Title: Buffalo Bill's New Horsemen

Periodical: Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art

Date: July 2, 1892

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THE so-called Cossacks who have been added to Buffalo Bill's show are an interesting little group, and quite as great a novelty as the Red Indians themselves were on their first appearance. It is rather surprising that they were allowed to come at all. Permission had to be obtained from the Grand Duke Michael, Governor of the Caucasus; and no doubt it would have been refused had the men been liable to serve in the army. They are, however, all free men—the conscription has only been in force in the Caucasus for three or four years, and those who were over twenty-one when it began are exempt. The chief and one other have done a term of voluntary service; but the rest are simple farmers. They are not Cossacks at all, but members of one of the Caucasian tribes from the government of Kutais. Their proper designation is Kafkaskia Grousini—that is, Georgians of the Caucasus. They differ from the Cossacks in every particular—race, language, customs, and dress; in fact, the two have nothing whatever in common except their allegiance to the Czar. The ingenious press correspondent, therefore, who has had a "chat" with them is indebted to his imagination for the romantic relation he discovers between these men and the "handsome dusky Cossack officers leaning against the stalls," &c. at the Italian opera in Petersburg. He is equally at sea, by-the-bye, in calling the latter the "crème de la crème of Russian nobility." That is about as accurate as it would be to term the officers of a native Indian regiment the crème de la crème of the British aristocracy. Buffalo Bill's friends are not princes nor descendants of Mazeppa, [1] who really was a Cossack. The chief is called Prince; but the rest are plain yeomen, and do not pretend to be anything else. Their soft pleasant speech and subdued manners are the outcome of ninety years' subjection to a Russian governor, not of that repose which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere. [2]

They are nice-looking men—one or two decidedly handsome, in an unkempt sort of way. Features of an Oriental cast, but fair skins, grey eyes, and remarkably broad thick eyebrows are their most prominent characteristics. Looking at them, one can believe that the Georgian women deserve their fame better than a good many reputed beauties. Their dress consists of three principal garments: a long outer coat of serge, called a tchocha (not kaftan, which is a short coat); a lighter one of linen underneath, called archaluch, and confined by a leather belt or kamari and a pair of tight trousers thrust into high boots of the regular Oriental pattern. Some of them have invested in patent leather shoes, which shows that they have an eye for Western glitter. The length of the tchocha and the high boots make them look taller than they are. They seem big men; but the tallest hardly reaches 5 ft. 9 in., and most of them are considerably shorter—as, indeed, befits a race of horsemen. They carry three weapons—sword, dagger, and pistols—all of antique make, and for the most part elaborately inlaid with silver. The sword, or chmali, is very much curved, almost the shape of a Persian scimitar, with a beautifully worked haft. The dagger, or hanjali, is a weapon in the use of which they are peculiarly expert. Among the wilder tribes of the Caucasus every child is taught to use the dagger almost as soon as he can walk. They first learn to stab water without making a splash, and by incessant practice acquire an extraordinary command over the weapon. Their pistols are flintlocks with long, very thin barrels, and must have been handed down for generations. They do not look very formidable. The rows of little pouches worn across the breast do not contain cartridges, but small wooden cases tipped with bone or metal, and formerly used for carrying loose charges of powder and shot; now they are only worn for ornament. All the men speak a little Russian; but their own language is more allied to Armenian. They belong to the Orthodox Church.

With regard to their performance, the song with which they begin is a kind of wordless chant, which may be considered an elementary form of the songs that Russian troops always sing when on the march. The feats of horsemanship displayed at Earl's Court are extremely graceful, but mere child's play to what the Caucasian cavalry accomplish when disciplined and trained. A favourite feat is to pick up a dismounted man from the ground and fling him over the shoulder when going at full gallop. Probably Buffalo Bill got the idea of engaging these men from seeing some of their military compatriots manœuvring during his Russian tour. They are all born horsemen, and spend their lives in the saddle, though not on the "steppes," for the excellent reason that there are no steppes in the Caucasus. Over here they are handicapped by having neither their own horses nor their own saddles. Nevertheless they are not at all jealous, but give ungrudging praise to the Cowboys, especially the Mexicans, whom they consider very fine horsemen. All the same, they do not believe in the buck-jumpers; at least, they say that if the horses were wild it would be impossible to saddle them. According to these pretty competent critics, the spurs are the secret of the bucking. As for the Indians, they think nothing of them. "Savages!" they say laconically, with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.

Some other impressions of these strangers from the Far East may be interesting. They came from Batoum to Constantinople, and from there to Genoa by sea; thence by land through France. Genoa they considered a very fine place, and Paris also they liked. London, they think, is not nearly so pretty a town; but they have the good taste to admire the English women. Nothing, however, seems to surprise them much, probably because they have already an unapproachable ideal. The Czar and his abode are, of course, superior to anything else on this earth. Needless to say, they have never seen either. The Czar, they say, has everything; he has tobacco and vodki; no one else has anything in comparison. A propos of vodki, they do not care for that delectable product; their favourite drink is wine, home-made. "But there is no wine here," they observe, with quiet decision; and who shall contradict them? In spite of their lordly indifference to our poor country, however, they are mightily pleased at the applause they receive in the ring, and make no secret of it. They are too polite to say so; but they must think us a precious lot of fools for paying them so well to do so little, according to their notions. They do not understand the delirious demand for novelty and amusement which rules the Western world.

A still later and not less interesting addition to Colonel Cody's picturesque forces is a band of Gauchos, or South-American rough-riders, who possess extraordinary skill in throwing the lasso and the bolas, an instrument made of leather thongs weighted at the ends by balls of iron. The Gauchos are of Spanish origin, and bear a strong family resemblance to the Mexicans. They wear bright purple blouses or jackets, and a curious sort of divided skirt or long apron, which we commend to the attention of the Rational Dressites. Besides the bolas-throwing, they are extremely clever at riding unbroken horses, and made a great hit on their first appearance by mounting a vicious buck-jumper two at a time. Certainly they add a new touch of colour and life to the show; which, indeed, goes better than ever. As an exhibition of varied and genuine horsemanship it is unique.

Note 1: Mazeppa probably refers to Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709), a gentleman from a region in the Ukraine who became the commander of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Many theatrical and literary works depict his life, including an 1819 narrative poem by Lord Byron titled Mazeppa. [back]

Note 2: Englishman Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote Lady Clara Vere de Vere, a poem about a family of aristocrats, which is part of his volume entitled Poems, published in 1842. [back]