Another paper from our cancelled conference ‘Space, Place and Scale’, this time by Ross Cameron, whom we thank. This essay examines perceptions of the Balkan peninsula in western travel writing of the late-19th and the early 20th century.
Ross Cameron is an AHRC sponsored PhD researcher in Comparative Literature based at both the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde. Provisionally his thesis is titled ‘Beyond Balkanism: Anglo-American Women’s Imaginative Geographies of the Balkans, 1900-1939’. It explores how women travellers negotiated and destabilised the discourse of balkanism and their central role in recasting images of the Balkans in the Western imagination. He has previously graduated in History from the University of Dundee and University of Glasgow and can be found on Twitter at @ross_cmrn.
In 1808 the German geographer Johann August Zuene coined the term ‘Balkan Peninsula’ (Balkanhalbeiland) for the southeastern portion of the European landmass that protrudes into the Mediterranean bounded on the east and west by the Black and Adriatic Seas. The name arose from a misconception that the Balkan Mountains did not taper out but instead stretched unbroken from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Trieste. Maria Todorova argues in Imagining the Balkans that the term ‘Balkan’ mutated from a geographical designation into a potent pejorative, a euphemism for a state of political fragmentation, savage and ancient enmities and wretched poverty. As she puts it, the region ‘induced a straightforward attitude, usually negative, but rarely nuanced’ with such attitudes coalescing in the period between the Eastern Crisis of the 1870s and the Balkan Wars into a coherent discourse which she terms ‘balkanism’.
Arguing that balkanism in both its development and tropes is by no means synchronous with Edward Said’s binary orientalism, Todorova presents Western discourses on the Balkans as based upon ‘an imputed ambiguity’ reflective of the Balkan Peninsula’s geographical, cultural and political liminality. Corrupted by Orthodoxy and Islam, balkanism discursively constitutes the Balkans as Europe’s ‘incomplete-self’, a pre-Enlightenment thus inferior version of Europe’s west, through a series of hierarchical civilisational oppositions: rational/irrational, progressive/backwards, orderly/chaotic, civil/violent, masculine/hyper-masculine. Despite distancing her balkanist formulation from orientalism, she asserts the discourse gains what Said calls ‘textual attitude’, whereby discourses harden over time as humans apply knowledge gained from discourse to reality creating a self-reinforcing cycle of repetitive and highly regulated tropes. Her balkanism, much like Said’s hegemonic orientalism, is ‘a frozen image’ characterised by an unalterable repertoire of tropes used time and again in Western writings on the peninsula.
Travel writing scholars have extensively revised Said’s original orientalist formulation with Dennis Porter, Peter Hulme, Sara Mills and Shirley Foster amongst many others demonstrating in various ways that orientalism, and colonial discourses more broadly, are highly mutable. The same revisionary process has not occurred in relation to balkanism. The only significant effort in this regard has been Andrew Hammond’s study of Anglo-American travel writing on the Balkans with his understanding of balkanism remaining defined by periods of discursive hegemony separated by diachronic ruptures engendered by Serbia’s alliance with the Triple Entente in World War One and the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
This paper demonstrates the heterogeneity of images of the Balkans found in Anglo-American travel writing. Travel literature, immensely popular during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is a particularly rich medium for exploring cross-cultural representations for, as Irvin Schick notes in The Erotic Margin, it ‘created both the context and substance of [Western] European perceptions of the rest of the world’. Similarly it provides a prism through which Western Europeans constitute their home culture in opposition to the ‘agonistic spaces of alterity’ encountered abroad. In this way, balkanism does not exist in a vacuum but is interpellated by various ideological, political and cultural currents that lead travel writers to imagine the Balkans in markedly distinct ways in the period between the Eastern Crisis and the Balkans Wars. In effect, while Todorova suggests this was the period in which balkanism crystallised into a set representational form, it was actually the moment where Anglo-American images of the region proliferated into a series of diffuse constellations.
Following Todorova’s balkanist formulation, the dominant manner in which British travellers understood the Balkans as a region was important for the maintenance of friendly trade routes to the Levant and beyond. Reflecting Britain’s Turkophilic imperial policy that since the Congress of Vienna propped up the decaying Ottoman Empire as a means of preserving the European balance of power and with it Britain’s imperial, industrial and commercial pre-eminence, travel writers tended to denigrate the Balkans as a means of denying Balkan peoples the possibility of self-rule. Representative is the Anglo-Irish traveller James Creagh’s work Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah (1876). He describes the ‘despotic and paternal rule’ of the Porte as preventing the region’s indigenous inhabitants from ‘tearing each other to pieces’, suggesting that Ottoman rule and its repressive policies were the only way to maintain stability in the Balkans given the innate savagery and backwardness of the indigenous peoples.
