Blue-Water Empire: the British in the Mediterranean since 1800

How Britain shaped the modern Mediterranean.

Blue-Water Empire: the British in the Mediterranean since 1800
Robert Holland
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25

Today, when we think of the Mediterranean, it isn't sun-bleached buckets and spades that spring to mind but "Pigs" whose snouts have been too long in the trough: Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. These four debt-ridden coun­tries threaten to descend into unimaginable chaos, dragging the rest of the EU down with them. In Britain, the hope is that financial contagion will halt at the English Channel.

To anyone with a sense of history, it is deeply ironic that the country that has had the greatest influence on Mediterranean affairs for the past two centuries is now seeking immunity from the region. Blue-Water Empire is an important corrective to current historical amnesia. Non-academic readers may find Robert Holland's latest volume heavy going at times but it will remain the definitive account of Anglo-Mediterranean history for years to come.

The history of the Mediterranean is far older, of course, than the British interlude that occupies Holland's book. Its roots go back to the dawn of civilisation. Before ancient Rome, there was ancient Greece. Before ancient Greece, there was ancient Egypt and, before that, the empires of the Sumerians and Akkadians. A measly 200 years compared to 3,500 looks somewhat trifling, especially if one takes in the Arab and Ottoman empires that dominated the Mediterranean for almost a millennium.

On the other hand, as Holland argues, the modern Mediterranean is a fairly recent geo-political construction that needs to be understood on its own terms: "If there has in modern times been a predominant instrument for integrating the Mediterranean as a single theatre, it was the British . . . It was the British presence . . . and the stability it provided, which made the region what an eminent historian in 1904 encapsulated as the 'keyboard of Europe'."

Britain's toehold in the Mediterranean began by chance rather than by design, after Spain ceded the Rock of Gibraltar under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The new possession initially caused little excitement in Britain. Its importance lay more in the fact that the Spanish were keen to get it back, rather than in any trade, mineral or strategic advantage it offered the British.

Yet there was and is something about the Rock - once known as the one of the pillars of Hercules - that has made it one of the most fought-over islands in modern history. Over the past 500 years, the peninsula has been besieged 14 times. The longest and most famous of these is the great siege of Gibraltar (1779-83), which pitted a mere 5,000 British troops against a combined Franco-Spanish force of 40,000 men. Cleverly turning the rocky formations of Gibraltar to his advantage, the governor, General George Augustus Eliott, tunnelled deep into the hills in order to place his artillery out of the enemy's reach. No amount of innovation, however, could prevent the ravages of malnutrition on his men, who endured starvation rations for two years until 31 transport ships broke through the siege on 11 October 1782. The Franco-Spanish fleet hung about for a few months longer, until the end of the American war of independence led to peace negotiations between Britain and its European rivals. Spain agreed to leave Gibraltar in British hands in return for Minorca and a continued presence in the West Indies.

Yet even after this stunning victory, the idea of a British empire in the Mediterranean would have struck most people as improbable, if notimpossible. The Levant Company, whose royal charter covered commerce in the Mediterranean basin, was in steep decline by the 1790s and surviving on state subsidy.

It was the Napoleonic wars that brought home to London the strategic significance of the region. This time, it was Malta, another much disputed rock, that forced the British to reassess their priorities as a trading nation. Napoleon's occupation of Holland, which enabled him to dominate the Scheldt and the Narrow Seas, also threatened Britain's access to the Cape, as well as its route to India. As one speaker in parliament put it: "We are at war for Malta, but not for Malta only, but for Egypt, and not for Egypt only, but for India, but not for India only, for the integrity of the British empire and the cause of justice, good faith and freedom all over the world."

From such lofty sentiments came a not-so-lofty but always strategic enhancement of Britain's presence in the Mediterranean. During the rest of the 19th century, Corfu, the Ionian Islands, Cyprus, Egypt and Palestine fell at various times under British dominion. France also spread its wings, taking Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881. Morocco came under its pur­view in 1912, while Italy grabbed Libya from the Ottoman empire in 1911.

The peoples under British rule were never that grateful for the honour, as William Gladstone complained after his short stint as extraordinary lord high commissioner for the Ionian Islands in 1858-59. His pessimism about the future of modern Greece was shared across the political spectrum. Far from seeing Greece, as Byron had, as the cradle and future of lib­-erty, one senior minister in 1865 predicted that "so rude and primitive a state as Greece" would, in the end, "split up into little communities, each with an interest and policy of their own - Athens and Sparta, minus the slaves
and the literature".

But there was, as Holland notes, "a durable equilibrium" in the Mediterranean throughout most of the 19th century, which was underpinned by expanding British trade with southern Europe and the imperial fortress garrisoned with thousands of soldiers in Gibraltar, Malta and Corfu. Cautiously protected by Britain, Italy gradually became unified without too much bloodshed or upheaval. The Rus­-sians were squeezed back from the eastern approaches to the Mediterranean, and the Habsburgs from the northern.

It was another siege, that of Malta between 1940 and 1942, which marked the end of the Mediterranean as a key strategic region in geopolitics. At that point, Malta - which endured more air raids than any other place in the war - was the last holdout for the Allies attacking Axis supply lines to North Africa. For two years, there was a terrible battle of attrition - a kind of naval Verdun - as the Allies struggled to keep the Nazis from seizing control of Egypt, the Suez Canal and the precious Middle East oilfields. After the war, the entire island was collectively awarded the George Cross for demonstrating such extraordinary endurance under fire.

Yet since 1945, the British imprint on the Mediterranean has faded as swiftly as any beach castle built in the sand. As Holland concedes, "Since the rise of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, for whom the region was purely a supplementary theatre for their own mutual contests, the Mediterranean [has] relapsed into something less than the sum of its parts." Were it not for Blue-Water Empire confronting the reader like the broken statue of Ozymandias, it would be hard to imagine that the "keyboard of Europe" once played old England's tune. As Shelley wrote: "Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Amanda Foreman's latest book is "A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided" (Allen Lane, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?