Guards outside the Palace of St. Michael and St. George in Corfu City, Corfu, Greece, circa 1965. (Photo by Hy Simon/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)


July 10, 2023   10 mins

When King Charles ascended the throne to the sonorous chants of a Greek Orthodox choir, the compelling fusion of British and Byzantine ceremony struck onlookers as a strange and mysterious novelty. But in one sense, it was the natural result of a now-disregarded byway of British imperial history. For half a century, British rule in the Ionian Islands off Greece’s western coast created an appealing hybrid society with all the romantic unlikeliness of a Crusader kingdom. On holy days, red-jacketed British soldiers would escort Corfu’s mummified patron saint through the streets in clouds of incense, with the garrison’s senior commanders bearing the ceremony’s giant candles. So impressed were locals by the spectacle that, even today, the island’s village marching bands play Holy Week’s funeral dirges in colourful uniforms and glittering helmets copied from the long-dead British garrison.

Even now, Corfu’s crumbling rotundas and bandstands, its British barracks, hospitals and palaces, are monuments to a vanished imperial culture, as lost and romantically stirring as that of Rome. Yet recent research born from this faded grandeur is more than just romantic marginalia: it offers a certain nuance currently absent from Britain’s own tiresomely propagandistic discourse on empire. As the Corfiot historian Maria Paschalidi notes, torn between strategic realpolitik and liberal idealism, “Britain suggested a variety of forms of government for the Ionians ranging from authoritarian
 to representative
 to responsible government.” Yet none worked, creating a “failed colonial experiment in Europe, highlighting the difficulties of governing white, Christian Europeans within a colonial framework”. But if things had worked out differently, Corfu might today be as British as Gibraltar. And the fact that it is not tells a micro-history of London’s always-ambivalent attitude to Empire.

Analysis of Britain’s lost Greek empire opens up new and productive pathways for interpreting the imperial past, keenly studied by a young generation of Greek historians even as it is ignored in the former colonial metropole. As the historian Evangelos Zarokostas observes, the half-century Ionian interlude took place at a formative time, “a period of transition between the collapse of old structures and the establishment of new ones”, in which “British officials were ambivalent about the place of the protectorate in the empire from its very beginning.” From the very start, Britain ruled the islands as a crown colony, but under the legal fiction they were an independent state under British protection. This ambiguous settlement would prove fatal to British rule, but it also provided a template for later British governance in Cyprus, Egypt, Mandate Palestine and Iraq. The islands were a laboratory for later imperial adventures, and would soon prove just as onerous a burden. In this sense, the bloody and still-unresolved conflicts of today’s Middle East were born on the verdant islands of the Ionian. Similarly, the failed Ionian experiment, abandoned just as Britain began to acquire hegemonic status, was to be Whitehall’s first experience of decolonisation — a first draft, in colourful mid-Victorian style, of Britain’s 20th-century decline. 

In 1815, when Britain won the Ionian Islands from a vanquished Napoleon, the world looked very different. The island chain off Greece’s western coast commanded the entrance to the Adriatic, and seemed to offer mastery of the Mediterranean. In the 20 years preceding the raising of the Union flag over Corfu’s medieval fortress, the islands had rudely entered modernity after 400 years as a sleepy colony of Venice, passing from French to Russian hands and back to France again in a wearying succession of sieges and conquests. Desperately poor, they presented London with a complex society to govern: centuries of Venetian rule had left a Greek-speaking peasantry living in feudal squalor, lorded over by an absentee class of Italian-speaking nobles. In the regional capital, Corfu Town, all classes spoke Italian of one form or another, including the many Jews, confined to their ghetto by the vigorous antisemitism of their neighbours. As European Christians for the most part, the islanders were an anomaly in Britain’s expanding empire. How, then, were they to be governed? 

