Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Copyright © 1941 by Rebecca West. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1941; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; Volume 167, No. 3; pages 374-396.

In 1936-1937 Rebecca West, with her husband, set out to discover, if she could, why it was that the Balkans were such a storm centre in a world that yearned for peace. "Violence was all I knew of the South Slavs," she wrote. "And since there proceeds steadily from the southeastern corner of Europe a stream of events which are a danger to me, which for years threatened my safety and deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny. The Balkan Peninsula was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey, which might explain to me how I shall die, and why."

She remembered the assassinations which had left such graphic pictures in her mind -- the assassination of Empress Elizabeth, the pathetic wife of Franz Josef; the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Sarajevo, and the shooting of the King of Yugoslavia at Marseille.

With such tragedies in mind, she embarked on the long trip to Zagreb. The train was crammed with German tourists, all going to Yugoslavia, and as she talked with them Rebecca West began to realize why it was that the Slavs had suffered such unhappiness during the centuries when they were bound to the chariot wheel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

At Zagreb, she and her husband were met by her three friends -- Constantine, the poet; Valetta, a lecturer in mathematics at Zagreb University: and Marko Gregorievich, critic and journalist. They took her and her husband behind the scenes into the tempestuous life of the Balkan Peninsula. They showed her the hidden beauty of Zagreb. They told her of Bishop Strossmayer and his heroic intervention for the liberation of the Croats. On Easter Sunday they took her to hear Mass at the village of Shestine, and then, through a blizzard they drove far up the mountainside to the mediaeval castle of a noble Hungarian family -- a castle which by some magic had now been converted into a hospital for Yugoslav peasants. Everywhere they went, Rebecca West and her husband were drawn into the passionate, the tragic uprising of a people who for centuries had struggled for identity and liberation. Here is a story which in its vivid way annihilates time and distance ....


Chapter XIX

THE sea was green and hard as glass; the crests of the waves were chevaux-de-frise between us and a horizon of pure, very pale green light and dark bronze islands. Our destination, the Isle of Rab, lay before us, its mountains bare as Ark, its shores green as spring itself. As we came closer to it my husband said, "It is only scrub, of course, low woods and scrub." But a little later he exclaimed, "Only scrub! Only scrub, indeed! Well, I have heard of this, but I never quite believed it." It was still distant by half a mile or so, but the scent of myrtle and rosemary and thyme was as strong and soothing a delight as sunshine. Through this lovely invisible cloud we rode slowly into the harbor of Rab, and found ourselves in one of the most beautiful cities of the world.

It is very little. One can see it all at once, as if it were a single building; and that sight gives a unique pleasure. Imagine finding a place where one heard perpetually a musical phrase, which was different every time one moved a few steps, and was always exquisite. At Rab something comparable happens to the sight. The city covers a ridge overlooking the harbor. It is built of stone which is sometimes silver, sometimes at high noon and sunset rose and golden, and in the shadow sometimes blue and lilac, but is always fixed in restraint by its underlying whiteness. It is dominated by four campaniles, set at irregular intervals along the crest of the ridge. From whatever point one sees them these campaniles fall into a perfect relationship with each other and the city. We sat under a pine tree on the shore and ate oranges, and the city lay before us, making a statement that was not meaningless because it was not made in words. Then we undressed and swam out fifty yards, and we stopped and trod water, because the town was making another lovely statement. From every yard of the channel that divides it from its neighbor islands, from every yard of the roads that wind among the inland farms and olive terraces to the bald mountains in the centre of the island, the city can be seen making one of an infinite series of statements. Yet it achieves this expressiveness with the simplest of means: a grey horizontal oblong with four smaller vertical oblongs rising from it. Euclid never spoke more simply.

This island is within sight of the barbarized home of the Frankopans, is set in a sea polluted by the abominations of the Turks and the Uskoks. It is therefore astonishing that there is nothing accidental about the beauty of Rab; that in the fissure of this bare land there should be art and elegance of the most refined and conscious sort. Though Rab is no larger than many villages, it is a city, a focus of culture, a fantasy made by man when he could do more with his head and hands than is absolutely necessary for survival. There is a noble white square by the harbor, where balconies are supported by tiers of three lions set one upon another, pride upon pride, and facades are aristocratic in their very proportions, being broad enough to be impressive yet not too broad for respect towards neighboring properties. From this square, streets run up to the ridge of the town or along its base; and the richness of the doorways and windows and columns makes each seem a passage in some private magnificence.

There is the same sense of private magnificence about the Cathedral of Rab. On the ridge there is a little square, with bastions and cliffs falling deeply to the shore on the farther side; between the tall soldierly flowers of the olives and the swords of their leaves the eyes fall on the sea and its scattered islands. Here stands the Cathedral, built of rose and white marble in alternate courses, ornamented with blind arches of a lovely span. It is no bigger than many a private chapel; and it has an air as if it did not know what strangers are. That was the theory: without, the horror, the pirate, the Turk; within, an enclosed community within an enclosed community, a small city upon an island. One arranges one's house with a certain lavishness and confidence when one believes that it is going to be visited only by familiars, and this cathedral is therefore at once domestic and elegant.

