Kythera and the Ionian islands 1809 to 1864

A review by Associate Professor Vrasidas Karalis of the Department of Modern Greek Studies, University of Sydney

Peter Prineas, the Australian author of 'Britain's Greek Islands', has a passion and it is called Cerigo or Kythera. It is not simply a passion about origins and nostalgia or about an idealised paradise lost somewhere far away. It is a passion about a thriving community throughout the fifth continent and the living memory of its past. It is a passion about real human beings full of dedication and love for their place of origin.

Furthermore, it is a passion for knowing, connecting past and present and about telling the stories that form regional history and identity. Finally, it is a love for the adventure and the historical trajectory of a small island and of a wider region of Greece, which had a very different historical reality from the Greek mainland.

The Ionian Islands have a rich history of conquerors and counter-conquerors that made the seven islands — the Heptanisos — so much different to the other areas of Greece by constructing a different cultural mentality and self-understanding.

From Byzantium and the Crusaders, the Venetians, the French, the English and then back to Greece, the seven islands were, and still are, a place of intense cultural osmosis, a place full of Italian flavours and English sports, a place of Greek Orthodox tradition with a distinctly Roman Catholic colour, a place of bell-canto and tarantella, of cantades and libro d' oro, so unlike the rest of Greece, a country with distinct Oriental leanings and a strong Balkan mentality.

Indeed one has to only admire the variety and the polyphony within the greater Greek family — so many different voices, forms and expressions and yet all united by bonds of common language, identity and history.

Upon these common bonds Peter Prineas constructs his narrative so that all can understand the specificity and the uniqueness of the Ionian islands as regional history with wider consequences for the establishment of the modern Greek state, its institutions, traditions and practices, even its National Anthem.

Peter Prineas' book is about an intimate knowledge of the history of the Seven islands — it is not simply a book about history or an antiquated past but a testimony of lived history, and as such an exploration of the ways historical knowledge lives on in the everyday memory of the people, especially those of the Greek Diaspora.

It is really important to read books like this, because they give you the certainty of genuine research out of personal interest. This is crucial in an era of academic over-specialisation and constant methodological refinement when grand theories simply obliterate the specificity of events and the distinctiveness of individuals.

Independent researchers funded through special interest groups bring a new non-professional approach to historiography and are more open to fresh approaches to the material. Furthermore Prineas' book is an excellent example of what we call 'regional history' a branch of historiography almost lost during the last one hundred years of nation building with its need for grand narratives under diachronic unifying patterns.

But most of all this is a book of history. The writer weaves in an extremely passionate and fascinating manner the history of his own self with the history of the region itself. His narrative gives an exciting way of inter-connecting the personal and the collective, and depicts the intersection between the individual case and the social history around it.

It starts with a brief voyage through the seven islands and through 35 chapters it examines the vexed and turbulent period when they became 'artfully chained', as chapter 6 indicates, referring to a famous verse from Dionysius Solomos.

The book indeed explores the hybrid situation of the protectorate, as found for the next fifty years on the islands, with special reference to Kythera.

What actually happened then? On one side most of the Greeks were under the overt domination of a declining Ottoman rule, while growing nationalism had already shaken the foundations of multi-religious and multi-national empires. In 1804 from Paris, Adamantios Coraes declared the new identity of the Greeks, who demanded freedom from tyranny and self-determination. It was essentially a new period for the country and its people.

Having a part of Hellenism under the protection of the most advanced and law-abiding state and empire of the period was the first sign of the new direction that Greek areas could take. Having a western sovereign meant that they could appeal to the rule of law and the transparency of legitimate structures for the protection of their property, social life and personal identity. Britain looked so much different to totalitarian Russian monarchy and to unstable French republicanism.

Yet no one could forget the great hopes that the French revolution and even Napoleon Bonaparte gave to the Greeks of the Seven Islands. They burned the Libro' d' Oro in public, they planted the tree of freedom in public squares, they liberated serfs living until then in virtual slavery — yet like all revolutions they were corrupted and became autocratic, cruel, murderous.

The British presence, with its long history of parliamentary rule looked so promising and hopeful, so different after many centuries of Venetian aristocratic rule.

What we read in Peter Prineas' book is how it all went so horribly wrong. Despite the good intentions and even fair practices by people like Maitland, the protection evolved into what Solomos called "false freedom". Peter Prineas' book reads like a gripping and enthralling novel because it brings to the fore all the social, political and religious forces colliding after it became clear that the English protection was a covert form of colonial occupation.

As the writer observes, these crucial events took place during the Greek Revolution, the most important event of Greek history after 1453. The Revolution with its liberal orientation and its subversive message soon became a very uncomfortable situation for the British Governor. The chapters of the book entitled 'Martial law' and 'Pirates' present the tensions with revolutionary Greece.

Yet as we know the real problems started after the liberation of Greece when it was obvious that the freedom of Greece meant a renewed momentum for union with areas of 'unredeemed Hellenism'.

The chapter entitled 'Obedience, industry and morality' is extremely interesting in that respect since it shows the policies and the ideology behind the educational reforms of the period under the various governors. The chapter on the rebellions in Cephalonia is indeed one of the crowning achievements of his scholarship and empathy.

