Blue-Water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800 Robert Holland

Allen Lane, pp.397, 25

Britain’s links with the Continent were once  deeper and more extensive than those of any other European country. Paris, Rome and German universities played as vital a role in British culture as many native cities. Mediterranean connections were especially strong. Most cities on its shores contain an English church and cemetery. From Minorca to Cyprus, there are few Mediterranean islands that have not been occupied by British troops: the oldest company in Beirut is Heald and Co., the shipping agents (est.1837).

Blue-Water Empire aims to tell the story of ‘the British in the Mediterranean since 1800’: 1800 is the year that Malta, soon to be the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet, was conquered from France, with Maltese help. For a time Britain was regarded, by many living around the Mediterranean, including the Maltese, as a saviour and moderniser.

Robert Holland, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London, is a specialist on modern Greece, and he shows how regularly Britain intervened there, from the War of Liberation in 1821 until the 1960s. Greece has a tradition of dependence on foreign powers. Eighty thousand British troops were stationed there  in 1945: Churchill told General Scobie to treat Athens as a conquered city. Helping to feed the population and defeat the Communists, the last British troops did not leave until 1950, but British bribery of Greek politicians continued.

Holland says he wants to describe ‘the British experience of the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean experience of the British’. This lively and absorbing book, however, pays little attention to culture or trade. There is no mention of British writers who nourished the British passion for the Mediterranean, such as Norman Douglas or Elizabeth David. There are no trade figures: the British merchants of Smyrna, Alexandria and Marsala who, while cultivating extremes of Englishness, were often valuable wartime agents in the cities they knew extremely well, are hardly mentioned.  

Holland is drawn, like a moth to the flame, to the two world wars and the Israel/Palestine conflict; we learn about British counter-terrorism ‘special night squads’ in Palestine, the ‘tactically mixed’ fate of British convoys to Malta, the unexplained resignation of its Governor Dobbie of Malta in the middle of the war. His book could have been subtitled ‘British policies in the Mediterranean’.  

The peak of British power in the Mediterranean was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At one time, Holland writes, a fifth of all British forces overseas were stationed in Gibraltar and Malta. The Mediterranean could be called ‘a British lake’, since British ships could block its exit and entrance at the straits of Gibraltar and the Dardanelles — although the Suez canal, opened in 1869, was, to Palmerston’s fury, a French project.

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The Mediterranean fleet based in Malta, writes Holland, was ‘a living organism, strategically, politically and even to some extent socially’. Its commander-in-chief had the power to send Britain’s ‘grey diplomatists’ to solve crises throughout the Mediterranean. In 1840 British ships bombarded Beirut and Acre, helping to restore Ottoman power in Syria. In 1878 it was the British fleet that helped protect Constantinople from attack by the Russian army, camped outside its walls.

In 1882 the long-threatened British naval bombardment of Alexandria, ordered by a Liberal government keen to win popularity with voters in Britain, provided one of the first examples of a city destroyed by modern technology. Anticipating the role of private profit in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, another motive may have been Gladstone’s investment (37 per cent of his entire capital) in Egyptian government stocks. After the  occupation of Egypt, Gladstone sold it at a profit. British forces did not leave Egypt until 1956.

Thereafter, the Mediterranean remained a vital factor in British strategy and careers. Holland shows that it was partly because of naval agreements with France in the Mediterranean, enabling Britain to concentrate its ships against Germany in the North Sea, that Britain entered the first world war. Just as Churchill’s reputation took years to recover from the catastrophe of the Dardanelles, so Lloyd George’s career was wrecked by his alliance with the Greek leader Venizelos (pro-British, since British troops helped expel Turkish forces from his island of Crete in 1898). The Greek communities of Anatolia, which they had hoped to strengthen, were destroyed in the catastrophe of 1922.

Between the wars, wrote one of the cleverest British officials in the region, Sir Ronald Storrs, the British changed from being dominant to being dominating. When he was Governor of Cyprus, Storrs himself experienced its effects. Government House in Nicosia was burnt down, with his entire porcelain collection, by an angry crowd.

After 1945 British policy was further distorted by consciousness of decline and cold war fears about Soviet influence in the Mediterranean. In 1952 British reprisals against Egyptian police in the Suez canal zone led to the burning of Cairo the next day. In 1956 Britain led an attack on Egypt with France and Israel. ‘I want that man destroyed!’ shouted Eden about Nasser. Instead, the invasion helped turn the Egyptian president, for the next decade, into the hero of the Arab world. Holland says it was ‘not a major human tragedy’; but it certainly was for the many Egyptians killed — and for the British, French and Jews forced to leave Egypt, their schools and companies compelled to close.

In Cyprus, writes Holland, ‘confusion, a growing parochialism and acute embarrassment’ marked British policy. Britain had been happy to leave the Ionian islands 100 years earlier, but outstayed its welcome in Cyprus. Cyprus obtained independence in 1960, Malta in 1964. In 1967 the post of British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, created in 1711, was abolished.  Evacuations have replaced invasions as the speciality of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

The most original aspect of this book is Holland’s demonstration of the permeability and flexibility of nationality, the frequency of connections across frontiers. Edith Cavell’s remark that ‘Patriotism is not enough’ applies to the past as well as the present. Far from being xenophobic, some British found it easy to work ‘under two flags’. Nelson himself served the King of Naples as well as George III: hence the signature, on later letters, ‘Nelson and Bronte’, Bronte being the Sicilian estate which he had been given by a grateful Ferdinand IV.

Byron had a philosophy of cosmopolitanism, saying that he could make his country wherever he lived. He plotted for Italy and fought for Greece. British naval officers favoured Italian nationalists during the uprisings of 1848 and 1860. Wilfrid Blunt helped Arabi, the Egyptian national leader, against his own government. Edward Spears helped Lebanon and Syria win independence from France.

Consuls and merchants were often more useful to Britian than generals and governors, who alienated the locals. The British presence was at its most effective when it was ‘subtle and least imposing’, writes Holland. This traditional flexibility is now apparent among the British living in Spain or Cyprus who vote in local and European elections, as 400,000 Cypriots vote in Britain. Holland speaks of the ‘distinctive Anglo-Cypriot current’ or ‘Anglo-Greek current’, and could have written more about how double identities operate in the global world.

Flexibility and hybridity can serve the United Kingdom better than the poison of nationalism. In 2012 its last Mediterranean redoubts, Gibra
ltar and the ‘sovereign base areas’ in Cyprus, seem more likely to remain British than Scotland.   

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Britain, British empire, British history, History, Mediterranean, Non-fiction