Ion Ghica, Letters to Vasile Alecsandri: From the time of Caragea [iv]

September 11, 2022 by Lucian Mogosanu

This life was good for Caragea, as people from common folk to boyars, all plunged neck-deep in parties, were thusly kept unaware of the princely robberies1; moreover, the caftans2 sought by the newlyweds helped him quite a bit to enlarge his bag. The hustle for ranks was so big that the princely pitac3 register was full, and they say that in the day of Caragea's escape, the postelnic could barely read all the names of the high boyars and a few of the lesser ones4. Asked by vodă to leave, he slammed the pitac to the ground, yeling: "... and the rest of you all, pitars and serdars5!".

Caragea took his carriage, saying that he's going to have a walk through Băneasa6, but there he was awaited by the saddled carriages which took him to Brașov7, right in the day when the capugiu8 was coming to Bucharest to cut his head, since he sat on the throne six years instead of three9, as he had promised the sultan.

Enthroned for a short period, Caragea was looking to gather wealth as soon as possible, which would then help him live the high life abroad. Thus, he was infamous as far as robberies were concerned. Up until recently, people in the country used to say that someone is stealing like in the time of Caragea.

During his reign, all the services and ranks are given in exchange for money. He raised taxes to a degree that was unheard of before, from 1 500 000 lei (115 385 galbens) to 3 700 000 lei (248 848 galbens10), leaving aside mines and customs taxes, which were sold at a price ten times the one before, allowing the tax collectors to take as much as they could; then there were the sealings, impeachments, relatives and what have you!...

When he thought that the bag wasn't filling quickly enough, he would find other ways to skin the cat. He would send his aga to the marketplace with the scale and the guardsmen; this one would catch some baker, publican or butcher with the small oca11, then he would apply the rod one hundred times to each sole or he would grab the thief by the ear in the middle of the square. Vodă was sure that the guildsman would run from one to another to gather money to pay his due, and the punishment would stop as soon as the boss came to court with a buttload of mahmudiyes12. Another bolt that he had found for the golden fountain was the resolute commandment from time to time that all the merchants fight one another to clear out debts. Back then merchants had to pay ten percent off the money they made13. Poor people, scared by the ruin that would have followed such a hasty fight, gathered and settled their debts by making a cislă14, and so they would receive a postponement, since the cislă went to the princely bag.

Caragea had a whole lot of imagination on these matters, but he also found a few sturdy people that helped him achieve his schemes. Word went in the country that:

Belu pops open,
Golescu empties,
Manu rips off!15

After six years of rule, he brought with him to Pisa a fortune numbering millions, with which he lived in wealth and which he used to help Eteria and the Greek revolution16. He was violent and gruesome! An ass-kissing poet wrote him an ode in which he made him say in Greek:

I have a sword and a mace
I will kill you like a pig

A boyar, whom he scolded for some thieveries, from which he didn't get his share, answered:

I steal, you steal, they steal

and Caragea, instead of punishing him for guts, dressed him in a bearded17 boyar caftan.

This prince was however at odds with the boyars who, not wanting to be the instruments of his rape18, opposed him or even made some simple observation. Thus, he held the ban19 Constantin Filipescu confined two years at his estate in Bucov, under the guard of arnăuți20; he held the ban Grigorie Ghica confined in his home, denying him to see other people; he exiled the vornic21 Constantin Bălăceanu, whom he feared because he had family relations in Vienna, to Kastoria.

To be continued.

  1. Quick reminder: Caragea, not unlike many of the Phanariote princes before him, was placed there by the Porte, with the consent of the (high) boyars, precisely the same way you'd have someone nowadays placed in some high-ranking government job. Leaving aside for a moment the political implications, the only reason some guy from Phanar had for accepting this job was the potential of expanding his WoT and making some dough. Stealing was part of the deal and the Porte couldn't care less as long they got their share of the spoils. The whole premise of the Phanariote period was "let's have no more of those obnoxious Romanians in charge of the territories to the south and east of the Carpathians" and how else could any of the easily maneuverable dudes be arsed to rule in absence of an incentive?

    Huh, whaddaya know, just like nowadays. 

  2. He mentions the garment, but he's really indirectly pointing towards the social rank associated with it. 

  3. A pitac is a diploma raising one to the rank of boyar. The etymology is altogether unclear, some linguists attribute it to Greek, others to Slavic origins. 

  4. In original, "starea a doua", i.e. literally "the second state". "Stare" also meant "rank" in the old times. Although that's not used anymore, we're still left with the Romanian "înstărit", which I guess makes for a good exercise similar to the one in the previous instance

  5. Pitar comes from "pită", which in old (or regional) Romanian translates to "bread", so I guess he was what you'd call today a supply chain manager.

    Serdar comes from Turkish and it denotes a military rank. 

  6. Neighbourhood in the northern part of Bucharest, although back then it was a village outside of town, or rather someone's domain. 

  7. Brașov, then part of the Austrian Empire. Let us remember whose man Caragea was. 

  8. In the original: "chiar în ziua când sosea în București capugiul ce venea să-i taie capul". Here "capugiu" and "cap" are fals cognates: the former comes from the Turkish kapıcı, which roughly denotes "gatesman", a delegate of the Porte tasked in this case with firing the prince; while the latter means "head".

