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Gladstone, Disraeli and the Bulgarian Horrors

Mark Rathbone compares Gladstone's and Disraeli's differing approaches to a crucial foreign policy issue.

Early in May 1876, a revolt against Turkish rule began in Panagyurishte in Bulgaria. The Turks responded with vicious reprisals in which many Bulgarian men, women and children died. Estimates of the number of victims, reported in newspapers at the time, varied between 10,000 and 25,000. When news of these events arrived in London, the Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, reacted by casting doubt on the accuracy of the reports, contemptuously describing them as 'coffee-house babble'. When challenged in the Commons in July about the stories of Turkish atrocities, he cast doubt on their veracity, joking that the Turks 'seldom, I believe, resort to torture, but generally terminate their connexion with culprits in a more expeditious manner'. As the Eastern Question Association organised hundreds of meetings, condemning both the atrocities themselves and the government's refusal to condemn them, Disraeli remained unmoved. 'Our duty at this critical moment,' he said in August, 'is to maintain the Empire of England.'

In contrast, the Liberal Leader W.E. Gladstone's sense of moral indignation went into overdrive. Infuriated as much by Disraeli's failure to take the issue seriously as by the Turks' atrocities, the Grand Old Man emerged from the semi-retirement into which he had withdrawn after his election defeat in 1874 to launch a scathing attack on both the Turks and the Conservative government. His booklet on the matter, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, published by John Murray on 6 September 1876, was a classic piece of political invective.

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