t was almost a joke in my family — about not wasting food because of the “starving Armenians.” Likewise came the snide response “So, do I put it in an envelope and send it?”
As children, we didn’t know the Armenians were a real people, not some operetta invention. After all, Armenia was not on the map. Later, when I learned about the mass killing of Armenians in 1915, for which the word “genocide” was coined, I figured that was when the starving occurred.
But finding this letter written by my eight-year-old grandfather, Albert Stoneman Long, put me straight on all counts.
When Bapa — as I knew him — wrote the letter, the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. Russia had won the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1888 and ethnic groups, such as the Christian Armenians, were pushing to create their own European-style nation states.
Armenian nationalist activity so tried the patience of Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid (Abdulhamit) II (1876-1909) that he cracked down on them in 1895. He set fanatical Muslim Kurds on the Armenians, provoking a wave violence known as the Hamidian Massacres. Between 100,000 to 300,000 Armenians were killed; thousands were forcibly resettled. Christian churches and monasteries were desecrated. Turks burned a cathedral with 3,000 Armenians in it.
On Yom Kippur in 1896, Turks attacked a synagogue where Jews had given Armenians sanctuary. The unusually cold winter of 1895-1896 brought famine. The Armenians were truly starving when my grandfather wrote to Queen Victoria in January of 1896.
Starvation and massacres in Biafra and Darfur have made us familiar with the mechanisms of international causes. The situation in Syria is now pressing. But it was reaction to the Hamidian Massacres that set the pattern: International outcry, calls for superpower intervention, NGO action — much of it whipped up by Western journalists who adopted a crisis as a project.
In the case of the Hamidian Massacres it was American journalist and adventurer William Lewis Sachtleben. He went to Turkey in 1895 in search of a fellow cyclist Frank Lenz who had disappeared during the Armenian chaos (Sachtleben had cycled across Asia and written a book about it; Lenz was never found.)
On his return, Sachtleben he wrote and lectured about the horrors he saw. American women’s groups, churches and schools raised money along with well-known financiers, including J.P. Morgan, whose group raised $300,000. The first International Red Cross relief mission was lead by Clara Barton. Many cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, promoted the boycott of Thanksgiving in 1896 in favor of “starving Armenians.” In 1896 the U.S. House and Senate passed a resolution condemning massacres, which was named for Illinois Republican Senator Shelby Moore Cullom.
The Armenian question was the cause of the day for well-educated people like my grandfather’s family, who, like Cullom, were from Illinois. They lived on Chicago’s south side near the University of Chicago. Bapa’s father John Harper Long was an eminent professor of chemistry at Northwestern University. His wife — and former student — was bright and cultivated and active in progressive causes, such as early childhood education, known as the Kindergarten movement. Her own family was almost a kindergarten in size. In addition to Albert, there were Lothar (named for chemist Lothar Meyer), Esmond (after a character in a William Thackeray novel), Byron (the poet) and Ariel (Shakespeare).
Today, the Armenians are still homeless. The Kurds are still restless. When Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recently defended the Armenian cause, he was prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness.”
Queen Victoria never did send troops (and not only because Bapa’s letter never got to her). However, among the papers where I found this letter, there was also a local Armenian-language newspaper and a certificate thanking Bapa’s father for services rendered to the Chicago Armenians.
Queen Victoria may not have acted, but my great-grandfather and his son Albert did their bit for the starving Armenians.
Jan. 29, 1896
The Armenians are in danger. Could you send over your troops into Turkey in Asia? Your army could close around the city with their backs to it, and then shoot down the mountains at the Kurds.
You are the most honored Queen on earth, and I am pretty sure your soldiers will obey you.
Your humble servant,
Albert S. Long
— Madeleine Johnson