This denigratory representational paradigm was not static but changed across time through the incorporation of new motifs in the first decade of the twentieth century. The erosion of the Porte’s authority, rising nationalist tensions, particularly in Macedonia, and competing Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperialisms saw travel writers foreground the region’s threat to the stability of Europe. For example, Harry De Windt in Through Savage Europe (1907) represents the Balkans as a hotbed of political intrigue, kidnappings, terrorism and assassinations ‘where you must travel with a revolver in each pocket and your life your hand’.
Even Edith Durham, one of the writers more sympathetic towards Balkan cultures in this period, adopts this tone with the train from Vienna that carries her into ‘the lands where everyone is “suspect” … the whirlpool of international politics’ described as ‘rush[ing] on through the dark’ with disembodied sounds – ‘a loud yell and a scramble … a gunshot’ – marking her text with a clear sense of chaos. This passage ends with Durham playing on the region’s reputation as a threat to the safety of travellers with her and her companions drinking ‘to each other’s long life … as if we really meant it’. Durham, however, was an anomaly in this period for she consistently argues that Balkan ‘chaos’ was not an innate characteristic of the region but was the result of Great Power interference in local affairs. Far more representative is De Windt who, judging the Ottoman Empire a spent force, effusively praises the ‘marvellous transformation effected by Austria’. Going on he writes, with ‘magical rapidity’ the Dual Monarchy had civilised ‘the recently barbaric provinces of Herzegovina and Bosnia’, which had been occupied by Austro-Hungary following the Treaty of Berlin and were annexed the year after his journey, suggesting that only an external imperial power could bring stability to the Balkans.
Another crucial element in discourses on the Balkans was the influence of liberalism, which introduces counter-hegemonic statements in travel texts that contest Todorova’s denigratory balkanism. During the Eastern Crisis there was fierce political debate in Britain regarding the future of Ottoman held Balkan territories. Liberal politicians and commentators, spearheaded by William Gladstone, instrumentalised reports of atrocities committed by Ottoman irregulars against Christian Slavs to undermine the legitimacy of the Porte’s continued rule over a portion of Europe. They suggested that the conquest of the Balkans by the Ottoman Turks had arrested the region’s historical development and with their expulsion the Southern Slavs would gradually converge with the historical trajectory of Europe. An example of this thinking is seen in Paulina Irby’sTravels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe(1877). Far from decrying the innate savagery of the Balkans, she proposes that the ‘barbarous’ rule of the Ottomans had stunted Balkan people’s progress as few were ‘educated, not one man in a hundred knowing how to read’, commerce was left in a ‘contemptible’ condition and ‘vexatious hindrances … under the present regime’ prevented them from developing a Western entrepreneurial mentality.
Arthur J. Evans, who went onto uncover Minoan civilisation at Knossos, similarly praises the ‘poetic genius’ of Balkan peoples and proposes, in terms reflective of contemporary racial discourses, that their artistic achievements were ‘a token that the race is capable of attaining to the highest pinnacles of civilisation’. In short, it was evidence that ‘the stock [was] … not all cankered’ as a result of Turkish rule, indicating that Balkan peoples, although understood as inferior to Western Europeans, could one day progress towards European civilisational standards.
This position remained surprisingly durable, even as liberal political investment in the national emancipation of Balkan peoples waned following Gladstone’s 1880 election victory. However, it generally continued in a more fragmentary form with travellers choosing one Balkan nation-state to champion at the expense of others. For example, in The East End of Europe (1908) Allen Upward describes how in Greece Western industriousness was superseding the idle and Oriental habits of the Ottomans and presents the country as ‘an island of light’ against the ‘sea of war and desolation’ that was the rest of the Balkans. As the title of his travel book indicates, he also draws equivalence between the Balkans and the depraved and violent masses that inhabited Britain’s working class slums in the bourgeois imagination. Similarly John Foster Fraser sees the Bulgarians as ‘undoubtedly the sturdiest, most industrious, best fitted for self-government’ amongst Balkan peoples but the peninsula is described as ‘that wild and bloodstained land’ and ‘a confused kettle of fish’, with such terms connoting essentialised savagery and chaos.
The first decade of the twentieth century also saw the emergence of a new form of Balkan travel writing that developed in tandem with the expanding frontiers of tourism and offered a more positive representation of the region. This strand of travel literature is premised upon a romantic response to industrial capitalism that views home as utilitarian and abroad as somewhere different and distant from familiarity with the Balkans represented for a wealthy class of tourist seeking to escape the democratised travel experience of the Riveria and Italian cities.
