10 February 2021

The Irish diplomat who was
at the centre of an early
anti-Semitic crisis in Athens

Sir Thomas Wyse (1791-1862) from Waterford … played a key role in the ‘Don Pacifico’ affair in the decades after Greek independence

Patrick Comerford

Next month marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence on 25 March 1821. To mark that bicentennial, I have been working this week on a magazine feature on some of the Irish Philhellenes who were involved in the struggle in Greece and in Greek politics and public life later in the 19th century.

One of those Irish public figures in Greek life was the diplomat Sir Thomas Wyse (1791-1862) from Waterford, who played a key role in the decades immediately after Greek independence.

Wyse was born in Waterford in 1791, the eldest son of Thomas Wyse of the Manor of St John, and was educated at Stonyhurst and Trinity College Dublin. He first visited Athens, the Greek islands and Constantinople 1818, three years before the Greek War of Independence began.

Wyse had an unhappy marriage to Napoleon’s niece, Princess Letizia Bonaparte (1804-1871). Back in Waterford, he became chairman of the Co Waterford election committee for Henry Villiers Stuart of Dromana, and 1826 general election he presided over Villiers Stuart’s successful campaign in 1826. During his time as the Whig MP for Tipperary (1830-1832) and Waterford City (1835-1841, 1842-1847), he served as a Junior Lord of the Treasury (1839-1841), and Secretary to the Board of Control (1846-1849), and he was involved in commissioning AWN Pugin to build the new Houses of Parliament in London. Wyse had erlier also commissioned Pugin to redesign Manor Saint John for the Wyse family ca 1842

Wyse returned to Athens in 1849 as the British minister or ambassador, in succession to Sir Edmund Lyons. The appointment may have been engineered by his estranged wife, Princess Letizia, who had influence with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston.

In Athens, Wyse soon found himself at the centre of the ‘Don Pacifico Affair,’ one of the most famous incidents of anti-Semitism in Britain or Greece in the 19th century.

David Pacifico, known as Don Pacifico (1784-1854), was a Portuguese merchant and diplomat. He was considered a British subject by birth and he was the central figure in 1850 in what became known in Greek history known as the ‘Don Pacifico Affair.’

Pacifico was a Sephardic Jew of Italian descent. His grandfather, also David Pacifico, was born in Italy. His family had been expelled from Spain with the rest of the Jews in 1492. His ancestors reached Italy, particularly Tuscany, first Leghorn and then Florence. David Pacfico, the grandfather, eventually settled in Gibraltar, and worked in Portugal.

The elder David Pacifico was the father of Asser Pacifico, who married Bella Rieti – the daughter of Moses Rieti and the descendant of a Venetian Jewish family – in Bevis Marks Synagogue in London in 1761.

David Pacifico was born in 1784, but gave varying accounts of his place of birth, suggesting he was born in Oran in north-west Algeria, then a Spanish possession, or in Gibraltar, by then a British possession. He claimed to be a both a Spanish subject and a British subject at different times.

Because of his family’s work in Portugal, David Pacifico grew up in Portugal, speaking fluent Portuguese. This led to the myth that the Pacifico family was of Portuguese descent, although the family was actually of Spanish descent.

David Pacifico entered business at Lagos in Portugal in 1812. However, as a liberal living in Portugal during the Civil War in 1828-1834, he was persecuted by the supporters of Don Miguelists and his property was confiscated. He was rewarded by the victorious liberals in 1835 when they appointed him the Portuguese Consul in Morocco and granted him Portuguese citizenship.

He was Portugal’s consul-general in Athens from 1837 to 1842, and became a prominent member of the local Jewish community.

However, his reputation was tarnished after allegations of abuses of power came to light and he was dismissed as consul on 4 January 1842. Despite this, when his time as consul in Athens came to an end, Pacifico stayed on in Greece.

Five years later, the German Jewish financier and banker, Amschel Mayer de Rothschild (1773-1855), visited Athens in April 1847. In deference to Rothschild, the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Coletti (1773-1847), banned the traditional burning of an effigy of Judas Iscariot during Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations, often seen by as an anti-Semitic element in the Greek Easter traditions.

This political manoeuvre was not popular with people in Athens. A riot ensured, and – as the police looked on – an angry mob ransacked and looted Don Pacifico’s house, beating him and his family.

Pacifico sought help from the British legation in Athens, claiming £32,000 in compensation from the Greek government for damage to property, plus 10% interest and £500 for physical violence.

Pacifico demanded compensation totalling 800,000 drachmas, then the equivalent of £26,618. The Greek government refused to consider his claims and even confiscated Pacifico’s real estate. Pacifico appealed to Britain for help from Britain, claiming British nationality because he was born in Gibraltar. Pacifico’s claims were supported by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, but the case dragged on until 1850.

Shortly after Wyse’s arrival in Athens, Palmerston sent the Mediterranean fleet under the command of Sir William Parker to blockade the port of Piraeus in January 1850. Wyse had tried to persuade Otho and his government to agree to amicable arbitration, but when this failed Palmerston ordered Wyse to issue an ultimatum, declaring that should an ultimatum proved unsuccessful he was to go on board the admiral’s ship and to prepare for armed conflict.

The British naval blockade to seize Greek ships and property equal to the amount of Pacifico’s claims. The blockade lasted two months and caused a rift with France and Russia, who shared a protectorate of Greece and did not support Britain’s intervention. Queen Victoria also criticised Palmerston for ending 14 British ships, 731 guns and 8,000 sailors to Greece, all for the sake of one ‘foreigner.’

The incident was important at the time because Palmerston had to defend himself for supporting the lawsuit of a Jew. Palmerston replied that it was not right that because ‘a man is of Jewish persuasion’ he should be outraged.

In a speech to Parliament that lasted almost five hours on 25 June 1850, Palmerston defended his actions, famously declaring, ‘As the Roman in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.’

The Greeks ultimately agreed to pay nominal reparations totalling 120,000 drachmas and £500. Palmerston’s ‘gunboat diplomacy’ was seen as a victory for British foreign policy. Palmerston’s popularity soared, and he became prime minister five years later.

Pacifico retired to London and died there on 12 April 1854.

David Pacifico … born in Gibraltar and died in London

As for Wyse, he was involved in engineering a joint occupation of Piraeus by Britain and France during the Crimean war. His efforts to secure Greek neutrality during the Crimean War (1854-1856) were recognised when he was knighted in 1857.

Wyse remained the British Minister in Athens, and devoted the rest of his life to helping Greek artistic, literary and educational projects. He died in office of heart failure on 15 April 1862 and was given a state funeral in Athens on the orders of the King of Greece. As the cortege passed through the city, King Otho and Queen Amalia stood in silence on the palace balcony.

Wyse left his Waterford estates to his niece Winifrede Mary Wyse. She had never married but accompanied her uncle in his travels throughout his adopted country. After his death, she edited his An Excursion in the Peloponneses in the Year 1858 (1865) and Impressions of Greece ... and Letters to Friends at Home (1871). Following a legal challenge, however, the estates reverted to his estranged son and heir-at-law, Napoleon Alfred Bonaparte-Wyse (1822-1895).

His second son, William Charles William Charles Bonaparte-Wyse (1826-1892) was the leader of the revival of the Provencal language and earned a reputation for as a Provencal poet. He bought the Manor from his brother rather than see it leave the Wyse family. He died in Cannes and is buried there.

The Manor of Saint John ... designed by AWN Pugin for the Wyse family ca 1842 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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