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Experiencing Dominion: Culture, Identity and Power in the British Mediterranean (review)

From: Journal of Social History
Volume 37, Number 1, Fall 2003
pp. 242-244 | 10.1353/jsh.2003.0165

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Reviewed by
Experiencing Dominion: Culture, Identity and Power in the British Mediterranean. By Thomas W. Gallant (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. xv plus 252 pp. $40 cloth/$19 paper).

Compared to the East and West Indies, the Middle East or Africa, the Ionian Islands occupy a relatively minor role in the historiography of British colonialism: the islands themselves are small, direct British rule was relatively brief (their protectorate lasted from 1815 to 1864) and their complex geographical and cultural position on the margins of that shifting entity known as “Europe” sit uneasily with the standard imaginations of imperialism. However, judging by Thomas W. Gallant’s engaging and well-researched study, a closer look at this episode of British “dominion” contributes considerably to our understanding of imperial power, cross-cultural encounters and post-colonial perspectives.

Making detailed use of a wealth of archival information, Gallant vividly reconstructs nineteenth-century Ionian life. One is struck throughout by the detail with which the author presents the closely tangled connections of Ionian community life. This dense rendering of the everyday provides a fascination all its own as well as an element of continuity across the chapters’ various topical interests. At the same time, Gallant does not lose a broader perspective on his material’s relationship to the historiography of colonialism and cultural history: most chapters contain comparative sections that usefully address a wide range of issues.

After an introductory chapter that establishes the islands’ basic geographical, historical and cultural contours, the rest of the book is organized thematically. Chapter 2 sets the scene of the imperial relationship through a thorough consideration of identity and cultural stereotypes, explaining how Britons and Greeks viewed each other. Chapters 3 and 4 explore British efforts to restructure Ionian public life and identify divergent British and Ionian notions of the state. Chapter [End Page 242] 5 turns decisively to the issue of discourse, focusing on the pervasive sexual imagery of Greek peasant language and introducing the theme of honor. Honor is the basis for Chapters 6 and 7, which present, respectively, detailed studies of male and female conflicts over local reputation and their interaction with British efforts to reform the Ionian legal system. Chapter 8 points out the importance of religion—for Britons and Greeks alike—to the colonial encounter, providing justifications for British domination as well as shaping forms of native resistance.

Introducing the islands’ distinctive imperial position, Gallant points out that it was impossible for the British to categorize the Ionians in the same way as other colonized peoples: they confronted “a complex, sophisticated, white, Christian indigenous culture, and so the process of identity formation and cultural categorization was different from elsewhere” (xi). Stereotypes, such as “Mediterranean Irish” or “European Aborigines,” and a long list of related character traits were one response. The Greeks formed their own images of the British, and both sides’ perspectives on terms such as “cleverness” and “honesty” highlight the instability of cross-cultural linguistic encounters as well as pointing to genuinely different cultural values. Thus, even on the basic level of understanding the subject population, the British perspective was incomplete and uncertain.

British efforts to establish their power could be described similarly: the colonizers were plagued by shortages of information, reliant upon an unreliable and corrupt local aristocracy and burdened with an unruly native population. For example, the establishment of a foundling hospital (given detailed attention in Chapter 4) presents one well-documented example of the Ionian elite turning British initiatives to their own advantage.

The investigation of knife fighting in Chapter 6 is one of the book’s most intriguing sections. Gallant recounts efforts to “civilize” widespread customary violence among lower-class Greek men by channeling disputes over honor into a reformed and more accessible legal system. There was a marked reduction in violence after mid-century, as men increasingly “opted for the docket over the blade” (145) without in the process (as in many other regions) weakening the hold of “honor” upon Greek male identity. A companion chapter considers women’s use of the slander laws as a tool in their disputes over sexual honor. While depicting this unexpected result of British legal...