These travel writers inverse the symbolic value of Balkan pre-modernity from a denigrating sign of cultural backwardness to a signifier of the region’s desirable, picturesque and timeless attractions for Western tourists. The Chicago socialite Frances Hutchinson describes Dalmatia as having ‘strange magic in the name! How remote and Asiatic it sounded’, it conjures ‘visions of mountain fastnesses and landlocked harbours, of curious buildings and primitive peoples’. In her rapturous introduction to the Balkans oriental, sublime and picturesque qualities are favourably contrasted against the refined and rationalised environments found further west in Europe that are ‘far too crowded, too dusty, too gay!’ suggesting they had been irrevocably tarnished by over-development, vulgar commercialism and the arrival of a less wealthy class of tourist.
These travellers sought to stress the safety of the Balkans in order to encourage other tourists to visit. Hutchinson describes how in her journey she saw ‘but four policemen in all – ornamental rather than necessary’ indicating to her readers that the Balkans, despite its dangerous reputation, was a perfectly safe destination. Rather than undertaking actual policing, the policemen are simply ornaments whose colourful regalia enhance the picturesque quality of the Balkan scene. In doing so, however, touristic travellers become imbricated in the colonial function of balkanist discourse with the safety of the Balkans attributed to benevolent Habsburg administration who, as Maude Holbach puts it, ‘brought peace and prosperity to a land’ that a few years previously had been given up to ‘bloodshed and sedition’. Indeed, in a very real sense it was Austro-Hungarian administration that facilitated touristic travel for they had lain railways, macadamised roads and built hotels up to Western standards that allowed tourists to consume picturesque Balkan culture without the accompanying pre-modern inconveniences.
The form of touristic travel that developed in the Edwardian period was brought to an end with the Balkan Wars. These conflicts introduced new patterns of mobility in the Balkans as women working for Scottish Women’s Hospitals and the British Red Cross travelled to the region for philanthropic purposes writing travel texts infused with wartime Serbophilia. Indeed, Britain’s wartime alignment with Serbia engendered more profound changes in Western representations of the Balkans that unfolded during the interwar period. However, as this paper has sought to demonstrate, even before this historical conjuncture there were a number of distinct representational forms through which Anglo-American travellers represented the Balkans that undercut Todorova’s monolithic balkanist formulation. It should also be noted that certain travellers, particularly the aforementioned Edith Durham, carved out their own complex representational forms and that gender is a highly salient factor in the destablisation of the normatively masculine discourse of balkanism. These issues form the focus of my PhD research but have been left out of this brief survey as they deserve fuller treatment on their own.
 Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 14.
 Ibid, 14-20.
 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), 63.
 Maria Todorova, ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Slavic Review, 53:2 (1994), 460.
 Dennis Porter, Haunted Journeys: Desire and Transgression in European Travel Writing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An analysis of women’s travel writing and colonialism (London: Routledge, 1991); Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797 (London: Routledge, 1992); Shirley Foster, ‘Colonialism and Gender in the East: Representations of the Harem in the Writings of Women Travellers’, The Yearbook of English Studies, 24 (2004), 6-17.
 Andrew Hammond, The Debated Lands: British and American Representations of the Balkans (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007).
 Irvin Schick, The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alterist Discourse (London: Verso, 1999), 27.
 James Duncan and Derek Gregory (eds.), Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing (London: Routledge, 1999), 5-6.
 Vesna Goldsworthy points out that Britain’s only territorial possessions in the Balkans have been the Dalmatian island of Vis (1811-1814) and the Ionian islands (1809-1863). See, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (London: Yale University Press, 1998), 1.
 James Creagh, Over the Borders of Christendom and Eslamiah: A Journey Through Hungary, Slavonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, to the North of Albania, vol. 2 (London: Samuel Tinsley, 1875), 125.
 Harry de Windt, Through Savage Europe (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907), 15, 201.
 M. Edith Durham, The Burden of the Balkans (London: Edward Arnold, 1905), 85-88.
 De Windt, 81.
 Georgina Muir MacKenzie and Paulina Irby, Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe, vol. 1 (London: Daldy, Isbister and Co., 1877), 1-2.
 Arthur J. Evans, Through Bosnia and Herzegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September, 1875 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1877), 140-141.
 Allen Upward, The East End of Europe: The Report of an Unoffical Mission to the European Provinces of Turkey on the Eve of Revolution (London: John Murray, 1908), 5, 55-58.
 John Foster Fraser, Pictures From the Balkans (London: Cassel and Company Limited, 1906),3, 7, 12.
 Frances Kinsley Hutchinson, Motoring in the Balkans: Along the Highways of Dalmatia, Montenegro, the Herzegovina and Bosnia (Chicago: A.C. McClurg& Co., 1909), 17-19.
 Ibid, 166-167.
 Maude M. Holbach, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Some Wayside Wanderings (London: John Lane, 1910), 21-22.