II. Village life in Macedonia
2. Tithes and Taxes
In a certain typical village called Mavrovo (Caza Tetovo) some careful investigations made by one member of the consular corps in Uskub and checked independently by a colleague, went to show that the average peasant family could count, after satisfying the landlord and tax-gatherer, on a net income of about £10. In direct taxes under all heads this village of 150 houses paid £T530, or about £3 10s. for each household. But it is only when one looks at the items of the account that one realises how oppressive the total was in fact.
The main impost is the tithe on the harvest. The Government is much too indolent to collect it directly. Every year the tithes of each village are put up to auction and knocked down to the highest bidder. He may be a Jew speculator, but more often he is some wealthy bey of the neighbourhood. He makes his profit as he pleases, and the amount which he pays into the treasury for the right of collection bears very little relation indeed to the amount which he really collects. This system of tax-farming has been abolished more than once by Imperial decrees. It persists for two very sufficient reasons. In the first place it serves to keep local Mohamedan gentry loyal. This is particularly the case when they happen to be Albanians. They detest the Turks, they dislike the Sultan, and they discuss his creatures with the utmost freedom, but the profits which they draw from corruption make them passive and tolerant malcontents. In the second place the system survives because the bureaucracy also profits by it. If a tax-farmer has been notoriously tyrannical, he can always be made to disgorge a portion of his plunder as hush money, and of the difference between the legal tithe and
the sum actually collected, I suspect that a very fair proportion goes into the pockets of the officials. As to the methods of extortion, they present an infinite variety. The most obvious is to exaggerate the amount of the harvest. It must not be supposed that the tax-collector takes the trouble to weigh the grain or to measure it. He marches into the granary, glances hastily round, and writes down the first estimate which occurs to him. To complain would be not only useless but dangerous. I once visited a village in Malesia (Ochrida) a few hours after the tax-collector had made his rounds. At the door of a fairly prosperous house the women were crying and wringing their hands. They led me in and showed me a heap of maize-cobs which the tax-collector had just estimated at an enormous figure. To test the matter we set children to strip the cobs, and then measured the grain. It was just one-fifth of the estimate. To complete the story, when the matter came to the knowledge of the Turkish officer who accompanied me in charge of the escort, which is forced upon every traveller, the headman came hastily up and declared that everything the villagers had told me was a parcel of lies! He dreaded the vengeance of the tax-farmer, who was a powerful local bey. Another favourite method, when the tithe is paid in money, is to over-estimate not merely the amount of the crop, but its current market-price. At Mavrovo, for example, the tax-farmer adopted the simple expedient of declaring that the hay was worth twenty paras the oke. The price in the nearest market-town was actually six paras. The result was, of course, since he had the right to take the equivalent in cash of one-seventh of the hay-harvest, and also the right to fix the scale by which its price should be estimated, that the village paid more than thrice its legal due. He had his gendarmes behind him. There is no redress, and the collection is usually made with every detail of stupid brutality. An impost which may be just tolerable in a good years is ruthlessy levied when the harvest is bad. It is common incident for a village to cut down its fruit trees to avoid the tax upon them. Nominally there are fixed seasons when taxes become payable, but if the exchequer
is empty these restrictions are soon forgotten. When I was in Monastir
in the spring of 1903, the army contractors had struck, and the municipality
was obliged to find rations for the troops. Meantime the tax-collectors
were doing their best to replenish the war chest. Taxes which are due in
quarterly instalments were being gathered in advance. It was early summer,
and the peasant, whose corn-bin had long been empty, had exhausted his
credit. I talked with the headman of one little village where the gendarmes
had suddenly swooped down to demand four quarters' dues in one lump sum.
Eight peasants in this hamlet had nothing to pay, and asked for leave to
go into the market to sell their lambs. Leave was refused, and the peasants
were severely beaten. But, indeed, the statistics of the corvée
are a proof in themselves of the oppressive incidence of the taxes. If
a peasant is quite unable to pay his taxes, and if he has nothing which
he can sell to meet them, he must join the gangs which are said to be repairing
the roads — what they actually do I could never discover, for certainly
the roads show little evidence of their labour. The peasant dreads a journey,
he leaves his village reluctantly, and above all he trembles at the risks
involved in this forced toil with the soldier and the gendarme at his elbow.
None the less, I found that in one of the most prosperous villages near
Uskub (Coutchevishta), out of a male population of 560 no less than 370
men had been obliged last year to work off their obligations to the tax-collectors
by joining the corvée.
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