Politics in a nutshell: “ΠYNCH ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝ ΦΙΛΟΙΣΙΝ ΕΛΛΗΣΙΝ”, A pseudo-philhellenic poem in 1869 Punch magazine

Politics in a nutshell: “ΠYNCH ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝ ΦΙΛΟΙΣΙΝ ΕΛΛΗΣΙΝ”, A pseudo-philhellenic poem in 1869 Punch magazine 571 881 REVICTO

As American journalist and historian William James Stillman suggested in his book on the 1866 Cretan Insurrection (published in 1874), Greek politics had always relied too much on the sympathy of Christendom and classical scholars when “even the genuine philhellenism of 1821 would have accomplished nothing had it not been that Turkey stood in the way of Russian combinations”. “The Greeks seem never to comprehend,” he added, “that governments are purely political, and never influenced by sentiment or religious affinities.”[i]

1869 Greece was neither a pastoral retreat nor an expression of sophisticated European civilization but a country “declaiming about her old glories” as described in “ΠΥΝCΗ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝ ΦΙΛΟΙΣΙΝ ΕΛΛΗΣΙΝ” (“Philhellenic Punch Friend of Hellenes”) published in Punch on January 30, 1869.[ii] The first two stanzas of the poem asked of “dear little Hellenes” to “pet no more rebellings […] under auspices Russ” and “let Turkey alone”. Greece was presented as a pawn in the “Great Eastern question” dwarfed by giant Russia and standing to bear the brunt should the battle be lost. This was a lawless country with the peasants left unprotected and debts left unpaid while swarms of brigands and bribed state officials ruled the land leading to Punch’s eventual advice to “Let the Turk bind Crete over to better behavior” and abandon the “Grande idée” of making Hellas “commander / Of all the Turk rules this side Hellè’s sea”.[iii] A version of Hellas here imagined as a “nobler Byzantium” was aligned with Britain’s own “Grande ideé” of balancing its own power in the Mediterranean where the map was changing and where Russia was rising as a significant adversary.[iv] Maintaining Britain’s prestige in the Balkans was a most important bet with the greatest impact on the Greek question, Crete included.

The 1869 mock poem of Hellas is a pseudo-philhellenic verse using notions usually linked to philhellenic sentiment, such as a connection with ancient Greece and a moral guardianship of the country, without promoting the interests of Greece.[v]It can be read as a rendering in verse of the official British line since 1866 when Foreign Minister Lord Stanley had suggested that “Nobody much believes in the Turks, but the old Phil-Hellenism is dead, and cannot be revived. Greece is too much associated in the English mind with unpaid debts and commercial sharp practice to command sympathy that was felt thirty years ago.”[vi] After the spring 1866 warnings of an imminent revolt in the island, the official British line was that of non-intervention, even after The Times came out strongly for the secession of Crete, since the Foreign Minister felt that, other than setting a dangerous example, the island was a vital link on the route to India.[vii]When finally the Cretan revolt collapsed in January 1869, Liberal Foreign Minister Earl Clarendon happily consented to a conference purely moral and advisory in character not to be followed up by measures of coercion and with the sole aim to prevent hostilities between Turkey and Greece.[viii] The Conference of Paris, which started on January 9, 1869, tried to settle the dispute between Turkey and Greece over the Cretan question. Greece, which was not a signatory to the Treaty of Paris, was given only a consultative and not a deliberative voice at the conference and so refused to participate. [ix] When the conference was concluded, the declaration approved on 20 January stated, in purely didactic fashion, what the appropriate conduct of independent states in such circumstances ought to be, leaving it to the disputants to decide the correctness of their conduct.[x] The tone of the declaration made it obvious, however, that it morally condemned the behaviour of Greece.[xi]As Kenneth Bourne notes, “while the conference had averted a crisis it had achieved nothing more than an unsatisfactory truce in the East” and a triumph for the immediate policy of Great Britain.[xii] Punch dedicated almost a full page on January 30, in the same issue as the mock-philhellenic poem discussed above, on a depiction of the conference as a comedy in the form of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing from which it borrowed its epigraph: “This conference was sadly borne.”[xiii]



[i] Stillman, The Cretan insurrection of 1866-7-8, 115. In 1854, Greece was mocked as “the Russian Bear’s Greece” conspiring against the Turk and King Otho was ridiculed as holding a candle to Nicholas. See “Greece (newly defined),” 245. This was reprinted in the newspaper Leeds Timesin a section called ‘Bits from Punch’ on June 17, 1854. “A Russian Rushlight,” 153: “Otho the Kinglet of Greece has been converting his small dominions into a candle which, in the spirit of the well-known proverb, he is holding to Nicholas. He had better beware lest the candle should be snuffed out and the candlestick peremptorily disposed of.” “Russian Bear’s Greece” was a term coined even earlier as we find the following in 1853 Punch: “Who is the Miscreant that sent us the following? As we know that the Russians require oleaginous food, is it not possible that, after devouring Turkey, the Czar may take a fancy to ‘Greece?’ Should he do so, is it not probable that ‘Genuine Russian Bear’s Greece’ will no longer be a fiction?” (“Who is the Miscreant that sent us the following?”, 157). It was also reproduced (with reference to Punch) in the newspapers Northern Daily Times (October 15, 1853) and South Eastern Gazette (October 18, 1853).

[ii] For the early-nineteenth-century projected image of Greece, see Yakovaki, Εurope via Greece, 143-146.

[iii] A depiction of Greece as a land of fraud was a popular one in the pages of the magazine. In 1859, for example, a short article titled “Modern Olympians” found the idea of the organization of Olympic Games in Modern Greece a ridiculous enterprise (the Olympics were then sponsored by Greek businessman Evangelos Zappas) due to the necessity of having no unfair dealings allowed. See “Modern Olympians,” 179. In 1870, after several accounts of brigands kidnapping foreign travellers for ransom, Punch suggested that a a new era had dawned in Greece: ‘it is not the Golden Age nor the Silver Age nor the Iron Age but Brigand Age.’ See “A New Era,” 18. See also Jenkins, The Dilessi Murders, 1961 for the story of how in 1870, four travellers in Dilessi Greece, three British and one Italian, were kidnapped by a gang of bandits and held for ransom. The negotiations were botched and eventually the four were murdered. The episodeseverely tested the relations of the young Greek state with Britain.

[iv] Nine years later, England would find itself  twice on the verge of war with Russia, first in April 1878 after the Treaty of San Stefano between Russia and Turkey and in July of the same year over Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan. However, their problematic relationship was already evident a few decades back. Richard Cobden, the British politician known for his defense of free trade as the main tenet of foreign policy, had published in 1836 the volume Russia and the Eastern Question in which he had tried to dispel the notion that a war with Russia in defense of Turkey would safeguard British trade interests in the Black Sea.

[v] The third phase of philhellenism (the period after the Greek War of Independence), George Tolias notes, was a period of moral guardianship of the Greek Kingdom with the aim of founding infrastructures on an institutional level including legislation, administration and the economy. See Tolias, “The Resilience of Philhellenism”, 67.

[vi] undated note found in Bourne, “Great Britain and the Cretan Revolt, 1866-1869”, 82.

[vii] Bourne, “Great Britain and the Cretan Revolt, 1866-1869”, 74-75, 81.

[viii] Ibid., 92.

[ix] Randolph, “Ottoman Diplomatic Documents on ‘the Eastern Question’”, 238.

[x] Bourne, “Great Britain and the Cretan Revolt, 1866-1869”, 93.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 94.

[xiii] “The Conference,” 37.


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