The Book Of The Danube

excerpt Further down from Isaccea, at Ceatal, the Delta begins, as the Danube splits into the Chilia Arm, which flows along the Bessarabian bank. Downstream, after Tulcea, there is another Ceatal, whence the Danube splits in two: the Sulina Arm and the St George Arm. Let us trace them in turn as far as the sea, beginning with the Chilia Arm. Along this arm, after a few bends, the town of Ismail lies on the left. Smil, in Arabic. The ruins of the Venetian Bastion can still be seen. Allied with the Genoese, the Romanians long preserved this region at the mouth of the Danube. Stephen the Great (1457-1504) kept a powerful garrison here, as well as at Kilia. Once the Turks arrived, they strengthened the fort, using it as a bridgehead. Michael the Brave (1593-1601) occupied Ismail and Kilia around 1595, but was unable to hold them against the Turks. Ismail was besieged many times during the wars between the Russians and the Turks. In 1790, Suvarov took the fort and massacred the garrison and civilian population of Ismail. He mined the walls of the fort and blew it up. In modern history, the so-called Danube Question arises, as a corollary of the Eastern Question. But we must ask ourselves whether these political questions in their modern form have not always existed, following the rhythm of millenary conflicts, since the time when human societies first began to organise here, at the crossroads of three continents. Tribes, fortresses, empires ceaselessly fought each other for hegemony of the East: the expedition of the Argonauts, the Trojan War, the Battle of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea, the Byzantine Empire, the Crusades, the endless wars with the Turks... and had there been a different master in place of the Turks, the Eastern Problem would not ceased to exist, for this problem has no beginning and can have no end. After centuries of stagnation and ruin, navigation on the Danube is once again brought to life by a global event, the region awakes and the old East flourishes once more. The Suez Canal begins to be cut. Another route to the Indies is opened, much shorter than that via the Cape of Good Hope. The Crescent Moon wanes. The Islamic block cracks and splits into segments that one by one fall away. The East once more gains in importance. The old lines of world communication are reopened. The importance of the Danube grows once more, for it is the great natural road that cuts Europe in two, linking East and West. From the quarrel of the Great Powers is born the political question of the Danube. To the extent that Ottoman domination declines, between Russia and Austria rivalry grows over the river, which forms the spine of the Balkan Peninsula. By the Peace of Passarowitz (1718), Austria had gained the right to send commercial vessels down the lower Danube. After the Peace of Kuchuk Kainarji (1774), Russia gained the right to navigate the Black Sea and the course of the Danube. Realising their mistake in giving only the Russians and the Austrians the privilege of navigation, the Turks, thanks to the perseverance of Enachitza Vacarescu, issued a hatisherif whereby Wallachia gained the right to build "longboats, kayaks... a privilege of old which this land lost many years ago." In order to reorganise the fleet, during the time of Moruzi a Khrysoboulion (golden bull) was issued for "the ships of the Land that are to ride the waters of the Danube". The rebirth of Romanian navigation on the Danube coincides with the beginnings of the steamship. After Fulton's brilliant invention of sailing by means of fire failed to impress Napoleon, the stubborn inventor went to America. After successful attempts there, experiments began to be made on the rivers of Europe. One of the first trials took place on the Danube. A British company gained a concession from the Austrian Government to sail steamships on the entire course of the river. It was thus that the first Danube navigation company came into being. It was the first successful river steamship enterprise. The story goes that when Austrian steamships managed to pass the Iron Gates and descend as far as the mouths of the Danube, the enthusiasm was so great that Vienna and Budapest were reckoned to have become Black Sea ports. Russia, after repeated wars with Turkey, managed to enter into possession of the mouths of the Danube (the annexation of Bessarabia, 1812; the Akkerman Treaty, 1826; the Adrianople Treaty). Work was not carried out in order to prevent the entrance to the river become silted up. The navigable channel was in a much worse state than during the time of the Turks. Moreover, the Russians imposed quarantine on Sulina, taxes, obstacles, delays for foreign ships, ruining Danubian commerce. Means were found to stop Austrian expansion in the lower Danube, and at the same time to hinder the competitiveness of Romanian grain, which had began to flow down the Danube and over the sea to the West. Britain could no longer feed its population with indigenous agricultural produce. It began to depend on foreign grain. British ships had to