Hadji-Ismail Dagomuqua Berzeg, Circassian Warrior and Diplomat (Part 1)

The great patriotic war known as the Circassian-Russian War of the years 1763-1864 left indelible memories among the nations scattered all over the world. Several of the Circassian leaders –esteemed for their courage and intelligence in commanding thousands of Circassian guerilla fighters against foreign Russian Tsarist expansion– are still remembered. One of the most legendary Circassian military commanders was Ismail Dagomuqua.
Numerous European accounts written by people who knew him provide a clear portrait of his noble character. The most detailed descriptions of Dagomuqua can be found in two volumes of Journal of a Residence in Circassia written during the years 1837, 1838, and 1839 by the noted British historian James Stanislaus Bell. Here is how Bell described his appearance: “Hadji, a tall graceful old man, with keen restless grey eyes, and who is said to be at the head of all affairs in this part of the country” (Journal of a Residence in Circassia during the years 1837, 1838 and 1839 by James Stanislaus Bell, Vol. 2, p. 6).
Dagomuqua was born in the valley of the Sochi River and lived there for his whole life. He belonged to the large clan of Berzeg and was a son of one of the seven family branches in Ubykhia. A precise date of his birth is unknown, but he was probably born sometime in 1768 or 1769; this means that his people were at a war with Tsarist Russia throughout much of his adult life and that he would be involved in that ceaseless fight.
In his younger years, Ismail Dagomuqua played an active role in the many wars within the lands of neighboring peoples in the North Caucasus. Thus, his contemporaries recall that “in his younger days he distinguished himself as one of the most dauntless of his fraternity, and among other warlike exploits he shared or led in so many plundering expeditions into Megrelia and Imeritia, that he knows the name of almost every village of that portion of Georgia. He was shot through the chest in the storming of the fort of Ghagra, and eight other wounds attest his singular gallantry” (Bell, p. 344).
A local assembly of Ubykhs elected him to be their political leader in 1823, right after an unsuccessful expedition into Russian-occupied neighboring Abkhazia, where the previous leader, Sa’ad-Giray Berzeg, was killed. In 1827, Ismail deliberately took a stand for the complete unification of the confederated Circassia into a centralized state. First, he planned to unify all the Circassian territories with the area between Tuapse River and Ghagra mountains range into one administrative unit. Furthermore, his plan was to enlarge the territories of the centralized Circassia by adding other lands of the confederation. For this activity, Bell referred to Ismail Dagomuqua as the Circassian George Washington (Bell, p.346).
In order to understand the circumstances that inspired such a man to lead, we must explain the political realities and nuances of those times. Despite vehement Circassian opposition, Tsarist Russia consistently pursued its imperialistic plans in Circassia. Being much more advanced in political skills, it strove to diplomatically elaborate the stand that Circassian territories be registered by hook or by crook as its property and further claimed to the world that Circassia was its territory.
That is how Russian General Rostislav Fadeyev explained the conquest of Circassia by Tsarist Russia, noting that: “the idea of being the master in the Caucasus became hereditary in Russian history.”
With these intentions, the Russian Empire led several campaigns against the Ottoman Empire resulting in the signing of treaties. And Russian diplomacy, as usual, had not neglected any of these kinds of intrigues. In 1783, Russia and Turkey signed the Constantinople Treaty, which states in Article Three: [Russian] “recognizing the Kuban River as a boundary the Imperial Court rejects (does not claim) any of the nations living on the other side of the named river, i.e. in between the Kuban River and Black Sea. The assumption behind this treaty was that Circassia was officially a territory of Turkey, even though there was no clear statement to that effect. As a consequence, when Russia began the war to capture Circassia, the Circassians could not retaliate as a sovereign nation.
Nine years later, the next Russo-Turkish treaty (the Treaty of Jassi of 1791, when Russia was already in war with internationally unrecognized de facto independent Circassia) included an article by which Russia literally imposed Circassia on the Ottoman Empire: “The Ottoman Empire is obliged to put all necessary efforts to hold all the nations living on the left bank of Kuban River in strict obedience.” By these means, Russia strategically prepared a future legal basis for the incorporation of the Circassian territories.
The Treaty of Adrianople was signed on September 14, 1829. Article 4 of that treaty stated: “…also the entire shore of the Black Sea from the mouth of the Kuban River up to pier of St. Nikolas (south of Poti) will forever be the property of the Russian Empire.” This way of blackmailing and imposing on Ottoman Turkey and other countries subject to international law gave Russia a legal pretext to start unveiling the actual conquest of de facto independent Circassia.
None of the citizens of Circassia acknowledged the Treaty of Adrianople and the entire nation decided to defend its freedom and independence. The situation was very much like the one we presently see in Abkhazia today.
In order to coordinate actions, several emergency assemblies of the confederated Circassia were convened. Ismail Dagomuqua was presented there as a deputy. In 1830, the assembly passed a resolution to send a delegation to Istanbul to insist on the removal of the illicit article concerning the transfer of Circassia to the Russian Empire. The head of this delegation was Seferbey Zan.
The Sultan received the Circassian delegation out of protocol unofficially, afraid of the protests from Russian diplomats. Even though the deputies were treated respectfully, they received the following response: “Their country was given to the Russians because they did not want to obey the rules of Muslim religion, and if they now start deliberately fighting, become good Muslims and acknowledge the Padishah as their master,… then he will not allow good Muslims to be under the authority of infidels.”
The Circassians liked the proposal’s commitment to supply them with military equipment, but they definitely did not want to recognize the Sultan as their head or agree to be his Islamic subjects.
In 1833, a new delegation was dispatched to Istanbul, this time to have an audience with the consul of Great Britain. The English consul promised all possible assistance in persuading his government to support Circassia in the war with Russia. The Circassians saw it as important to form the proper international opinion about their cause and win military support from England and France.
In February of 1835 on the Adagum River, and in June of 1836 in the valley between the rivers Ubin and Afips, two national assemblies were held that passed and approved a resolution not to cooperate with Tsarist Russia under any circumstances. And at the second assembly, the Circassian nation officially waved its flag as an official banner of the state of Circassia. Today this flag officially represents the Republic of Adygea, which Vladimir Putin’s government is trying to liquidate, so far unsuccessfully.
In 1837, the next national Circassian assembly ordered a delegation to go to the camp of General Aleksei Velyaminov in Khulhijiy (Gelendjik). These delegates demanded that Russia stop illegal warfare against Circassia and start negotiations. It was all to no avail.
All of these events were going on with the direct participation of Ismail Dagomuqua as the main representative of the Circassian Province of Ubykhia.