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A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Andrekos Varnava, British Imperialism in Cyprus, 1878-1915: The Inconsequential Possession (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), UK 60£, 321 pages, ISBN: 978-0-7190-7903-0 - Stéphanie Prévost, Université François Rabelais -Tours (PLEASE FIND BELOW ANDREKOS VARNAVA'S REPLY TO STEPHANIE PREVOST'S REVIEW).

British imperialism has generated countless studies, but very few about the British Empire in Europe. In his latest historical study, entitled British Imperialism in Cyprus, 1878-1915: The Inconsequential Possession (2009), Andrekos Varnava seeks to redress this by exploring the ‘tensions underlying British imperialism in Cyprus’ [273].
Andrekos Varnava, a lecturer in Modern History at Flinders University, South Australia, contributes a groundbreaking piece which looks into the cultural prejudices that informed British imperialism in Cyprus, back in 1878—when Cyprus came under British occupation as part of the 1878 Anglo-Turkish (originally secret) convention—and well beyond. British Imperialism in Cyprus is part of the ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series. Varnava’s cultural approach fully illustrates the spirit that has inspired this series since its beginning—when it was launched by Professor John Mackenzie, now its general editor, with Propaganda and Empire in 1984—as the series essentially seeks to shed light on the influence of imperialism upon metropolitan cultures, especially that of Britain.

Varnava’s standpoint is truly groundbreaking as he decides to turn away from the decolonisation period which has recently received major attention—as shown by Alan James’s Keeping the Peace in the Cyprus Crisis of 1963-64 (Palgrave, 2001) and by Jan Asmussen’s Cyprus at War: Diplomacy and Conflict During the 1974 Crisis (I.B. Tauris, 2008)—to the earlier era of British rule. Conversely, the British colonial period in Cyprus, spanning from 1878 to 1960, has been largely understudied as it was pointed out by a collective work published in 2006 (Britain in Cyprus: Colonialism and Post-Colonialism, 1878-2006), in which Varnava contributed an article entitled ‘Cyprus is of no use to anybody’ and which is actually taken up as the ultimate chapter of his British Imperialism in Cyprus. Yet, there are landmark books—such as Dwight E. Lee’s Great Britain and the Cyprus Convention Policy of 1878 (Harvard University Press, 1934) and Robert Stephens’s Cyprus: A Place of Arms (Praeger, 1966)—Varnava quotes to show that there are precedents in the historiography of British imperialism in Cyprus. However Varnava discards Lee’s and Stephens’s approaches for they overemphasize the strategical and military dimension the British government invested Cyprus with, whereas Varnava sees strategical and military considerations as the results of Victorian cultural imagination which tended to construct nineteenth-century Cyprus in terms of its classical, especially Phoenician, past. But Varnava’s study also takes us into the twentieth century, down to 1915, when Britain made a second formal offer to cede Cyprus to Greece, in vain. Overall, Varnava seeks to go back to the roots of the cultural and national tensions rather than study their contemporary manifestations—an approach tackled in the recent work by Angelos Sepos with The Europeanization of Cyprus: Policy, Polities and Politics (Palgrave, 2008). Varnava indeed argues that British cultural mindset about the occupation of Cyprus continuously fed twentieth-century tensions that still persist today between Greek Orthodox Cypriots and Turkish Cypriot Muslims: Varnava suggests that Cyprus’s recent history can only be understood in terms of British conceptions of the island. Varnava’s demonstration is all the more convincing as he is far from being new to the subject: not only has he co-edited two monographs on the issue of Cyprus’s contemporary vexed identity (namely Reunifying Cyprus: The Annan Plan and Beyond and The Minorities of Cyprus: Development Patterns and the Identity of the Internal-Exclusion, both published in 2009), but he has also written many articles on the imperial period of Cyprus and holds a PhD in History from the University of Melbourne (defended in 2006), which inspired this book. His expertise results in a detailed, thoroughly-researched and well-argued demonstration.

