The Republic of the Ionian Islands

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When the Byzantine Empire came to an end in 1453, a number of small strongholds held out. These were eventually swept aside by the might of the Ottoman Empire; the Morea, Empire of Trebizond and the Principality of Theodosia in the Crimea circa 1475. The entire Greek world was either under the Sultan or Latin control and it wasn’t until the 1800’s when a completely independent Greek entity emerged, albeit a small one that covered the Peloponnese and Attika. This became the new Hellenic Kingdom under a German monarch.

Just prior to the independence of the small Greek nation, the Venetian Empire came to an abrupt end. Venice, which was once part of the Greek speaking empire had seen it’s impressive maritime territory eroded first by the Ottomans and then Napoleon in 1797. For the Greek subjects and territories under the Venetian control, this meant the changing of masters. In 1800, a number of islands in the Ionian Sea off the Adriatic were granted a Republic status under the suzerainty of Russia and the Sultan. France had briefly taken control with the fall of Venice.

The main islands that came under this new entity included Corfu, Paxi, Lefkada, Cephalonia, Ithaca (the island that Homer mentioned in prose), Zakynthos, Kythera (which is actually in the Aegean off the Peloponnese).

I have been to all of these and I can tell you that in the modern age they retain some Venetian character mixed in with Greek island culture and influence. The beaches are amongst some of the best in the world and plenty of history has transpired here since Odysseas was a young man.

Corfu was the most populous. Its location at the gateway to the Balkans, Venice and northern Europe ensured it was coveted by many a power in the modern world. The fort in the capital was one of the strongest in Europe circa 1799 when it was lost by the French to Russia. The French had taken the island when Venice as a republic had come to an end a couple of years earlier.

The following year in Constantinople, a Byzantine style constitution was approved, creating a tributary Septinsular (Seven Islands) Republic. The constitution sighted the Orthodox religion as being dominant whilst also mentioning Jewry and Catholicism. To the best of my recollection, I can’t find any other region in Europe that elevated the Jewish religion making this a significant milestone.

The Italian style of vendetta and violence was endemic and difficult to control. Greek and Italian were widely used and overseen by Ioannis Kapodistrias, the foreign Minister of Russia and soon to be first governor of Greece.

Lasting until 1807, the islands were ceded to France by Russia. This new arrangement would be short lived. Seeing an opportunity to expand its Mediterranean influence, Britain took all of the islands using their dominant navy between 1809-1810. Corfu under the French stubbornly held out until 1814. Again that fort was difficult to penetrate by the British.

In 1815, the British created a Federation which in many senses was a copy of America. Each island was to be treated as an individual state and they came together as a Federation. The President though was not an Obama or a Clinton style local, he was appointed by her Majesty, an Englishman. A total of ten served as head of the Greek Federation which had two houses of Parliament.

The British helped to bring about a sense of order after years of lawlessness in some of the areas with the High Commissioner having absolute power and discretion to dish out punishments. This reminded me of some of the ancient Tyrants I recall meeting on my travels past.

The islands which essentially lie along the Greek coastline in the West played a role in the Greek Revolution. Fellow historian Peter Prineas tells us that:

English philhellenes including Byron came to the Islands to further their plans; the Islands were a base for supplying both of the warring sides; they were an asylum for refugees from the War; and they were a source of Greek fighting men who could not be stopped from crossing to the mainland by mere laws. Nor could British proclamations of ‘strict neutrality’ prevent violence in the islands, such as the massacre of Turkish refugees who landed on the shores of Cerigo (Kythera) when feeling over the war was at a height.

As the neighbouring Greek Kingdom grew in status and the threat of France declined, the British government made plans in the 1860’s to cede the Ionian Islands to Greece. It was ironic that it was called a republic when it was overseen by the British crown and would be turned over to the Greek monarch! On May 28, a day before the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, the High Commissioner made the announcement as a ‘gift’ to the new King of Greece. This Danish foreigner nonetheless held the title of King of the Hellenes and had been selected by the British. Not exactly a real Greek, unfortunately.

The island of Kythera and anti Kythera, in my opinion, should have been ceded long before this for they were far too distant from the other islands, being closer to the Peloponnese, the heart of the Greek Kingdom. These islands actually have a different style of architecture as they sit closer to the Cyclades and their culture is more in keeping with Aegean than the Ioanian Sea.

Unlike the Venetian reign, there was little in terms of out and out construction by the British. Instead, a series of virtually forced labour gangs was evident for a number of years. They built roads for example, however, in the process they (British) destroyed the goodwill they had built up on the islands. In my opinion, this was similar to the colonial labour gangs in Australia during the 1800s. A key difference is that the Greeks were not convicts; they were meant to be free in the own land. A factor that was conveniently forgotten by many of the rulers of the Ioanian nisia.

From 2005 until the present day I have been to 10 of the islands of this former republic. The Venetian influence is probably the only one that remains from all of the foreign invaders. The Venetian architecture seen on most of the islands I have been to from castles to government buildings. Unlike the British, the Venetians had intended to leave their mark in a more positive way. They believed that future generations should remember them not just as an empirical overlord, rather as a power worthy of overseeing the former home of Odysseas.

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