War in Burma. The Russian Question. Curious Diplomatic Correspondence.

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 15 July 1853

First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 3833, July 30, 1853;
re-printed in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 854, August 2, 1853
Reproduced from the New York Daily Tribune
This article, excluding the first section "War in Burma", was published under the title "The Russian Question.—Curious Diplomatic Correspondence" in The Eastern Question.
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 12 (pp.201-208), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1979

London, Friday, July 15, 1853

By the latest overland mail from India, intelligence has been received that the Burmese ambassadors have rejected the treaty proposed by General Godwin. The General afforded them 24 hours more for reflection, but the Burmese departed within 10 hours. A third edition of the interminable Burmese war appears to be inevitable.[1] Of all the warlike expeditions of the British in the East, none have ever been undertaken on less warranted grounds than those against Burma. There was no possible danger of invasion from that side, as there was from the North-West, Bengal being separated from Burma by a range of mountains, across which troops cannot be marched. To go to war with Burma the Indian Government is obliged to go to sea. To speak of maritime aggressions on the part of the Burmese is as ridiculous, as the idea of their coast-junks fronting the Company's war steamers would be preposterous. The pretension that the Yankees had strong annexation propensities applied to Pegu, is borne out by no facts. No argument, therefore, remains behind, but the want of employment for a needy aristocracy, the necessity of creating, as an English writer says, "a regular quality-workhouse, or Hampton Court[2] in the East." The first Burmese war (1824-26), entered into under the Quixotic administration of Lord Amherst, although it lasted little more than two years, added thirteen millions to the Indian debt. The maintenance of the Eastern settlements at Singapore, Penang and Malacca, exclusive of the pay of troops, causes an annual excess of expenditure over income amounting to £ 100,000. The territory taken from the Burmese in 1826 costs as much more. The territory of Pegu is still more ruinous. Now, why is it that England shrinks from the most necessary war in Europe, as now against Russia, while she tumbles, year after year, into the most reckless wars in Asia? The national debt has made her a trembler in Europe the charges of the Asiatic wars are thrown on the shoulders of the Hindoos. But we may expect from the now impending extinction of the Opium revenue of Bengal, combined with the expenses of another Burmese war, that they will produce such a crisis in the Indian exchequer, as will cause a more thorough reform of the Indian Empire than all the speeches and tracts of the Parliamentary Reformers in England.

Yesterday, in the House of Commons, Mr. Disraeli asked Ministers, whether, after the latest circular note of the Russian Cabinet, Mr. Layard might not very properly bring in his motion. Lord John Russell answered, that it appeared to him by far the best not to hear Mr. Layard at present, as, since the publication of that note, it was more important than ever to negotiate. "The notion of the honorable member, that negotiations had come now to a deadlock, was an erroneous notion." Lord John, while actually confessing his Aberdeen credo, attempted to re-vindicate the dignity of the civis Romanus sum[3] party in the following words:

"I naturally supposed that a person of the experience and sagacity of Count Nesselrode, would not have affixed his signature to a document declaring to all the world that the Russian Government made the removal of the combined fleets the condition of its evacuation of the Principalities."[4]

In the subsequent Indian debate Mr. Bright moved, that from the ninth clause which provides, "that six of the directors not elected by the Crown, shall be persons who have been ten years in India in the service of the Crown or the Company," the words, "in the service of the Crown or the Company," should be expunged. The amendment was agreed to. It is significant, that during the whole Indian debate no amendments are agreed to by the Ministry, and consequently carried by the House, except those of Mr. Bright. The Peace Ministry, at this moment does everything to secure its entente cordiale[5] with the Peace party, Manchester School[6], who are opposed to any kind of warfare, except by cotton bales and price currents.

