23 May 2017

Corfu - was it Venetian, British, Greek or something else?

The Ionian island of Corfu, off the west coast of Greece, is 56 ks long but only 18 ks wide.

Now some quick and messy history. Before the French Revolutionary Wars, the Ionian Islands had been part of the Republic of Venice. Then the 1797 treaty dissolved the Republic of Ven­ice, and Corfu was ann­ex­ed to the French Republic as the French depart­ments of Greece. In 1798-9, the French were driven out by a joint Russo-Ottoman force. The occupying forces founded an island republic which enjoyed relative independence under Ottoman and Russian control from 1800-7; Greek was to be the primary local language.

The Ionian Islands were briefly re-occupied by the French, but very soon after, in 1809-10, the UK defeated the French fleet and capt­ured some Greek Islands. After Napoleon, many countries were inter­ested in the control of the prize island, Corfu island. Thanks to the aid of a Greek General, a treaty was signed in Paris in 1815 that recog­nis­­ed autonomous Ionian islands under exclusive British control.


Venetian buildings in Corfu Town

A formal federation, the United States of the 7 Ionian Islands, was created in Aug 1817 via a Parliament with a 2-house legislature. The gov­ernment was organised under the direction of a Lord High Com­m­is­sion­er, appointed by the British monarch on the advice of the Brit­ish government. Then the Supreme Council of Justice was established.

The first (1815-23) British high commissioner (and Governor of Malta) was Sir Thomas Mait­land, a rather repressive dictator who quickly stir­ring strong complaints from the locals. Yet the British era (815-64) was probably the most flourishing period in the history of Corfu. Corfu established the first Greek University, the Ionian Academy, which was established by Frederick North, 5th Earl Guil­ford in 1824. Its 3 faculties included Med­icine. The estab­lish­ment of schools, which had been neglected by the Venetians, was imp­roved and by 1850 there were 200 schools. Corfu gain­ed its first Philharmonic Orchestra and the first School of Fine Arts.

There were extensive public works providing prisons, hospit­als, marsh clear­ance, a widened road network and a public aqueduct water-supply system that still operates. Commerce with the neighbouring countries grew impressively.

Despite these benefits, the islanders came to resent British rule. And it all came to an end when a 1863 treaty demanded Britain renounce the Ionian islands. In March 1864, representatives of the UK, Greece, France and Russia pledged the transfer of sovereignty to Greece, under the newly install­ed King George I of the Hellenes. And in May 1864, by proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner, the Ionian Islands were united with Greece. The city of Corfu lost power in favour of Athens, but the rest of the island began to pros­per both polit­ically and economically.

   

Image result for corfu beaches
The Durrells' White House (top)                               Beautiful Corfu beaches (bottom)

Even then, British influence continued. Way back in 1823, a cricket match was held in Corfu between Royal Navy officers and men in the British Garrison. Thus began a lasting union of this most British of games and the Greek island of Corfu. Of the many cricket clubs drawing excited crowds on the island these days, the loveliest field is Spianada square in town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a view of the Old Fortress. Also organised by local British-ex pats, Corfu was where the first tennis clubs opened in Greece.

But the biggest attraction for British tourists now seems to be the tv series The Durrells (2016). Based on The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell and set in 1935, the Durrell family left home in Britain and settled near Corfu Town. So modern tourists want to rent a villa in the pretty NE corner, where The Durrells was filmed, or stay in the flats at the White House in nearby Kalami, where Law­ren­ce wrote. The lovely bay of San Stefano has the tortoises that fascinated young Gerald, especially in late June. Plus pods of dolphins and sea-turtles.

The quotation inscribed at the foot of a statue of author and naturalist Gerald Durrell in these beautiful gardens was dedicated to him and his brother Lawrence. The brothers’ writing, especially ‘My Family and Other Animals’, popularised this green isle in the world’s imagination.

