Activities of the Tatars: from warriors to market-gardeners

The expression of the economic activity of the Tatars, the only ones that were not Christians, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was directly determined by their status in the society and the community. The Tatars kept estates for their military service, managed them, served in the court of the Grand Duke. Not limiting themselves to these activities only they gradually became engaged in the business of carriers, and tanning industry. The economic activities of the Tatars who were settled in towns and suburbs differed but little from the activities undertaken by townspeople, their choice and success were mainly influenced by the needs of the society and changes in economics. The most popular crafts and businesses among the Tatars who did not do military service was tanning, market-gardening, cattle-breeding (especially horse breeding) and transportation. It was these spheres of the activities of the Tatars of humble origin that were listed in the Second Lithuanian Statute specifying that the Tatars who made a living by engaging in these economic activities had to pay the capitation tax of twenty groats.

Unsurpassable carriers and painstaking masters

The Tatars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania practically succeeded in monopolising the provision of goods transportation and carrying services, they became useful to the local merchants and foreign guests. The Tatars headed transportation business and they rallied around themselves the Tatars of a lower social strata who understood the sphere of that activity and lived in towns. Foreign travellers who visited the Grand Duchy of Lithuania often mentioned the Tatars who worked as carriers, organised and headed the provision of this service.

In the descriptions left as far back as the 16th century foreigners characterised the carriers of Vilnius in a contrasting way: they are stern, undemanding, rude but faithful and humble servants of their masters.

It is thought that transportation business was profitable to the Tatars until the appearance of the railway, and in some parts of the former GDL, for example, around Slanim, the Tatars provided the transportation services until the First World War. It is not only horse breeding that is related to understanding the subtleties of goods and cargo transportation characteristic of the Tatars but also hiring them for the courier and postal services. Even a special duty of delivery and carrying correspondence and important documents was entrusted to the Tatars Cassocks. 

Tanning was a traditional craft of the Tatars; they were famous for their skills and were serious rivals to the Christian craftsmen tanners. The clause forbidding the Tatars to buy unprocessed skins in the zone of interest of the workshop was often included in the Statute of the tanner workshop of the Cristian craftsmen. Though those who were not too well-disposed towards the Tatars called them “skin tanners”, within their community the Tatars regarded this activity as highly respectful and as the craft having deep-rooted traditions. In the middle of the 17th century, the part of the Tatars among all the craftsmen tanners in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was quite large, they constituted about one fifth of all the tanners. The Tatars rarely engaged in other crafts, which were close to tanning in their nature (fur processing, manufacture of harnesses and shoemaking). More often they prepared raw materials for the manufacture of leather goods, though it is said that Stephen Báthory wore the shoes mended by the Tatar Mustaf. Individual Tatars who worked as barbers, goldsmiths, tailors or manufacturers of goatskins are mentioned in different parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 

Famous for spears and hoes

Peter Czyzewski who was not well disposed towards the Tatars recognised one of their advantages, which was the fact that “they grew cucumbers, turnips, onions, radish earlier than did other peasants.” The historical sources testify to the fact that the Tatars grew vegetables in small plots of land near their houses in towns and suburbs and sold them. It is believed that market-gardening was a neighbouring activity alongside a more stable craft or any other activity, which depended on the natural conditions to a lesser degree. In the 16th–17th centuries the Tatars of Vilnius and its environs engaged in market-gardening, they sold their vegetables in the capital. Spiteful Peter Czyzewski thought that by settling the Tatars in Vokė Grand Duke Vytautas hoped that his estate would be constantly provided with vegetables – cucumbers and onions.

A part of the Tatars who were unable to go to do military service on their own, gradually turned from the persons liable to military service into mercenaries, military skills provided them with a source of sustenance. The Tatars mercenaries fought in the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or in private platoons formed by the magnates.

Military skills were the oldest activity of the Tatars of Lithuania; they made a successful career in this field, which provided them with the possibilities of social mobility.

The first Tatar General Chymbai Murza Rudnicki (died in 1760) led the regiment of the Tatars mercenaries in the Saxon army. One of the most famous phenomena of the military skills of the Tatars, which was even regarded as a phenomenal, was light cavalry of the Tatars. The Tatar warriors were begun to be called ulons after one distinguished Tatar Colonel Alexander Ulan (hailing from the village of Lostay near Ashmyany) of the beginning of the 18th century. Though the commanders of the regiment changed, the platoon retained the name of ulon. Their distinguishing feature was not only the cap that they used to wear the confederate, and original armament – a long spear with a flag at the top, but also their ability to deliver a blow of the riders armed with spears only. The weapon of the ulons – the spear was taken over by the cavalry of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the second half of the 18th century. Tadeusz Kościuszko armed with spears all the rebels (1794). From the 18th century regiments of ulons began to appear in the armies of the Western European states, e.g., in France (French uhlans, ulans), in Austria and Prussia (Germ. uhlanen). In interwar Lithuania the Tatar soldiers – ulons formed the guard of honour. 

Though the economic activity of the Tatars was different in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the images of the Tatar-warrior, the Tatar-tanner, and the Tatar–carrier are best recognised, they are acceptable to the Tatars of Lithuania of today.  

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė