Lord Byron and Mavrokordatos
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Lord Byron and Mavrokordatos

The Greek political leader Alexandros Mavrokordatos played a significant role in the final months of Byron's life. It was through him that Byron ultimately committed his energies to the Greek cause, through him that he sought to find a way through the tangle of Greek politics in the years 1823 and 1824. Byron's reputation as a political animal, ona spectrum that leads from irresponsible adventurism to heroic self-sacrifice, is intimately tied to the period when he and Mavrokordatos were drawn together in Mesolongi. The most recent biographyof Byron, by Fiona MacCarthy,1 largely perpetuates a traditional and relatively simple view of the final months of his life, a period rich in anecdote, but politically inconsequential, in which Byron apparently became ever more lost in confusion. The following article seeksto identify the lines along which a political assessment of those final months might be possible; coincidentally, it clarifies or corrects a number of traditionally-held positions in the biography of the poet.

Mavrokordatos was born in Constantinople in 1791. He was three years younger than Byron. He came from an old Greek family, a position which brought him unequal measures of prestige and mistrust in Revolutionary Greece. The Mavros line went back to Byzantine times and had joined with the Kordatos [Cor d'Ato] family by marriage in the early fifteenth century.2 The extent and continuity of the family success is underlined by the title of Alexandre Stourdza's monumental study: L'Europe orientale et le rôle historique des Maurocordato, 1660–1830 (Paris, 1913). Bythe eighteenth century, that success had been consolidated through membership of the unofficial Greek aristocracy of the Phanariótes [Phanariots], the educated group of westernising Hellenes who worked in the administration of the Turkish state and secured considerable influence in the waning Ottoman empire.

From 1812 to 1818, Mavrokordatos servedas a diplomat in Wallachia, before going into voluntary exile, in anticipation of the coming Greek Revolution. When that Revolution finally broke out, in the spring of 1821, he was in Pisa. He went to Marseilles, freighted a ship with arms and ammunition, purchased partlyat his own expense, and sailed for Greece on10 July 1821.

While in Pisa, Mavrokordatos became acquainted with the Shelleys. They first met on 2 December 1820, and in a letter of 21 March 1821 Percy Shelley recorded that his wife Mary 'has been a Greek student several months & is reading Antigone with our turbaned friend, who in return is taught English'.3 The ambiguity of Percy Shelley's feelings towards Mavrokordatos is well known. He dedicated his lyrical drama Hellas to Mavrokordatos 'as an [End Page 126] imperfect token of the admiration, sympathy, and friendship of the author' [dated Pisa,1 November 1821]. But in a letter of the middle of May 1821 to Claire Clairmont, he wrote: 'The Greek Prince comes sometimes, & I reproach my own savage disposition that so agreable accomplished and aimiable [a] person is not more agreable to me'. While on 8 June in the same year, to the same correspondent, he reported: 'A vessel has arrived to take the Greek Prince & his suite to join the army in the Morea [Peloponnese]. He is a great loss to Mary, and therefore to me – but not otherwise.'4

There are few warm accounts of Mavrokordatos, either by foreign observers or by Greeks.5 Partly this is a matter of culture and background. As a Phanariot, he was aliento many western Europeans, because too inscrutably oriental, while he was alien to many Greeks, because he appeared to themtoo much the westerner. The reference to 'our turbaned friend',6 in Shelley's letter, is eloquent of itself, and the implications of such an attitude emerge full-blown in a letter of31 January 1824 from Leicester Stanhope tothe Secretary of the London Greek Committee, John Bowring: 'Mavrocordato is a clever, shrewd, insinuating, and amiable man … but he pursues a temporizing policy, and there is nothing great or profound in his mind. He has the ambition, but not the daring or the self-confidence required to play a first part in the state … And what, after all, can you expect from a Turk...