Academic journal article The Historian

Mid-Victorian Liberalism and Foreign Affairs: "Cretan Atrocities" and Liberal Responses, 1866-69

Academic journal article The Historian

Mid-Victorian Liberalism and Foreign Affairs: "Cretan Atrocities" and Liberal Responses, 1866-69

Article excerpt

IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN the defense of political liberty and the promotion of free institutions in continental Europe were consistent with the policy and the language of leading figures in the Liberal camp. Between the 1850s and 1870s debate in Britain turned on "the ideals that the British should promote there" and about the dangers of continental "illiberalism." (1) From the days of of Palmerston as foreign secretary, the appeal to Britain's role as an example and promoter of constitutionalism abroad and as the defender of political liberty against political oppression became an integral part of a doctrine directed to Liberal opinion at home, which tried to "reconcile the radical and pragmatic foreign policy traditions." (2) In accordance with this doctrine, many Liberals even prescribed intervention for the direct assistance of popular movements for liberation from foreign domination. (3)

Moreover, the late 1850s and early 1860s was an age when events in foreign countries caused intense excitement in Britain among the general public, which was channeled into public meetings, the organization of support associations, and the columns of the daily press. Liberal and Radical circles read continental nationalism as another sign of the continuous battle between the liberal forces, headed by Britain, and the reactionary powers in Europe. This manifested itself in the cases of the Italian unification (1858-61), the revolution in Poland against the Russian occupation (1863-64), and the Hungarian struggle against Austria (1848-67). In this climate even a Philhellenic Committee was formed in 1863, which enlisted sixteen MPs with a Liberal, or Radical, disposure. (4)

During the period 1866-69 an insurrection raged against Turkish rule among the Christian population of the island of Crete. Crete was then an Ottoman province, but the claims of the Greek kingdom on the island made a revival of the "Eastern Question" (somewhat dormant since the end of the Crimean War in 1856) seem likely. (5) Highly colored reports from Crete supplied the London newspapers with accounts of Turkish atrocities throughout the crisis and British naval officers corroborated some of these testimonies. The British war correspondent John Edwin Hilary Skinner (1839-94) visited Crete twice during the insurrection (between March and July 1867 and again between July and September 1868), and during both visits he stayed at the insurgents headquarters. His correspondence in the columns of the Daily News described in detail the "atrocities" committed by the Turkish army and irregulars aiding the sultan's cause. (6) William J. Stillman (1828-1901), the American consul in Crete, published an article in favor of the Cretans and was probably the author of a series of letters which described the behavior of the Ottoman authorities in Crete. (7) The extent and motives of British response to these reports has become a point of controversy.

Indeed, the failure of Liberal politicians to react to the alleged atrocities committed by the Turks has come under consideration as it seems to contradict earlier attitudes towards national movements and questions the identification of Liberalism with the "Christian cause" in the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s. Both Richard Shannon and Ann Pottinger Saab, in their studies of the Bulgarian atrocities agitation of 1876 and its aftermath, cited the insurrection in Crete as establishing a precedent for subsequent massacres in the Ottoman Empire, albeit "fail[ing] to arouse public indignation" in Britain. (8) In an article on the Cretan insurrection itself, Saab attributed to "the Porte's skilful diplomacy" and "British perceptions of the alternative" to Ottoman rule the absence of calls for an anti-Turkish crusade in Britain during the late 1860s. (9)

An inquiry into British reactions to the Cretan insurrection, which emerged on the political agenda in the late 1860s, could prove extremely constructive to the study of the relation between ideological developments, party politics, and foreign policy in mid-Victorian Britain. …

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