Tales from the Archives. According to a German saying, you always meet twice in life. In early 1886, the people of Greece must have felt the cruel accuracy of this promise when they learned the name of the naval officer who had been charged with commanding the international naval squadron about to assemble outside the Greek ports in the Aegean Sea. It was none other than Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria, who also happened to be a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy. To get an inkling of the Greek’s feelings, one has to know under which circumstances these parties had met before.
As an article in the Athenian weekly Asty recalled on 28 February 1886, Prince Alfred had first become known to the Greeks in the winter of 1862/1863, and his name had then been hailed as a harbinger of hope.
Following the deposition of the former King Otto I, the young English “Sailor Prince” whose visit to the Ionian Islands three years earlier had left an enthusiastic echo, had been elected as a possible successor on the Greek throne. The Hellenes, who had been dissatisfied with Otto’s autocratic leanings and foreign advisors, had regarded Alfred as a “God-sent angel” who would “chase to Hades the spectre of civil war” threatening Greece in the interim period. And they had hoped that, hailing from Europe’s most stable democratic, liberal power, he would bring along “the wedding ring of good government” that Otto’s reign had lacked. They were sure that, with the help of his powerful homeland, he would promote the “material and moral progress of the country” as well as satisfy its dreams of further territorial expansion.
A veritable “Alfred movement” had therefore gripped Greece. Throughout the country, prints of Prince Alfred representing him as a “good-looking young lad, gracefully wearing the uniform of a midshipman in the English Navy” had been “carried about by enthusiastically cheering crowds.”
Due to the stipulation that no major European power should become too dominant in the Balkans, nothing ever came of Alfred’s election. Eventually, another “Sailor Prince” from a minor power, Vilhelm of Denmark, ascended the Hellenic throne. As you may know from the Armchair Sailor’s essay about “Prince Alfred’s Romance”, Alfred himself would have hated to go to Greece and leave the Royal Navy.
Yet, exactly this decision meant that, 23 years later, Alfred’s path and that of the Greeks would meet again. And “alas, under what different circumstances!” For in 1886, so the author of the article from Asty, the Duke of Edinburgh returned as a crusher rather than a harbinger of hopes.
The international naval squadron that he was to command had actually assembled to blockade the Greek ports and thus to prevent Greece from engaging in war with the Ottoman Empire. Ever since the establishment of the independent Hellenic state (1829-1832) – which, by a curious twist of fate, had itself been brought about by the intervention of the great powers in the Sea Battle of Navarino – the Modern Greeks had pursued the so-called “Great Idea” (Megali Idea): They dreamed of incorporating all the Greek-inhabited areas of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans peninsula into their kingdom.
There had been frequent moments when popular nationalism reached such extremes that war seemed imminent. The winter of 1885/1886 was one of them. Following the secession of the province of Eastern Rumelia and its subsequent unification with the young Bulgarian state, the Greeks felt that they should also receive a piece of the Ottoman pie: Northern Epirus. The Greek troops therefore prepared for attack. Eager to keep the balance of powers in the Balkans, though, and intent on securing the continuity of the Ottoman Empire, Britain, Germany, Austria, Russia and Italy set to work to prevent the Greeks from declaring war by paralyzing their fleet.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Station, Prince Alfred was charged with the task of blockading the Greek ports for three months until the Greeks gave up their plans and demobilized. The blockade was perceived as a serious humiliation by the proud Greeks, though, and what was especially painful was that it came at the hands of a man in whom they had once “placed all their hopes“.
As Asty noted, much had changed since 1863. “The young lad” was now “a mature man“; “the simple midshipman” had obtained the rank of an Admiral; and, the most “cruel contrast” of all was that, “by the curious decree of fate, he [had] been charged with the command of the … intimidating European squadrons, come to impose the arbitrary and tyrannical will of Europe upon a small people“.
Amazed at the unusual circumstances of this second encounter, Asty vaguely hoped that, maybe, Prince Alfred would be “moved in his heart” by his recollections. “At the very hour when the horrible ships that he commands run into a Greek port to bring humiliation upon our people … at this very hour a memory may cross his mind recalling the cheers that once welcomed him, the chosen of the people that he is now summoned to suppress, and it may compel him to curse in his soul the cunning, fickle politics of his homeland.”
As far as we know, no such dramatic thought ever crossed Prince Alfred’s mind. On the contrary, he fulfilled his task to the satisfaction of all observers. The Greeks had to swallow their pride and wait for the next occasion, when their Hellenistic enthusiasm erupted with even greater force: during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897.
What we can learn from this episode, though, is that you should be careful about “Sailor Princes”. The first time you meet them, they may be friendly “ambassadors in blue” representing all the youthful dash and dare and all the liberal values that you would gladly like to adopt yourself. The very next moment, though, they might return as “gunboat diplomats”, enforcing their own countries’ great-power interests and caring little about the great dreams of small states – wrong or right as they may be.
For further information
Kiste, John Van der, and Bee Jordaan, Dearest Affie: Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s Second Son, 1844-1900 (1984).
Koliopoulos, John and Thanos Veremis, Modern Greece. A history since 1821 (2009).
Schneider, Miriam Magdalena, “The ‘Sailor Prince’ in the Age of Empire: Creating a monarchical brand in nineteenth-century Europe” (2017), especially Chapter Four.