I never thought I would meet a Hungarian who spent time living on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. The chance meeting on a tour bus in Turkey was quite an unexpected coup. Prior to this meeting, I had never met a single person who had set foot on that small island most notably known as an off-shore tax haven. It is where mainland Brits and people from around the world hide their wealth. By one estimate three-quarters of the economy is based on financial services. The Hungarian I met was a young woman by the name of Agnes. She was travelling around Turkey on vacation with her Australian husband Andrew. His job in IT had taken them to Jersey on an extended stay that had just come to an end when I met them on that trip around Turkey. Agnes was elated they would not be returning to Jersey. She said the weather in winter was miserable, while social relations were as cold as the gusts of wind whipping off the sea. Loneliness was a constant companion during her time there. She made it sound like a pseudo-exile that had to be endured and hopefully never repeated. Her experience in Jersey rightly or wrongly framed my own image of the island for years to come. That was until something strange happened.
Years later while doing research on Szekelyland I came across another Hungarian speaker who spent an extended period on Jersey and its nearby sister island of Guernsey in the mid-19th century. I now wish I could ask Agnes whether she was aware that the famed Szekely polymath, Balazs Orban, had spent a considerable amount of time on the Channel Islands while in exile. Perhaps this would have brightened her gloomy opinion of the island. Well I doubt it. At least Orban and Agnes have something in common. They both found something memorable on the island, specifically images that stayed with them. For Agnes, it was the greyness, chilling winter rains and howling winds. For Orban there were quite different images. The islands were where he first learned photography and spent time with one of the world’s greatest novelists. I now wish I could have mentioned this to Agnes. It certainly would have made for an interesting conversation. It might also have led to a discussion of Balazs Orban, one of the most fascinating, if not famous, men of his time.
The Greatest Szekely – A Life’s Work
Balazs Orban is known as the Greatest Szekely. Such an honorific is a quintessentially Hungarian creation. Case in point, a Greatest Hungarian also exists. In that case it is the reformer, politician, economic innovator and writer Istvan Szechenyi. Being known as the greatest in a field is a remarkable accomplishment. Being known as the greatest of an entire people is an historic achievement. Balazs Orban lives up to the title that has been bestowed upon him. Orban is one of those people whose work is difficult to describe succinctly. He was a writer, including the author of two six-volume sets. He was also a world traveler, an exile, the first Szekely photographer, an ethnographer, a politician, an entrepreneur and an aristocrat. Looking at the entire breadth of Orban’s life work is daunting. It is hard to imagine how anyone could have accomplished so much in one lifetime. Perhaps that is why will always be known as the Greatest among his people.
Balazs Orban was born in Lengyelfalva (Polonita Romania), a village in the Szekelyland region of eastern Transylvania in 1829. His father was of noble lineage. One side of his mother’s family came from a wealthy Greek merchant family who called Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) home. Just two years prior to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Orban was uprooted from his schooling as the family moved to Constantinople where they were to inhabit a castle built by his grandmother. Under strange circumstances, the grandmother would die not long after their arrival. Most of her fortune never went to the family. Orban turned this family crisis into an opportunity. He traveled deep into the Holy Land and climbed the Egyptian Pyramids. He later wrote a six-volume work about his journey, entitled “Oriental Travel.” It turned out to be a mere prelude to another multi-volume work that would later become his magnum opus.
Indelible Impressions – At Home Abroad
Following his Middle Eastern travels, Orban found his way to Greece where he spent time examining the ruins of classical civilization for himself. Nationalism soon swept over him. He became a fervent supporter of the Greeks gaining independence from the Ottoman Turks. It was also during this time that the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. Orban, whose father had been a Hungarian hussar, managed to raise a detachment that he planned to lead in assisting the cause. No sooner had the detachment begun heading up the Danube then they were informed of the Hungarian surrender. Orban would find himself back in Turkey once again, This time he assisted those in exile, including the famed revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth. For his efforts, Orban was labeled persona non grata by the Habsburgs. His life was under threat if they ever managed to arrest him. Orban decided that a faraway exile was the better part of valor as he made his way to London.
His period in London allowed him time to do further research and writing for his volumes on the Orient. As a talented linguist, Orban was fluent in the English language as well as five other languages, including tongues as disparate as Turkish and Greek. Those who met him were highly impressed with his intellect and ideals. It was also during this period that he spent time on the Channel Islands with none other than Victor Hugo. The French writer was also in exile. in Hugo’s case, from the rule of Napoleon III. He inhabited a house on the Island of Guernsey. The meetings between the two men left Hugo with an indelible impression of Orban. He would state that if he had a cadre of men like Orban at his side he could overthrow Napoleon III. That would not happen, but for Orban something more important did. He acquired a new passion for photography. This skill was taught to him by Hugo’s sons. It would result in more indelible future impressions from Orban, not of the Channel Islands, but of Szekelyland.