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That Greece Might Still Be Free

William St Clair

18 Arrivals at Missolonghi

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1The Internal Greek political scene into which the British Philhellenes had so confidently thrust themselves was, as usual, complex and the temptation for the newcomer to see the situation in Western terms was as strong as ever. The Italian revolutionaries who joined the Regiment Baleste in 1821 had paid the penalty for this mistake. The Philhellenes sponsored by the Germans and the Swiss did the same in 1822. The British were now to follow their example.

2Since the early months of 1822 there had existed a Provisional Government of Greece (called ’Hellas’) and its activities were extensively reported in the newspapers in Western Europe. The Greek Government appeared to have all the appurtenances of sovereignty. There were Secretaries of State and Ministers for this and that. There were legislative and executive councils, representative apparently of the different regions and classes of Greece. There was provision for elections both locally and for the great offices of state. On paper, Greece had all the features which marked a mature, liberally-governed, European nation-state.

3In reality, Greece was at best a compromise of various forces. There were the primates whose jurisdiction was mainly a local territorial one, often derived from the Turkish period. There were the various island communities and especially the leaders of the islands of Hydra, Psara, and Spetsae which provided the warships. There were the captains whose authority derived from their ability to maintain bands of irregular soldiers or bandits. There was the church. And there were the Greeks who had received their ideas overseas and had returned to share the prizes at the birth of a new nation. These forces were to a great extent independent of one another when not actually mutually antagonistic. The pronouncements of the Provisional Government carried no authority although they made impressive reading abroad.

4The various groups all had their own interests but there were more fundamental differences. No unanimity existed even about what was the purpose of the Revolution. Various theories had had their adherents in the early days: that it was a simple war of religious extermination; that it was an attempt to re-establish a Greek Empire by displacing the Turks from Constantinople; that it was a restoration of Ancient Hellas. Now in 1823, two years after the outbreak, there were only two views of the Revolution that could be taken seriously, but they were irreconcilable. The first view, held mainly by the primates and captains, was that Greece should consist of a number of semi-independent principalities, little different from the Turkish district organization, except that the Turks had been ejected. The second view, held mainly by the Greeks with Western education, was that Greece should be established as a European nation-state with a strong central government. At the time the deep divergence between these views was obscured since the adherents of one policy often found it prudent to pay lip-service to the principles of the other and to compromise when it seemed expedient. Other extraneous factors were forever intruding to conceal the starkness of the difference.

5In 1823 the captains were in the ascendant all over the mainland. It was they who had won the great victories over the Turkish invaders in the campaign of 1822 while the Government of Mavrocordato and its Western methods had been discredited at Peta. In 1823 the Turks attempted again to invade Greece but a disastrous fire in the arsenal at Constantinople had ensured that it was a feeble effort. And so, two years after the massacres of the Turkish population in the Morea, the Greeks had begun to take their independence for granted. The country was still dotted with fortresses in Turkish hands; Greek independence had been recognized by no foreign government (except the ’sovereign’ Knights of Malta); a Turkish fleet still roamed the Aegean; and the Ottoman Government remained determined to crush the rebels at whatever cost, believing that its own future as a great power depended upon it. Nevertheless, the energies of most of the Greek leaders were now devoted to the internal power struggle. The clashes of interests and the wide divergences between attitudes of mind, which had been half-concealed in 1821 and 1822, now made themselves more apparent.

6A meeting of the principal revolutionary leaders had taken place near Nauplia in April 1823 and gone through the motions of appointing men to the offices of state. The great captains of the Morea, with their bands of armed men in attendance to act as bullies, dominated the proceedings. Petro Bey, the leader of the Mainotes, was declared President and Colocotrones Vice-President. The Westernized Greeks were squeezed out as were the islanders. Mavrocordato, nominally President of the Assembly, was almost lynched at one point and was forced to flee to Hydra. The meeting eventually split into two rival factions. On the one hand were the captains of the Morea and their temporary allies, the primates. On the other was a rival government, established on the mainland near Spetsae, consisting of virtually all the others, the islanders and the remains of the Westernized party and a few captains from outside the Morea. Neither government had any money nor had they any authority outside their own areas. The captains and the primates ensured that all revenues that could be collected and all booty seized were devoted to maintaining their private armed bands. Greece was on the verge of civil war.

7It was into this complex situation that the British Philhellenes now precipitated themselves. But whereas in earlier episodes the Philhellenes had been largely thrown about like flotsam and jetsam on political movements which they barely understood, the new Philhellenes were themselves a political force in Greece reacting on the others. The cause of the change was money.

