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The Damascus Affair - 1840

Albert M. Hyamson

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The Damascus Affair?18401 By Albert M. Hyamson, O.B.E., F.R.Hist.S. On the 5th February, 1840, Father Tommaso, an Italian friar of the Capuchin Order who had been resident for many years in Damascus, disappeared. His servant also was never seen again. It had been Tommaso's practice to vaccinate children? especially Jewish and Christian?and he was consequently on friendly terms with many Jewish families in Damascus. The friar and his servant were said to have been last seen in the Jewish quarter at about 11 a.m. affixing placards, announcing a forthcoming sale of goods. One of these placards, which it was suggested had been removed and reaffixed, was found near the shop of a Jewish barber. A few days earlier, Tommaso and his servant had been involved in a quarrel with some Moslem Arabs, and one of them, a muleteer, had been heard to swear that Tommaso would die at his hands. As soon as the disappearance became known, another of this group of Arabs, a merchant, committed suicide. The Latins or Roman Catholics of the Ottoman Empire were at that time under the protection of France and it fell in ordinary course to the Consul of that power in Damascus, the Count de Ratti Menton, to investigate the disappearance. Menton unfortunately had very strong anti-Jewish prejudices. He was described by the Paris Correspondent of The Times as an instigator of atrocities and arch-persecutor of the Jews, " A Legitimatist of the oldest and worst school, an adherent of the imbecile and fanatical party who by their folly brought about the revolution, and who, like his masters, has * learned nothing and forgotten nothing He is represented moreover as a person who has everywhere rendered himself obnoxious." 2 Heine, who was at the time correspondent in Paris of the Augsburger geitung, described him as " Formerly he was French consul in Sicily, but having twice been bankrupt, had to change his residence. Named consul at Tiflis, in Russia, he was recalled at the insistent demand of the Russian Government." 3 Before he had commenced any investigations he proposed to make, Ratti Menton seems to have decided that Tommaso and his servant had been murdered by Jews and that the murder had been committed for ritual purposes. Ratti Menton's first step was to have the Jewish barber arrested and tortured in order to get him to confess and, still better, to accuse some of the prominent lay and ecclesiastical Jews of Damascus. To this end he secured the assistance of a couple of Arab criminals, in one case securing his release from prison, whom he used to persuade and threaten the barber and others to give evidence in support of his charges, and of some astrologers who managed to deduce from the stars that the criminals were certain named prominent members of the Damascus Jewish com? munity. Ratti Menton in these activities seems to have had the sympathy of most of the small European community?limited almost to the Consuls?of Damascus, to a large extent like himself imbued with Levantinism. Among these there was however one prominent exception, the Consul for Austria, G. G. Merllato. Tommaso was said to have been last seen at eleven in the morning in the Jewish Quarter. A Jewish witness, however, came forward to testify that he had seen him 1 Paper read before the Jewish Historical Society of England on 4th August, 1940. 2 The Times, 18th May, 1840, page 5. 3 H. Heine, Lutece, Paris, 1855, pp. 59, 60. 47</page><page sequence="2">48 THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR-184O elsewhere on the afternoon of the same day and others, Moslems as well as Jews, were prepared to support his testimony. Ratti Menton could, however, tolerate nothing that went contrary to his theory regarding the disappearance. The Governor of the City, Sherif Pasha, who was also an adopted son of Mehemet Ali, the ruler of Egypt, at the time in control of Syria also, was entirely under the influence of Ratti Menton just as Mehemet Ali himself rested largely on French support. Moreover Ratti Menton and Sherif were close friends. Ratti Menton had consequently little difficulty in getting the witness who had dared to give evidence contrary to his wishes bastinadoed. The poor wretch died under the punishment. The incident is described in a report, translated from the Hebrew, by a Jewish resident sent to Constantinople and forwarded by the heads of the Jewish community there to the leading Jews of England and the Continent. " After this a Jew who was free, presented himself before the Governor, stating that the calumny that we make use of blood for our Passover cakes, had been discussed before all the Powers, who, after consulting their Divines, had decreed the inadmissibility of such a calumny, and he added that it could not be other than that Christians had killed them, or that they had clandestinely