a system… the Russians must have a teacher as to divine thinking men into a status of implicity, and yet there is much doing for Religion…
Though the Empress who was known is a Lister[?] of the present King of Russia with whom Mr. H. is, I may say intimate… She had on a proven […] left a report of this society to the Emperor. In the present, this witness was very interesting… explained… that the Empress had been thinking much on their subject. He was prepared at every point… He said he passed the censor out…”

Prior to this, the letter begins as follows:

“Your letter of 10th June which I have often read is now before me… have rather been expecting to hear from you again. I shall not scold you however until I get to Odessa as probably a letter may there await me…” 

“News from a far away country and my own land… speak from a premise very appreciable, – as besides interest in my points, they serve to while away a lonely hour, and like an exile who reads over & over an old newspaper, I when jaded… or disgusted with what I may see around me – pay a visit to my portfolio of a chat with absent society……..” 

“… you had not been well and I hope you went to Deeside… If you are not better what is to hinder you to come meet me in Sicily…” 

“I will tell you my proposed routes from both Sicily & Marseilles in case… From the former I intend to find my way by Naples to Rome, thence to Genoa or Turin and the Waldenses [Vaudois] – then across the North to Venice & Trieste… into the Tyrol…. to Munich then through Switzerland including Geneva & fall over Mont Blanc into the Rhone… at Lyons… Avignon to Marseilles & next to Montpelier… to climb the Pyrenees & roll over to Barcelona, Vitoria, Carthagena, Malaga, Gibraltar, Cadiz…. Madrid (war risk excepted)… & probably Paris.” [His reference to Waldenses may be in relation to the district near Piedmont, some 30-40 miles southwest of Turin, where the 20,000 Waldenses religious sect had settled.]

[In the 1840s, Kremenchug was renowned for its semi-annual market fairs held in January, June and August. The events drew in up to 10 thousand market merchants, up to 50 thousand chumaks [an historic occupation of traders in the Crimea primarily known for selling salt]. At these fairs most everything was traded, including iron, leather, cloth, cloth, and agricultural implements. Nearby peasants bought and sold cattle, horses, oxen, bread, wool. Landlords came from rural inland regions to purchase goods imported from Vienna, Warsaw, the East.]

The second letter is written at Nicolayiev [Myklaiv] on 21 November 1840 and reminisces on a sledge travel through the southern Russian steppe. During this part of the journey, he came to know the Kalmyk people, whom he describes in the letter, with great compassion for the hardships and isolation endured by them.

He writes,

“Between Kharkoff [Kharkiv?] and Krementchung [Kremenchug] the weather was milder and on leaving the latter place we began to meet camels and Circassians… camping…”

“I began to think we had got past of the snow but we fell into it again on the Steppes of South Russia which surrounded the Northern side of the Black Sea… We had been travelling by sledge which I find very appreciable, and is something very novel to me, altho’ it is a weary uncomfortable journey across these dreary Steppes with endless snow before and around me…”

I had a fine fellow of a Postilion for 400 or 500 miles, a very handsome Russian with a magnificent beard… He had an extremely fine face reminded me of [Dr?] Gordon of Edinburgh who I always thought had a most apostolic countenance… I also thought my Postilion had a cross of the Jew in him – having more of their finishes and expression than of the Bluff Russian…” 

[The writer may be referring to the Scottish Reverend Dr Robert Gordon 1786-1853, minister, author, and prominent figure in the Free Church of Scotland.]

“He and I got into the way of understanding each other very well – altho’ my vocabulary does not amount to the number of letters in the alphabet… On arrival here one of his three horses died… very sad. I consoled him by giving him a few roubles more than his bargain which these poor Postilions are not accustomed in Russia…” 

“There is an arm of the Black Sea here into which the River Bug flows – about 1 1/2 or 2 miles across – it is surface frozen – that the ferry boat cannot cross, not sufficiently so yet to be safe to pass. I am thus detained here with hopes the ice may be strong enough this afternoon…” 

I have been among the Kalmicki Tartars [Kalmyks] and seen their strange flat-topped houses – half burried in the earth. One pretty custom I will tell you of – the Tartars never drink tea but generally coffee in very small cups – after dispensing one cup if a Tartar be doing the honors of the table, he will lick it clean with his tongue before filling it again. They use also a very strong spirit distilled from Mama’s milk… Poor Woman & I have told you I saw his movement…..” 

“It is a very desolate place on the edge of the Steppe.”

Here the writer goes on to recount a tragic death of one of the nomads, the isolation of their lives, and their religious beliefs surrounding life on earth and death.

[The Kalmyks are a nomadic pastoral people. They are the Oirats in Russia, whose ancestors migrated from Dzungaria in 1607. They created the Kalmyk Khanate in 1630-1771 in Russia’s North Caucasus territory. In 1798, Tsar Paul I recognized the Don Kalmyks as Don Cossacks. As such, they received the same rights and benefits as their Russian counterparts in exchange for providing national military services. Over time, the Kalmyks gradually created fixed settlements with houses and temples, in place of transportable round felt yurts. In 1865, Elista, the future capital of the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was founded. Today they form a majority in the Republic of Kalmykia located in the Kalmyk Steppe, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. They are the only traditionally Buddhist people whose homeland is located in Europe.]

[A postilion or postillion guides a horse-drawn coach or post chaise mounted on the horse or one of a pair of horses.]

The third letter is written at Odessa on 28 November 1840. This provides excellent contemporary description of the marine quarantine for which Odessa is historically renowned. In addition, a firsthand account as a guest of a Cossack soldier, reveals the life of a typical Cossack family, with thorough details of a standard one room cottage home, and some of their customs.

Rather entertaining are the writer’s further descriptions of brothels in Russia, and the fastidious rituals of dealing with a quarantined vessel. He also touches upon the lack of trade during this period.

The writer is travelling with two others. Having left Odessa and arrived at a Cossack village, they are welcomed overnight at a Russian soldier’s home. The guests and family included numbered ten people sleeping in a modest one-room cabin.

Some highlights from the letter:

“I have a letter to send you today which is brought up to the 6th inst… so send… as an appendix with a Crimean frontispiece.” 

“There are some beautiful spots in that country… Here I am located in a splendid hotel & clean sheets, a luxury in this part of the world but by a strange contradiction in my nature I don’t always sleep so well in it as I have always done on the mud floor or the wooden bench of a Russian post house, with an open door & cutthroat looking chap flaring a candle perhaps in your eyes. I have been more than once awakened out of a sound sleep by one of these bearded postillions walking into the room… perhaps supposing I might be the Postmaster taking a siesta under the influence of vodka… yet in Russia I never had time to think of danger.” 

There are a good many British ships here – 10 of which are still seeking freight… since April last… those chaps bent up in their ships all that time or a place like a bird cage on a large scale called the Parlatorium where they may have conversation with those ‘who are without’ for a short time each day… I am told that one of those capts., who has his wife with him, having taken his Pratique… voluntarily went on board his ship again in the Quarantine harbour where of course after having mixed with the unclean, he must again perform Pratique before he can come out or depart from the port…” 

You never saw a Quarantine perhaps – this place of parley is really very droll – you go into a place like a Popish confessional– and at the further end are wired trellis – then there is a division in the center… another trellis, opening on a sort of stall by the side of the water. The Capt. or person in Quarantine speaks through the one & you on the other side speak through the other. It is rather dark too… I could not recognise the countenances of two capts., one belonging to the Dundee, the other to Kirkaldywhom we have often had to do with at home. To see them today in the Quarantine pound is also very amusing. The Russian boatmen & peasants go off the lighters to a medium distance – then hoist a flag – for the ships crew to come off & they scamper as if all the seven plagues were at their heels…” 

The ships people take the goods & of course if by chance a bit of string which had fastened the mouth of a sack remains in the lighter after having had communication with the unclean, she must go through the ordeal of purification…” 

Fancy also a fellow coming with a pair of long tongs to take letters from those men who have been laying in the harbour of Odessa six months…”

[One of Europe’s last major epidemics of the bubonic plague devastated the city of Odessa. It was a time of unprecedented paranoia, mass quarantine, corrupt plague-profiteers and debauchery. On 22 November 1812, all 32,000 residents of Odessa were forcibly imprisoned in their homes. The city’s popular governor-general, the French Duke de Richelieu, assembled 500 Cossacks to “restrain” the entire population and ensure its complete isolation. The plague raged with violence and was soon killing up to 40 people each day. No one was permitted to open their windows or doors, except when authorities delivered water-soaked meat and fumigated bread twice a day. Tar-smeared galley-slaves, who were used to spending their servitude rowing ships, were forced to push carts carrying the plague-afflicted through the muddy streets. They raised a red flag when transporting the dying, and a black flag when transporting the dead. Odessans spent a total of 66 days confined in their homes before the Duke’s order was lifted. When it was all over, the plague had claimed the lives of 2656 people out of an original population of 32,000.
Sailors could see the plague flags flying above Odessa’s port while still out at sea. A yellow flag meant purification; a red flag meant the Black Death had already arrived. The crew of every foreign vessel that arrived in Odessa was forced to endure a period of confinement inside the city’s quarantine quarters. Guards armed with loaded muskets surrounded the grounds at all times, and anyone who attempted to escape before they were cleared was shot dead on the spot. In 1839, one year before the present letter was written, the Lancet described Odessa’s the maximum quarantine facility known as Lazaretto, “one of the severist in the world”.]