Corfu Town is a unique blend of histories, with a nod to all the nations that controlled it during its mixed history. On arrival in Mandracchio harbour, the Old Fort can be seen from the water. Fit visitors climb to the top of the fort and can enjoy the magnificent view over the town. Then the fit and the unfit can visit the black­ened remains of St Spyridon, Corfu’s patron saint, in his church. The public buildings of the Venetian rule blend well with narrow winding streets, lovely little bars and shops, and small secluded squares.

Cultural sites are everywhere. Once home to Greece’s King George I, the elegant Saint Michael and George Palace sits on top of a hill outside Corfu Town. The Pal­ace, also the birthplace of Britain’s Prince Philip, opens its elegant interiors to the public and hosts a museum dis­pl­aying artworks, statues, historical and arch­aeological treasures.

The British Cemetery is near San Rocco square. Founded in 1814 by the British Protectorate it was used as a garden cemetery where the British officials, soldiers and residents were interred. After the departure of the British, the cemetery served as the graveyard for the foreign families who stayed on (and it is still being used as a cemetery for the Anglican residents of Corfu today). Note the monument to the seamen of the two Royal Navy destroyers mined by the Albanians in The Corfu Channel Incident of 1946.

100 cricket matches are played each year, 
against local Corfu teams and against touring sides

Visit Greece proudly notes that Corfu became part of the European world rather than part of the Levant.





20 May 2017

Mentoring Noel Pearson - a guest post

I was born in Eastern Europe and eventually moved into a UN refugee camp for people seeking visas to safe countries. Life for me was fine once we got to Aust­ralia, but I was always aware how my parents worked long, miserable hours every week to give us children a decent life. It must have succeeded because my sister became a 4-language translator in the Health Department, my brother became a mathematician and maths teacher, and I became a doctor.

Throughout those years of struggle, my parents never forgot the people who mentored them, enrolling them for citizenship ceremonies (successfully), teaching them English (with mixed success) and help­ing them with driving lessons. Now it was possible to mentor a new generation of young people in medical practices, preferably migrants or the children of migrants. Each year my coll­eagues and I decided to take one undergraduate student into our practices; there they spend one term of hard work, professional supervision and personal support. A very minor contribution to be sure, but one that brings an emotional thank-you from parents in the same heavily accented English my parents spoke.

 Noel Pearson, Prof Marcia Langton, Professor Patrick Dodson, Mark Leibler. 
Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 2010

Here is an example of a mentoring program I really admire. Noel Pearson (born 1965) was born in Cooktown and grew up at Hope Vale, a Lutheran Mission in the Cape York Peninsula. His father was from one Aboriginal people, and his mother was from another. After finishing primary school in Hope Vale, Pearson left and travelled all the way to Brisbane where he was a boarder at St Peters Lutheran College. He did two degrees at the University of Sydney – the first in history, and the second in law.

The young legal graduate had to do his articled clerkship in a reputable, large legal firm so he chose Arnold Bloch Leibler, in a totally unfamiliar city 2000 ks away - Melbourne.

Pearson wrote “During an articled clerkship at ABL’s Collins St headquarters, I came to know the story of Australia’s Jewish community and how a people endured oppression and discrimination through history; how they rose up from the ashes of the Holocaust”.

“It was Ron Castan QC who recommended me to Leibler. Ron was one of the greatest legal advocates this country has known and I got to know him following his long crusade with Eddie Mabo to establish native title in the Murray Islands. He later worked with us on the Wik peop­le’s claim to Cape York and was a paternal mentor to me.”

“My time at ABL was a crucial period: I learned so much interacting through the firm with the Jewish community of Melbourne, in the worlds of business, education, arts and culture. I learned how you can be victimised by discrimination but never succumb to victimhood. How you can never forget history but you must engage the future.”

“I came to understand Castan and Leibler’s mentorship in their community is a virtuous cycle through the generations. So I was inspired to start sponsoring young girls from Cape York Peninsula, enabling them to attend private boarding schools in Brisbane. The first one went on to become the first university graduate from her community. Others started their own programs”. [All the quotes come from The Australian Newspaper, 21/12/2013].