M. Drouyn de Lhuys, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, once upper clerk at the Foreign Office under M. Guizot, and declared by his chef, to possess hardly the necessary qualifications for that place, is now indulging freely in the pleasure of exchanging notes and circulars with Count Nesselrode. The Moniteur of yesterday brings his reply to the last (2d) circulaire of the Russian Minister[7], which concludes in the following terms:

"The moderation of France takes from her all responsibility, and gives her the right to hope that all the sacrifices which she has made to secure the tranquillity of the East will not have been in vain; that the Russian Government will at length discover some mode of reconciling its pretensions with the prerogatives of the Sultan's sovereignty; and that an arrangement [...] be devised that shall settle, without a resort to force, a question, on the solution of which so many interests are dependent."[8]

I mentioned in a former letter the propositions once made by M. de Villèle to Russia, for the maintenance of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, by a treaty of guarantee between all the Great Powers[9],propositions which called forth this reply from Count Pozzo di Borgo:

"That a general guarantee of the Ottoman Empire, independently of its being unusual and surprising, would wound the rights acquired by Russia and the principles upon which they are founded."[10]

Well, in 1841, Russia nevertheless agreed to become party to such an unusual treaty[11], and Nesselrode himself, in his note of 20th June (2d July) refers to that treaty. Why did Russia assent to it, in contradiction to its traditional policy? Because that treaty was not one of "guarantee of the Ottoman Empire," but rather of execution against its then only vital element, Egypt, under Mehemet Ali because it was a coalition against France, at least in its original intention.

The Paris journal La Presse gives in its number of to-day, which has just come to my hands, a correspondence never before published between the late General Sébastiani, Ambassador in London, and Mme. Adélaide, sister of Louis Philippe, a correspondence which reflects a remarkable light on the diplomatic transactions of that epoch. It contains clear proofs that the Treaty of 1841, far from having been originated by Russia, as Nesselrode affirms in his note, was, on the contrary, originated by France and England against Russia, and was only afterward turned by Russia into a weapon against France. I translate from this important correspondence as much as the pressure of time permits me to do:


London, April 21, 1836

In this country all parties are unanimous as to the necessity of closely watching Russia, and I believe that the Tory party is more decided than the Whigs, or at least it seems so, because it is not moderated by office.


London, June 12, 1838

I have had to-day a conference of two hours' duration with Lord Palmerston. I have been highly satisfied with him. I was not mistaken in assuring you that he was a friend of King Leopold, and above all a great partisan of the French Alliance. Lord Palmerston has conversed a great deal with me on Oriental affairs. He thinks that the Pasha of Egypt is decided as to his course of action. He wishes that England and France should make fresh efforts, supported by the presence of their fleets, in order to intimidate Mehemet, and that simultaneously our Ambassadors at Constantinople should inform the Sultan[13] that they have received orders from their Courts to assure him of their support against the attempts of the Pasha of Egypt, under the condition that he would not take the initiative in hostilities. I believe this to be a prudent course, and advisable to be followed by England and France. We must maintain the Porte and not suffer the Provinces of Egypt, Syria and Celesyria to become detached from it. Russia only awaits for the moment for marching up her succours to the Sultan, and that assistance would be the end of the Ottoman Empire.


London, July 6, 1838

People in this country believe in the general understanding of Europe as to the Oriental question. The answer from Paris is impatiently looked for. I think not to have surpassed the line of conduct traced to me by the King in several conversations. As soon as the entente shall be established in principle, the manner of action and the position to be taken up by each of the Powers, will be regulated according to contingencies. The part Russia has to play must, of course, be maritime, like that of France and England, and in order to prevent any danger that might result from the action of the fleet in the Black Sea, she must be brought to the understanding that her squadron in the combined fleet is to be drawn from the Baltic.


London, October 3, 1839

England has not accepted the Russian propositions[14], and Lord Palmerston informed me, on the part of the Government, that she had refused, in order to remain true to the French Alliance. Induced by the same feeling she consents that Mehemet Ali shall receive the hereditary possession of Egypt, and of that portion of Syria within a boundary to be demarked, which should go from St. Jean d'Acre, to the lake of Tabariye. We have, not without difficulty, obtained the assent of the English Government to these latter propositions. I do not think that such an arrangement would be rejected by either France or Mehemet Ali. The Oriental question simplifies itself; it will be terminated by the concurrence of the Powers, and under the guaranty of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. All the principles are maintained. The Sublime Porte is admitted to the law of nations of Europe. The exclusive protectorate of Russia is annihilated. I have asked myself why the Republican faction in France showed itself so favorable to Mehemet Ali, and why it has so warmly espoused his cause. I have not been able to find out any other motive, but the revolutionary principle, that of trying to support, to encourage all that is likely to subvert established governments. I believe we ought never to give in to such a snare.


