Cyprus and Empire – how the British shaped modern Cyprus

Cyprus and Empire – how the British shaped modern Cyprus

ASIDE FROM briefly falling into the hands of the infamous medieval English king, Richard the Lionheart. Britain had no notable involvement with Cyprus until the late 19th century. The Cyprus Convention of 1878 marked a new era of British occupation after more than three centuries of Ottoman rule. And whilst the transition was both sudden and surprisingly peaceful, it was a period in Cypriot history that would play out over more than 80 years and regrettably result in many conflicts.

The history books open on the 4th June 1878 in a rather unusual context. The Cyprus Convention was a secret agreement between the British and the struggling Ottoman Empire in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war. Under this agreement, and in exchange for political and military support, the British were granted administrative control of the island.

The keystone of British imperial policy in the 19th century was to support the disintegrating Ottoman Empire against the ambitions of an ever-expanding Russia. That said, the occupation of Cyprus was highly favorable to the British.

Just a decade earlier, construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt had been completed, providing a vital sea-route between Europe and Eastern Asia. Needless to say, the might of the British Empire was keen to protect its interests, in particular, British trade ships en route to or from India. The British saw Cyprus as a stepping-stone to gaining control of Egypt, and the island was quickly utilised as a major base of operations for the planned invasion. In 1882 the British achieved their ultimate goal and defeated the Egyptian army.

For the island of Cyprus, despite remaining under the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, it remained the protectorate of the British Empire for over three decades. Although Cyprus had become something of a colonial backwater, when the British and the Turks found themselves on opposing sides with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the British unilaterally annexed the island.

By 1923, following the Peace Treaty of Lausanne, the new Republic of Turkey formally recognised Britain’s sovereignty over Cyprus, and in 1925 it was proclaimed a Crown colony. However, this was a decision that would not only mark the beginning of the end for British rule in Cyprus but the start of the significant political conflict in Cyprus that still echoes today.

Whilst the transition to British rule 50 years earlier had not been met with resistance by the Cypriot people, this was only because it had been widely believed that the British would bring prosperity, democracy and national liberation to the island. Britain’s decision to colonialise Cyprus served to quash any hopes of independence. Further, whilst Greeks and Turks had peacefully co-existed under the Ottoman Turkish administration, by the 1930s their relationship had started to deteriorate. The ethnic division was commonplace, not least because the Greek-Orthodox Church and predominant Greek Cypriot population were now pushing to unite Cyprus with Greece (enosis). It was a struggle that led to violent riots, culminating in 1931 with the destruction of Government House located in the island’s capital.

By the end of the Second World War, rising Greek nationalism saw political tensions increase further. Whilst the Greek Cypriots continued to campaign for enosis, the Turkish community responded with calls for a partition (taksim) as a defense against being Hellenised. Both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots strongly opposed the fight to unite Cyprus with Greece. Geopolitically, Cyprus was of great importance for the national security of Turkey, and the Turkish Cypriots regarded enosis as neo-colonialism.

Britain also resisted the Greek Cypriot claims. Cyprus had proved its strategic worth during both World Wars and the British were keen to retain the island as a military base. They also formed the view that the Turkish and Greek Cypriots were equally entitled to freely determine their own future. However, given the conflicting agendas and the significant level of discord, a solution would not be reached for a further 15 years.

Riots became commonplace and by 1955 the Greek Cypriot nationalist paramilitary organisation, the EOKA, launched a prolonged campaign of violence against the British. Coincidentally, by 1956 much of the strategic rationale for Britain maintaining Cyprus disappeared following the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. This effectively saw an end to the British occupation of Egypt. In turn, the British agenda toward Cyprus relaxed, now content to see “bases in Cyprus’ as an acceptable alternative to “Cyprus as a base”. Whilst there was still much discord between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the British started looking toward a suitable formula for independence.

By 1959, under the Treaty of Zurich, a Cypriot constitution was defined and endorsed by all involved. It was agreed that Cyprus would be declared an independent state, run by both Turkish and Greek Cypriot cabinet ministers and that enosis and Taksim would be prohibited. The treaty also provided guarantor powers of intervention to Britain, Greece and Turkey, and British sovereignty over two military bases.

On the 16th August 1960, after almost a century of colonial rule and centuries of rule by countless others, Cyprus was finally granted its independence.

Today, a lingering Britishness survives – cars drive on the left as in Britain, not the left as in Greece and Turkey (see and the familiar three pin plug means your appliances from Britain work well in Cyprus.

Also, you can still find a familiar British Post boxes in Cyprus, though these have all been repainted yellow (see:

If you know of more examples of the remnants of British colonialism, please let us know and we’ll add your findings to this page!