The Treaty of Paris which granted them to Britain asserted that Whitehall’s rule was merely a benevolent guardianship of the first independent Greek state since the Middle Ages. The reality was rather different: fresh from negotiating Haiti’s handover to its new black rulers, the Ionian Islands’ first British Lord High Commissioner, Sir Thomas Maitland, or “King Tom”, ruled with a rod of iron. A Scottish nobleman, described by his new Ionian charges as “dirty” and “frequently drunk”, Maitland began his decade as “conquistador” by erecting imposing monuments to himself, and ensured that, whatever the constitution said, absolute power rested with his own person. Feared by the locals as a volatile and abusive autocrat, whose secret police penetrated every level of Ionian society, Maitland’s absolute rule established the basis for later British governance. An enlightened despot, and a devotee of Adam Smith’s latest, fashionable theories, Maitland encouraged trade and imposed a sense of British order to Corfu’s teeming, overcrowded streets. Finding the locals disinclined to work, Maitland imported Maltese labourers to build his imposing regency palace of St Michael and St George, in the process reviving Corfu’s dwindling Catholic community. Correctly assessing the local nobility as easily swayed by glittering baubles, Maitland invented a chivalric order to dazzle them, still awarded today, in the absence of Greeks to bribe, to British diplomats — by themselves.

For a while, in the early decades of the 19th century, British rule was accepted by Corfiot society, if not by the more rebellious inhabitants of the southward islands. As Aggelis notes, there were even “popular demands from many Ionians to be ‘modernised’ by the British”. So, with all the lost confidence of Victorian Britain, Corfu was duly gifted the Foucauldian novelties of a Panopticon prison in Benthamite style, and a high-walled lunatic asylum, still occupied today. New Macadamed roads, also still in use, linked the villages to the capital, and a sturdy aqueduct brought water to its population. The expansion of new law courts, coupled with stiff sentences for carrying knives — at the time the British arrived, the Ionians had the second-highest murder rate in Europe — transformed a previously violent society into the most pacific, if now litigious, in the region. Handsome villas, their sober Regency neoclassicism softened by pastel-coloured limewash, sprung up around the town and its prosperous new suburb of Garitsa to house the garrison’s officers and their wives in British comfort. They are still lived in today by Corfu’s upper-middle class professionals — indeed, Prince Philip was born in one, Mon Repos. Banks and stock exchanges, hotels and sewers, street lamps and bandstands transformed the medieval walled city into a Balkan simulacrum of Cheltenham.

The eccentric Lord Guilford — whose erratically-spelled name is still commemorated by Corfu’s central square — founded modern Greece’s first university on the island, after being dissuaded from situating it on a goat-haunted mountain peak on Ithaca. A network of “Lancastrian schools” provided public education, including the first ever schooling for girls; British sentries guarded the ghetto during Holy Week, ending the local custom of stoning Jews who dared venture outside. And amid all this reforming zeal, garrison life drifted along with a sleepy, romantic charm, where red-coated officers and their crinolined companions hunted scented paper in lieu of foxes, and enjoyed champagne and oyster picnics on the island’s beauty spots, surrounded by peasants toiling in the olive groves. For Mrs Gaskell, imagining the life of an officer’s wife, enjoying “music and dancing” in her “house with its trellised balcony,” the daily round was one long summer holiday. For the ordinary squaddies, happily acquiring “local connections with women” and “local habits” and serving in the only British posting where wine was the ration drink, the only hazards were drunkenly falling from the ramparts or being snatched by sharks while swimming. A soldier’s life here was distinctly less onerous than in the Empire’s more spartan outposts. 

