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How British imperialism split Cyprus

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With Turkey and Greece the closest to conflict than they have been in years Nick Clark explains why Cyprus has  been such a focus for imperialist powers, especially Britain
Issue 2725
British troops in Cyprus from in the 1960s
British troops in Cyprus from in the 1960’s 

For months the states competing over control of the eastern Mediterranean—and the gas fields there—have danced on the edges of war.

Control of the gas is lucrative. But the bigger prize is dominance and influence in a part of the world that’s crucial to what happens in the Middle East.

States and empires—including Britain—have jostled and fought over the eastern Mediterranean for decades. 

Cyprus, right at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has often been at the centre of that. 

Generations of Cypriots—Greek and Turkish—have been treated as pawns in a much bigger political game, buffeted about and divided by ethnicity.

And Britain has a major stake in it.

Cyprus gained independence from the British Empire 60 years ago last week. But even now Britain still owns big chunks of the island.

Cyprus is where British warplanes fly from whenever they’re sent to bomb neighbouring Syria or Iraq.

Without military bases in Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Britain wouldn’t be able to play quite the same role as it does in the US’s wars in the Middle East.

Cruel Britannia—the bloody truth about the British Empire
Cruel Britannia—the bloody truth about the British Empire
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Britain was given Cyprus by the Ottoman Empire in 1878. It’s just one instance in which ordinary Cypriot people were treated as bargaining chips by imperial powers.

Under the deal, Britain would side with the Ottoman Empire against invasions by Russia.

In return, it got an island that helped it control access to Egypt’s Suez Canal—and therefore a trading route to its colony India.

Britain occupied Palestine for the same reason in another major imperial carve up at the end of the First World War. 


Britain ruled Cyprus in a way that kept its two nationalities—Greek and Turkish—politically separate, but both impoverished.

Although Cyprus has never been part of Greece, the majority of its population shared a Greek language, history and culture.

The substantial Turkish minority settled later after the Ottoman Empire conquered Cyprus. After more than 300 years on the island, most saw Cyprus—not Turkey—as their long-established home.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots tended to live in separate villages or neighbourhoods. But most of their history together on the island was peaceful.

British colonial rule and competing imperial interests combined to push them towards war.

A regime of raising taxes that siphoned off money to Britain kept Cypriot workers and peasants in poverty.

Middle class Cypriots—Greek and Turkish—saw that they could be wealthier once they were free of British rule. 

But they were divided by allegiance to the ruling classes of Greece and Turkey, who competed to be the dominant regional power in the eastern Mediterranean.

Middle class Greeks wanted “enosis”—unification with Greece as part of a project to build a larger Greek state. 

Their Turkish opposites wanted to divide Cyprus, with their portion aligned to Turkey.

Britain’s colonial rule cemented this division at the top and drove it down through Cypriot society. A legislative council allowed Cypriots a limited form of government. 

But this was divided on racial lines, with se ats allocated on the basis of ethnicity—the majority to Greeks.

The British rulers also kept parts of the Ottoman Empire’s “ethnarchy” system, which treated religious leaders as political representatives of their communities.

The Communist Party of Cyprus—which was mostly Greek—tried to organise struggles among Greek and Turkish workers. But it also had to deal with a nationalist movement for enosis, organised by Greek Cypriot politicians and religious leaders in resistance to British rule.

Using Cyprus as a bargaining chip once again, Britain offered the island to Greece as a bribe to join the First World War on its side. When the Greek government refused, Britain’s rulers dropped their backing for enosis—and Greek Cypriot politicians felt betrayed.

When Britain raised taxes on Cypriots in 1931, Greek archbishop Nikodemos called for rallies and disobedience against British rule. Thousands of mostly middle class Greeks marched in the capital Nicosia and burned down the main government building.


It took the British army weeks to crush the rioting that followed.

British colonial ruler Richmond Palmer then enforced a repressive new regime. He jailed or fined more than 2,000 Cypriots and banned all political parties.

The Greek nationalists tried again after the Second World War. The British Empire was declining, thanks partly to liberation movements in its colonies across the world, and thanks partly to the rise of the US.

Cypriot Greek nationalists wanted to be part of a Greece that they hoped would be a key partner for the US in the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans against Stalinist Russia.

Britain’s rulers were desperate to hold on to the last bits of their crumbling empire. They also worried that resistance movements would replace colonial rule with governments aligned with Russia.

Yet the Communist Party had merged into a broader party, Akel, and now supported demands for enosis. It even approached the leaders of the right wing Greek nationalist movement for cooperation.

In 1950 the Greek ethnarchy council, led by Archbishop Makarios, organised an unofficial referendum on unity with Greece. It was held only among Greek Cypriots, with voting by signature books placed in Greek Orthodox churches.

A huge majority—95 percent—voted for Enosis, with some coercion by the church. 

It was followed by a demonstration and an insistence that Cyprus was only Greek—an implicit threat to the rights of Turkish Cypriots to live there.


When Britain ignored the referendum, Makarios cooperated with Greek nationalist colonel George Grivas to prepare a campaign of armed struggle. Grivas had led a militia that worked with Britain to crush the Communist resistance in Greece after the Second World War.

His new guerrilla movement in Cyprus, Eoka, began its insurrection with a series of bombings across the island. Its fighters, hidden in the mountains, launched ambush attacks on British soldiers, but also targeted communist and Turkish political groups with violence.

Britain reacted as it did to every threat to its Empire—with extreme brutality. British soldiers terrorised Greek Cypriot villages and neighbourhoods with assaults and beatings.

Britain also encouraged ethnic divisions—it deliberately recruited Turkish Cypriots as police to crush the revolt. With support from Turkey, Turkish Cypriot political leaders set up a rival militia to fight Eoka.

But Eoka held out thanks to its popular support among Greek Cypriots. Whole villages would cooperate to support the campaign.

As the British Empire collapsed, its rulers accepted their new place in the world as second fiddle to the US. They decided to give up Cyprus—as long as they could keep the military bases that helped make them the US’s junior partner.

Instead of unity with Greece, Britain offered Cyprus independence—with a deal that allowed it to keep hold of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.

It also reinforced ethnic divisions on the island.


The new government shared “power” between Greek and Turkish Cypriots with positions allocated on the basis of ethnicity. Greek and Turkish areas would also be governed by separate authorities.

It also gave Britain, Greece and Turkey, the right to keep soldiers on the island and send in their militaries against any threat to the set up.

Britain and the US hoped this would secure control of the Mediterranean by keeping a lid on the competition between Greece and Turkey—both allies of the West.

Instead, whenever that rivalry spilled over, it led to horror and bloodshed among ordinary Cypriots.

Greek nationalist attempts to undermine Turkish Cypriots’ role in the government caused ethnic violence in 1963. 

Many Turkish people fled to the north of the island, the government broke down and the island was effectively split. 

When Grivas attempted a coup in Cyprus in 1974—backed by the military junta in Greece—Turkey invaded to capture the north.

Thousands of Cypriots—Greek and Turkish—were killed in the fighting and some 160,000 people displaced from their homes.

Cyprus is still divided. Ordinary Cypriots on both sides have sometimes shown they want to reunite the island and live together. When the border that divided them was opened in 2003, Cypriots on both sides gathered in numbers to greet each other and celebrate.

But attempts at “unity” deals have always been dictated by competing interests of rival governments, none of which care about ordinary people. 

They’ve all tried to replicate ethnic divisions put in place by the end of British rule, and all have failed.

Now those competing powers threaten war again, with Cyprus once more at the centre. And Britain still has a stake.

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