Jul 29 2013

Sitia 1897


In February 1897 rumours began to circulate about an outbreak of violence in Sitia, in the east of Crete. As a result of these rumours, on 18 February an allegation of the massacre of 300 Muslims was raised in the House of Commons, along with the rumour that six Christian had been murdered by being thrown alive  into an oven in a bakery in Canea[1]. The British Consul in Crete, Sir Alfred Biliotti, confirmed that a masacre had taken place but at the time, February 1897, he was not in a position to supply any details.

Within a short time Biliotti managed to find out that the rumour of the Christians being thrown into an oven was no more than a rumour but, from his Consulate in Canea, he was initially unable to provide an accurate account of what had occurred in Sitia. An investigation into the events there was carried out by the French Vice-Consul though Biliotti waited several months in order for the situation in that area to settle down so that he could get a more accurate  picture of what had occured. Eventually, Biliotti appears to have been able to visit the area himself and to interview survivors from both faiths.[2] As well as commenting on the fact that most of those wounded Cretan Muslems that he had previously seen had been injured by knives and bayontets rather than shot, i.e. wounded at close quarters, his investigation confirmed that previously carried out by the by the French; there had been an almost unprecedented massacre of Cretan Muslims, carried out by Cretan Christians. In a passage which to modern eyes reads as if it was written with an air of puzzllement, Biliotti, whose command of English was not always that good, also gave his thoughts as to why the murders occurred:

 “The excesses committed by the Christians of Sitia are the more incomprehensible that the inhabitants of the eastern districts of the island have always been considered with reason the most moderate Cretans. But they seem to have been taken with a sort of frenzy which can only be explained by the terror of being killed if they did not kill their enemies.”

This  “…terror of being killed if they did not kill…” was in all likelihood induced by events, and rumours of events, taking place elsewhere on the island; the breakdown of law and order as the “old” gendarmerie collapsed, the retreat of the Cretan Muslim population from the countryside into the towns and the consequent flow of Cretan Christians out of those towns and the events of 5th February when the Christian quarter of Canea was burnt to the ground by a Cretan Muslim mob. Furthermore, the expected arrival of Greek troops on the island, invited by the Epitropi, the Cretan Revolutionary Committee, and the fear that if the Greeks did land and attempt to take control, Ottoman troops, previously withdrawn, would return in force with potentially disastrous results for the Cretan Christians, all served to heighten the pre-existing tension between the two communities. By February 1897 it would appear that for both communities, events had passed the ‘olive line’ – the destruction of the olive groves belonging to members of the opposite faith which, according to two British historians, tended to indicate in Crete, that ‘…pattern of violence beyond which normality was irretrievable.”[3]

In spite of the naturally pessimistic and unpleasant nature of his report on carnage in Sitia, Biliotti did find several instances of the persistence of humanity.

 “However, there were exceptions [to the killings], for had it not been for the interposition of Christians from other communes of Sitia the number of victims would have been much greater. They did so, I will not say at the risk of their lives, but on declaring that they would be killed before allowing the Mussulmans whom they had taken under their protection to be molested. It is a pleasant duty for me to give the names of Captain Mihail Alexaki and his brother Nicola, who together with other chiefs of the same village, whose names I regret not to know, and 200 or 300 followers who rescued forty-five Mussulmans, of whom thirty-two women and children who were still alive in the cave in which they had taken refuge, as mentioned by the French Vice-Consul of Candia.

I further beg to report that four Christians of the village of Sphaka, called Russelaki, Capitan Manoli Boyadzis Russo, Nicolas Frangoulis, and Giorgi Frangoulis undertook to convey to the sea-shore twenty-five Mussulmans living in their village, and that having met a band of about seventy armed Christians who wanted to kill them, the four Christians mentioned above stood in front of the Mussulmans, and declared to their co-religionists that they would have to pass their corpses to reach the women and children whom they had promised to rescue. This resolute attitude saved the twenty-five Mussulmans. These are the only two cases which have been mentioned to me by the Mussulmans I met but there may have been many more as praiseworthy.”[4]

Biliotti finalised his report by presenting a table listing the names of the villages in the affected area and the number of Muslims killed in each village: a total of 851 dead including 201 male and 173 female children.

Consul Biliotti's table of the numbers involved in the Sitia massacre

 At around the same time, a similar outbreak of violence in the west of the island at the village of Sarakina.

[1] http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1897/feb/18/mussulmans-in-crete

[2] National Archive. FO.78.4831 p.160. Biliotti to Marquis of Salisbury 20 July 1897

[3] Holland R. & Markides D.[2006] The British and the Hellenes; Struggles in Mastery in the Eastern  Mediterranean 1850 – 1960. OUP Oxford. p.87.

[4] National Archive. FO.78.4831 p.160. Biliotti to Marquis of Salisbury 20 July 1897

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