It is a part of an older church, a thousand years old, built in the time of Slav independence, of the utmost elegance imaginable. Its six supporting columns are of fine cipolin marble, and its canopy is carved from one great block of stone but is weightless as a candle flame because of the exquisiteness of its design and execution. Round its six arches are garlands carved more finely than the emblems on the patricians' doorways in the town below, which is as it should be, since this is the palace of the patrician above all patricians. The pyramided roof of the baldachino is painted a tender red, the vault above it a tender blue, just such colors as grace the festivities of a much later Venice in the paintings of Paolo Veronese. The community that built this cathedral was so civilized that it could conceive a God who would be pleased not by the howlings of His worshipers and the beating of their breasts, but by their gayety, by their accomplishment, by their restraint and dignity. At one time the island of Rab paid an annual tribute to the Doge of ten pounds of silk. In this building it paid a tribute of silken elegance to the Doge of Doges.

Because it was noon they came to close the cathedral. We went out blinking into the sunlight, which for a moment was falling strong between thunderclouds; and a group of women smiled at us and gave us some greetings in Italian, though they were visibly not Italian, for they were completely lacking in Latin facility. They had that flat, unfeigned, obstinate look about the cheekbones which is the mark of the Slav, and their bodies were unpliable. But they were not of a harsh race that had usurped the home of gentler beings perished through gentleness. These people, and none other, had made Rab.

Out in the country round the city of Rab there are no revelations. There is a mystery. It is formulated also in stone, but not in worked stone -- in the terrible naked stone of Dalmatia, in the terrible earth that here lies shallow and infirm of purpose as dust, and in the terrible faces of the people, who are all like crucified Christs. Everywhere there are terraces. High up on the bare mountains there are olive terraces; in the valleys there are olive terraces; in the trough of the valleys there are walled fields where an ordinary crop of springing corn or grass strikes one as an abnormal profusion like a flood. On these enclosures black figures work frenetically. From a grey sky reflected light pours down and makes each terrace and field a stage on which these black figures play their special drama of toil, of frustration, of anguish. As we passed by on the stony causeway, women looked up at us from the fields, their faces furrowed with all known distresses. Sometimes we met people on these causeways who begged from us without abjectness, without anything but hunger. Their lean hands came straight out before them. Their clothes asked alms louder than they did, making it plain that here were the poorest of creatures, peasants who had not the means to make a peasant costume to proclaim that in their village they had skill and taste and their own way of looking at things -- they were undifferentiated black rags.

The poverty of the island was made plainer still to us the next day. Our first expedition had been over the northern part of the island, which is more or less protected from the north wind by high ground; but this time we walked to the south, where there is no shelter from the blast that rakes the channel between Rab and its neighbor island. Here are a land and a people that are not only grim but desperate.

At the dark open door of one home, which seemed to let out blackness rather than let in light, a boy of seven or eight, with flowers in his hand, waited for the tourist. My husband thrust down into his pocket, brought up three dinars and one half-dinar, and peered to see what they were. The child shuddered with suspense, broke down, put out his little hand and snatched, and ran into the house. But he had not snatched the four coins. He had snatched just one dinar; his fear had been lest my husband should give him the half-dinar. Later we passed a blind beggar, crouched on a bank with a little girl beside him. To him we gave ten dinars -- that is, tenpence. The little girl shook him and shouted into his ear and gave him the coin to feel, and then shook him again, furious that he could not realize the miraculous good fortune that had befallen him; but he went on muttering in complaint.

The reason for the island's melancholy lies not in its present but in its past. It is only now, since the war [The First World War. This account was written in 1937. -- EDITOR], since Dalmatia became a part of a Slav state, that it has had a chance to enjoy the proper benefits of its economic endowment; and since then there have been such overwhelming catastrophes in the world market that no community could live without tragic discomfort unless it could fall back on accumulations which it had stored in earlier days. That Rab has never been able to do. Some of the factors which have hindered her have been real acts of God, not to be circumvented by man. She has been ravaged by plague. But for the most part what took the bread out of Rab's mouth was Empire. The carelessness and cruelty that infect any power when she governs a people not her own without safeguarding herself by giving the subjects the largest possible amount of autonomy, afflicted this island with hunger and thirst. Venice prevented Dalmatian fishermen from making their profit in the only way it could be made before the day of refrigeration: the poor wretches could not salt their fish, because salt was a state monopoly and was not only extremely expensive but badly distributed. Moreover, Venice restricted the building of ships in Dalmatia. It was her definite policy to keep the country poor and dependent. She admitted this very frankly, on one occasion, by ordering the destruction of all the mulberry trees which were grown for feeding silkworms and all the olive trees. This law she annulled, because the Dalmatians threatened an insurrection, but not until a great many of the mulberry trees had been cut down; and indeed she found herself able to attend to the matter by indirect methods. Almost all Dalmatian goods except corn, which paid an export duty of 10 per cent, had to be sold in Venice at prices fixed by the Venetians; but any power that Venice wanted to propitiate -- Austria, Ancona, Naples, Sicily, or Malta -- could come and sell its goods on the Dalmatian coast, an unbalanced arrangement which ultimately led to grave currency difficulties. All these malevolent fiscal interferences created an unproductive army of customs officials, which in turn created an unproductive army of smugglers.

