British Annexation

Cyprus Table of Contents

Britain annulled the Cyprus Convention and annexed the island when Turkey joined forces with Germany and its allies in 1914. In 1915 Britain offered the island to Greece as an inducement to enter the war on its side, but King Constantine preferred a policy of benign neutrality and declined the offer. Turkey recognized the British annexation through the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The treaty brought advantages to the new Turkish state that compensated it for its loss of the island. In 1925 Cyprus became a crown colony, and the top British administrator, the high commissioner, became governor. This change in status meant little to Greek Cypriots, and some of them continued to agitate for enosis.

The constitution of 1882, which was unchanged by the annexation of 1914, provided for a Legislative Council of twelve elected members and six appointees of the high commissioner. Three of the elected members were to be Muslims (Turkish Cypriots), and the remaining nine non-Muslims. This distribution was devised on the basis of a British interpretation of the census taken in 1881. These arrangements favored the Muslims. In practice, the three Muslim members usually voted with the six appointees, bringing about a nine to nine stalemate that could be broken by the vote of the high commissioner. Because Turkish Cypriots were generally supported by the high commissioners, the desires of the Greek Cypriot majority were thwarted. When Cyprus became a crown colony after 1925, constitutional modifications enlarged the Legislative Council to twenty-four, but the same balance and resulting stalemate prevailed.

There also remained much discontent with the Cyprus Tribute. In 1927 Britain raised the annual grant-in-aid to cover the entire amount, but on the condition that Cyprus pay the crown an annual sum of 10,000 pounds sterling toward "imperial defense." Cypriots, however, were not placated. They pressed two further claims for sums they considered were owed to them: the unexpended surplus of the debt charge that had been held back and invested in government securities since 1878 and all of the debt charge payments since 1914, which, after annexation, the Cypriots considered illegal.

The British government rejected those pleas and made a proposal to raise Cypriot taxes to meet deficits brought on by economic conditions on the island and throughout the world at the beginning of the 1930s. These proposals aroused dismay and discontent on Cyprus and resulted in mass protests and mob violence in October 1931. A riot resulted in the death of six civilians, injuries and wounds to scores of others, and the burning of the British Government House in Nicosia. Before it was quelled, incidents had occurred in a third of the island's 598 villages. In ensuing court cases, some 2,000 persons were convicted of crimes in connection with the violence.

Britain reacted by imposing harsh restrictions. Military reinforcements were dispatched to the island, the constitution suspended, press censorship instituted, and political parties proscribed. Two bishops and eight other prominent citizens directly implicated in the riot were exiled. In effect, the governor became a dictator, empowered to rule by decree. Municipal elections were suspended, and until 1943 all municipal officials were appointed by the government. The governor was to be assisted by an Executive Council, and two years later an Advisory Council was established; both councils consisted only of appointees and were restricted to advising on domestic matters only.

The harsh measures adopted by the British on Cyprus seemed particularly incongruous in view of the relaxation of strictures in Egypt and India at the same time. But the harsh measures continued; the teaching of Greek and Turkish history was curtailed, and the flying of Greek or Turkish flags or the public display of portraits of Greek or Turkish heroes was forbidden. The rules applied to both ethnic groups, although Turkish Cypriots had not contributed to the disorders of 1931.

Perhaps most objectionable to the Greek Cypriots were British actions that Cypriots perceived as being against the church. After the bishops of Kition and Kyrenia had been exiled, only two of the church's four major offices were occupied, i.e., the archbishopric in Nicosia and the bishopric of Paphos. When Archbishop Cyril III died in 1933 leaving Bishop Leontios of Paphos as locum tenens, church officials wanted the exiled bishops returned for the election of a new archbishop. The colonial administration refused, stating that the votes could be sent from abroad; the church authorities objected, and the resulting stalemate kept the office vacant from 1933 until 1947. Meanwhile, in 1937, in an effort to counteract the leading role played by the clergy in the nationalist movement, the British enacted laws governing the internal affairs of the church. Probably most onerous was the provision subjecting the election of an archbishop to the governor's approval. The laws were repealed in 1946. In June 1947, Leontios was elected archbishop, ending the fourteen-year British embarrassment at being blamed for the vacant archbishopric.

Under the strict rules enforced on the island, Cypriots were not allowed to form nationalist groups; therefore, during the late 1930s, the center of enosis activism shifted to London. In 1937 the Committee for Cyprus Autonomy was formed with the avowed purpose of lobbying Parliament for some degree of home rule. But most members of Parliament and of the Colonial Office, as well as many colonial officials on the island, misread the situation just as they had sixty years earlier, when they assumed administration from the Ottoman Turks and were greeted with expressions of the Greek Cypriot desire for enosis. The British were still not able to understand the importance of that desire to the majority community.

Although there was growing opposition to British rule, colonial administration had brought some benefits to the island. Money had gone into modernization projects. The economy, stagnant under the Ottomans, had improved, and trade increased. Financial reforms eventually broke the hold money lenders had over many small farmers. An honest and efficient civil service was put in place. New schools were built for the education of Cypriot children. Where only one hospital had existed during the Ottoman era, several were built by the British. Locusts were eradicated, and after World War II malaria was eliminated. A new system of roads brought formerly isolated villages into easy reach of the island's main cities and towns. A reforestation program to cover the colony's denuded hills and mountains was begun. Still, there was much poverty, industry was almost nonexistent, most manufactures were imported from Britain, and Cypriots did not govern themselves.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress