Pashko Vasa: A Polyglot Patriot’s Legacy in 19th Century Albania

A significant figure hailing from northern Albania, pivotal to the Rilindja cultural movement of the 19th century, was Pashko Vasa (1825-1892), also known as Wassa Effendi, Vaso Pasha, or Vaso Pasha Shkodrani. Born in Shkodra, he served as a statesman, poet, novelist, and patriot. Working as a secretary for the British consulate in Shkodra from 1842 to 1847, Vasa honed his linguistic skills in Italian, French, Turkish, Greek, English, and Serbo-Croatian.

In 1847, he ventured to Italy, actively participating in the upheavals of 1848, including combat in Venice during an uprising against the Austrians. Forced to flee to Ancona and subsequently expelled to Constantinople, he detailed his Italian experiences in “La mia prigionia” in 1850. Despite initial hardships, he secured a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served in various roles for the Ottoman Empire.

In 1863, due to his proficiency in Serbo-Croatian, Vasa became a secretary and interpreter to Ahmed Jevdet Pasha during a fact-finding mission to Bosnia and Hercegovina. He chronicled these events in “La Bosnie et l’Herzégovine pendant la mission de Djevdet Efendi” in 1865. In subsequent years, he engaged in activities supporting Albanian rights, contributing to the creation of the League of Prizren in 1878 and drafting a Memorandum on Albanian Autonomy. He also played a role in developing an alphabet for Albanian.

By 1879, Vasa collaborated with other nationalists and worked in Varna. In 1883, he became the Governor General of Lebanon. Despite his allegiance to the Ottoman Empire, he remained devoted to his Albanian roots, contributing significantly to the Albanian national movement. His work, “La vérité sur l’Albanie et les Albanais,” published in various languages in 1879, aimed to inform Europeans about Albania’s history and promote the nation’s advancement.

To further promote the Albanian language, Vasa published “Grammaire albanaise à l’usage de ceux qui désirent apprendre cette langue sans l’aide d’un maître” in 1887, a rare grammar of the time. In addition to his political endeavors, Vasa was a prolific literary figure, producing works such as “Rose e spine” in 1873 and the French novel “Bardha de Témal” in 1890. Despite most of his publications being in French and Italian, Vasa’s influential poem, “O moj Shqypni,” written between 1878 and 1880, secured his lasting place in Albanian literary history as a fervent call for national awakening.

Oh Albania, Poor Albania– the best poem from Pashko Vasa

Oh Albania, poor Albania,
Who has shoved your head in ashes?
Once you were a fine, great lady,
All the world’s men called you mother.
Once you had such wealth and goodness,
With fair maidens, strapping young lads,
Herds and land, rich fields and produce,
Flashing guns, Italian weapons,
Heroic fellows and pure women,
You reigned as their best companion.

At rifle’s blast, at flash of lightning
The Albanian mastered battle,
Thus he fought and thus he perished,
Leaving ne’er misdeeds behind him.
Whene’er an Albanian swore an oath did
All the Balkans tremble at him,
When he charged in savage battle,
Always he returned a victor.

How fare you today, Albania?
Like an oak tree groundward falling!
Trampled now, the world walks o’er you,
No one has a kind word for you.
Like snow-capped peaks, like fields a-blooming
You were clothed, you’re now in tatters,
You’ve no name or reputation,
In your plight you have destroyed them.

Albanians, you are killing kinfolk,
You’re split in a hundred factions,
Some believe in God or Allah,
Say ‘I’m Turk,’ or ‘I am Latin,’
Say ‘I’m Greek,’ or ‘I am Slavic,’
But you’re brothers, hapless people!
You’ve been duped by priests and hodjas
To divide you, keep you wretched,
When the stranger shares your hearth side,
Puts to shame your wife and sister,
You still serve him, gaining little,
You forget your forebears’ pledges
You are serfs to foreign landlords,
Who have not your blood or language!
Weep, lament, oh swords and rifles,
The Albanian bird’s been snared, imprisoned!
Weep with us, oh dauntless heroes,
For Albania’s toppled, face-smeared,
Neither bread nor meat remaining,
Fire in hearth, nor light, nor pine torch,
Drained of blood and of friends’ honour,
She’s defiled and now has fallen!

Gather ’round now, maids and women,
You with fair eyes know of weeping,
Come and mourn our poor Albania,
She has lost her honour, virtue,
She’s a widow with no husband,
She’s a mother with no offspring!

Who has the heart to let her perish,
Once a heroine, now so weakened!
Well-loved mother, dare we leave her
To fall under foreign boot heels?

No one wishes such shame on her,
Each of us dreads such misfortune!
Before Albania’s thus forsaken
Let our men die, bearing rifles.

Wake, Albanian, from your slumber,
Let us, brothers, swear in common
And not look to church or mosque,
The Albanian’s faith is Albanianism!

From Bar down to far Preveza
Shall the sun spread forth its warm rays,
Our forefathers left us this land,
Let none touch it, for we’ll all die!
Let us fall as did our forebears
And not shame ourselves before God!

[O moj Shqypni, ca. 1878, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]

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