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That Greece Might Still Be Free

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William St Clair

13 Knights and Crusaders

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1The need for money in Greece was now desperate. In the early months of the Revolution much of the country’s disposable wealth (such as it was) had been consumed. In the first flush of enthusiasm voluntary loans had been raised, then forced loans. The overseas Greeks had willingly contributed and loans had been successfully raised among the Greek merchant colonies in Italy and Germany. By the middle of 1822 many Greeks of all types were wiser and poorer men. The Greek government bonds which they had accepted in exchange for their money were worthless. Although great wealth had been seized from the Turks it had fallen into the hands of the captains. The whole economy was running down as armed bands helped themselves to the produce of the peasantry and as more and more of the peasantry decided to join them.

2In theory there was one huge asset. The Turks of the Morea had occupied the best lands. Now that they were gone, these lands were supposed to belong to the Government to sell or rent as they decided. In fact the Government had no real control over these lands which nobody could afford to buy, and to the extent that they were used at all, they had been taken over by local Greeks or captains.

3The possession of money now became the main source of power. The captains were able to pay their armed bands out of booty and enforced exactions in their chosen area. The Government, suffering constant humiliation but still in existence, could only hope to assert itself as an authority if it could provide a counter-attraction, in particular if it could match the pay offered by the captains. Thoughts turned to the prospect of raising money abroad, by tapping the vast reservoir of philhellenic sentiment which, in the eyes of most Greeks, had hitherto been misdirected.

4Of all the means open to an individual citizen to influence events in a far country the handing over of money to its government is the least attractive. To see one’s contribution thrown into the coffers of a national exchequer for general purposes fails to satisfy that feeling of personal participation and personal assistance which is such an important part of a donor’s motivating force. Understandably, contributors prefer to see their money spent on some more limited and preferably more visible objective and to exercise some control over how it is spent after they have parted with it. The Greeks never had any real hope of being able to obtain by contribution the vast sums which were required, although donations would continue to be accepted with some show of grace. All their efforts were devoted to raising a loan. By contributing to a loan, it was judged, the friends of Greece could combine the sensation of making a sacrifice to a good cause with the hope that the sacrifice might turn out to be a lucrative investment.

5The first attempts of the Greek Government to raise foreign money had been in Germany and Switzerland through the agency of ’Baron’ Kephalas. But the revulsion against philhellenism caused by the return of the disillusioned volunteers had already eliminated this source. The agents reported ruefully that there was no chance of raising money on any terms. They were therefore sent further afield. They were met with sympathy but little else. The governments of Europe having reaffirmed at their Congress at Verona their determination not to recognize the Greek Government, anyone who risked money for the cause of Greece must regard it either as a gift or as a wild speculation.

  • 1 British Library Additional Manuscripts 30, 130, f. 73.

6The Greeks did receive a few offers. The French Count Alexandre Laborde offered to provide money by voluntary contributions, but in return the lenders were to be granted the free use of Navarino, to be allowed to occupy it with a force of 1,500 men, and ultimately to plant colonies in Greece. They also demanded the right to appoint political advisers to the Greek Government.1 Another Frenchman, who claimed to be acting for the French liberal banker Lafitte, offered a loan of £4,000,000 on very onerous terms. The loan was to be discounted 50 per cent and to carry an annual interest of 6 per cent. As security, the Greek Government was to hand over to the lenders all the national lands – that is all the lands from which the Turks had been expelled, which were for many Greeks the prize for which the Revolution was being fought.

7The schemes which came nearest to fruition at this time relied on one of the elements of philhellenism which had hitherto not been exploited to the full. The appeal to re-establish the Ancient Greeks and the appeal to defend Christians against Moslems had been reiterated so often that it was virtually impossible to reassert them without relapsing into cliché. The new schemes relied on a third element which had until now been very much subsidiary to the other two, the appeal to fight a new crusade.

8The Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem was established as a military religious order in the twelfth century. During the succeeding centuries the military aspects of its activities tended to take priority over the religious. In the name of Christianity (Roman Catholic version only) the Knights dutifully slaughtered, enslaved, and plundered the Moslems and schismatic Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean with remorseless efficiency. In 1522 the Knights were expelled from Rhodes, but were given the island of Malta as their sovereign domain and were henceforth known as the Knights of Malta. From Malta they continued their sporadic crusading until the eighteenth century. But as civilization spread in Europe it began to be questioned whether belief in Roman Catholicism need necessarily entail a duty to wage a perpetual war of hatred against those whose preference was for other beliefs and superstitions. The Knights themselves, increasingly conscious of the incongruity of their position, spent their ample accumulated wealth in improving and enjoying the amenities of their pleasant island. There was still a sufficient flow of rich recruits with the required sixteen quarterings of nobility ready to devote their lives to empty military ceremonial for the sake of the Faith. In 1798, however, the rump of the Knights was disdainfully expelled from Malta by Bonaparte and in 1815 their island was formally ceded to Britain at the Congress of Vienna. Now seven years later the Knights of Malta had lost even the fiction that they were performing a useful role, belief in which had sustained their boredom during the long years in the Maltese sunshine. The more anachronistic and ridiculous their situation, the more the Knights felt obliged to assert their dignity. They insisted on their status as a Sovereign Order, equal in status to the great kingdoms of Europe, and they dutifully maintained claims to a vast list of territories, rights, and privileges which they had temporarily enjoyed at some distant point in their ancient history, including incidentally sovereignty over the Morea. After their expulsion from Malta the members of the Order were now dispersed over Europe pursuing their unconvincing claims. The headquarters was in Russia but most prominent members lived in Paris.

9The Sovereign Order was the first ’state’ to accord recognition to the Greek Government. In July 1823 Count Jourdain, a French naval officer who had gone to Greece with one of the first philhellenic expeditions from Marseilles, concluded a ’treaty’ with the Knights on behalf of the Greeks for a military alliance. The Knights undertook to raise a loan of 10,000,000 francs at 5 per cent, of which 4,000,000 francs was to go to the Greeks. With the remainder, the Knights were to raise a force of 4,000 men to campaign against the Turks. All conquests were to be shared between the Knights and the Greeks. There was a good deal of bargaining about providing the Knights with a base for their operations. The Greeks suggested Cyprus but in the end the Knights were promised perpetual sovereignty over Rhodes, from which they had been expelled in the sixteenth century. These islands were of course still firmly in the hands of the Turks and the negotiators were arguing over the division of conquests which they had yet to make. It was agreed, however, that until a permanent base could be found, the Knights were to be granted use of the island of Syra. This arrangement suited the Greeks since Syra was largely inhabited by Roman Catholic Greeks who preferred the rule of the Turks to that of schismatic Christian Greeks

10When the treaty was concluded, a representative of the Knights, M. Chastelain, was despatched to Greece, a few Greeks were solemnly inducted into the Order, and Jourdain set about raising the money. The response in Paris was disappointing, but when the prospectus for a loan of £640,000 was circulated in London, it was subscribed within twenty-four hours. The Stock Exchange authorities, however, stepped in and the scheme could not proceed. The Grand Master was obliged to attempt to deny that the Order had signed the treaty and to disown the efforts of his representative. The Knights were obliged to postpone their plans but they did not give them up. M. Chastelain was still waiting in the wings in 1825, confident that events would eventually move in his favour. He occupied his time in conferring Knighthoods of Malta on rich Greeks for a fee of 600 francs each.

11At about the same time a similar offer of a large loan was made to the Greeks. An Englishman called Peacock was despatched to Greece to explain the scheme to the Government, and other members of the syndicate, in particular a Montenegrin calling himself Count General de Wintz, pestered the Greek agents on their arrival in London. De Wintz had been an officer in the French service and was now employed by the East India Company. His plan involved the raising of money for the Greeks in return for help in the conquest of Cyprus. It never became clear who his backers were who were to supply the money, if in fact he had any. The Greek agents were of the opinion that his offer was simply that of the Knights of Malta in another guise. It was also said, however, that he was acting on behalf of the King of Sardinia who had inherited an old claim to the Kingdom of Cyprus and wanted to be in at the sharing out if the Ottoman Empire was to be dismembered. De Wintz’s attempts to raise money on the London Stock Exchange were also deliberately frustrated by the authorities. He later floated another scheme involving the conquest of Crete in the name of the Knights of Malta: this too was prevented before any money was obtained, but representatives of the Knights were again in Greece in 1826 and 1827 pressing the Greeks to accept help which they were in no position to give.

12On the face of it the idea of helping Greece by reviving the traditions and institutions of the Crusades was no more incongruous or anachronistic than some of the other manifestations of philhellenism that had appeared hitherto. The pamphlets and appeals for volunteers had described the cause as a crusade and many of the unfortunate young Germans who had died at Peta and elsewhere had fortified themselves in their torment by the belief that they were imitating the heroes of those supposedly splendid days.

13There was also something to be said, from a political point of view, in having philhellenic activities controlled by the nearest equivalent to an international organization known at the time. The Knights had survived for so long as an independent force for that reason. However, to anyone who really understood the forces at work in international affairs at the beginning of the nineteenth century (a definition which excluded most Philhellenes), there were two overwhelming reasons against reviving the moribund Knights. The setting up of bases in the Eastern Mediterranean was certain to have an influence on the strategic situation and commercial opportunities in that part of the world. And the Knights, as they had been in their active days, were predominantly French.

14Most of the attempts to involve the Knights of Malta in the affairs of Greece were aimed not at helping the Greeks but at establishing a French supremacy in the Levant. Once the Knights had established a military base somewhere in the area, the French Government could take over by affording the Knights ’protection’. Under one scheme the Knights were to develop Crete into a huge entrepot from which all the trade of the Eastern Mediterranean could be controlled. Just as the British had taken over India by establishing a few trading posts and forts, so the French, by the same methods, would establish a comparable empire in the Middle East. It was an old French dream and one that was to last well into the twentieth century.

  • 2 References to the later activities of the Knights are in Lauvergne, Hodges, and Blaquière, Second (...)

15For four years rumours about the Knights and their plans were passed about in Greece and elsewhere. The Knights were always there in the background, sailing in the Aegean in their yachts and waylaying prominent Philhellenes in London and Paris. In the end they achieved nothing.2 The affair of the Knights is symptomatic of a change which was coming over philhellenism from 1823 onwards. Governments now began to play a more active part in the drama. Few people who occasionally heard stories about the schemes of the Knights or some other plot were aware of the secret international struggle that was being conducted beneath the surface of the polite diplomatic exchanges.

Notes

1 British Library Additional Manuscripts 30, 130, f. 73.

2 References to the later activities of the Knights are in Lauvergne, Hodges, and Blaquière, Second Visit. See also G.-J. Ouvrard, Mémoires, Paris, 1827, iii, pp. 353 ff.

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