The letter continues after departing from Odessa, 

“… one evening toward dark we reached a Cossack village – one of those which we called Paysans Militaires of which there are many both on the Bug, the Don, and the Ukraine, in fact one sixth of the whole Peasantry belong to the Crown – they have a house and a little land and are liable to be called whenever their services are needed. ” 

“… just as we reached this village… we stuck in a hole and our horses could not pull us… sent to a cottage, got two oxen… The soldier was a very tall fine looking man… a moustache but no beard, the soldiery don’t wear these and I rather think that even the Jews who are now in Russia liable to the conscription must part with their chin furnishing.” 

“There was only one room in the cottage… a Putch or stove – which served as fire – an oven and a bed on the top and behind it… a sort of seat at one side – built of stone & clay… They burn for the most part straw, the soldier had besides his wife, four children & an old mother… he was kind to her & indeed his whole family… their supper, a sort of soup… reaching from one side of the stove to the wall and nearly to the middle of the room, a flat wooden table or form, which served as well for a bed as for a seat…” 

“… to see this family at this evening meal… one large dish & wooden spoons for all… a small portion for herself (mother) & child…” 

“… the Russian serf however superstitious his religion may be, has a devotional feeling that would read a lesson to Christians with us. These poor people would not touch their simple fare before offering up a prayer & crossing themselves…” 

“We all slept in one room, the man and his wife and child… the old mother… the oldest daughter & the third child… the oldest and a very nice boy… Gregory slept on some straw at the door of the Putch – thus sleeping guard. Sergei…” 

“Each of this family by the pale light of a very primitive lamp being some sort of a tin vessel filled with grease and a bit of cotton or string dipped in it & hung over the edge – paid their devotions also before retiring to rest….” 

“I gave this man some tracts & wished much I had a Bible to give him, but had no Russian one with me. I gave him however a trifle to buy one – and each of the children 1s in Cossacks, about 7 d, they looked as if they had never seen so much money all their lives. To show from this how very simple these poor people live.” 

“I may mention that on giving a piece of […] to the youngest child, it did not know what it was, thought it rather too much the color of the whitewhashed cottage an threw it on the floor… The father picked it up… deposited it on the shelf of a little cupboard.” 

And shall such a man as this be forced from his house to take the life of his fellow man or be cut off from his family – oh let us pray without ceasing that the time may speedily come when wicked wars shall cease…” 
End Excerpts.

Cossacks were a group of predominantly East Slavic-speaking people who became known as members of democratic, self-governing, semi-military communities, predominantly located in Southern Russia and in the present day South-Eastern Ukraine. They inhabited sparsely populated areas and islands in the lower Dnieper, Don, Terek and Ural river basins and played an important role in the historical and cultural development of both Ukraine and Russia. Because of their military tradition, Cossack forces played an important role in Russia’s wars of the 18th – 20th centuries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tsarist regime used Cossacks extensively to perform police service. They also served as border guards on national and internal ethnic borders (as was the case in the Caucasus War of 1817 – 1864).

In 1783, Crimea was traded to Russia by the Ottoman Empire as part of the Treaty provision after the Ottoman Empire was defeated by Catherine the Great. This increased the Russian Empire’s power in the Black Sea area. The Ottoman Empire’s frontiers would gradually shrink for another two centuries, and Russia would proceed to push her frontier westwards to the Dniester. In 1921 the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created. This republic was dissolved in 1945, and the Crimea became an oblast first of the Russian SSR (1945-1954) and then the Ukrainian SSR (1954-1991).

Nicolayiev [Myklaiv] 21 November 1840:

Between Kharkoff and Krementchung…:

… journey from Petersburg…:

… weather was milder …
& Circassians – camping…
to think we had just got
on the Steppes…
… Black Sea…:

Though the Empress who was known …
[King of] Russia with whom Mr. H. is, I may say intimate…
a report of this society to the Emperor:

endless snow before and around me
a Postilion for 400 or 500 miles…
with a magnificent beard…:

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