British Imperialism in Cyprus is composed of eight chapters. Some chapters (especially chapters 3-5) are arranged chronologically and deal specifically with British activities in Cyprus, but Varnava deftly explains how these activities were the consequences of ‘ad hoc perceptions [of holding Cyprus as] advantage, non-advantage and disadvantage’ [14] and of ‘exaggerated perceptions of value’ [18] that stemmed from the fact that Cyprus had been seized by Richard the Lionheart in 1191 and had been coveted by major European powers ever since. In a long first chapter, Varnava ‘historicis[es] the British possession of Cyprus’ and shows there is a discrepancy between the conceived military and geostrategical potential of Cyprus and the fact that, despite its Eastern Mediterranean location and its geographical proximity to Europe, Asia and Africa, it never became the hoped-for stronghold. Varnava insists that this paradox has never been looked into and decides to delve into it in chapter 2, entitled ‘Cyprus from Richard Coeur de Lion to Disraeli: The Imperial Imagination’. There, Varnava traces the history of Cyprus from Richard the Lionheart’s seizure, at the time of the Third Crusade, down to Disraeli and Salisbury’s decision to negotiate the Cyprus convention with the Ottoman Empire in June 1878, alongside the Berlin discussions for a settlement of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war. Varnava defends that British occupation of Cyprus is primarily due to the perception of the island as ‘a romantic place’ [46]. He also intimates that Disraeli, by mentioning its occupation in his novel Tancred, or the New Crusade (1847), had given the impression that he did mean Britain to occupy Cyprus—even if Varnava is cautious enough to highlight that it is very unclear whether Disraeli had ever considered Tancred as a template of future British foreign and imperial policy [60]. Chapter 3 deals with ‘justifying the occupation of Cyprus (1876-78) [as] “the Key of Western Asia”’. Varnava highlights that the British occupation of Cyprus had long been considered and that as early as 1876—at the time of a new phase of the Eastern Question due to the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’—the War Office thought Cyprus could be the other ‘“Malta [or] Gibraltar [Disraeli wanted to] prevent the Black Sea [and Russian progression towards Constantinople] being a constant threat” to British Mediterranean maritime power’ [73]. Varnava persuasively states that the British decision to occupy Cyprus was poorly prepared in the sense that the government—and more specifically the Premier, Benjamin Disraeli, and the Secretary for India, Lord Salisbury—ignored the ‘realities’ [82], namely the climate and the insalubrity of the island and rather perceived the occupation of Cyprus as ‘a new crusade along the lines of Tancred’ [75]. In chapter 4, Varnava then examines how ‘the Mediterranean Eldorado’ only yielded ‘sublime illusions’ at the end of Disraeli’s tenure (1878-1880): to back up his point, he lists many setbacks the British government had to face—such as the fever that struck British troops soon after their encampment as well as the lack of a proper harbour in which ships could anchor—and contrasts this with the enthusiasm many Turcophiles (especially the Duke of Sutherland) felt about the role Cyprus could play in the development of the long-talked-about Asia Minor and Euphrates Railway line. In chapter 5, Varnava takes on the view that some Liberals had opposed the Cyprus convention—Gladstone even calling it an ‘insane’ one [99]—and investigates how this led the Liberal government to cut investments in an island that was still nominally a possession of the Ottoman empire and that had to pay a fairly high yearly tribute to the Sultan out of its own revenues. Varnava argues that although this line of approach was first defined by Gladstone’s Liberal government (1880-5), it was continued by successive governments, including that of Salisbury in the 1890s. Chapter 6, which is entitled ‘From multiculturalism to multi-nationalism: the “European” possession’, is about the British conception of Cyprus as a European possession. Varnava reminds his readers that most British politicians saw Cyprus as essentially Greek in its culture and as having been deprived of its medieval prominence by Ottoman rule. With this in mind, Varnava deduces that regarding Cyprus as European possession prevented British governments from ‘co-opt[ing] the [local] elite’ [158]—which was done in non-European colonies like India—even in the case of the pro-British Orthodox elite. This attitude, Varnava points out, encouraged the Orthodox community to adopt ‘enosis’ and undertake a rapprochement with Greece, which, after it was discontented with the unfulfilled promises of the 1878 Berlin Treaty, sought more actively to extend its cultural supremacy. In chapter 7, Varnava argues that ‘Cyprus’s strategic place in the British imperial structure’ was a ‘backwater’ and that it never played any key role in this structure, although it briefly served as a ‘haven for refugees’ [207-8] and as a sanatorium for British troops, especially at the time of Sudan wars. Varnava’s ultimate chapter takes its title from a cue in George Bernard Shaw’s 1899 play, Caesar and Cleopatra: ‘Cyprus is of no use to anybody’. Varnava suggests that although of little value, Cyprus was viewed as ‘a pawn’ that could still theoretically be swapped for support, be it of Germany (in 1894) or, more frequently, of Greece (especially at the time of the Anglo-Greek entente of 1912 or at the opening of WW1). And yet, Varnava shows that both times (in 1912 and 1915) the island was offered to Greece, it was refused because of ambiguous British policies.

