Monthly Archives: February 2015

Escorting a Prince

Graphic Jan 7 1899 George arrival naval escort

Naval Escort for Prince George. The Graphic 7 January 1899

The illustration shows the naval escort provided by the four Powers, France, Britain, Russia and Italy, to bring Prince George of Greece to take up his role as High Commissioner for Crete. Appointed only after diplomatic wrangling which went on for a considerable time after the decision to make Crete an Autonomous State under Ottoman suzeranity, his arrival on Crete in December 1898 was delayed further by arguments over his mode of transport and the flag he was to fly.

The original, Greek, proposal was that he be taken to Crete from Greece in a Greek warship, a suggestion which met with approval only from the Greeks. The next, Greek, proposal was that he be taken to the island in a civilian vessel flying a Greek flag; again only the Greeks found favour with this. Eventually he was told that he would be taken to Crete in a European warship escorted by other European warships, flying their respective flags; making the point to all concerned, including George, although later events would show he appeared incapable of getting the message, that his, George’s, appointment was made by the power and authority of the four Powers and no one else.

There was however, a last minute hitch when an argument broke out over the nature of the flag of the newly autonomous island. The symbolism of the flag eventually chosen referred to religious distribution of the population of the island; three quarters Christian represented as a blue field enfolded in a white cross, and one quarter Muslim, represented by a white star on a red field.

Flag of the Cretan Autonomous State. Shown on a souvenir  card c.1902.

Flag of the Cretan Autonomous State. Shown on a souvenir card c.1902.

The initial proposal put forward by the Committee of four Admirals from the Powers who were effectively ruling the island prior to George’s arrival, possibly at the suggestion of the Russian Admiral, was that the flag would consist of a the same blue field, white cross and red upper left quarter BUT that instead of the Muslim star, there would be a further white cross.

Proposed Cretan Flag.

Contemporary sketch of proposed Cretan Flag.

The British Ambassadors in both Constantinople and St. Petersburg (Leningrad), raised objections to the proposal pointing out that it would be viewed by the Ottoman authorities and the Cretan Muslims as a provocation, since it could, and probably would, be interpreted as indicating Christian dominance of the Muslim population.  The idea was dropped, although this ‘illegal’ version of the flag of the Cretan Autonomous State did still appear on the island on at least one occasion.




Know your enemy – part 1

The arrival of British and other troops on Crete in March 1897 was not to defend the downtrodden Cretan population from the ravages of the bestial Ottoman hordes, but rather to attempt to prevent the island falling into a state of anarchy; a state brought about by a Cretan Christian rebellion, the Ottoman reaction to the rebellion and an invasion of the island, still at that stage an integral and legal part of the Ottoman Empire, by the Greek army. The Greek force of some 1500 men and associated artillery, commanded by Col. Timoleon Vassos, aide de camp to the King of Greece, landed on the north coast of Crete to the west of Canea on 14th February 1897, shortly afterwards moving inland to make their headquarters in the village of Alikianos. On landing, Vassos proclaimed the Greek annexation of the island, a move that threatened the stability of the whole region.

Col. Timoleon Vassos

Col. Timoleon Vassos


Greek army HQ, Alikianos.

Greek army HQ, Alikianos.

Col. Vassos HQ in 2012

Col. Vassos HQ at Alikianos in 2012

Col. Vassos receiving despatches

Col. Vassos receiving dispatches

With the Cretan Christian insurgents controlling the interior of the island, the bulk of the Muslim population abandoned the countryside and concentrated in the towns on coast. Lacking the artillery and the discipline and organisation necessary to capture these towns, the insurgents were dependent for further success on the the Greek army. However, fearing that assaults on the towns would result in further Ottoman retaliation, both in Crete and in the Balkans, the initial military objective of the British troops to prevent the insurgent/Greek forces from capturing the towns.

In the end however, no credible threat to either Canea or Candia [Iraklion], the towns in which British troops were based, was offered – the regular Greek forces having proved sufficient in numbers to provoke the Ottoman Empire into declaring war on Greece but insufficient to produce any military result on Crete, and the insurgents too undisciplined.

Following the overwhelming Greek defeat by Ottoman forces in the ‘Thirty Days War’, Vassos and his men were withdrawn from the island; albeit not without some difficulty, Cretan insurgents at one stage threatening to kill Vassos rather than let him depart.

Multicultural Crete

Most discussions about the European Intervention in Crete refer to two groups on the island: Cretans and Turks; a simplistic catagorisation which omits to account for the fact that most of the ‘Turks’ in question were Cretans and/or or Cretan origin. (In addition, there is census evidence of the presence of relatively small numbers of Jews and Armenians on the island – see National Archive FO925 3193.)

In addition to these ‘regular’ minorities there is pictorial evidence of the presence of other minority groups on the island in 1897.

Tunisian immigrants outside Canea.

A camp of Ben Ghazi immigrants outside the gates of Canea

The original text below the illustration, from Illustrated London News of 6th March 1897, reads: “The Cretan Deputies have made it a special point of concern that these immigrants from Ben Ghazi, Tunis, without any property save tents and rifles, and with no very good reputation, should be expelled from the island. The camp now consists entirely of women and children, the men are said to be absent on business with the regular troops.”

Unfortunately, there’s no information as to why this particular group of people were on the island.

While those shown above appear to be one specific group of immigrants, there is also evidence of more settled minority groups being present, and being apparently integrated into, at least, some the Muslim portion of the population.

The force of example.

The force of example.

The caption, from The Graphic, 3 April 1897, reads: The force of example: Turkish boys in Crete playing at “Going to war with the Greeks.”