absented themselves from the country, and that the Barber, in order to save himself from persecution, had stated that which was not true. Upon this the Governor replied that as he had said that the Christians had killed them, he must know who was the murderer, and in order that he should confess he was beaten to such an extreme that he expired under the blows." Another witness whose evidence confirmed that of this victim was similarly punished. A gatekeeper of the Jewish Quarter was also bastinadoed to death. The young barber under the pressure of torture and of Ratti Menton's agent provocateur broke down and mentioned seven prominent Jewish merchants all of whom were arrested. One of them was David Harari who had sent a message by a Moslem servant to the barber shortly before Tommaso had disappeared. This servant was also arrested and bastinadoed and under torture more or less corroborated the barber's story, even going so far as to say that he had himself murdered the friar, acting under the orders of the Jews. One must mention at this point that a Moslem female slave of David Harari, despite torture and imprisonment, refused in response to both offer of bribe and threat, to inculpate her master. The seven prominent Jews, who included four members of the Harari family which is still well and honourably known in Egypt, were put to the torture. Two of them, one aged eighty, died under it and another embraced Islam and was released. The others steadfastly denied that they knew anything of the disappearance of Father Tommaso or were in any respect responsible for it. Another prominent Jew whose family is also well and honourably known in this country and in Egypt, Isaac Picciotto, was also arrested, but he was under Austrian protection. This arrest gave the Austrian Consul, who had hitherto watched the proceedings with ever increasing disgust and reprobation, an opportunity to intervene. He demanded the immediate release of his protege. This course the French Consul opposed to the utmost, but the Austrian demand could not be refused and Picciotto was thereupon released. The occasion for his arrest seems to have been a visit he paid to the barber in his prison to induce him to tell the truth as he knew it, whatever it might be, certain that even if the friar had been murdered by a Jew it was not for ritual purposes. The number of prisoners, seven, seems to have been a consequence of a mystic belief of Menton or his associates that it has some special religious virtue and therefore for a ritual</page><page sequence="3">THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR-184O 49 murder seven participants were necessary. It was also necessary to get some " expert " evidence that Christian blood was a requisite for the Jewish ritual. For this purpose three of the rabbis of Damascus were arrested and tortured. Further efforts in the same direction took the form of the arrest of 64 schoolboys?apparently the whole of the attendants at a Talmud Torah?and their imprisonment in the hope that their parents, overcome by the sufferings of their children, would confess and supply the required evidence. Apart from the children about seventy Jews were tortured to secure confessions or evidence. Sherif Pasha was entirely in the hands of Ratti Menton and was prepared, it would seem, to do anything that he wished. At his desire soldiers were sent to demolish houses of the Jews to secure evidence of murder. Hitherto since no bodies had been found there was no evidence at all that the friar and his servant were dead. The houses were demolished but nothing to assist the case was found. At length, however, some bones, afterwards certified by anatomists to be those of animals, a piece of cloth, and an old shoe, were found in a sewer in the Jewish Quarter, and this dis? covery was considered conclusive. Ratti Menton stepped from the role of prosecutor to that of judge. Since a French protege was concerned he was entitled to do so. He quickly found the Jewish prisoners guilty not only of murder but of murder for ritual purposes. The Governor of Damascus as quickly confirmed the finding. Before the prisoners could be hanged, however, the confirmation of Mehemet Ali in Alexan? dria was required. The bones discovered in the sewer were buried with pomp in the chapel of the Capuchins and an inscription placed above them to the effect that they were the bones of Father Tommaso who had been murdered by Jews. In the meanwhile news of the charges and of their accompaniments began to reach Europe. The structure of the community of Damascus, as now, was on the basis of nationalities and in the East nationality is almost synonymous with religion. Father Tommaso was a Christian ; those accused of murdering him, Jews. The Affair at once became a matter of Christian versus Jew, even Latin or Western Christian versus Jew. The European Consuls and their entourage were a part of the Latin Christian community. One of their members was taking a leading part in the prose? cution of the Jews. It was almost natural that his colleagues should leave the matter to him and accept his conclusions whatever they might be. The British Consul, N. W. Werry or Wherry1 did so and we will see later how this action of his was appre? ciated in London. The Consul for Austria, however, Merllato or Merlato, took another line. He was not satisfied to accept without question the findings of the Consul for France. He himself examined them and the evidence on which they were based and came to very different conclusions. He found the charges based solely on perjury and confessions forced by torture. In his report to his superior officer in Alexandria, the Consul-General for Austria in Egypt, he appealed to his Government to intervene so that justice should be done and the iniquities cease. " I declare to you, Sir," he said, " that it is impossible to endure any longer the spectacle of such atrocities." Merllato did not appeal in vain. He had the sympathy and support of his Consul-General and of their Government. Metternich, the Austrian statesman and pillar of autocracy, appealed personally to the Pope but without avail. Otherwise the efforts of Merllato and the Austrian Government met with considerable success. 1 He spelled his name with or without an h indiscriminately. F</page><page sequence="4">50 THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR-184O He was able to report on the 23rd April that the tortures to which the prisoners had been subjected had been suspended and that there was some improvement in the position of the Jews generally. At the same time the Consul-General for Austria had been energetic at Alexandria and he was able to report to his Government on the 2nd May that Mehemet Ali, the ruler of Egypt and Syria, had written to the Governor of Damascus " We have been informed that certain powerful men among the Christians attack our Hebrew subjects of Damascus, and that complaints have been vainly addressed to you. Such aggressions displease us ; they are contrary to our wishes. I command you, therefore, to prevent their recurrence." 1 He also con? templated entrusting the decision regarding the punishment of the prisoners which had been remitted to him, to the Consuls of the four Powers, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and England. In the whole sordid affair Merllato stands out as the Christian gentleman in the best sense, one who put his humanity and his human feeling, his sense of right and devotion to it above all other considerations. It is to be regretted that one cannot speak similarly of his British colleague. Wherry, who to take the most charitable view, impregnated with the inertia of the East, was willing to leave everything to his French colleague and accept without question whatever he told him. That this latter view is correct cannot be doubted when one reads Wherry's dispatches on the subject. Despite their unpleasantness one feels compelled to do so. The first was sent to Lord Ponsonby, the British Ambassador at Constantinople, on the 28th February. " The horrible assassination committed in this City on Padre Tommaso of the Capuchin Convent has been discovered, the perpetrators are seven of the most influential Jew merchants here, in the dwelling of one of whom it took place. It was attended with the most cruel and revolting circumstances. It is stated on the evidence of the Jew Barber and a servant, auxiliaries, that, after having cut the throat of the victim, the flesh was cut from the bones in pieces, the bones pounded and the whole thrown into the large common sewer of their quarter of the town, abundantly washed with the great quantity of water which flows through it : many parts have however been found ; on the same evidence it is stated that the blood was saved by the merchants, from whom they learnt that it was for the purpose of being employed in their religious feasts. No discovery has yet taken place respecting the assassination of the Padre's Servant, who disappeared with him in the Jew Quarter of the City." 2 This was followed on the 30th March by a further dispatch. "In my last despatch, I had the honor of addressing Your Lordship, I stated some particulars on the subject of the sacrifices made on the Christians, by the Jews of this City ; I now proceed to communicate to your Lordship what further information I have obtained. It has been immemorially the received opinion and belief of the Christian population throughout Turkey, and several instances have been brought to light, by the local Governments in different parts that, the Jews scattered throughout the Country, immolated clandestinely Christians, to obtain their blood, to celebrate their feasts there? with in their religious ceremonies, this fact has been proved here. The Padre Tommaso, chief of the Capuchin Convent, under the French protection and his servant, were immolated in the Houses of two of the most influential Jews of this City, at each, seven of these influential persons performed the Sacrifice, being in each four laymen and three Rabins, the blood of the victims was saved, for the above purpose and the remains muti 1 The Times, 2nd June, 1840. 