- British Imperialism in Cyprus, 1878-1915: The Inconsequential Possession
"Is not this Cyprus," wrote Fernand Braudel, "the sumptuous court of the Lusignan which diffuses to the West, in the fifteenth century, those fashions of the ancient and expired China of the Tang?" (La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II. Tome 1: La Part Du Milieu, Paris, Livre de Poche, 1993 [first edition 1949]). Cyprus as a crossroads of civilizations, the point of intersection between East and West, Christendom and Islam; no historian fails to mention the island's key geographic position—so close to Anatolia, Syria, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt and Crete—to account for the fact that it was coveted by so many [End Page 448] successive civilizations. At times a blessing, the island's strategic location has more often been a curse for its inhabitants, prompting one commentator to refer to Cyprus as a "hostage to history" (Christopher Hitchens, Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger, London, Verso, 1997, 3rd edition). Nowhere has this emphasis on strategy, geopolitics, and Cyprus's unenviable "destiny" been more pronounced than in the historiography dealing with the last official colonization of the island, namely by Great Britain between 1878 and 1960. Even though most historians remind us that the island played no significant part in the two world wars and became strategically relevant only in the 1950s, in the context of the Cold War and Britain's shrinking empire in the East, they still maintain that Cyprus was occupied by the British exclusively for strategic reasons.
It is in this context that Andrekos Varnava's eight-chapter book, British Imperialism in Cyprus, 18781915: The Inconsequential Possession, offers a timely revision of lazy stereotypes which present the island's history as predetermined by its geography. The author acknowledges that it was primarily strategic considerations, and specifically the Russian threat to the "Route to India," that motivated the British government to look for and occupy a place d'armes in the eastern Mediterranean. But the reason the British settled on Cyprus owed as much to the power the island's historic associations exerted on the imagination of British decision-makers as it did to its strategic value. In fact the central argument in Varnava's book is that the latter was "always more imagined than real" (p. 3).
Cyprus in British culture had always been associated with images and texts which shaped important markers of British identity: as part of the Near East, Cyprus was associated with the Holy Land, Christianity, the Crusades, and Richard Coeur de Lion, but as part of the ancient Greek world it was also conceived as resolutely European. Romanticism in the nineteenth century crystallized these different signifiers into a "Mediterranean 'Eldorado'" placing Cyprus "within a tradition of Romantic adventure, strategic advantage, spiritual imperialism and a sense of possession" (p. 45). But because it was composed of so many disparate elements, the "Eldorado effect," when put into practice, yielded contradictory consequences.
First the alleged strategic value of the island had not gone undisputed: political leaders, major naval and military figures, but also colonial administrators in Cyprus became very critical not only of Cyprus's actual strategic value within the British imperial structure, but also of its potential. The island's climate threatened the troops' health while various commissions estimated that the costs to fit out its harbors as naval bases or simple coaling stations were prohibitive. It was not long before a "fantastic disparity" emerged "between the aims and expectations in occupying Cyprus and the realities and achievements" as the island "crashed from a 'gem' to a 'millstone'" (p. 120). The greater part of the garrison was withdrawn, propositions to raise a local (Cypriot) defense force were turned down, as were plans to use the island for maneuvers, or even as a sanatorium for convalescent troops (p. 230). Eventually a reduced garrison was maintained, principally as a dissuasive force in view of Greek nationalistic activism...