Sign up for Our Newsletter

The British and the Hellenes

Review by: Gail R. Hook University of Texas at Austin

The British and the Hellenes: Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850-1960, Robert Holland and Diana Markides (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 252 pages

Robert Holland’s 1998 book, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus 1954-1959 (Oxford: Clarendon Press), explained the intricacies of Cypriot resistance to British rule that led to violence and eventual British withdrawal from the island in 1960. Now he and Diana Markides situate British Cyprus within its context of the other British territories in the Mediterranean with The British and the Hellenes: Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850-1960.

The “Hellenes” refers to the Greeks and Greek irredentists seeking to fulfill the aspirations of the “Meghali Idhea”, or Great Idea. The mission of the Great Idea was the redemption of the majority of Greeks still remaining outside the frontiers of the new independent state of Greece after the Greek Revolution of 1821. The “struggle for mastery” refers to the native resistance in these territories to Ottoman or British rule with the end goal of union with Greece (enosis), and the grappling for power that occurred at various times between the British, Greeks, Ottomans, and within these groups themselves. Throughout these struggles, Britain sought to balance her own desire for hegemony in the Mediterranean with the need to preserve the integrity of peace in Europe and the Middle East. This proved to be a difficult task as Britain fought to avoid the impression of defeat in giving over her possessions to decolonization and independence or cession to Greece.

The British and the Hellenes discusses specifically the Ionian Islands, Crete, the Dodecanese, and Cyprus. One would like to read more about Malta, and even Gibraltar, in a study of Britain in the Mediterranean. But the authors explain up front that their study focuses on “those islands with Greek-majority populations where Great Britain played a leading role in climaxes leading either to union with Greece, or—in the case of Cyprus—to a rather different ‘solution’”. Indeed each case ended differently, depending upon the strength of irredentist motivations among the native inhabitants and Greek leaders in Athens, as well as on evolving relationships with Britain. Where the Ionian Islands joined with Greece under British patronage in 1864, Cretan enosis “succeeded in the teeth of growing British hostility” in 1913. The Cretan experience further “fed into the movement for Cypriot enosis”, which erupted in violence and independence from Britain, but not union with Greece, in 1960. The “Dodecanese Experience”, entangled with British post-war strategy in Palestine and India, resulted in cession to Greece in 1948.

By comparing and connecting the irredentist ambitions of Greek nationalists to British rule in these four different cases, Holland and Markides make a much- needed contribution to the scholarship on British Empire as well as the modern Mediterranean. Although dense with facts, and potentially confusing with its back- and-forth looks between the territories, the book nevertheless flows well chronologically and proves an interesting and valuable tool for understanding this complex region. Particularly exciting, for those of us who look forward to such things, are the sixteen historic black and white photographs, three maps, and beautiful cover illustration—a circa 1850 watercolor of the Old Fortress of Corfu. Beyond the illustrations, Holland and Markides provide a very readable, concise text that surely will become a classic in the study of the British Empire and the Mediterranean.

This entry was posted in Book of the Month. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.