London, November 30, 1839

I learn from an authentic source, that Lord Palmerston, in the last council of Ministers, in giving an account of the situation of Oriental affairs, and of the differences existing between the French and English policies, did so with a moderation and a regard for the alliance of both countries, that deserve our gratitude. He has even drawn the attention of his colleagues to a system similar to that mentioned by me. In conclusion he has yielded as to forms, and has renounced a policy of action and of inevitable complication.


London, Dec. 12, 1839

I have seen Lord Palmerston, as I was anxious to know, whether he had to inform me of anything respecting the communication he recently made to me. He has read to me the letter of M. de Nesselrode to the Russian Chargé d'Affaires, which corresponded exactly to what he had told me. The arrival of M. de Brunnow will initiate us into the secret thoughts of the Cabinet of St. Petersburg. Lord Palmerston has been charming in forms and in matter. He views with pleasure the return of good feelings between the French and English Cabinets, and the continuation of the alliance. Believe me, I do not exaggerate in this. I told him with the confidence of truth, that the new situation was exactly such as France had ever wished it to be. He was forced to recognize it himself. The Prince of Esterházy has written to his Chargé d'Affaires that he had been extremely content with the Marshal[15], and that he was trying at this moment to bring back the French Cabinet to an entente with Austria, but that he had found the King unmanageable. I can well believe it. The King does not lend his mind to such impracticable divagations. This I write for you alone. Indeed, I believe with your Royal Highness that Russia will be caught in her own nets.


London, December 18th, 1839

I have received this morning a dispatch, more than usually strange, from the Marshal. It is an answer to the letter in which I reported to him on the communication I made to Lord Palmerston, in regard to the impression evoked at Paris on the announcement of the new mission of M. de Brunnow, and of its aim. I have read to Lord Palmerston textuellement the paragraph of the dispatch addressed to me by the Marshal. But in the statement I made to him about it, I made use of such terms as rendered the same ideas without being identical with those of the Marshal. Now the Marshal is kind enough to assure me that there was no difference between my words and his own expression; but he recommends me that I ought to double my circumspection and endeavor to reestablish in our negotiations the textual meaning of his own dispatches. I am much mistaken if this be not a querelle allemande[16], a subtlety worthy of a Grec du Bas-Empire[17].... The Marshal is a novice in the career of diplomacy, and I fear that he seeks ability in fineness. He can find it only in sincerity and straightforwardness.


London, Jan. 3, 1840

Yesterday Lord Palmerston dined with me, in common with the whole Corps Diplomatique.... He told me that Ministers were going to ask for a supplementary vote for their naval forces, but he stated that he would propose to his colleagues not to demand it on account of the reinforcements of the French fleet, in order to avoid wounding an ally by the least allusion. Lord Holland and Lord John Russell are admirable in their efforts for maintaining the alliance.


London, Jan. 20, 1840

Lord Palmerston has communicated to me the project of a convention to be submitted to the Great Powers and to the Porte.... It is not a convention of the five Great Powers between themselves, but a convention of those same Powers with the Porte.... M. de Brunnow objects to that form (see Nesselrode's note, dated 2d July, inst., about the Russian initiative!).... This convention consists of a preamble and VIII articles: in the former it is stated in a positive manner, and almost textually, that the integrity of the Ottoman Empire being essentially necessary for the maintenance of the peace of Europe, the five Powers are disposed to lend it the requisite support and to make it enter into the international confidence of Europe. The articles regulate that support....

P.S.—I learn, at this moment, that Brunnow and Neumann are utterly discontented with the convention of Lord Palmerston.


London, January 21, 1840

The project of convention drawn up by Lord Palmerston appears to me to have been rejected by the Russian and Austrian negotiators. M. de Neumann distinguished himself by the violence, and, I venture to say, the stupidity of his complaints. He unveils the policy of his Court. Prince Metternich, who intended to sustain in his hands the balance of power, openly avows his hatred of Russia. He flattered himself to see the propositions of Brunnow received without restrictions, and both have been disappointed to find in Lord Palmerston a Minister who desires sincerely an alliance with France, and who is anxious to operate in understanding with her.


London, Jan. 24, 1840

To-day I had a long conversation with Lord Melbourne, who is a thorough partisan of the alliance with our King. He repeatedly called upon me to show him some means by which a combination of the French and English propositions could be effected.

He judges in the same light as we do the intentions of Russia, and he told me, in a conference with regard to the Vienna Cabinet, that it was not to be trusted, because it ever turned out in the end, to be the devoted partisan of Russia.


London, January 27, 1840

The turn now being taken by the Oriental affairs is alarming to me.... There is no doubt that Russia is pushing to war, and that Austria supports her with all her forces.... They have succeeded in frightening England with the "projects of France on the Mediterranean." Algiers and Mehemet Ali are the two means employed by them.... I make all possible efforts to obtain the rejection of the Brunnow propositions, and I had narrowly succeeded in it, when they heard of it, and Austria now presents the Brunnow propositions as her own. This is an evident trickery. But the Council has been convoked, in order to deliberate on the Austrian propositions. It is divided. On the one side, there are Lord Melbourne, Lord Holland and Mr. Labouchere; on the other, Lord Palmerston, Lord J. Russell, and Lord Minto. The other members are fluctuating between the two opinions.


London, January 28, 1840

The Council has hitherto only deliberated on one point of the project of Lord Palmerston. It has decided that the Convention should be contracted between six, and not between five (powers), as proposed by M. de Brunnow, who was not wanting in zeal for his particular interests (solicitude for the Ottoman Empire). The Porte would not consent to a Convention discussed and settled without its cooperation. By signing a Treaty with the five Great Powers she would come in consequence of this fact itself under the European law of nations.


London, 28th January, 1840

Are the politics and the interest of the King given up to the caprices of M. Thiers and his newspaper?[18] The system founded with so great pains, with such efforts, and maintained, notwithstanding so many difficulties, for more than ten years, is doomed to destruction.

  1. In the first Burmese war of 1824-26 the troops of the East India Company seized the Province of Assam, bordering on Bengal, and the coastal districts of Arakan and Tenasserim. The second Burmese war (1852) resulted in the seizure by the British of the Province of Pegu. Burma did not sign a peace treaty, however, and refused to recognise the seizure of Pegu. In 1853 the British authorities threatened to resume military operations but abstained from this step, largely due to the guerrilla warfare in Pegu against the foreign invaders, which continued until 1860. In the 1860s Britain imposed on Burma a number of unequal treaties and in 1885, as a result of the third Burmese war, annexed the whole territory of Burma.
  2. A palace on the Thames near London, the residence of the English kings from the 16th to the 18th centuries; in Marx's time it was the home of royal pensioners.—Ed.
  3. An allusion to Palmerston's speech during a parliamentary debate on the Anglo-Greek conflict in June 1850. In January 1850 the British Government presented Greece with an ultimatum and sent ships to blockade Piraeus using as a pretext the burning (in Athens in 1847) of the house of the Portuguese merchant Pacifico, who was a British subject. The real object of the move, however, was to make Greece surrender several strategically important islands in the Aegean Sea. In his speech of June 25, 1850 Palmerston justified Britain's action by the need to safeguard the prestige of British subjects, and drew an analogy between them and Roman citizens. The Latin phrase he cited: "civis Romanus sum" ("I am a Roman citizen"), was used to indicate the high status and privileges afforded by British citizenship.
  4. Quoted from The Times, No. 21481, July 15, 1853.—Ed.
  5. A reference to the cordial agreement (entente cordiale) between France and England in the early period of the July monarchy (1830-35). The agreement proved ineffectual, however, and was soon followed by increased friction between the two powers.
  6. The Manchester School—a trend in economic thinking which reflected the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. Its supporters, known as Free Traders, advocated removal of protective tariffs and non-intervention by the government in economic life. The centre of the Free Traders' agitation was Manchester, where the movement was headed by two textile manufacturers, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. In the 1840s and 1850s the Free Traders were a separate political group, which later formed the Left wing of the Liberal Party.
  7. A reference to Nesselrode's circular letter to Russian diplomats abroad of July 2, 1853. (Below Marx cites the date as June 20, 1853, according to the old style accepted in Russia.) The text of it was published in The Times, No. 21418, July 12, 1853. Written in the spirit of the previous Note of June 11, 1853, it supported the Tsarist Government's demands on Turkey and criticised the policy of the Western powers. In referring to the French Minister's reply to the Note, Marx made a slight error, which was due to the lack of clarity in the text of the telegram from Paris published in The Morning Post. He quoted from Drouyn de Lhuys' reply to Nesselrode's first Note of June 11, 1853, the text of which together with the text of the French Government's reply of June 25, 1853 was published in the official newspaper Le Moniteur universel, No. 195, on July 14, 1853. Nesselrode's Note of July 2 and Drouyn de Lhuys' reply to it of July 15 were published in Le Moniteur universel, No. 198 for July 17, 1853, after Marx had written his article. In the second Note, the French Government likewise expressed its disapproval of the Tsar's position in the Eastern question and professed to stand for a peaceful solution of the conflict.
  8. Quoted from The Morning Post, No. 24825, July 15, 1853.—Ed.
  9. See The Eighteenth Brumaire chapter V.—Ed.
  10. Quoted from The Portfolio, Vol. I, No. II, pp. 130-31.—Ed.
  11. A reference to the London Convention of July 13, 1841 (see below). The Convention annulled the Treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi (1833), which was advantageous to Russia because it opened the Black Sea Straits to Russian warships. Nevertheless, the Tsarist Government, which had taken part since 1840 in the joint military operations of the four powers (Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia) against Mehemet Ali, who was supported by France, was compelled to adhere to the principle of neutralising the Straits advanced by the Western powers. Yielding to threats of an anti-French coalition, France abandoned Mehemet Ali and signed the Convention.

    The Convention of 1841 on the Black Sea Straits was signed by Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, Russia and Turkey in London on July 13, 1841. According to the Convention the Bosporus and the Dardanelles were to be closed in peacetime to all foreign warships. The Convention said nothing about wartime, leaving Turkey to decide the question at her own discretion.
  12. In the New York Daily Tribune this document was published under No. II after the extract from H. Sébastiani's letter of June 12, 1838, which was erroneously datelined June 12, 1835. Here it is published as printed in La Presse of July 15, 1853.—Ed.
  13. Mahmud II.—Ed.
  14. Taking advantage of the Turko-Egyptian conflict of 1839 (see below) and increasing tension between Britain and France, the Tsarist Government proposed to Palmerston, in September 1839, the conclusion of an agreement, which, under the guise of joint assistance to the Sultan, would provide for a division of spheres of influence in the Middle East between the two powers. The British Government, which was striving for complete domination in Turkey, rejected the proposal on the pretext that the Eastern question should be settled by a general agreement of European powers.

    The aggravation of the Eastern question in the early 1840s was caused by the Turko-Egyptian war of 1839-41. In 1839 the Turkish army invaded Syria, which had been conquered in 1831-33 by the Egyptian ruler Mehemet Ali, but it was defeated. Fearing Russian intervention, the Western powers decided to send a joint Note to the Turkish Sultan offering their assistance. However, as a result of the struggle between Britain and France over spheres of influence in the Near East, the London Convention on military assistance to the Sultan was signed on July 15, 1840 by Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, without France. The latter was counting on Mehemet Ali, but was soon compelled to abandon him to his fate. After the military intervention of Britain and Austria. Mehemet Ali was forced to renounce all his possessions outside Egypt and submit to the supreme power of the Turkish Sultan.
  15. N. Soult, Prime Minister of France.—Ed.
  16. Literally: German quarrel; figuratively: groundless quarrel.—Ed.
  17. A Byzantine of the Eastern Roman Empire.—Ed.
  18. Le Constitutionnel.—Ed.