Varnava enriches his study with many references to archival material (especially private and parliamentary papers), cartoons from Punch, references to songs and plays about Cyprus and maps. Appendices also forcefully complete the arguments of the main body of text. The impression is of a clear demonstration throughout, especially as each chapter winds up with a short comprehensive, powerful conclusion. The account makes a very interesting reading for any one interesting in British imperialism in Europe in general and in Cyprus’s imperial era, more specifically, however demanding the reading could be. Perhaps Varnava could have alleviated the reading by providing definitions for concepts that are unfamiliar to non-specialists (for example ‘enosis’ or the EOKA, which stands for the National organisation of Cypriot struggle). But this is a minor point. British Imperialism in Cyprus is definitely an illuminating research piece on the ‘tensions underlying British imperialism in Cyprus’.


©Stéphanie Prévost & GRAAT


Andrekos Varnava’s reply to Stéphanie Prévost’s review

I must thank Stéphanie Prévost for her thorough and insightful review of my book. I am pleased that she has engaged with what is written in the book in terms of historiography, context and argument.
There are only a few points I wish to clarify for Prévost and for those reading her review.

Prévost states that the British made a ‘second formal offer’ of Cyprus to Greece and that both ‘offers’ were rejected. This is incorrect. In December 1912 the British introduced the idea of ceding Cyprus to Greece to the Greek PM Eleutherios Venizelos. He did not reject the idea. Events and circumstances postponed serious discussion of the proposal until matters changed when World War I started. Although Britain made efforts to coax Greece into the war, Cyprus was not initially offered because Lord Kitchener entertained the idea of landing troops at Alexandretta. In the event, it was only when Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, and swiftly moved into Serbia, that the first and only formal offer of Cyprus to Greece was made, and subsequently rejected.

The second point I wish to clarify is the excellent observation made by Prévost that that nineteenth-century elite Victorian cultural imaginings saw Cyprus in terms of its classical past, but she states especially Phoenician, when I show that it was Greek, so much so that the Phoenician was often suppressed.

The only point I feel important enough to add which Prévost does not mention is the clash of Victorian cultural imaginings between the ‘classicists’ who viewed Cyprus in terms of its Greek classical past and so connected it with modern Greece, and the ‘Anglicanists’ who viewed Cyprus from the point of view of the Christian civilising mission and so focussed on the Cypriots as Christians who needed guiding and help.

I am most pleased that Prévost, still a postgraduate student at University of Tours (France), produced an excellent analysis of my book, showing that she has a promising future as an early career researcher in the area of British imperial history in the Near and Middle East.

Dr. Andrekos Varnava,
Lecturer in Modern History,
Department of History,
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences,
Flinders University










Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison