A nineteenth century description of Mongols
Old Kalmuck gers

Kalmuck gers in an engraving from c. 1882.

Recently, an old friend gave me an old illustration of some gers she had found on Ebay. The image is reproduced here. (Click on it to see a larger version in a new window.) As far as I can tell, the image - which she found as a page already cut out of a book - is from an six volume work by Robert Brown entitled The peoples of the world, which was published in 1882. On the reverse of the page with the illustration was some text describing two of the Mongolian groups - the Halh and the Buriats. I thought it could be interest to see how the Mongols were viewed by a Westerner in the mid-19th century, so I've taken the liberty of reproducing the relevant part of the text below. It is from page 243 of one of the volumes.

The text:

The Kalkas, like all the other Mongol tribes, or clans, are themselves much subdivided. They are badly armed, but can bring into the field 50,000 horsemen. In time of peace the Kalka is a herdsman, who spends his time in looking after his flocks, in sleeping, drinking tea diluted with milk or butter, smoking, or galloping about on the horse which stands saddled at his door, to listen to the gossip of the other tents, or to smoke and drink tea again. The women do all the domestic duties, but they are unacquainted with any arts or manufactures, except making felt, embroidering a little, and tanning skins. Girls are sold to the highest bidders, and all marriages are celebrated with festivities which take the character of orgies.

The Buriäts number about 124,000, and live in Russian Siberia, but are subdivided into many tribes. Most of them are Buddhists, though some are Shamanists, Moslems, or members of the Greek Church. Herds and flocks constitute their riches. Woman is said to be looked upon as an unclean and soulless being; yet they gave a most hospitable escort to Mademoiselle Christiani, an adventurous lady who found her way amongst them. Our illustration (p 245) represents this picturesque scene. They are prone to tobacco, vodka, and laziness

In all, the Mongols may number about 2,000,000 souls, or 500,000 tents. They are not addicted to dancing, hunting, wrestling, horse-racing and archery being their chief active amusements, while story-telling and singing occupy their leisure hours in their tents, and during the winter season. Pedigrees are carefully kept, so that the relationship of any person to any one can generally be immediately told. The stars must be consulted before a marriage can be settled, for as one star rules another, a woman born under such a star would rule her husband, if he happen to be born under the orb which is governed by it. Hence there is an elaborate system of connubial astrology among the Mongols.

AThough the Mongols have long had an alphabet, the nomadic character of the people, and their numerous foreign conquests, have prevented any literature developing out of it, the conquerors always adopting the higher civilisation of the countries they conquered. We have a good instance of this in the Manchu conquest of China. They even adopted the nationality of the races which they subdued; hence, though we may say that such and such a people are Mongols, they are in reality not so politically, only ethnologically.

They have rather degenerated since Marco Polo's day. The women are no longer paragons of chastity, and offensive language is now frequently applied to one another. Though mostly Buddhists, yet a good number of their old Pagan superstitions still cling to them. For instance, they will sacrifice a ram on certain occasions, and make libations of brandy to the unseen divinities. Much of their folk-lore is exceedingly interesting, and may be studied in the collection made by Miss Busk, or in Mr. Gilmour's book on the country.

Other Mongolian tribes are found in Cabul and Persia, e.g., near Herat. The Tshekar, Armak, and Hazarah of Afghanistan are also looked upon as Mongols (Vol. III., p. 265).

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