2 F.O. 195/170 No. 48 of 28th February, 1840. N. W. Wherry to Viscount Ponsonby.</page><page sequence="5">THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR-184O 51 lated and disposed of in the common Sewer of the City. Four of the actors in this horrible murder have made a full and detailed confession of all the circumstances, and the facts have been so minutely proved on the spots that they were committed and of the remains disposed of and partly found that, no doubt can exist thereof. The extracts from the Talmud, taken from the Rabin prisoners have been translated, which warrant these enormities and the Secret, which has been hitherto traditional and only imparted to the initiated, now has been revealed to the public. All the principals in the murder of the Padre, are in the hands of the local Government and two who murdered the servant, have been arrested, the remaining five have evaded. It is remarkable that, the principals in these murders, are fourteen of the most influential and wealthy Jews in this City. Too much praise cannot be given to the French Consul here the Comte de Rattimenton, for the energy and persiverance (sic) he has displayed conjointly with H.E. Sheriff Pasha in discovering this horrible transaction and it is to be hoped, as the investigation proceeds, every further necessary evidence will be obtained, independent and impartial, before falling into the Power of the local Government or of the French Consul, distinct from the evidence already produced, extracted in some cases by violent punishment and torture and in some, by witnesses turning evidence for the prosecution, so as not to leave a ray of distrust in the most sceptical mind, or of dissidence in opinion, relative to the difference between the proceedings in the Tribunals of Europe and the summary violent course practised in Turkey, either on facts of the murders, or the object for which they were committed, and that on such substantial grounds the perpetrators will be brought to condign punishment and measures taken with the Jew people to prevent a repetition of such horrible crimes/'1 Palmerston's comment on this dispatch was unequivocal, " I am sorry to find Mr. Werry entertains opinions so un-English about Torture and Justice. He has been too long in the Levant and must come home and spend a year in England from Christmas next." 2 By the 14th May, however, Wherry seemed to be developing a little doubt on the subject. In another dispatch to Lord Ponsonby of that date he reported :? " The Jew prosecution and the recently reports made thereon have been ordered by Mehemet Ali to be referred to Ibrahim Pasha 3 for decision, orders are now awaited here from Marrash(?) on this affair. Neither the detained accused nor the nation are now persecuted. The latter are generally in good spirits and following their avocations as formerly ; the Christians are somewhat depressed at the protection the Jews generally efficiently receive in this Affair. I am acting on instructions I have received from Colonel Hodges respecting the watch I keep on the course of these transactions. The Mussulman population take a decided bias in favour of the Christian cause against the Jews. Con? siderable conflict of opinion and authority on this persecution has arisen between the French and Austrian Consuls here and with the Austrian Consul General at Alexandria. The French pursuing the prosecution and the Austrian defending the accused Jews." 4 A week later he however relapsed somewhat. Writing privately to John Bidwell, Palmerston's Private Secretary, he was more frank and showed all his prejudice. " . . . The Jews are moving heaven and earth, both in Turkey, Egypt and Europe, to gain over the Governments, public authority and public opinion their side, to establish their innocence, if not of the crime, the object for which it was committed. Ingenuity of 1 F.O. 195/170, No. 49 of 30th March, 1840, and F.O. 78/410 of 23rd March, 1840, Wherry to Palmerston. 2 See F.O. 78/410, Minute on No. 4 of 23rd March, 1940. Dispatch from Consul Werry. 8 Mehemet's son and representative in Syria. 4 F.O. 195/170, No. 51, of 14th May, 1840.</page><page sequence="6">52 THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR-1840 argument, every species of intrigue both of influence and pecuniary is resorted to, to arrive at that end. The Pacha here and the local authorities here, particularly the French Consul, might, to have quashed this investigation, have made immense sums of money, but fortunately the latter virtuous officer by his firmness prevented such infamous practises succeeding and most certainly as far as depended on him, induced the Government here to mitigate the violence of its proceedings, both as to the bastinadoe and torture of