bring grain from the Danube valley and the south Russian plains. In the Danube, British interests clashed with Russian policy; what was sought was to raise the price of Russian grain by hindering competition from Romanian grain. In order to get around the numerous difficulties raised by the Russians for navigation at the mouths of the Danube, the British and Austrians came to an understanding with the Turkish rulers of Dobrudja, and began to study the possibility of cutting a canal between Cernavoda and Constantza. It was then that the English built a railway linking Constantza to the Danube. At a time when there were still no railways in Romania, the Austrian shipping company did excellent business transporting goods and passengers between Vienna and Constantinople. A coincidence of interests grouped the alliance of major powers against Russia. After the Crimean War, by the Treaty of Paris (1856), Russia was completely removed from the Danube, returning the south of Bessarabia to Moldavia. And because Turkey could not and Russia would not maintain the mouths of the river in conditions suitable for navigation, the European Danube Commission was set up. The Black Sea and the Danube were declared neutral. Navigation on the river was to be a shared and equal right for all the nations of Europe. Hydrotechnical works were carried out at the Sulina mouth, deepening the channel and making it possible for large ships to reach as far as Braila. Order and safety were established on this portion of the river, named the Maritime Danube. Before the installation of the European Commission, Sulina was nothing more than a nest of Greek and Maltese pirates. With lanterns hanging from the horns of oxen, they used to lure sailors on to the sandbanks, and then plunder the stranded ships. With their double-bottomed ships, they used to steal grain from every transport made by the large ships that could not enter the river mouth. The European Commission brought civilisation, fulfilling its mission and playing an important role in the history of shipping and the politics of the East. The Danube ports developed rapidly and flourished, for it was through them that grain left and gold entered the Romanian lands. Russia, removed from the Danube, fought ceaselessly to regain its lost advantage in the East. At the London Conference of 1871, Russia won the right to rebuild its Black Sea fleet. And after the war between Russia, Romania and Turkey (1877), at the Congress of Berlin Russia regained southern Bessarabia and became once more a riparian to the Danube. The state-subsidised Gagarin Shipping Company was established and managed to remove the Kilia mouth from the control of the European Commission in 1883. Austria, which had the most developed commercial fleet on the Danube, claimed the right to police the navigation of the lower Danube, to which it was not riparian. Although Austria had gained this right at the London Conference of 1883, it was unable to execute it, encountering energetic opposition from Romania, which defended its rights to sovereignty in its own territorial waters. Thanks to technical works carried out by Hungary in the Iron Gates region, part of the natural obstacles that impeded navigation were removed, but other, political obstacles were put in their place: customs taxes impeded transit to the Lower Danube. Serbia and Bulgaria did not carry out technical works on the Danube and did not modify their ports or develop Danubian navigation, as they tended to use their southern coasts for access to the sea. Romania alone bore the cost of maintaining the immense navigable channel (Galatzi-Severin), which was used by the ships of all nations in equal measure. Romania fitted out Danube ports with all the latest equipment; it built the great Cernavoda bridge; it built basins, docks, it dredged, dammed... And because private enterprise was too weak, in 1889 the state founded a shipping company, which within a few years wholly nationalised its personnel. It bought the shipyard at Severin from the Austrian Company, and another yard at Giurgiu for the Hydraulic Service. In Galatzi and Braila a number of private yards were opened. State encouragement served private initiative. Among other companies, the Romanian Danubian Company, a major river shipping enterprise, was established in 1914. In a short while, Romanian colours were the most widespread in Lower Danube shipping. World War then came to the Danube. The Danube is the spine of the Balkan Peninsula. The Russians sent aid to the Serbs by the Danube. After the occupation of Serbia, the Central Powers sent aid to Bulgaria by the Danube. In the various stages of the war, the Danube sometimes served as a road, sometimes as an obstacle. The enemy stopped at the Siret front, but, occupying Dobrudja, reached the banks of the Danube. He did not manage to cross. The mouths of the river remained in Romanian hands. German plans for the Danube could not be achieved. Austria and Russia, who had fought for supremacy over the Danube, collapsed. The Lower Danube remained Romanian.

by Jean Bart (1874-1933)