Academic journal article The Historian

In Search of a Liberal Foreign Policy in Mid-Victorian Britain: Carnarvon, Clarendon, and Gladstone on the Dilessi Murders Episode of 1870

Academic journal article The Historian

In Search of a Liberal Foreign Policy in Mid-Victorian Britain: Carnarvon, Clarendon, and Gladstone on the Dilessi Murders Episode of 1870

Article excerpt

ON 26 APRIL 1870, the Earl of Kimberley (1826-1902) recorded in his diary an episode of high tension in the ranks of the Liberal government of which he himself was a member. The entry reads:

Heard the sad news of the murder of Vyner, Herbert, Lloyd and Boyl by
Greek brigands. De Grey is much hurt (and no wonder) at the
conversation he has had with Gladstone. Proh pudor! Took up the
cudgels for the miserable Greek government. This is to be Philhellene
with a vengeance. (1)

The occasion of the tension was the response of the British government to the Dilessi murders. On 11 April 1870, a group of British travellers accompanied by an English solicitor residing in Greece, his wife and child, and the secretaries of the British and Italian Legations were captured by brigands during their return from an excursion to the plain of Marathon. (2) The brigands soon released the women, the child, and Lord Muncaster in order to make the necessary arrangements for ransoming the captives. The negotiations with the brigands were trammelled by their additional demand of an amnesty, which the Greek government steadily refused to grant as being in opposition to the provisions of the constitution. The government dispatched a military force to surround the brigands and prevent them from taking their captives out of Attica. On 21 April 1870, the brigands and the troops clashed near the village of Dilessi and the fleeing brigands murdered their captives. (3) The news reached England on 25 April and provoked an immediate reaction, which lasted, with fading intensity, until the end of May.

The impact of the Dilessi murders both on mid-Victorian Britain and on the Greek kingdom have long been recognized and studied. Romilly Jenkins's The Dilessi Murders, first published in 1961, presents a detailed study on the event, with a minute examination of the capture, the negotiations, and the enquiry that followed the murders. (4) In giving an account of the British public's reaction, Jenkins has argued that "the whole nation, press and public, Whig and Tory, seemed to have gone mad with rage and lust for revenge," while his remarks on the meaning of the episode for British foreign policy are comparatively few and entirely focused on the comparison between the Liberal prime ministers Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98): "England under Gladstone was not what she had been under Palmerston." (5) More recently, the editor of the journal that Muncaster, one of the captives, kept, has reiterated the same observations as to British reactions; the press "mount an almost hysterical attack on Greece... old prejudices were fanned, and the entire Greek race was declared uncivilised and inferior, violent, idle, deceitful and morally degenerate." (6) Tzanelli, on the other hand, in a differently orientated account of the episode, has stressed "the implications of brigandage for nineteenth century questions of Greek identity," focusing her attention on "pair of opposites... namely Greece versus Turkey [sic]... civilization and lack of civilization, Greek society and Vlach/Albanians." (7) However, only in a passing reference to the incident by Parry, when dealing with Gladstone's intention "to strike a different note to Palmerston," is the reaction to the Dilessi murders examined as an integral part of a wider framework of ideas and attitudes towards foreign policy and national existence in mid-Victorian Britain. (8)

By adopting a new approach to the Dilessi murders the study of the issue can communicate with two other fields of historical inquiry, the study of Victorian ideas and, especially, the politics of foreign policy in nineteenth-century Britain. As David Brown has argued, it is the current historiographical trend "to seek to place foreign policy in a much broader context... to regard it as illuminating domestic political situations as much (if not more) than external ones." (9) At the outset of the 1870s, the question of the purposes and values that British foreign policy should assert was politically important primarily for the Liberals, who were in power. …

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