This was cause enough that Rab should be poor; but there was a further cause which made her poorer still. It is not at all inappropriate that the men and women on these Dalmatian islands should have faces which recall the crucified Christ. The Venetian Republic did not always fight the Turks with arms. For a very long time it contented itself with taking the edge off the invaders' attack by the payment of immense bribes to the officials and military staff of the occupied territories. The money for these was not supplied by Venice. It was drawn from the people of Dalmatia.

After the fish had rotted, some remained sound; after the corn had paid its 10 per cent, and the wool and the wine and the oil had been haggled down in the Venetian market, some of its price returned to the vender. Of this residue the last ducat was extracted to pay the tribute to the Turks. These people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broadminded, who will in pursuit of that end stretch their minds till they fall apart in idiocy, would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today. Their folly is certified for what it is by the mere sound of the word "Balkan," with its suggestion of a disorder that defies human virtue and intelligence to accomplish its complete correction.

I could confirm that certificate by my own memories: I had only to shut my eyes to smell the dust, the lethargy, the rage and hopelessness of a Macedonian town, once a glory to Europe, that had too long been Turkish. The West has done much that is ill; it is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist; but it has not known that death in life which was suffered by the Christian provinces under the Ottoman Empire. From this the people of Rab had saved me: I should say, are saving me. They were in want because the gold which should have been handed down to them had bought my safety from the Turks. Impotent and embarrassed, I stood on the high mountain and looked down on the terraced island where my saviors, small and black as ants, ran here and there, attempting to repair their destiny.

  1. Dame Rebecca West, pseudonym of Cicily Isabel Andrews, née Fairfield (born Dec. 21, 1892, London, Eng.—died March 15, 1983, London), British journalist, novelist, and critic. (C) Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
    Review by The Guardian.

  3. Expelling the Plague. The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533. Zlata Blažina Tomić, Vesna Blažina. Series: McGill-Queen's/Associated Medical Services Studies in the History of Medicine, Health and Society Publication Date: April 2015 Published by: McGill-Queen's University Press eISBN: 978-0-7735-9711-2


    Rab gives the mainland the cold shoulder with an eastern flank of bare rock picked clean by the biting bura wind. But the ever-pragmatic Romans had reason to christen their 2nd-century BC settlement Arba (green, wooded) because Rab is the lushest of the Kvarner Gulf islands. Sheltered behind that mountain windbreak lies a verdant plain of vineyards, maquis and olives. plus sun-soaked Rab Town, as seductive as a holiday daydream and the repository of a millennium of island culture. And as if to balance the appeal of every ecclesiastical masterpiece in the island capital, some of Croatia's most enticing coves notch Rab's intricate coastline, an appeal to hearts over heads so persuasive that in 1938 British king Edward VIII removed the royal trunks.

    Rab Town

Rab is built of stone which is sometimes silver. sometimes at high noon and sunset rose and golden, and in the shadow sometimes blue and lilac. but always fixed in restraint by its underlying whiteness.

So wrote author Rebecca West of a town she fell for in the mid-1930s, when Rab, after centuries of lean years, was at last optimistic about its future. Like most settlements on the Croatian coast, the capital passed between lllyrians, Romans (who added the cheerful forename 'Felix') and Byzantine Slavs until 1409, when It was bought for a snip by the Venetian Republic as one lot in the 100,000 gold-coin sell-off of Dalmatia, then mercilessly milked for profit. Once a self-governing Byzantine city-state which earned a comfortable living as a silk trader, Rab now found itself subject to a disdainful absolutist ruler who practiced subjugation through starvation. Already weak from two bouts of plague in the 15th-century, it atrophied as Venice took its cut. The doge demanding 10lbs of silk a year, the church creaming off tributes of produce. The town's head-count was hammered from 5,000 at the end of the 14th century to a 2002 official statistic of 592. Indeed. Rab's future only started looking up in 1887, when it cashed in on a benign climate and the fat wallets of stressed Austrians.

Stagnation isn't always a bad thing, however. Because Rab had no funds for home improvements. It preserves a lovely Old Town; 'closer to reminiscence than reality', sighed Victorian English architect T. G. Jackson. As cozy as a village, as graceful and as weighty as a city, Rab crowds on to the peninsula where it grew up. At the farthest tip is the original Roman settlement, an overlooked corner christened Kaldanac that never really recovered from mid-15th-century plague; the windows remain blocked with the stone with which Rab entombed its sick.

Last update: August 22, 2015

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