The British Empire Library

Sweet and Bitter Island: A History of the British in Cyprus

by Tabitha Morgan

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Diana Weston Markides (Former Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, UCL)
Tabitha Morgan's book, Sweet and Bitter Island: A History of the British in Cyprus, is a refreshing addition to the island's historiography. The author states clearly at the outset that her target is 'to provide a flavour of the colony as seen through British eyes'. Indeed, she does just that, exposing us, with a good dollop of humour, to the whimsical idiosyncrasies, frustrations and challenges of penny-pinched administrators struggling to cope with a dependency that never quite fitted colonial norms. Their sense of relief at being able to escape from uncomfortable realities and the educated urban Cypriots who exposed them is best reflected in the graphic depiction of the annual migration to the Troodos hill station. In that cool pine-clad exclusivity, we have 'His Excellency's wife' finally being 'left in peace to milk her pet cow', while government business could be carried on in tennis clothes - 'almost as an abstract exercise'.

If such depictions are verging on caricature, the extraordinarily wide spectrum of the experience of individuals in Cyprus, from the initial occupation in 1878 right up until Independence in 1960, offers us new penetrating perspectives. A medley of personal accounts, memoirs published and unpublished, and a series of revealing interviews are woven into an account of British rule drawn largely from the work of established historians.

I found the author's account of the island during the two world wars particularly interesting. A dearth of published material clearly provoked her into some extensive research in state archives and private papers. These provide fascinating new information regarding the sometimes farcical intelligence operations in both wars and the far from farcical secret plans of the administration to go underground in the Troodos mountains and resist a Nazi invasion. The activities required to establish a network of hideouts there took place under cover of the newly formed 'Cyprus Speleological Society'.

Ronald Waterer and Geoff Chapman of the Forestry Department feature largely in these special operations and Forestry officials generally are singled out as a more or less unique 'exception' in their willingness to co-operate with Cypriots and seek their opinion. Perhaps as a result of the space given to the war years, the author does less than justice to life in the outlying districts where a small sprinkling of officials inevitably had more social contact with the local population. Thus while rightly stressing that Cypriots were not, until 'the early 1950s', allowed to cross the threshold of the (truly) class-ridden Nicosia Club, there is little information about trends in say Famagusta or Limassol, in whose English Club during the war years, there was, according to Percy Arnold, 'a marked air of friendliness and harmony between British and Cypriots'. By the same token the apparently fleeting 'ritual' of a village inspection, described on page 31, does not reflect the reality of the hours in the saddle spent by generations of District Commissioners. Their efforts to keep tabs on local problems were, on the whole, genuine and thorough, and they often spent the night in the village police station, in one instance at least, in the local prison cell, the better to do so.

The closing chapters cover the Cyprus Emergency (1955-1959). Here the intensity of the drama unfolding allows less time for individual experiences. The English School, which has a special position in the book, as it had in colonial Cyprus, by the late 1950s provides a focal point for the dilemmas created by the encroaching barriers of barbed wire, hatred and mistrust that now gripped the island. At an administrative level we are led to understand that, regardless of the contrasting approaches of the governors. Sir John Harding and Sir Hugh Foot, they both ended up leading a dog's life.

Talking of dogs, an endearing feature of this book is the way pet dogs keep creeping into the story; from Canon Newham's Skiboo, featured twice in photographs, to the King of Greece's dachshund, Otto, following his master faithfully into exile, to the six miniature dachshunds and a large bloodhound squeezed into a Morris Traveller each morning with the headmistress of Sessions School and her large bodyguard during the Emergency.

Although this book does not perhaps add to our knowledge of the political dynamics of the Cyprus story, it is original and helpful in providing a graphic human account of the British presence of the island.

British Empire Book
Tabitha Morgan
I.B. Tauris


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