8One can only guess at the promises which Edward Blaquiere made on his first visit to Greece in the spring of 1823. Whatever he said, his visit had a profound effect. Blaquiere was regarded probably as an agent of the British Government and, in any case, as the agent of a rich and powerful group of British politicians. For the first time there was now a real chance of obtaining money – money, the source of power from which all else derived. The proposed English loan dominated the Greek internal scene long before it was concluded. If money became available, the differences between the various groups in Greece became more important, perhaps more worth fighting over. It was at once obvious to the Greeks that the party which took possession of the English money would be well placed to impose its will on the others. It would be that party’s view of the Revolution which would prevail.

9Sadly, few of the British Philhellenes grasped this simple fact. They realized in a vague way that the prospect of money in the background increased their bargaining power and perhaps assured them of a better hearing than they might otherwise have received. But it was a long time before they realized that the money in the background was the only thing their audiences were interested in. They fondly continued to believe that the various Greek parties were genuinely interested in the political experiments which they wanted to introduce. Some carried their comforting illusions to their graves; for others the process of disenchantment was long and painful.

  • 1 This conclusion is explicitly confirmed by Trelawny, Recollections, p. 201.

10Lord Byron was the first to realize what was happening. He had experience enough of being a celebrity not to take too seriously the grosser forms of sycophancy, and his secretary Lega Zambelli administered his financial affairs so closely as to deter all but the most brazen spongers. But Byron had first another illusion to discard. When he arrived in the Ionian Islands he had expected to meet Blaquiere who had played such an important part in persuading him to go to Greece. He was mortified therefore to discover that Blaquiere had already set off back to England with hardly an explanation of the change of plan. Blaquiere’s flattering letters apparently stopped as soon as he had gained the object in hand. The true explanation did occur to Byron that Blaquiere was anxious to return to England to promote his own publicity campaign and especially to rush into print with his hasty observations on Greek affairs. This discourtesy on the part of the representative of the London Greek Committee was a symptom that Byron could not ignore. The realization soon dawned that the London Greek Committee were not really interested in him at all but only in the publicity value of his name. Instead of giving him a leading role, preferably a military role, the Committee saw Byron’s presence as merely ornamental. He had been decoyed to Greece.1

11In the light of this realization, Byron decided to proceed cautiously – in particular not to rush into Greek affairs without spending a little time learning about the situation from outside. At the time, this decision was dismissed as a typical relapse into lassitude. There may be some truth in the charge but the fact stands out that Byron, almost alone of the Philhellenes of the Greek War of Independence, did not rely on an unspoken assumption of superiority in knowledge and in ability. He tried to inform himself about Greek conditions.

  • 2 The War in Greece, 1821; Greece in 1824, 1824.

12The British Resident in Cephalonia with whom Byron stayed for a while in the autumn of 1823 was a self-declared expert on Greece. Charles James Napier was one of the heroes of the high noon of Victorian imperialism and at his death rated a statue in Trafalgar Square. He is still remembered for his panache in annexing tracts of India with a Latin pun on his lips. During his period of service in the Ionian Islands Napier was well placed to observe the situation in Greece. He seems to have been genuinely sympathetic to the Greek cause and he published anonymously two pamphlets on the subject.2 It is difficult to escape the suspicion, however, that he looked on the Greek struggle principally as a stage on which he himself might perform, an opportunity for winning the military glory for which he craved.

13Napier’s attitude to the waging of war was, as military men say, robust. He believed in discipline above all and had the greatest contempt for Greek guerrilla methods. Like most other professional soldiers who observed the Greek scene he believed that, if only he had a few hundred trained and disciplined men, there was nothing he could not accomplish. The remedy which he prescribed for the ills of Greece was the gallows. He boasted that if he were put in command of a Greek force the gallows would be his most effective weapon; he would use it so frequently that the price of hemp would be raised by fifty per cent in ten days. The exemplary execution of discontents was a feature of the British policy of imposing the rule of law on the Ionian Islands. The policy was successful but for many Philhellenes the line of gibbets at Zante, the first sight that met their eyes when they reached Grecian lands, confirmed their beliefs about the barbarity and hypocrisy of the English.

14Napier, the enthusiastic, energetic, confident, ambitious professional, impressed Byron as soon as he became used to his arrogant manner. After several long talks with him Byron decided that Napier was the man to lead the Greeks and that disciplined regular forces were the answer. Napier treated Byron like an honoured guest on the little island which he was covering with macadamized roads as a substitute for more violent soldiering. It was doubtfully legal for a servant of the Crown to give assistance to a man whose avowed object was to enlist in a foreign cause, and Napier made sure that lesser Philhellenes were moved on. Byron decided to give Napier a formal commendation to the London Greek Committee and Napier took leave to return to London. To his disgust he discovered that the Committee really cared little for Byron and his views, and so far from accepting his proposals for vigorous military measures, were, as he said, freighting a ship with water colours to promote the art of painting in a regenerated Greece.

