26 August 2019

Why Corfu retains the air
and elegance of a small
European capital city

The former Parliament Building in Corfu … here the Ionian Parliament voted for union with Greece in 1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Corfu has the air of a small capital city, with its old palace, elegant buildings, such as the Liston.

And, of course, it was once a European capital city, as the capital of the United States of the Ionian Islands (Ἡνωμένον Κράτος τῶν Ἰονίων Νήσων), a state set up as British protectorate and that lasted for almost half a century, from 1815 to 1864.

This unique state, with its own parliament and institutions, was the successor state of the Septinsular Republic, set up by the Russians and Ottoman Turks when the Ionian islands were captured from France and within a decade of the fall of Venice.

The state embraced the Ionian Islands and only became a part of the modern Greek, in moved that was seen as a British gift to the newly enthroned King George I, but that came after a resolution for union with Greece was put through the Ionian parliament by the Party of the Radicals.

Before the French revolutionary wars, Corfu and the Ionian Islands had been part of the Republic of Venice. When the Republic of Venice was dissolved at the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797, the islands were annexed by France.

The French were driven out in 1798-1799 out by a joint Russian-Ottoman force. The Russians and the Turks set up the Septinsular Republic, which enjoyed relative independence under nominal Ottoman rule and Russian control from 1800 to 1807.

France once again took control of the Ionian Islands after the Treaty of Tilsit. But this second period of French rule was short-lived. Britain defeated the French fleet off Zakynthos on 2 October 1809, and captured Kefalonia, Kythira, and Zakynthos, and took Lefkada in 1810. However, the French continued to occupy Corfu until 1814.

The Congress of Vienna agreed to place the Ionian Islands under the exclusive ‘amical protection’ of Britain, although the Austrian Empire was guaranteed commercial status equal to Britain.

The arrangement was formalised with the ratification of the ‘Maitland Constitution’ in 1817, creating a federation of the seven islands, with General Sir Thomas Maitland as the Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands.

The statue by Pavlos Prosalentis of Sir Frederick Adam, Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands (1824-1832) outside the Palace in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In all, 10 men served as Lord High Commissioner, including: Sir Thomas Maitland (1816-1824), who built the Palace in Corfu; the Irish-born politician, George Nugent-Grenville (1789-1850), 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown (1832-1835); John Young (1807-1876) from Balieborough, Co Cavan, later Lord Lisgar (1855-1859); and the future Prime Minister William Gladstone (1858-1859).

The Ionian Islands had a bicameral legislature, known as the Parliament of the United States of the Ionian Islands and composed of a Legislative Assembly and a Senate.

The 1818 constitution also established the Supreme Council of Justice of the United States of the Ionian Islands.

However, resistance groups soon began to form, supporting the Greek War of Independence and resisting British rule.

The Party of Radicals (Κόμμα των Ριζοσπαστών) was formed in 1848 to resist British rule in the Ionian Islands and to demand union with Greece. By 1849, a growing restlessness resulted in small battles; 21 leaders were hanged, another 34 were jailed and 87 were whipped.

The Radical politician John Detoratos Typaldos proposed a resolution in the Ionian parliament in 1850 demanding the union of the Ionian Islands with Greece. Britain responded with persecutions, arrests, imprisonments, and exile.

A parliamentary resolution remembered in the former Parliament House in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Party of Radicals split into two factions in 1862: the United Radical Party and the Real Radical Party.

But in Parliament House in Corfu on 23 September 1863, the Ionian Parliament voted for the union of the Ionian islands with the modern Greek state. On 29 March 1864, representatives of Britain, Greece, France, and Russia signed the Treaty of London, transferring sovereignty of the islands to Greece, and this came about with a proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner on 28 May 1864.

Ever since, Corfu and the other the Ionian Islands have remained part of Greece, despite invasions by Italy and Greece. But Corfu still retains the air and elegance of a small European capital.

The Liston in Corfu … a reminder of the French presence in Corfu in the early 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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