The feelings of the Corfiots for the Biritsh Protection (1815-1864) are rather positive. Most of the people consider Protection as one of the most prosperous periods in local history, as Corfu has inherited a large legacy of infrastructure and cultural elements from the British governors and the local authorities of the time. Even the visitors can’t help but noticing the Palace, Mon Repos etc, even ginger-beer or cricket games. But what were the feelings of Corfiots towards the Protection in those years?
When the Ionian Islands were conquered by the British (1809-14), the locals, except from the Zacynthians, whose interests matched those of Britain, maintained a rather neutral stance. Only in Corfu there was a taste of bitterness, since the French (sovereigns of the Ionian Islands before the British), especially general Donzelot, had favored the island. Nevertheless, the feeling of relief for the end of the war was much stronger.
Soon, though, the Ionians realised that the “Protection” didn’t mean nothing but occupation for the British. The political system imposed by the new sovereign was authoritarian, and the islanders’ dreams for (relative) democracy and national independence since 1800 were buried under the presence of a mighty military force, of which the expenses were paid by themselves!
Such was the despotism of the state on those first years of the Protection, that the Ionian people neglected even the civil works plan or the law for the disarmament of the civilians. After all, most of the civil works were aiming to the convenience of the British and the disarmament was to secure that the Ionians wouldn’t have he means to revolt. The islanders bent their head, but not their soul towards the harshness of their new master.
For the whole duration of the Protection, the Ionians never stopped reacting vigorously to the British arrogance. The riots of 1848 that distressed the British regime are well known. But there were many reactions before that, even if they were sporadic and scimbly.
In an old notebook, right after a copy of an extract from an anthology of Galenus and Hippocrates, Spyridon Koskinas, a priest from the Village of Kouramades, wrote a story of great value. It’s the true story of a man from the village of Castellani, who raised a lonely fight against the British and their collaborators in the occasion of the disarmament of the villagers by the authorities.
In the next paragraphs we cite a few parts of this dramatic story.
A CORFIOT LONELY REBEL
1825, 7th October
...Stamatis A. (potentate, collector and sub-superintendent of the seigneur’s revenues), bad and corrupted,... put many men in prison, he forced us give many tributes to the government, he was ... tyrant over the forced work ... that men were working in the roads, working from 12 to 66 years old...
In 1822, with order by the government, they collected the handguns from all over the island... having also issued a resolution for 10 thalers and 6 months captivity on the island for whom should have a riffle without licence. Ioannes Alefotzios, kept a riffle, not to hurt anyone, but just for fun.
On 1825, on September, Stamatis saw Ioannes with his riffle. Rightaway, he reported him to the police... he put men into his house, paid with 2 silver coins per day ... in order to arrest him. ... Ioannes never stopped begging him to release him from the charge... The tyrant did not mercy him... Having no other option, the good Ioannes... decided to kill him, dooming himself too, but free the island.
Right when he killed him he shouted up loud: “I killed him! See and tell, so no one else is blamed!” After three hours the cavalry came to see the dead body [and they released] order to all the havens that no boat should leave. In the very village of Castellani two hundred English troops came with trumpets, drums, officers and the rest. They gathered more than four hundred locals out of eight hundreds. They left no lamb, ox, poultry, oil, wine, bread, but they devastated the area, having all the people closed up ...in the church of Ypapanti.
For forty days all the authorities of the island were after Ioannes. There was no place unsearched. They even formed a line from Perama to the shore of Pentati, but there was no way they could arrest him. The poor Ioannes never stopped running in the dells through the bushes, thirsty and starving.
One day, starving and exhausted, he found a small cabin at Cochini, and thinking that the people living there are Christians, he walked asking for some bread. These people treat him in a good manner, but they drunk him and took his arms. But when they fell asleep, Ioannes woke up, took back his arms and jumped out the window. Again, an even worst gibbet: they immediately informed the Police at Castellani, and they formed a line from Gouvia to Ermones, but Ioannes flew away to Garitsa, where he spent fifteen days in an old mine.
Three months later, they arrested him after a relative of his betrayed him.
When Ioannes was presented to the Governor, he confessed that he indeed killed Stamatis. But the points he made and his true sayings left all the courts speechless. So, all the people were leaving their businesses and were going to hear Ioannes justifying himdelf, while he criticised the tyranny of Stamatis towards him and the common people.
Anyway, the decision was made, according to the Law to hang Ioannes, six months after he killed Stamatis, bringing great sorrow to all the people, for a great hero was doomed. And when they were going to hang him they all run, young and old, men, women and children, crying, begging mercy for him. But their cries made no good to him. Seeing that it was the end of his life, Ioannes forgave everyone, including Stamatis, and he himself then put the gibbet around his own neck, on Wednesday the 7th of March, 1826, leaving behind him his magnanimity to be fabled by the forthcoming generations.
It is obvious from the story above that the British Protection of the Ionian Islands wasn’t quite a nice time. Of course, the British had in mind building an extensive series of infrastructure, but they also forced the locals to work (unpaid) for a number of palaces, fortifications etc, which were in their sole interest. They even forced the Corfiots to give up their arms – something that was perceived as humiliating in those days and, after all, it was with this arms that the Corfiots defended their homeland against so many intruders in the past – not in order to maintain civil security, but to ensure that the Corfiots would not turn them against them, or use them to assist their revolting brothers in the ottoman empire.
That is the reason why the Corfiots strugled for decades for their right to unify with Greece and celebrated when that happened in 1864, even though at the same time the British were demolishing the Island’s fortifications, i.e. the Corfiot property, history and pride.
written by Andreas Grammenos