Together with these Peter Prineas focuses on small details of everyday life, events of micro-history, in his attempts to bring to life all the tension and the complexity that we find amongst the people of the day.

Of special importance is the Exhibition of Ionian Arts in 1861 and the various responses by people who have never experienced such exposure before — this is extremely valuable material because it goes beyond the description of political changes and incidents and gives us an original and extremely interesting depiction of cultural life in the island of Cerigo (Kythera).

The book takes the form of a thriller when it describes the struggle for Union with Greece — it was a prolonged and very bitter struggle which created the first political parties with manifest ideological beliefs, like the Rizospastes, and brought the British protection to its knees.

What is the legacy of the British protection? Except of course the cricket team in Corfu, the protection was both bad and good — bad because it promised so much and delivered a little and good because it created structures and forms of material culture that we can still see in the Seven Islands to this day.

Peter Prineas includes in the book some of his own photographs which depict the legacy of the British protection in its ambivalent form. For the ordinary people of the Seven islands the High Commissioners tried to help and organise the country but they had a serious problem: they didn't know the mentality of the people they were asked to govern.

They made the mistake of mixing only with the high aristocracy of Corfu and Zakynthos, so they didn't proceed with the necessary reforms to make the islands prosperous. They built the first Greek university, they printed the first regular government newspaper, they created a public sphere for discussion and exchange of ideas, Yet as the growing national sentiment became stronger they failed to find methods of communicating with the population or addressing their problems, in education, health and public infrastructure.

They continued the extremely strict and provocative class system that the Greek population of the islands on many occasions tried to get rid of.

When the English left the islands, very few good memories were left behind, at least for some time.

Peter Prineas has worked hard to reconstruct through official and unofficial material the atmosphere of these 50 tense years. His work is historically accurate, methodologically faultless and structurally effective. It presents its material with faithfulness and accuracy while dissecting it with the utmost precision and care. It is an extremely passionate and beautiful book which shows what independent scholars can do out of love and dedication. We have to congratulate all the people and organisations who contributed to this achievement. Peter wrote a book for which the whole of the Kytherian community should be proud — and indeed the whole of Hellenism.



Athens News Book Reviews

Author Peter Prineas paints a lively portrait of the UK's rule over the so-called Seven Islands - from high commissioners' extravagant lifestyles to the garrison's squabbling wives.

LOCATED just off the southern Peloponnese coast, the island of Kythira is a historical and geographical anomaly. For centuries it was considered part of the Ionian Islands, even though it lies far beyond the Ionian Sea and today is part of the distant prefecture of Piraeus.

In his new book, Britain's Greek Islands: Kythera and the Ionian Islands, 1809-1864, Australian Peter Prineas embarks on a journey through the island's past, focusing on its largely forgotten period of British rule, the physical traces of which can still be seen, including the straight roads, imposing bridges and a lighthouse on its northern tip.

The islanders adapted to British rule in their own way, notes Prineas, who is of Kythirian ancestry. Unlike the Corfiots, they did not embrace cricket and marching bands. Nor did they preach revolution and rebel like the Kefalonians.

Worth noting

Far removed from the political centre of the protectorate, life was somewhat duller there for the British administration than on the other islands. Nevertheless, the administrators noted plenty, from the political discontent among the islanders to the petty squabbles between the members of the garrison and (frequently) their wives.

This body of evidence now lies in Kew Gardens, home of the United Kingdom's National Archives. By utilising these sources, Prineas casts light on the lesser-known regions of Britain's Mediterranean empire, normally associated with Gibraltar (1704), Malta (1800) and Cyprus (1878).

Also called the Seven Islands, the Ionian Islands comprise Corfu, Paxos, Lefkada, Kefalonia, Ithaki, Zakynthos and Kythira. Along with other parts of Greece, they were for centuries under the rule of Venice, which used them as its stepping stone to the east, before passing to the French under Napoleon.

Considered by the Great Powers to be of strategic importance - they lay on the trade routes between east and west - they were much sought over. After Waterloo, Britain pulled out all the diplomatic stops to take over the islands, over which they established a protectorate in 1815.

British rule would last until 1864, when London decided, in a gesture of goodwill, marking the accession of a new king and dynasty to the Greek throne, to gift the islands to Greece.

What a life

Prineas paints a lively portrait of the history of the United States of the Ionian Islands, as the British named their protectorate. He follows the often extravagant lifestyles of the state's lord high commissioners who, believing that the British-style parliamentary system was unsuitable for its Ionian subjects, oversaw a highly undemocratic political regime, centred in Corfu, which became increasingly unpopular with the islands' elites and wider populations.

The book is the product of voluminous reading into contemporary travel accounts and histories of the Ionian Islands as well as substantial archival research.

However, by reading accounts only written by colonial administrators and English-language travellers (the biography doesn't list any Greek-language texts as sources), Prineas unintentionally runs the risk of reproducing a one-sided view of Britain's Ionian colonial experience. But by mining the available archives, he discovers many aspects of the social life on 19th-century Kythira under British rule not recorded elsewhere.

Much more than the history of one small island, Britain's Greek Islands is a worthy contribution to the study of the history of the Ionian Islands and Greek history in general.


Readers can view this article and more on the Athens News Webpage.

Learn more about these books by Peter Prineas

Britain's Greek Islands


Katsehamos and the Great Idea


Wild Places