15During his stay in the Ionian Islands Byron had many opportunities of discovering that the situation in Greece was more complex than could have been gathered from newspaper reports in the West or from Blaquiere’s letters. The news that a great and rich English milord was on his way to Greece spread rapidly throughout the country. Few Greeks had perhaps heard of Byron the poet but the news made a great impression. He was the first rich Philhellene to arrive since Gordon’s short visit in 1821 and his coming seemed to presage not only access to his own wealth but the much talked about loan. The various Greek leaders flooded him with attentions. Mavrocordato, whom Byron knew from his earlier days in Italy, wanted him to give his help to the alliance between himself and the islanders at Hydra. Colocotrones asked him to lend his weight to the Greek Government which he led. Others bluntly asked for money. If he had not been aware of it before, Byron now realized that it was simplistic to think of a Greek Government and people fighting against the Turks. He decided to take his time and to try not to commit himself to one party or another. For once indolence was the right policy.

16Byron came to the conclusion early that the best solution was to raise a substantial loan and he began to press this proposal in a series of letters to Bowring. Meanwhile he was prepared to play along with the Committee’s plans, although he never seems to have had much confidence in the likelihood of their success. He himself began to spend a good deal of his time in sight-seeing, talking, enjoying himself and trying, half seriously and half mockingly, to see whether he could adapt himself to the role of a military commander.

17Byron was still at Cephalonia in November when the energetic Stanhope bustled through on his way from Italy. Stanhope only stayed long enough to hold a few of his conferences and to remark on Byron’s lack of drive before he rushed on to Greece. Byron decided reluctantly that the time for deliberation was over and that he must make the move to Greece. He left Cephalonia, largely in response to the persistent pressure from the London Greek Committee, far from sure that he was doing the right thing.

18At the end of December 1823 the principal actors in the British attempt to regenerate Greece began to arrive at Missolonghi. Stanhope was the first. His behaviour was like that of an insensitive colonial governor sent out with a mandate to restore discipline to an unruly province. No sooner had he completed the ceremonies of introduction than he launched into a long formal lecture to his hosts – which must have lasted several hours if he really delivered it in full as he says – on his plans to help Greece, the establishment of regular forces, a free press, posts, hospitals, schools, the strategy of reducing Turkish fortresses, and much else besides; the whole discourse embellished with much moralizing and discussion of instructive parallels from ancient and modern history.

19Lord Byron reached Missolonghi a fortnight after Stanhope and his welcome was compared at the time to the advent of the Messiah. Certainly he did not under-rate the importance of appearances and he enjoyed the theatricality of the occasion. In the end he did not put on one of his golden helmets but relied on his impressive scarlet military cloak. A twenty-one gun salute was fired and crowds of Greeks and Philhellenes cheered him ashore. It must have been one of the best moments of his life. Parry’s expedition on which the London Committee had placed such hopes and on which they had expended three quarters of their total resources was the last to arrive. Parry and the artificers with the cargo of arms, stores for an arsenal, printing presses and educational supplies reached Greece early in February 1824. At last the work of regeneration could begin. Stanhope characteristically demanded that priority should be given to landing the printing apparatus. Byron characteristically remarked, without sneering, on the incongruity of a blacksmith landing in Greece with 322 Greek Testaments. The local Greeks characteristically were totally indifferent and uncooperative. The Greek Government led by Mavrocordato, characteristically, for all his protestations of welcome did not even have the authority to arrange for the unloading of the ship.

20Missolonghi in 1824 was an unattractive featureless town. It is built on an alluvial plain on the edge of a huge lagoon, too shallow for all but the smallest vessels except through one dredged channel. The lagoon, which is little more than a muddy salt marsh choked with weeds, abounds with fish and it is the fish no doubt which account for Missolonghi’s existence, for it remains one of the most unhealthy places in Greece, situated in the middle of a mosquito swamp. Although it was the most important town in Western Greece, it had attracted little notice before the Revolution. Travellers from Western Europe seldom stayed longer than they had to, for the town had no classical associations. Byron and Hobhouse spent three days there in November 1809. In 1821 the Greeks of Missolonghi killed all the Turks; in 1822 the town successfully defended itself during a winter siege; in 1824 for a few short months it became the centre of the world’s interest in Greece, and thereafter was the most famous town associated with the Greek War of Independence.

21It is difficult to judge how the two appointed agents of the London Greek Committee regarded one another. Stanhope later published extensive reminiscences of his dealings with Lord Byron which successively give the impression that Byron was a lightweight; that nevertheless Stanhope had condescended to deal with him on equal terms; and finally (after Byron’s death) that Stanhope was a trusted personal friend of the great poet. But Stanhope shamelessly edited his material to suit his own purposes. Byron made many remarks about the ’typographical Colonel’, which range from the playful to the exasperated, but like many others, he could not help respecting Stanhope despite all his absurdities. Stanhope was an eccentric, there was no doubt, but not a buffoon.

  • 3 Quoted in Marchand, iii, p. 1136.

22Their first meeting in the Ionian Islands had not augured well. Byron asked Stanhope whether he had brought any new publications with him and Stanhope immediately mentioned Jeremy Bentham’s Springs of Action, ’What does the old fool know of springs of action’, Byron is reported to have shouted. ’My **** has more spring in it’.3 On another occasion, a quarrel between the two resulted in Stanhope calling Byron a Turk, and Byron saying that Stanhope deserved to be cashiered from the Army. The two men could tolerate one another and occasionally co-operate, but nothing more.

23From almost every aspect their characters were opposites. Byron was wise and politically aware but at the same time indecisive and impractical. Stanhope was insensitive and naive but nevertheless immensely energetic and unexpectedly effective. Byron saw the humour even in subjects which he regarded most seriously. Stanhope was humourless as only fanatics can be.

24The two were yoked together as colleagues and it is surprising that they managed to co-operate at all in the difficult conditions in which they were thrown. Fortunately on one fundamental point they were agreed – that they must use their influence to try to reconcile the Greek factions, who had already begun to fight one another.

25Stanhope’s method was to write letters and deliver speeches to everyone of importance he could find, exhorting them to be patriotic. Byron, insofar as he felt able to do anything about the political situation, preferred simply to be patient in the hope that matters would turn out for the best. But the two men differed on more than method. Byron, although he was scrupulously careful to avoid the appearance of committing himself to one Greek party rather than another, was naturally sympathetic to the claims of Mavrocordato who, since the beginning of the Revolution, had always attracted the Philhellenes arriving in Greece. His urbane manners, his facility in Western European languages, his European dress, had all worked in his favour. As the leader of the Greeks who saw the future of Greece as a European nation-state with European political institutions, he was also the nearest approximation to the type of hero they wanted, if hardly the ’Washington of the Greeks’ which a few tried to dub him.

26But with the arrival of the British Philhellenes at the end of 1823 a curious paradox occurred. Many of the Philhellenes who followed Byron to Greece were steeped in the Grecian tales. Mavrocordato, a fattish bespectacled man in a frock coat speaking French more fluently than Greek hardly measured up to their idea of a Greek hero. But when they met Colocotrones with his Homeric helmet or Odysseus with a clutch of jewelled pistols in his girdle or any of the other captains with their gaudy clothes and Eastern habits, they were enraptured. Here, they decided, were the ’true Greeks’ to be distinguished from the ’intriguing Phanariotes’ of Constantinople such as Mavrocordato. The phrase ’intriguing Phanariotes’ became on their lips almost as conventional as the ’rosy-fingered dawn’ of the Odyssey, although few of the Philhellenes can have known what a Phanariote was.

27The captains, knowing of the prospect of the loan and realizing that their own future hung on the decision how to spend it, suddenly and for the first time became polite to foreigners. During the first two years of the Revolution, out of the hundreds of Philhellenes who went to Greece, there is hardly a record of a single one who preferred the captains to the Europeanized Greeks. Now that the captains exercised a little charm and hospitality, new Philhellenes were prepared to believe that these violent, greedy, and barbarous warlords were the men most worthy of their support.

28Stanhope was no romantic – at least not in the sense of being fascinated by ataghans, turbans, long beards, and violence – but his brand of naïveté was just as vulnerable. He was charmed by the hospitality of the captains, by their patience, and apparent readiness to listen to his theories. With Mavrocordato and ’the Phanariotes’, who regarded him as a bore, he had little sympathy, recognizing in them the type of politicians he was used to in England. Virtually no foreigners understood the motives and complexities of Greek politics. Romantics and dreamers cannot therefore be blamed too much for falling into the illusion of seeing in the Greeks the features which they wanted to see. But among all the manifestations of philhellenism it is difficult to imagine a less promising means of regenerating Greece than to divide it up and hand it over to the warlords.


1 This conclusion is explicitly confirmed by Trelawny, Recollections, p. 201.

2 The War in Greece, 1821; Greece in 1824, 1824.

3 Quoted in Marchand, iii, p. 1136.


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