    Anyway, no one said making a deal with the Ottomans was a riskless afair. 

  9. No, they weren't there to execute him because he was a stealing bastard. Do you understand that what you call "corruption" is a very recent conceit? 

  10. "Galben", literally standing for "yellow", refers here to a golden coin of unclear origin. Most probably it refers to the Austrian Ducat.

    Also, doing a bit of math, 1500000 / 115385 equals about 13 lei per ducat, while 3700000 / 248848 amounts to about 15 lei per ducat. Why would he debase the leu when he was most certainly going to spend gold coins in Austria? or perhaps the debasement was a side effect of his policies? I'm no financist.

    Anyway, I hope now we're clear on what "austerity measures", "solidarity taxes", and so on and so forth, what all of these mean. They mean that you'd better pay up, bitch, or else! 

  11. "To catch with the small oca" is nowadays a Romanian expression, meaning to catch someone in the wrong some way or another. In Ghica's text it's used in the literal sense: an "oca", coming from the Turkish "okka", is a unit of measurement for a weight equivalent to a kilogram and a bit.

    Weight measurements, as the educated reader surely knows, were done back then using scales and weights. The weights themselves were made according to some standard (a reference object), only some traders used counterfeit weights, which of course, were smaller than the real ones, in order to bring the trader a heftier profit -- hence the "small oca". Of course, the practice hasn't stopped with the advent of fine tech, it has only become more sophisticated.

    From a whole other angle, what the author seems to tell us is that stealing wasn't peculiar to the ruling class, and that everyone was doing it, including but not limited to bakers, innkeepers and butchers. Punishing the thiefs was merely a mechanism to reinforce authority, of course, in addition to bringing more moneis to the coffers.

    Just like nowadays

  12. A "mahmudea", or (in Turkish) "mahmudiye" was an Ottoman gold coin bearing the name of the sultan, Mahmud II. 

  13. For the record, Romanian businesses in the year 2022 pay sixteen percent off their profits. The socialists consider this to be an "unfair" tax -- unfair to the state, meaning that some business owners oughta pay considerably more than that. How much more? don't ask me, I'm not the one making policies.

    Now tell me, how progressively much do you like all this progress of ours? 

  14. Basically they set out a common payment and agreed upon how much each of them has to pay, which would (supposedly) clear out some of the debt. The word comes from the Slavic число, meaning "number", or "count".

    I suppose this was indeed better than setting the other guy's business on fire. 

  15. This is a tough one to crack. In the original, it goes like:

    Belu belește,
    Golescu golește,
    Manu jupuiește!

    As you can see, there is some alliteration going on there, which makes the original pretty much untranslatable. Belu, Golescu and Manu are names of boyar families that left some traces all over Bucharest -- for example there's the Bellu cemetery as one heads to Berceni or towards Giurgiu; the Golești all have streets named after them; as for Manu, that's a less known name, but a name nevertheless.

    The second word in each line is a verb. The second and the third verb are pretty obvious, but the first one... fuck me, it's part of that Romanian panoply of curse words with plurious meanings that fill one's mouth. "A beli" literally means "to open", although it may mean "to peel off" -- it certainly means "to peel off the foreskin" when it's used in conjunction with the cock, i.e. "a beli pula", which is what every properly cocksucking Felicia does to make her man happy. But "a beli pula" also means "to be fucked" in the wrongest way possible, when there's absolutely no escape from a dire situation. Then there's also the reflexive "a se beli", in the sense that the situation itself, or otherwise some particular object, has gone down the proverbial drain. Finally, there's "a beli" in the transitive form, i.e. where an explicit object is mentioned, e.g. "te belesc". This one can mean, in the abstract, "I'm going to fuck you", or in the very concrete, "I'm going to cut you open", depending on the context.

    In our case the context is thievery, so I guess Belu fucks 'em by popping their money drawers open. But the general idea behind this three-line wordplay is, the three verbs mean the same thing: that the victims (most likely subjects to the three boyars) are fucked. 

  16. Eteria was a so-called "secret society" which aimed at bringing down the Ottoman rule in the territory that is now Greece, a movement which gave birth to the modern nation of Greece.

    One of the Ipsilantis was involved, who, in what seems nowadays a misjudgment, killed Tudor Vladimirescu, thereby delaying the Romanian revolution for almost three decades. 

  17. Bearded boyar, as in, high-ranking. 

  18. The original reads "instrumentele hrăpirii", where "hrăpire" is another form of "răpire", which means, literally, abduction. So rape here is used in the same sense, the same as that of the Latin "rapio". 

  19. Executive function in medieval Wallachia, especially Oltenia. 

  20. Albanese mercenaries employed in the Romanian principates. 

  21. High-ranking official of the princely court, charged mostly with judicial attributes and other internal affairs. 

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2 Responses to “Ion Ghica, Letters to Vasile Alecsandri: From the time of Caragea [iv]”

  1. [...] To be continued. [...]

  2. [...] Caragea liked women. In this regard, his behaviour, and his son's, beyzade1 Costachi, was a perpetual outrage. When he eyed a wife, he would send her man on a faraway business, and if needed in exile, and then he would take with him a few guards and introduce himself to the patient's woman, with or without permission. [...]

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