But the holiday atmosphere would not last long. The outbreak of the Greek Revolution aroused nationalist passions which would ultimately make British rule untenable. The exiled Corfiot nobleman Ioannis Kapodistrias, Russia’s foreign minister and a fervent opponent of British rule, complaining that the islanders were treated “like indians”, became the new Greece’s first head of state, complaining that the islanders were treated “like Indians”, until he was assassinated by his volatile mainland charges. When a Turkish ship carrying Muslim refugees landed on Zakynthos, the passengers were murdered by the islanders, causing Maitland to impose martial law and disarm the Ionian population. Agrarian rebellions would rumble on in the southern islands, with British officials occasionally murdered, and reprisals exacted. The Ionians were the only British territory where the revolutionary fervour of 1848 was successful: the liberal Tory Lord High Commissioner Lord Seaton, fresh from his experience governing Upper Canada, widened democratic participation and permitted a free press, recasting the Ionians as a white dominion fit for Canadian-style responsible self-government. Indeed, under Seaton the Ionian islanders were granted greater democratic rights than the people of Britain itself. When, the following year, British troops put down a peasant uprising in Kefalonia, burning villages and hanging rebels to the applause of the local nobles, his reactionary successor Sir Henry Ward blamed Seaton’s naive idealism for the disturbances, proroguing the Ionian parliament and exiling journalists in an abrupt return to authoritarian rule.

This constant oscillation between Liberal and reactionary Tory proconsuls introduced tensions into Ionian governance that would soon make British rule untenable. The expansion of education, of the legal system and of employment in the British administration created a new Ionian bourgeoisie who rejected the pro-British sympathies of the islands’ aristocracy in favour of radical nationalism: a pattern that would be repeated in more exotic colonies. In stirring Italian prose (though the British had reintroduced Greek as the language of law and government for the first time since the 13th century, Italian remained the language of choice for the educated classes) nationalist radicals with names such as Dandolo, Padova and Lombardo demanded union with the Greek fatherland. Enraged by Ward’s repression of the Kefalonian rebellion, the moderate reformists, who had previously sought closer integration within the empire on more favourable terms of trade and access to imperial sinecures, ceded power to the radicals.

When the Crimean War broke out, and the islands became the supply base for Britain’s defence of the hated Ottoman Empire against the islanders’ Orthodox co-religionists, even the formerly-pliable clergy began to publicly pray for the Tsar’s health and success, while islanders celebrated Russian victories over their colonial overlords. The end was looming. Local government was deadlocked as the radicals frustrated British rule, but the heightened repression angered liberal sentiment in London. In the dying decade of British rule, as at the beginning, Whitehall’s sole concern with the islands became keeping them out of Russian hands. Nervously, London discussed gifting the islands to Austria, though feared the international response. A proposal was made by Ward’s successor, Sir John Young, a former MP for Cavan who consistently likened the increasingly unruly Ionians to the now equally troublesome Irish, proposed to annex Corfu while ceding the more volatile islands to Greece.

In a justificatory British correspondence, the placid Corfiots were now characterised as “half-Venetian and half-Albanian” and thus barely Greek at all. As Paschalidi notes, Young insisted that “Corfu was perfect for ‘British capital and enterprise’ and “would be ‘completely Anglicised’ in a few years.” Yet the initially convenient legal fiction of the Protectorate prevented Britain from either fully annexing Corfu or handing the problem to a friendly power. The publishing of Young’s stolen correspondence just as Gladstone arrived in Corfu to find some workable solution forced London to reassure wary European powers it had no intention of creating a Balkan Gibraltar. At a loss for how to rid itself of its now unwanted Greek dependency, the British government began to search for a way out. That way out was to be King Charles’ great-grandfather, Prince William of Denmark.

In 1862, Greek revolutionaries overthrew their unpopular Bavarian king Otto, and the country voted for a successor. When the votes were tallied, the winner, with more than 95% of votes cast (still the greatest democratic mandate in Greek history) was Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son. Both Alfred and Victoria immediately declined the offer — the throne of an impoverished Balkan country in the throes of revolution was hardly a prize — but the Greeks refused to listen: Alfred-mania had entirely swept the country. The Greeks believed that choosing Alfred would guarantee British protection for their weak and unstable new state, with the still-unliberated Ottoman possessions of northern Greece thrown into the bargain. Struggling to convince them that the Alfred option was impossible, British officials feared the disappointed Greeks would choose a Russian king in a fit of pique, swinging the country into the orbit of London’s greatest rival. After much haggling, British officials settled on a safely pliable king for Greece, Prince William of Denmark — King Charles’ great-grandfather. But to seal the deal, London needed a handsome gift to woo the Greeks: and what better option than Corfu and the Ionians, no longer strategically valuable and now impossible to govern?

