How Bulgarian Rebels 'Determined' the Prime Minister of Britain: William Gladstone and 'the Question of the East'

How Bulgarian Rebels ‘Determined’ the Prime Minister of Britain: William Gladstone and ‘the Question of the East’

William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Britain (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894), who used the Bulgarian case to stage a vigorous attack on the policies of the Conservative Party government of his arch-rival, Lord Disraeli. Photo: Wikipedia

April 20, 1876 – The Bulgarians are making history their largest rebellion so far (later to be known as the April Uprising) against the Ottoman Empire in their quest for freedom and an independent nation state; meanwhile, in Britain, former Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader William Gladstone has been in opposition for two years to Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Benjamin Disraeli.

Two weeks later the several thousand badly armed rebels are wiped out by Ottoman troops and irregulars who take cruel revenge on the civilian population.

Some 30,000 people, mostly women, children, and elderly are raped, tortured, and slaughtered, with the Batak Massacre being the most gruesome famous but certainly not the only act with genocidal characteristics commited by Ottoman irregular and regular forces against the Bulgarian civilians and rebels.

These horrifying developments were made known to Europe and the world only some two months later, mostly through the reports of an American journalist working for the British press, Januarius MacGahan (1844-1878), and the American Consul in Istanbul, Eugene Schuyler (1840-1890). (MacGahan has even received posthumously the popular title of “LIberator of Bulgaria” because of signifiance of his press reports.)

Indeed, the most important consequence of all that not just from a Bulgarian point of view, but also from an international perspective has been the ensuing international indignation, Britain’s acquiescence to Russia’s new war against Ottoman Turkey (the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878 – possibly, the first Modern Era humanitarian intervention as we know it, still a controversial concept), and Bulgaria’s eventual liberation and independence.

However, in addition to alerting the world about Ottoman Turkey’s atrocities against the Bulgarians, MacGahan and Schuyler’s reports and the April Uprising itself turned out to play a major rule in the domestic politics of the No. 1 great power at the time, Great Britain (more precisely known today as the UK).

These two men’s reports about the Bulgarians were taken up by William Gladstone (1809-1898), the leader of the Liberal Party, and four times Prime Minister of Britain (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894), who used the Bulgarian case to stage a vigorous attack on the policies of the Conservative Party government of his arch-rival, Lord Disraeli.

Disraeli’s geopolitical course of action at the time was a firm backing of the Ottoman Empire as a buffer against the expansionist ambitions of Russia despite any abuses the Ottomans might have been committing against their Christian population, including the Bulgarians.

Disraeli’s standing was no head scratcher. It was purely consistent with the British geopolitical tradition during much of the 19th century in the context of the “Great Game” between the British and the Russian Empire in Eurasia.

William Gladstone, however, as truly great political leaders do at some point – invoked a morals cause, and one he seemed to have truly believed in.

He published a 32-page pamphlet, “Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East”, which became extremely popular with the British public at the time.

William Gladstone’s pamphlet “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East” tackled the Ottoman atrocities against the Bulgarians in the April Uprising of 1876, and thus attacking Disraeli’s government for stubbornly backing the Ottoman Empire.

While this article’s title that the Bulgarian rebels determined the UK Prime Minister is clearly an overstatement, the “Bulgarian Horrors” (the pamphlet, that is) actually aided Gladstone a great deal in his criticism of the Conservative Party and Disraeli, and thus strengthened his bid to regain the Prime Minister position in 1880.

How was this even possible? How was this pamphlet so powerful? Rather than seeking to retell or disect it, it’s best to let it speak for itself – so see for yourselves below.

Following are a few selected excerpts* from this powerful pamphlet, 141 years after the Bulgarians’ April Uprising against the Ottoman Turkish Empire took place, and 140 years and eight months after William Gladstone wrote it:


By William Gladstone


“In the difficult question of the East, entangled by so many crosspurposes and interests, the people of this country have shown a just, but a very remarkable, disposition to repose confidence in the Government of the day: and the Government of the day has availed itself to the uttermost of that disposition.

For months the nation was content, though measures and communications known to be of the highest interest were in progress, to remain without official information, and to subsist upon the fragmentary and uncertain notices which alone would transpire through the press. …

…Had the call upon the country been only that of Servia, Bosnia, and the Herzegovina, it would have been a grave one. But it is now graver far. By a slow and difficult process, the details of which I shall presently consider, and through the aid partly of newspaper correspondence, and partly of the authorised agent of a foreign State, but not through our own Parliament, or Administration, or establishments abroad, we now know in detail that there have been perpetrated, under the immediate authority of a Government to which all the time we have been giving the strongest moral, and for part of the time even material support, crimes and outrages, so vast in scale as to exceed all modern example, and so unutterably vile as well as fierce in character, that it passes the power of heart to conceive, and of tongue and pen adequately to describe them.

These are the Bulgarian horrors; and the question is, What can and should be done, either to punish, or to brand, or to prevent ? The details of these abominations may be read in published Reports, now known to be accurate in the main. They are hardly fit for reproduction.The authors of the crimes are the agents, the trusted, and in some instances, the since-promoted servants of the Turkish Government.

Рure moral and material support, which during the year has been afforded to the Turkish Government, has been given by the Government of England on behalf of the people of England. In order to a full comprehension of the practical question at issue, it will be necessary to describe the true character and position of the Turkish Power, and the policy, as I think it the questionable and erroneous policy, of the British Administration. …

…June 16. “Even now it is openly asserted by the Turks, that England has determined to help the Government to put down the various insurrections. England, says a Turkish journal, will defend us against Russia, while we look after our rebels.” …

…And I am still, writing on the 5th of September, dependent mainly on a foreign source for any official voucher to bring this testimony to the test. Mr. Schuyler, on the 22nd of August, reports to the American Government that the outrages of the Turks were fully established. He proceeds as follows, with more to the same effect:

“An attempt, however, has been made and not by Turks alone to defend and to palliate them, on the ground of the previous atrocities which, it is alleged, were committed by the Bulgarians. I have carefully investigated this point; and am unable to find that the Bulgarians committed any outrages or atrocities, or any acts which deserve that name. …”

…I express then my gratitude to Mr. Schuyler, and to the Government which sent him into the field. It is too late, as I have said, to hope to convince Europe by any report of ours. We may ourselves be sceptical to Russian reports.

Every European State is more or less open to the imputation of bias. But America has neither alliances with Turkey, nor grudges against her, nor purposes to gain by her destruction. She enters into this matter simply on the ground of its broad human character and moment; she has no “American interests” to tempt her from her integrity, and to vitiate her aims. …

…It would have been as reasonable for the thirteen colonies of America in 1782, to negotiate separately for peace with Great Britain, as it would be for Europe in 1876 to allow that, in a settlement with Turkey, the five cases of Servia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, should be dealt with otherwise than as the connected limbs of one and the same transaction. ….

…I know of no case in which Turkey has refused to accede to the counsel of United Europe nay, even of less than United Europe, if Europe was not in actual schism with itself under unwise or factious influences. …

…Having done with the argumentative portion of the case, I desire to perform yet one other duty, by reminding my countrymen that measures appear to be most urgently required for the relief of want,
disease, and every form of suffering in Bulgaria. …

5th Sept. 1876.”

*Gladstone, William, “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East”, available at

*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on (Sofia News Agency).



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