British Rule in Cyprus (1878-1960)

British flag raised in Nicosia ... and administration of Cyprus passes from Ottomans to the British

British flag raised in Nicosia ... and administration of Cyprus passes from Ottomans to the British

In 1878 the West returned when Britain took over Cyprus with the agreement of the Ottoman government. At first protectorate, the island was annexed by Britain on the outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire in 1914, becoming a Crown Colony in 1925. One of the reasons for occupying Cyprus was to protect the Ottoman Sultan against Russia, but its more obvious, if unmentioned role, was defence of the Suez Canal, in which Britain had acquired an interest. 

Once Britain was established in Egypt, however, Cyprus was destined to continue remain a backwater and at best a reserve place d'armes until acquiring a greater degree of strategic importance in more recent years. At the time of its cession to Britain many doubted its value. This was especially so among those of liberal and philhellenic disposition in Britain, the latter seeing the main value of the acquisition lying in the possibility of handing it over to Greece. Others noted that it did not have harbours suitable for the navy. This doubt about its usefulness discouraged the British from making exceptional efforts to develop the island economically. 

Also Britain in the early years paid an annual surplus of revenue over expenditure to the Sultan, at least in theory. In fact it went to pay off European creditors of the Ottoman debt, a sleight of hand not to the liking of Cypriots. After 1914 matters improved; it has persuasively been argued that the British administrative record was more beneficial than many Cypriots and others assume.

Managing fine balance between two communities
The British faced two major political problems on the island. The first was to contain the desire for union with Greece (enosis), after it became clear to the Greek-Cypriots that it was not going to be granted. The second was the consequential problem of keeping the two communities in harmony once the Turkish-Cypriots began to respond to enosis by calling for partition as a defence against their being Hellenised, as they saw it. The Greek-Cypriots could easily claim that they had a strong case in history (if the distant past is to be arbitrer of the present) and they constituted between three quarters and three fifths of the population. During the First World War Britain actually offered to cede Cyprus to Greece if that country would fulfill treaty obligations to attack Bulgaria, but Greece declined. 

The Turkish-Cypriots were at first more anti-British than anti-Greek. They were deeply offended at a high-handed way the Cyprus government after the First World War abolished, or assumed control over, Turkish Islamic institutions, including the pious foundations (Evkaf), schools and courts. Turkish-Cypriot resentment was also soon to be fired by the new nationalism of Atatürk's Turkey, even though Ataturk did not believe in promoting nationalism outside Turkey's post-war borders. This new Turkish nationalism alarmed the British, who clamped down on Turkish-Cypriot agitation, which occurred especially in the schools. By the 1950s, however, the British had begun to pay some attention to the dissatisfaction of the Turkish-Cypriot community, which by this time had formed the KATAK - Kibris Adasi Türk Azinligi Kurumu (Association of the Turkish Minority of the Island of Cyprus).

The first [nationalist] newspaper had appeared in 1940, but was relaunched as Halkin Sesi (The Voice of the People) by the first prominent Turkish-Cypriot leader Dr. Fazil Küçük. (Still in circulation, the newspaper is a monument to his memory.) He also later formed the Kibris Türk Milli Birlik Partisi (The Cyprus Turkish National Unity Party), later changed, in 1955, as a challenge to enosis, to Kibris Türktür Partisi (`Cyprus is Turkish' Party). In the 1950s the Turkish-Cypriots sought to defend themselves against the Greek-Cypriot terrorist organisation EOKA by forming the Turk Mukavemet Teskilati (Turkish Resistance Organisation, TMT), though they mainly relied on British defence. A Turkish-Cypriot leader emerging to assist, and later to rival, Dr. Küçük was a young London-trained lawyer, Rauf Raif Denktash (b. 1924).

Resistance against the British rule

In the Greek-Cypriot community the demand for enosis developed rapidly from the 1930s, a turning point being the Greek-Cypriot riots of 1931 and the burning down of Government House. 

Endeavours by the British to introduce constitutional government designed to develop some participation without leading to enosis failed, despite determined efforts to achieve some semblance of liberal and democratic government, notably by the post-war Labour Government in Britain. 

On the Greek side the British were helped to a degree in their desire to head off enosis by the international socialism of AKEL (The Reform Party of the Working People) which was influential in the large labour unions. For once communism was defeated in Greece, enosis became unattractive to the extreme left which now favoured Cypriot self-government. However, AKEL's advanced leftism was manna neither for colonial rulers, nor for the United States, whose interest in the region increased markedly after the Second World War. Led by Archbishop Makarios, the Greek-Cypriot demand for enosis emerged with new force in the 1950s, when Greece began to accord it support on the international scene. This attempt to win world support alerted Turkey and alarmed the Turkish-Cypriots. 

When international pressure did not suffice to make Britain respond as required, violence escalated with a terrorist campaign against the colonial power organised by EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston). Its leader, Colonel George Grivas, created and directed an effective campaign. Easily infiltrated by Greek-Cypriot sympathisers working for them in various ancillary tasks, the British security forces had to exert great efforts under Field Marshall Sir John Harding to bring terrorism under control. They were much more successful then is often recognised, though terrorism was not quite vanquished. Makarios was exiled, suspected of involvement in the EOKA campaign, but was released when EOKA, exhausted but still determined to fight, agreed to cease hostilities on the Archbishop's release free to return.

Towards 'independence'
In April 1957, in the new conditions made obvious by the Suez debacle, the British government accepted that `bases in Cyprus' were an acceptable alternative to `Cyprus as a base'. This produced a much more relaxed British attitude to the problem. It was now to be solved in conjunction with Greece and Turkey, the latter thoroughly alerted to the dangers of enosis to the Turkish community. Violence was renewed in Cyprus by EOKA, but it increasingly drew in the Turkish community when the new Governor Sir Hugh Foot's plan (for unitary self-government) incited Turkish-Cypriot riots and produced a hostile response from the Turkish government. Violence between the two communities developed into a new and deadly feature of the situation.

Dighenis Grivas, leader of the terrorist EOKA organisation

Dighenis Grivas, leader of the terrorist EOKA organisation

In the few years that existed before the Zürich and London Agreements (1959 /1960) Greece tried again to win international recognition and support for the cause of enosis at the UN against a background of renewed and continuing EOKA violence directed against the British. It was to no avail. Eventually Greece had to recognise that Turkey was now a vitally interested party in the dispute. 

Grivas and EOKA also had to accept the changed situation. Makarios could see no way of excluding Turkey from participating in any solution. It was widely believed by the Greek-Cypriots that Britain had promoted the Turkish-Cypriot case, thus preventing the achievement of enosis.

     * See John Reddaway, "Burdened with Cyprus". That the British tried 
     to suppress both nationalisms recommended them to neither. * See 
     also Pierre Oberling,"The Road to Bellapais", pp.52ff. for the defence
     of British rule. He points out, however, that 6000 to 8000 Turkish-
     Cypriots emigrated to Turkey between the wars.
  • From: C.H. Dodd,(1993), `Cyprus: A Historical Introduction', in C.H.Dodd (ed.), "The Political, Social, and Economic Development of Northern Cyprus", Eothen Press, Huntingdon, Cambridegeshire, England.

Chronological History