Mar 21 2013

A Prince departs.

Prince George of Greece (later titled ‘Prince of Crete’), the second son of King George of Greece, was appointed High Commissioner of the Autonomous State of Greece in 1898; a position which, although accepted by the Porte, was totally dependent on the approval and support of the European Powers (Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia (Germany and Austro-Hungary having dropped out of the arrangement). His arrival in Crete was initially greeted with enthusiasm by the majority of Cretan Christians who saw it as a prelude to the certain and speedy ‘enosis’ (union) of Greece and Crete and by Cretan Muslims who saw his appointment as an indication that the Powers were intent on ensuring stability on the island; a stability which the Ottoman Empire had been unable to provide. However, given that George’s power and authority rested solely with the Powers who had put him in his position and that one of their aims in doing so had been specifically to prevent enosis, there was little chance that such a union could be achieved. Furthermore, not only was his period of office limited, in the first instance, to three years, but the state of the Greek nation following the disastrous 30 day war the Ottoman Empire in 1897, precluded any such union; particularly since any such attempt was almost certain to result in the renewal of war with the Empire.

George’s personality and style of rule did little to endear him to many Cretans. The Greek-born scion of a Danish royal family, a royal family relatively recently (1863) imposed on the Greeks by the Powers following the disastrous reign of a Bavarian Prince similarly imposed, he brought with him from mainland Greece his own group of advisers and a determination to have his own way: “To keep the island free from inner political frictions.”… “I want no political parties… in the coming three years.” Matters were further complicated for George in that, as a result of the war of 1897, the Greek monarchy was not all that secure; failure on his part to unite Crete and Greece could put the Gluksburg dynasty at risk.

Prince George of Greece 1898

By June 1899, the ships of the Powers having for the most part withdrawn from the island other than a token presence although significant numbers of European troops remained to provide for the security of Cretan Muslims, a new constitution for Crete was in place and George took over responsibility for law and order. However, in spite of the re-formation of a Cretan Gendarmerie, there remained on the island large stockpiles of weapons ready for use and with George’s policy of granting administrative vacancies to Christians in order to retain their political support, the flow of Cretan Muslims into the towns and then onwards off the island continued. Opposition to George’s policies in Crete eventually came to be embodied in the person of shape of Eleftherios Venizelos, a Cretan born lawyer who had been active, both politically and as a fighter, during the 1897 uprising. Venizelos’s differences with George centred on the autocratic manner in which George carried out his administration and Venizelos’s belief that to be meaningful, union with Greece must come not as a gift from the Greek monarchy but rather from the actions, political and otherwise, of the Cretan people.

Dismissed from his post as Minister of Justice in the Cretan Assembly by George in 1901, Venizelos continued to head the opposition which by mid 1902 was becoming more and more to resemble an insurrection as anti-George forces took to the hills and more and more of the remaining Cretan Muslims were driven off their lands. Elections held in 1903 produced a majority for the pro-George faction and for a short while Venizelos was imprisoned and his newspaper suppressed.
In late 1904 with tension rising on the island and more armed groups in evidence, George went once again on a tour around Europe in an attempt to persuade the Powers to resolve the Cretan dilemma by granting enosis. However, the Powers, involved as they were in the disturbances in Macedonia and their minds concentrating on the various crises surrounding the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and elsewhere, were not prepared to tolerate or enforce such a solution. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire seeing what they perceived to be the guarantees of safety for their Muslim subjects in Crete ignored, were not at all inclined to grant further autonomy to Crete or to surrender the island to Greece.

By now George’s utility to the Powers was nearing its end and the final straw came when on the morning of 23th March 1905 when some 300 armed men gathered in the village of Theriso, on the lower slopes of the White Mountains south of Canea. The following morning, Eleftherios Venizelos, Konstantinos Manos and Konstantinos Foumis were present at the formal raising of the Greek flag, the creation of a Revolutionary Assembly and the declaration of a provisional government. An attempt by a small force of Gendarmes to split up the gathering was met with fire and one gendarme killed; shortly afterwards the numbers at Theriso had swollen to over 3000. An international force of French, Russians, Italians troops and Cretan Gendarmes was then sent out to subdue the rebels but in spite of the column’s leader having two interviews with Venizelos, failed to persuade them to disburse.
The rebels rapidly gained control throughout the central and west of the island setting up a parallel government structure, issuing their own stamps (some of which featured the head of King George of Greece rather than his son – implying that enosis had been achieved), collecting their own taxes and carrying out their own administration.

