The British Empire Library

Blue-Water Empire: The British In The Mediterranean Since 1800

by Robert Holland

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor Henry Frendo (Universities of Oxford, Cambridge & Malta)
As Britain was a naval power that acquired an empire, a number of historians have focused on her role with special reference to military, naval and strategic interests. Given her early involvement in Tangiers, Minorca and especially Gibraltar since 1704, the Mediterranean came to figure fairly prominently in many books published in the 19th century, from J.S. Corbett's England in the Mediterranean (1904), to the broader-based anthology edited by J.B. Hattendorf, Naval Strategy and Policy in the Mediterranean (2000). Most works have concentrated less holistically on the parts rather than the whole, or on aspects of Anglo-French or Anglo-Italian relations. As a consequence of its geo-strategic fate in the central Mediterranean, scholars at the University of Malta, where the Journal of Mediterranean Studies was founded in 1978, have produced many a book dealing with the island during colonial and post-colonial times including A. Bin (Ed), Cooperation and Security in the Mediterranean (1996), S.C.Calleya (Ed), Mediterranean Perspectives on International Relations (2009), and my own Europe and Empire (2012).

What is particularly valuable in Robert Holland's Blue-Water Empire is not its summery, touristic title but the empirical, insightful overview of the whole region, essentially from a British-Imperial viewpoint, and mainly in so far as Britain and her empire were concerned. It is also a post-colonial account which, while not unduly critical, is not obsequious either. It invariably attempts to slot situations and circumstances into context from an instructed, contemporary perspective. Holland is well suited for this. Not only has he written about British politicians and Britain's role in the world, he has also delved deep into at least one sub-regional area, Cyprus and the Hellenes, for many years now. This mix of the general with the particular is evident in his writing, which is lucid and runs on in style and short on rhetoric.

He understands what our supervisor at Oxford, the late Freddie Madden, used to call 'negative value', a concern which Robinson and Gallagher also bring out in Africa and the Victorians; he also recognizes the implications of Robinson's theory of collaboration. Negative value meant taking Gibraltar rather than let Spain keep it; holding on to Malta for fear that the French or the Italians would occupy it; varying and volatile carrot-and-stick approaches - sometimes more stick than carrot - in Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine. There are inter-linking moods and movements across the region or parts of it in the Napoleonic era; imperialism, free trade and the Pax Britannica; ententes and detentes; powersharing and conflicts of interest, cultural conflicts as well. There are two 20th century world wars wherein Britain and France fight on the same side against the Kaiser and Hitler and their allies to the east. Other overlapping or conflicting interests and attitudes occur in Graeco-Turkish or Arab-Jewish relations especially after the first world war. In both of these inflamed situations, Holland shows, Britain had a hand. In the former, by seeming to encourage the Greeks to invade Anatolia causing Ataturk's sweep to Smyrna and the so-called 'Great Fire' massacres. In the latter, by arbitrarily promising, in wartime, a Jewish home at Palestinian expense; so that, in the end, there was nobody to transfer power to when the British gave up and left after the second world war. When journalists asked the Chief Secretary what would happen to the government and its offices when the British left Jerusalem (says David Fieldhouse in Western Imperialism in the Middle East 1914-1958, 2006), he replied by saying that he would put the keys of his office "under the mat".

We then had a military coup in Egypt followed by the Suez debacle, in which Anthony Eden was once again a protagonist; and decolonization, leading to the independence of almost all of these British possessions in the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, still an Anglo-Spanish bone of contention, was excepted; while in Cyprus (next door to Syria) two sovereign military bases, nearly the size of Malta, were retained; and in Arab eyes Israel continues to stick out like a sore thumb.

As to how far one may highlight 'the British Mediterranean', without using inverted commas for 'British', that is very much a moot point, given the ethnic-cultural tensions between Catholic Latin, Muslim Arab, Orthodox Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon, not to mention military, naval-commercial, political and ideological clashes. In an age of nationalism and supposed popular sovereignty, control and progress clearly were not simply about military prowess and technological superiority or a civilizing mission in the historic Mediterranean - that in spite of generally well-meant efforts in the direction of parliamentary democracy on the Westminster model.

British Empire Book
Robert Holland
Allen Lane
978 1 78076 228 9


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