As everyone in Australia now knows, Pearson went on to become famous as an advocate for Indigenous peoples' rights to land. In 1990 Pearson co-founded and directed the Cape York Land Council. Pearson's first official appointment was to a Queensland government taskforce which was formed to develop land rights legis­lation. He was also a legal advisor for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. In 1993 Pearson acted as representative to the traditional owners in the first land claim (successful) to the Flinders Island and Cape Mel­ville National Parks. Following the Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia, Pearson played a key part in negotiations over the Native Title Act 1993 as a member of the Indigenous negotiating team.

In Dec 2010, the Australian Government announced the membership of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Panel included Indigenous and community leaders, constitutional experts and parliamentary members. It was co-chaired by Professor Patrick Dodson and Mr Mark Leibler AC. Noel Pearson and Professor Marcia Langton were vital members of the Expert Panel.

Noel Pearson, 2014
Melbourne lecture

And mentoring is passed on to the next generation. Jawun is a not-for-profit organisation pioneered by Noel Pearson to help indigenous people regenerate their local communities through corporate partnerships. Bank staff, for example, are taken to visit parts of Australia to engage in a culture most Australians would rarely engage in. Using mining royalties, the bankers sit down with elders and local land councils, to help with legal obligations, rights, income distribution, school reforms and information technology.

Mentoring is valuable.
Joe

**

I (Helen) would like to add two thoughts. Readers might like to find Noel Pearson's Quarterly Essay 55 A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth, published in Sept 2014. Pearson shows how the idea of race was embedded in the constitution, and the distorting effect this has had. Now there is a chance to change it. Pearson shows what constitutional recognition means, and how true equality and a renewed appreciation of an ancient culture would be possible. This is a wide-ranging, eloquent call for justice.

At the 1967 referendum on removing discrimination against Aboriginal people from the constitution, 91% of us voted yes, making it the most successful in Australia's history. Now each of Australia's major parties committed to hold a referendum to change the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Leaders have yet to agree on the model for change, so the words of the change to the constitution remain uncertain. But the Federal Government will announce a timetable for the referendum soon. May 2017 is the 50th anniversary of Australia's landmark 1967 referendum.







16 May 2017

The British Raj in India - in perfect control or in chaos?

The Dutch and Portuguese had dominated Euro­pean trade with the Subcont­in­ent during the 1500s. England (then Britain from 1707 on) was a late-comer to Asia. After Vasco da Gama discovered a sea-route to Asia in 1498, the Portuguese established forts and settlements around the coast of India and SE Asia. Netherlands sent dozens of ships in the 1590s, each returning with large profits. Alas the first English voyages were disasters.

So the East India Company was formed in 1600 to undo the humiliation Eng­lish merchants had felt in Asia. Queen Elizabeth I gave the Company a royal charter on England’s trade with Asia and from then on, the Company zealously pro­tected its monopoly.

My high school British History teachers stressed how pro­g­ressive Imperial Britain had been in India. Undoubtedly the Indians wanted to run their own country, uninvaded by military or corporate raiders. But the teachers could give wonderful examples about British railways systems were built, British laws legislated, economies devel­oped, irrig­ation systems installed and young Indian women protected. All in all, it was a civilising mission accomplished.

Then I read India Conquered, where the author Jon Wilson suggested that far from res­cuing India from chaos, the British caused it. Even on legal issues, the British didn’t manage to reform and univers­alise per­sonal law, leaving a confused tangle of pro­p­erty legislation that impeded modern commercial relations. With nothing to replace them, periods of food-price inflation led to the deaths of millions of Indians.

Charter granted to the East India Company, 
Dec 1600

The Company was not merely a collect­ion of merchants; rather it was a mini-state with power to wage war, issue regulations and make treat­ies with foreign powers. Pow­er was centralised in London offices that issued instructions to officers overseas.

Critics argued that the Company was actually protecting its own corporate power and status, not Britain’s commer­cial relat­ion­ship. The Company’s aggressive approach created a tense relationship with Indian merchants and political leaders. Its officers hid behind the walls of forts and military garrisons whenever they could. Negotiations were short; force resolved difficult situations.

The first major clash began in 1686, when Company officials were anxious that a] the Mughal empire wasn’t letting them trade without paying taxes and b] the Mughals were collaborating with private English traders to flout the Company’s monopoly. So war was declared on the Mughal empire. A fleet of 19 ships and six army companies was sent to liberate the English. But the Company’s ships were scattered by bad navigation and they were easily defeated by the Mughal military at Bombay.

By 1710 the Mughal empire practical power had begun to fragment. But until the early-mid C18th, India’s political system was powerful enough to defend against the Company. Violent events in 1720 could have led to the British conquest of Kerala, had the East India Co. not been embroiled in bigger battles elsewhere. A fleet and a small army sailed down from Bombay to take revenge, and land was “conquered from the natives”. But the fight in Kerala was quickly abandoned. In 1721 the British ships and troops were needed to defend Bombay against the Marathas of Maharashtra state.

Prince of Wales on a tiger hunt in India, 1875

As noted by my history teachers, the standard view of Britain’s empire in India emphasised its control, stability, success and the rational pursuit of profit. After all this story had been recorded by the empire’s governors and generals, after they returned to Britain.

The reality was that British actions were messy and chaotic. The Persian ruler Nader Shah invaded India in 1739, overthrowing the Mughals and stripping their treasuries. The invasion provoked conflict in the capitals of India and sent bands of warlords to ransack the country side.

Company forces led by Robert Clive sailed from Madras to a battlefield north of the Company’s base at Calcutta, and defeated the army of Bengal’s nawab Siraj ud Daula in Oct 1756. Then the Battle of Plassey, in June 1757, was the most important event that led to the Company’s conquest of India. It pitted 3,000 soldiers of the British East India Co. against the 5,000-strong army of the young Nawab of Bengal and his allies. When the Company refused to back down, the nawab marched, driving the British from Calcutta. After Calcutta was retaken and Siraj signed a peace treaty grant­ing all they demanded, the British marched to depose the Nawab! British trade and honour were protected by violence; Robert Clive, perhaps an unstable sociopath, became known as the Conqueror of India.

The British replaced Siraj on the throne with the more compliant Mir Jafar. But always paranoid about Indian actions, trust broke down again. Allies became antagonists and the British began to assert power more widely. Mir Jafar was blamed and ousted, apparently because conqu­est didn’t lead to quick profits. But Bengal’s wealth was rapidly draining into Britain, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced like slaves by their new masters.
                                                              
Maharaja Bhupendra Singh of Patiala,  1911

The British fought in a succession of late 18th and early C19th wars, including the Second Maratha War of 1805. Only by 1818 had Britain and the East India Co become India’s clearly dominant powers. But conquest didn’t create a stable, effective state, nor did it create peace. During the 1820s the British faced a succession of insurrections that needed many more troops to win.

In April 1857, the north Indian city where the Commissioner of Meerut was stationed became the heart of the greatest-ever insurrection against Britain anywhere in the British empire. During the Indian Rebel­lion of 1857, much of north India was ruled by leaders hostile to the Company. Atrocities happened on both sides, but the last days of the Rebellion were so brutal, Indian Delhi and Lucknow were destroyed. The British massacres of rebel sepoys and unarmed citizens were war crimes.

The days of the British Raj in India were numbered. After 1858 the Com­pany was abolished and Queen Victoria was proclaimed India’s direct sovereign. British power was exerted through law courts and public works, railway timetables and codes of law, not just military violence. Yet imperial power was still limited and messy.

The British finally left India in 1947. 

Readers might like to read India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, Simon & Schuster, 2016. Also The Tears of the Rajas by Ferdinand Mount, Simon & Schuster, 2016.