Handstruck stamps issued by the 'Provisional Government of Crete' 1905

Stamps issued by the 'Provisional Government of Crete' 1905. Note the head of King George.g

The British government, which by this time was more inclined to see the prospect of a Venizelos lead regime as the solution to the Cretan issue rather than a part of the problem, responded by sending an extra 300 troops in order, once more, to ensure the safety of Cretan Muslims in Candia; but otherwise took no effective action against the rebels. By July 1905 the rebellion had grown too widespread for the Powers to either ignore or suppress and, in spite of George’s protests that in doing so they were undermining his authority, the British Consul lead a delegation from the Powers to commence a dialogue with Venizelos. Though his supporters were still agitating for an immediate enosis, this again was not on the table, Venizelos did however deliver an International Reform Commission to look into the future of the island, guarantees of municipal elections to be held under international supervision and an amnesty for all who took part in the rebellion, other than deserters from the gendarmerie.

George was now effectively a spent force as far as the Powers were concerned, though he hung on to office on for another year. His departure was not without its own drama however, he still had a considerable following both within and without the Cretan Assembly and Venizelos was not a universally liked figure on the island. Elections held under European auspices produced a deadlock, both the Royal and the Venizelos factions gaining a similar number of seats; the Muslim deputies holding the key seats to a majority. The inevitability of George’s impending departure became clear to all around the end of August 1906 and his supporters from the countryside took up arms and came en masse into Canea with the apparent intent of preventing him from leaving the island. On the evening of 7th September George called a meeting of the Cretan Assembly for the following morning. With the almost certainty that the outcome of any such meeting would result in violence and the possibility of Venizelos being defeated in the Assembly and/or on the streets, the European Consuls took matters into their own hands and sent international troops to occupy the building, closing the elected chamber. This usurpation of George’s powers by the Consuls was effectively the end of his career although it was not until 22nd September that he finally announced that he would leave the island within the next three days. Upon the announcement, factional violence broke out in Canea which resulted, on the night of 24th September, in the British battleship H.M.S. Barham being stationed off the town and turning its searchlights and guns on the city in a successful effort to suppress the unrest; at the same time landing a force of marines and sailors to reinforce the international troops already there. On 25th September, amid an outbreak of firing in the Canea suburb where most of the European Consuls lived which resulted in the death of one of the Russian Consul’s bodyguards, George attempted to make a ceremonial departure, but in the chaos, had to be smuggled off by rowing boat to the waiting Greek warship the Psara. Returning to his palace he was ‘advised’ by the Consuls that he should return to the Psara and leave the island immediately; which he did on 26th September.

He was replaced as High Commissioner by Alexander Zaimis; an experience Greek politician nominated by the King of Greece, but, as with Prince George before him, appointed by, and responsible to, the Powers.

One European view of the events was summed up in London by ‘The Bystander’ on 26th September 1906:
“Crete is Europe’s Cuba – an island defiant of all government, good bad or indifferent. The Cretans, who, originally, thought that a Royal figurehead was the one thing needful for the happiness of the island , have discovered, after a few years of him, that Prince George of Greece was not, after all, quite what they wanted. Truly royal, and rather autocratic in his ways and manners, he succeeded in winning anything but the affection of the islanders, and rumours of his resignation have been rife. A few months ago they assumed definite shape and Prince George’s resignation was announced. Since this, Prince George is said rather to regret the step he took, and once again we do not know quite by whom Crete really is governed.
From the European point of view, however, the matter is of very little importance, and if the Cretans, about whom St. Paul said such uncomplimentary things, were to proclaim as their sovereign lord H.M. The Prince of Darkness, it is to be doubted if the Concert of Europe would again allow its harmony to be disturbed by the news.

Eleftherios Venizelos remained active in Cretan politics until 1910 when he moved to Greece, shortly afterwards becoming Prime Minister.

Eleftherios Venizelos Monument at Theriso



1Prince George of Greece (1959)The Cretan Drama New York. P 19. Quoted in: Holland R and Markides D.(2005) The British and the Hellenes; Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850 – 1960 Oxford University Press p.110

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  1. Crete, Theriso Revolution (1905) » Dead Country Stamps and Banknotes

    […] A Prince Departs – history of the Theriso Revolution at Historical Musings The History of the Union of Crete with Greece Theriso Revolt, Wikipedia Eleftherios Venizelos from Wikipedia […]

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