Cyprus


Cyprus
   An island of 3,572 square miles off the coast of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. The British Conservative government of Benjamin Disraeli occupied Cyprus in 1878 by virtue of the Anglo-Turkish Convention, which aimed to protect the Ottoman Empire from further Russian attack after the 1877–1878 Russo-Turkish War, but protecting the Ottoman Empire was incidental to the aim of safeguarding British financial and strategic interests in the Near East and India. Disraeli’s government perceived that Cyprus, with its central location and special place in the imperial imagination as a strategic base for various Crusades and the Venetians, would become a British stronghold. But neither his nor Gladstone’s Liberal government made any effort to make Cyprus into a military or naval station. Within months of occupying Cyprus, most of the 10,000 strong army of occupation was withdrawn after the troops contracted fever from the summer heat and insalubrity of the plains. The Liberals and numerous naval experts criticized the selection of Cyprus because the island lacked a harbor. The port of Famagusta on the east coast was clogged, needed a breakwater, and was unhealthy. The Conservative government postponed the work.
   When the Liberals came to power in 1880, they set in motion the future course of Cyprus until 1915. The island was run on the cheap to divert the tribute due to the Porte to pay for the defaulted 1855 loan repayments guaranteed by London and Paris. Consequently, expenditure on public works was curbed. There was a change only after Joseph Chamberlain became colonial secretary in 1895 and embarked on an expensive program of improving sericulture, agriculture, and irrigation; constructing a railway; and improving the inner harbor at Famagusta. The success of the works was mixed and had no aim to alter the place of Cyprus in the strategic structure of the Empire. This position was fixed in 1888 when the Colonial Defence Committee established that Cyprus was not worth defending and was indeed a defense liability. It accordingly advocated the removal of the British garrison, which was subsequently reduced, first by a Conservative government in 1892 and then by the Liberal government in 1895. Subsequent efforts to remove all of it failed because the Colonial and Foreign Offices were concerned about the rise of Geek nationalism and the potential clashes that may result from calls within the island to unite Cyprus to Greece.
   The population of Cyprus, which was 74 percent Orthodox Christian and 24.5 percent Muslim in 1881, was multicultural during Ottoman rule, but by 1912 British policy had allowed for the rise of Greek nationalism to divide the population into a multinational society. The Cypriots were integrated during Ottoman rule: the Cypriot hierarchy and governing councils comprised Orthodox and Muslims. The peasants shared economic hardships; a language based on a mixture of dialects, various Greek, Ottoman, Medieval French and Venetian; a folklore; and interacted socially, even intermarrying. Between 1850 and 1890, mixed villages increased by more than 100. The British, who rejected occupying Crete because of the threat of Greek nationalism there, failed to maintain the structures that had produced this multicultural society. They rejected coopting an Orthodox Church willing to work with them and desirous of preserving Orthodox-Muslim integration, because such a relationship conflicted with modern ideas of civil government. Cyprus, unlike most other possessions where cooption had been practiced, was perceived as being on the European periphery. Hence, the island received a legislative council in 1882 that had a local majority, Katharevousa. An artificially created version of Greek adopted by the Greek state was accepted for government business, English was not introduced to schools, and the nationalist curricula of Greece were adopted. Furthermore, because early opposition was minor, the British did nothing to curb the rising agitation of a small but vociferous group of Greek nationals and local Cypriots imbued in the Hellenic ideal, which instilled fear in the Muslim community. In 1912, the Orthodox and Muslim Cypriots clashed in Nicosia and Limassol and the garrison and reinforcements from Egypt were called in.
   By 1912, Cyprus had become unviable economically, politically, and strategically to the extent that the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith wanted to cede the island to Greece. Winston Churchill, then the first lord of the admiralty, along with David Lloyd George, made such a proposal to the prime minister of Greece, Eleutherios Venizelos, in 1912. The context was the protection of British interests in the eastern Mediterranean after much of the British naval presence was withdrawn to the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic to combat the rising German threat. Churchill wanted to give Cyprus to Greece in exchange for being allowed to establish a naval base at Argostoli Harbor on the island of Cephallonia in the Ionian Sea to block the Austro-Hungarian fleet. Talks were postponed because of the instability in the Balkans stemming from the Balkan Wars and the outbreak of World War I.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Alastros, Doros. Cyprus in History. London: Zeno, 1955;
    Halil, Salih Ibrahim. Cyprus: The Impact of Diverse Nationalism on a State. Mobile: University of Alabama Press, 1978.
   ANDREKOS VARNAVA

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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