And so, on June 2, 1864, the last British troops marched out of Corfu’s Old Fortress and the Union flag was lowered for the last time. The final Lord High Commissioner, Sir Henry Storks, gave a tearful speech in Italian while island notables gathered round him, “embracing him and conferring upon him not infrequently those salutations which Englishmen generally reserve for the other sex”. The frosty atmosphere of Britain’s last decade of rule had evaporated with their looming departure, as soldiers marched along streets “strewn with flowers”, “fĂȘted in the taverns with free beer”. Now it was over, Corfiots had already begun to feel a certain nostalgia for their brief episode of Britishness. “Sono bono genti [they are good people],” a British correspondent quoted an old man waving his straw hat at the departing ships, wiping tears from his eyes: “’Adesso siamo liberi!’ [Now we are free!], said a young man, as he lit a cigarette by way of inaugurating the new order of things.” The young man was not quite correct: in relinquishing Corfu, Britain won a far greater prize, a quasi-colonial dominance over Greece itself, which would remain an effective British protectorate until London was supplanted by Washington following World War Two. For this exact reason, once Britain finally agreed to cede the Ionians, Ionian radicals who had long demanded union futilely began to campaign against it, as the historian Eleni Calligas shows: after experiencing “the corruption, intrigue, and clientelism permeating Greek politics” they soon retired from public life altogether, entirely disillusioned.

British rule in the Ionians is often seen, in Britain, as a curious backwater in the long imperial record, but the romantic but ultimately failed Ionian experiment set the scene for later imperial trends. Oscillating between Liberal and Tory proconsuls, tensions in British internal politics introduced a wild incoherence to Ionian governance: Tory repression inflamed local passions; Liberal idealism created a native nationalist bourgeoisie who would make the islands ungovernable. But young British administrators who cut their teeth in the failed Ionian project would later move on to the equally ambiguous annexation of Egypt, which established a precedent for British mandate Iraq: British governance in the Ionian would shape later failures in the Middle East. Similarly oscillating between liberal idealism — tempered by the nationalist enthusiasms of a bourgeoisie British rule had created — and harsh oppression, Britain repeated the same cycle in the Middle East as it did in the Ionian, ending in bloodier and less romantic failure. In the end, British patronage of independent Greece ended as that of its rule in the Middle East did, a rule supplanted by America, now being supplanted in turn..

Cycling through an incoherent policy mix of authoritarian repression and liberal idealism, benevolent modernisation and indirect rule through feudal elites, British rule in the Ionians ended in the empire’s first bitter taste of decolonisation, even as Britain stood on the brink of world hegemony. But far from the black-and-white moral certainties of today’s demagogic historiography, the Ionian islanders themselves always felt ambivalent about their status as semi-Britons, as often pleading for greater incorporation into the imperial fold and the right to send an MP to the Commons as demanding independence. 

London, too, always felt more ambivalence than cupidity for its Greek possessions, searching for the least painful way to relinquish them and finally doing so according to the unsentimental demands of realpolitik. Far from the Ionians’ union with Greece being the inevitable result of nationalist fervour, London chose the moment of decolonisation, just one of many potential outcomes, and did so with relief. “I wish them joy of the association,” Storks wrote bitterly, “Ionia will be the Ireland of Greece.” When the British left, they were mourned only by Corfu’s nobility, its Jews (whose “situation would be very pitiable, if the English did not take them under their protection”), and its women, who, Storks observed, were “universally opposed to the cessation of British protection”. But in the end, aside from the residual Anglophilia of Corfiot elites, the only living result of this brief and romantic Anglo-Hellenic synthesis is our own philhellene King, and a lingering Corfiot taste for cricket and ginger beer, the last ghostly echoes of Britain’s lost Greek empire.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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