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The United States of the Ionian Islands: The Forgotten History of British Rule in Greece

The flag of the United States of the Ionian Islands, used from 1815 to 1864

What is widely known about the history of Greece’s splendid Ionian islands is that they never had to endure direct Ottoman rule during the dark years between the 15th and the 19th centuries, when the rest of Greece was under the often brutal Turkish occupation.

However, what is lesser known is the fact that these islands have a rich and turbulent history, due to the fact that Europe’s most powerful nations were constantly struggling to gain control of them. This was mainly because of their geographical position right at the edge of the once-powerful Ottoman Empire.

Among the powers who fought to gain control of these territories were — of course — the British.

At a time when the British Empire literally ruled almost the entire world, it was normal for them to eye the beautiful islands of the Ionian Sea, which were so very strategically placed in the Mediterranean. However, others were also eyeing the exact same lands and making it difficult for the British to occupy them.

The Short-Lived Septinsular Republic

The flag of the short-lived Septinsular Republic

The islands of Corfu, Paxoi, Lefkada, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Zante, and Kythira, along with smaller islets which surrounded them, were for many decades part of the powerful Republic of Venice, which never allowed the Turks to set foot on these lands.

However, following the dissolution of the Republic of Venice in 1798, the French became the rulers of these idyllic islands.

Unfortunately, the Ionian Sea was now entering a long period of turbulence and dramatic political change.

A united force of Russians and Ottomans was soon formed in order to oust the French and make the Ionian islands part of the broader Russian and Ottoman spheres of influence.

The joint Russo-Turkish alliance succeeded and the French were forced to leave the beautiful islands in less than two years.

In 1800, the Septinsular Republic was born.

Literally meaning the “Republic of the Seven Islands,” this oligarchic republic was fully functional until 1807 and managed to survive on some of the islands up until 1815, when the British finally gained total control of the islands.

The Septinsular Republic put the islands under nominal Russian and Ottoman sovereignty. The islanders hoped that they would gain complete independence; however, the Republic remained autonomous throughout its existence.

After 1807 the French tried again to gain control, and they actually succeeded; however, they respected the institutions of the Republic and did not annex the islands to France.

It was the British who intervened after 1807, and gradually began establishing rule on one island after the other.

The birth of the United States of the Ionian Islands 

The official Coat of Arms of the United States of the Ionian Islands.

In 1809, the United Kingdom defeated the French fleet off the island of Zakynthos (Zante) and captured Cephalonia and Kythira as well.

The powerful British Royal Navy took Lefkada in 1810 and only the island of Corfu, or Kerkyra, remained occupied by the French until 1814.

It was the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 which finally granted the United Kingdom full sovereignty over all of the Ionian islands.

The exact legal term used at that time was ”exclusive amical protection,” but this was just a fancy legal term to describe complete British rule over these lands.

“The United States of the Ionian Islands” was thus born, and along with allowing British rule, the islands had to grant the Austrian Empire commercial status equal to the UK, allowing Vienna to trade freely in this part of the Mediterranean Sea.

1815 – 1864

The Palace of St. Michael and St. George in Corfu was the residence of the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands.

The Ionian Islands then was given a bicameral legislature, titled the “Parliament of the United States of the Ionian Islands,” and composed of a Legislative Assembly and a Senate, something very similar to what the USA has.

The United States of the Ionian Islands was formed as a federation, with each one of the seven main islands constituting one member-state in the federation.

The British decided to make Greek the official language of the States, something that surprisingly had not been the case in the past.

Coinage from the United States of the Ionian Islands

This was depicted not only in the coat of arms of the island federation, but also on its coinage.

In order to maintain its sovereignty on the islands, the UK appointed a ”Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands,” who was traditionally chosen by the British monarch.

The capital of the United States of the Ionian Islands was Corfu, where the chambers of the Assembly and the Senate were established.

The Union With Greece

As was only natural, the islanders gradually but steadily began to demand a political union with their motherland, the Kingdom of Greece.

Skirmishes took place on most of the islands between the Greeks and the British throughout the decades of British rule, with the British Army often intervening to impose order.

The final years of British rule were actually quite difficult for the islanders.

Historic photo of the Ionian Parliament delegates who voted for union with Greece on October 5, 1863

The party of the Radicals demanded union with Greece, and many of its MPs, including Detoratos Typaldos, Frangiskos Domeneginis and Telemachus Paizis among many others, signed the proposed parliamentary bill which called for the union of the United States of the Ionian Islands with Greece nearly fifteen years before the union actually occurred.

The United Kingdom, as it has done throughout the history of the British Empire, responded with force and violence to the growing movement for independence and union with Greece.

Persecutions, arrests, imprisonments and exile were their common practices to suppress the growing desire of the local people to join with their Greek motherland.

Eventually, on March 29, 1864, after nearly a decade of turbulence, the United Kingdom decided to offer the Ionian Islands as a present to the newly-enthroned King George I of Greece, who was a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile.

Thus, on May 28, 1864, by proclamation of the Lord High Commissioner, the Ionian Islands were officially united with Greece, beginning the new, modern chapter in their long history.

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