The Eastern question and how were they pursued



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All three of these concerns – protection of Christians, fear of Russian dominance and protection of trade links – at various times provided reasons for British intervention in Ottoman affairs. However other factors also played a part and it is necessary to examine specific instances of British involvement with the East in order to identify them, and also to illustrate how the three main justifications were applied in practice. This essay will look at the British involvement in the Romanian principalities, in the establishment of an independent Greek state and in the formation of a Bulgarian nation.

Britain was the last of the great powers to send official representatives to the Romanian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, not establishing a consulate until 1800 (although the trading opportunities of the two regions had been recognised by Britons in the fifteenth century). In the years leading up to the appointment of the first consular official Britain had paid little attention to the provinces, as she was preoccupied with the balance of power in the west.

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Radu Florescu states that ‘Parliament even refused to elevate the Eastern question to international status, as was evidenced by the Commons reaction to the epic but unavailing plea of the younger Pitt during the Ozcakov crisis of 1790’8 Britain’s first consular appointment to Romania was not motivated by economic, political or cultural interests but by ‘the immediate strategic significance of the provinces in the campaign against Napoleon: Bucharest was situated on the most direct overland route linking London to Constantinople and the Middle East.

‘9 The official appointed was Lord Summerer, who was instructed to look after the affairs of the Levant Company and the East India Company. His reports to the British authorities also detail the activities of the French and provide information on Russian military preparations, which suggests that his actions were connected to the intelligence service. His role a consulate came to an end in 1808, following the 1807 break in Anglo-Turkish relations.

After this date British affairs were left to Austrian representatives to safe guard, as it would have proved embarrassing for Britain to establish another consul (especially one as hostile to Russia as Summerer had been), when Russia, her ally against Napoleon, had none. However it was noted by Lord Strangford in a letter to Stratford Canning that Austria was a wise choice of trustee for British interests as she was ‘a power which has the duty of watching over the extension of Russian influence… and has so many reasons for being vigilant in that quarter.

’10 It is also of interest that British commercial interests in Romania were considered to insignificant to warrant further British presence. The Ionian community resident in Romania, the rights of whom Britain was supposed to be responsible for protecting, was also considered too unimportant to justify a continued presence. In 1818 a Levant Company representative, William Wilkinson, tried to gain the position of official consular representative, and failed because commercial interest in the Principalities was waning due to Turkish restrictions on the Black sea.

The role of Britain in the Romanian Principalities highlights the correlation between the importance of official relations in a region and its economic, political and strategic usefulness. No doubt the issue of the Treatment of Ottoman dominated Christians was an issue throughout, and the obligation of protecting Ionian rights certainly never disappeared but British interest fluctuated as the Principalities usefulness to them changed.

Even when humanitarian reasons were provided as justification for interference, it is possible, in some cases, to see a more self-interested ulterior motive. This can be seen in the British involvement in the establishment of an independent Bulgaria. Bulgaria was late to develop a national consciousness and its proximity to Constantinople meant that most social unrest was easily crushed. This fostered a different kind of national consciousness that emerged gradually, in the wake of religious changes rather than patriotic activism.

These religious modifications culminated in the establishment of a separate Bulgarian church in 1870, which slowly weaned Bulgarian peasants away from identifying themselves as Greek. In 1876 the April Uprising took place. It was, according to Mazower, ‘the latest in a line of Bulgarian revolts (which) failed to elicit support among the peasantry or townspeople. ’11 However its propinquity to the heart of the empire, in conjunction with the fact that it coincided with a more serious insurgency in the western Balkans alarmed the Sultan who ordered its hasty and brutal suppression.

European and especially British concern – which would not have been aroused by the killing of one hundred or so Turkish civilians by the Bulgarian rebels – was attracted by the reports of the atrocities committed by Ottoman irregulars, who killed 12-15,000 Christians. This illustration of Britain as the guardian of Christian values was then used as a focus in a British electoral campaign. The Sultan rejected European calls for reform and in response Russia invaded the Balkans in 1877 and advanced to Constantinople.

The peace terms imposed upon the Turks provided for n independent Romania, Serbia and Montenegro and, Mazower suggests, ‘marked the end of Ottoman Europe as it had existed for centuries. ’12 The most controversial clause of the treaty provided for a large, autonomous ‘San Stefano Bulgaria,’13 which was later scaled down massively at the Congress of Berlin because ‘the other powers, above all Britain, saw it as an unacceptable extension of Russian power into the Balkans. ’14

Britain’s role in the creation of an independent Greece fifty years earlier used the same pretext of protecting the rights of Ottoman Christians, despite the fact that the people they professed to be protecting had murdered 32,000 Muslims during an insurgency in Tripolis, which would have failed had it not been for the intervention of European forces. Canning, the British prime minister, who feared that the Turco-Egyptian force that had been sent to put down the rebellion would enslave the Christians of Peloponnese, warned that he ‘would not permit the execution of a system of depopulation.

’15 The powers then sent a naval flotilla to the Peloponnese to add weight to their threats, which at the battle of Navrino destroyed the Turkish fleet. In 1830 an independent Greece was set up – largely due to foreign intervention – and in 1832 the Powers made the inexperienced, Catholic Prince Otto of Bavaria the country’s king. Britain’s role in these three cases studies underlines her changing and conflicting interests concerning the declining Ottoman Empire and the resultant ‘Eastern Question.

‘ The desire not to give Russia any lasting advantage in the East seems to have been a recurring theme, but in the face of growing Balkan nationalism the British policy appears to have shifted away from supporting the Sick Man of Europe’ (the physician, as Kinglake had warned, started to treat a terminal condition) towards a policy of nation building in Eastern Europe. One of the reasons behind this directional change was the hope that the countries’ gratitude for assistance in gaining independence (not to mention financial debts to Europe) would pull them into the sphere of British influence, culturally, politically and economically.

1 STOKES, Gale, Three Cases of Political Change in Eastern Europe, Oxford, 1997, page 17 2 BIDELEUX, Robert; Ian JEFFRIES, A History of Eastern Europe – Crisis and Change, Routledge, 1998, page 100 3 Ibid 4 THORNTON, Thomas, The Present State of Turkey 5 CUNNINGHAM, Allan, Collected Essays, Vol 2: Eastern Questions in the Nineteenth Century, Frank Cass, 1993, Chapter III: ‘The Sick Man and the British Physician’, page 76 6 Ibid, page 78 7 CUNNINGHAM, Allan, Collected Essays, Vol 2: Eastern Questions in the Nineteenth Century, Frank Cass, 1993, Chapter III: ‘The Sick Man and the British Physician’, page 92.

8 FLORESCU, R. R, The Struggle Against Russian in The Romanian Principalities 1821 – 1854, Iasi, 1997, page 90. 9 Ibid, page 90/91 10 STRANGFORD – Letter to Stratford Canning, quoted in FLORESCU, R. R, The Struggle Against Russian in The Romanian Principalities 1821 – 1854, Iasi, 1997, page 93 11 MAZOWER, Mark, The Balkans, Phoenix Press, London, 2000, page 89 12 Ibid, page 90 13 Named San Stefano after the treaty that created it. 14 MAZOWER, Mark, The Balkans, Phoenix Press, London, 2000, page 90 15 MAZOWER, Mark, The Balkans, Phoenix Press, London, 2000, page 84.

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