During the second half of the nineteenth century the “Cretan Question” appeared regularly in the Victorian press, particularly in periods of crisis (1866-1869, 1878, and 1896-1898). It is a broad term to describe a complex geopolitical issue that, although narrow in its focus, implicated the major European powers. It related to the island’s position as either a part of a failing Ottoman empire or of the nascent Greek kingdom, given that the majority of the island’s population were Greek Christians. The situation involved recurrent insurrections of the Greek population against the Ottoman administration and the intervention – diplomatic and military – of the Europeans. The issue was finally settled in 1913 with the union of Crete to Greece.
Crete’s geographical position in the Mediterranean was such as to invite the particular interest of a fast-expanding British empire which sought to safeguard its commercial and imperial concerns in that region and, through the Suez Canal, in Africa and India. At the same time, Britain viewed the Ottoman empire as a barrier against the Russian expansionism towards Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, the British argued, it was of primary importance to prevent a seemingly frail Ottoman state from crumbling: its body should be kept intact. Voices arguing for a union of Crete with the Greek kingdom chose to downplay these political and economic concerns and rather stressed a set of cultural affiliations tying Britain with Greece: the shared Christian religion and the historical associations of “Hellas”.
In the press these considerations were reflected in various ways. A rough sketch of the arguments and strategies employed by the pro-Ottoman side would include lengthy articles praising Islam and the progress of the Ottoman state through the implementation of reforming policies; the explication of the Ottoman “character” and its portrayal in flattering colours and the simultaneous denigration of the Greek “character”; the representation of Russia as a threat looming over Europe and Britain; Russian connections to Greece and the latter’s expansionist aspirations as disastrous for the stability of Europe. Finally, another argument portrayed Crete as “Ireland of the Aegean Sea”, thus painting the image of a rebellious island that wished to sever ties with its sovereign ruler (de Pressencé 340). For the British reader, this parallel brought the problem uncomfortably close to home. The side soliciting for a union with Greece employed the very same arguments on “character” and progress but from a diametrically opposite point of view, vindicating the Greeks and condemning the Ottomans. Furthermore, it stressed humanitarian and religious concerns over the oppression of the Greek population. Finally, it promoted the link with ancient Greece and the promise of its rebirth in modern times.
In an article entitled “How to Deal with the Greeks” that was published during the Crimean war in the monthly Bentley’s Miscellany (April 1854) the unknown essayist captures the pulse of the public opinion regarding the Greeks and the Ottomans:
One of the most astonishing and remarkable reversals of opinion and sentiment that ever took place in England, is certainly the admiration and interest so universally felt at present for that Mahomedan race, whom civilized Europe was wont to execrate in prose and verse; […] The present admiration for the Turks, and more than tolerance for their religion, which is the reversal of former convictions, and which marks the opinion of our educated class at present, is not of sudden birth […] but has been sown and has germed both in our national philosophy and politics. (441)
He (or she) then poses the question that most vexed the supporters of Hellenic rebirth: “Has Greece fulfilled any one of the many and the mighty expectations formed of it?” (443) only to answer in the negative. Nevertheless, the author declares their adhesion to the “Hellenic race” as “by far the best, the noblest, the most capable, and most promising of all the races that follow the Greek religion, and which people, as rayahs, the countries on either side of the Aegean” (443). The author implies that this view may seem “antiquated” to a younger generation of thinkers and writers who “as they esteem it one of the truest signs and proofs of their progress that they prefer Tennyson to Byron […] so it is considered progress with the fastest of this young school to place Mahomet in the same rank with the author of Christianity” (441, emphasis in original).
Some forty years after the publication of this piece, in the fall of 1896, another insurrection erupted in Crete which was covered extensively by the daily papers and the periodical press. Special correspondents on the island, including journalists and artists, reported on the armed conflicts between the Greek insurgents and the Ottoman forces as well as on the concerted military intervention of the Europeans. The illustrated weeklies Illustrated London News and The Graphic, for example, featured specials on the subject from February 1897 all through the summer of the same year, sometimes with full-page representations of the hardy Cretan mountaineers. One sole issue of the Fortnightly Review (April 1897), a prominent political and literary monthly periodical of liberal character, features three contributions on the subject; perhaps the most striking among them is “Our Learned Philhellenes” by Henry Duff Traill.
Traill was a prolific author and journalist who worked for magazines and newspapers (e.g. Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday Review, Literature, Daily Telegraph, Observer) either as a regular contributor or as a member of staff. He served as editor of the Observer between 1889-1891. Traill contributed leading articles, literature criticism, and verse (often satiric) while his overall work as an author includes theatrical plays. “Our Learned Philhellenes” falls within this latter category. Witty and hilarious, the play criticizes the “young English Radical journalists with their Hellenic enthusiasm” (503) who champion the Cretan stasis solely, it seems, on the grounds of classical associations. In a reversal of the young fervent champions of the Ottomans, forty years earlier, the play seeks to portray this “Hellenic enthusiasm” as empty and superficial – a mere shell. It is a criticism that goes beyond the journalistic profession and targets the established trope of viewing, perceiving, and judging modern Greece (either for or against) through the filter of antiquity.
This piece will be presented soon in the post Cretan Revolt, Part 2 – “Our Learned Philhellenes”
Anonymous. “How to Deal with the Greeks.” Bentley’s Miscellaney, 35 (April), 1854: 441-456.
Pressensé, Francis de. “The Cretan Question.” Nineteenth Century, 41 (March), 1897: 339-342.
For a biographical note of Henry Duff Trail see “Traill, Henry Duff,” Encyclopædia Britannica, v.27 (11th ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1911.
All photos are from the Photographic Archive of ELIA-MIET.