The revolt in the Ionian Islands in 1848 was a significant episode in the island’s history, closely intertwined with the broader revolutionary movements that swept across Europe during the tumultuous year of 1848, often referred to as the “Springtime of Nations” or the “Year of Revolution.”

While not as well-documented or celebrated as some of the revolutions in mainland Europe, the events in the Ionian Islands nonetheless shed light on the aspirations and struggles of its people for greater political rights and autonomy.

At the time of the revolt, the Islands were under British rule, having been part of the United States of the Ionian Islands, a British protectorate established after the fall of the Venetian Republic. The Treaty of Paris having promised the inhabitants of the Ionian islands a constitution, a “Constitutional Charter” was issued by Britain’s first Commissioner, Sir Thomas Maitland. This provided for an elected assembly and a senate. However, delegates were generally politically reliable grandees ‘suggested’ by the Commissioner himself, who were expected to rubber stamp whatever legislation was put before them by Britain. Further, franchise was based on the amount of property owned effectively restricting those eligible to vote to 1% of the male population. As George Ferguson Bowen, a senior bureaucrat in the British administration in Corfu wrote, “By the constitution of Sir Thomas Maitland, the press was more restricted and parliament was more submissive than in England under the Tudor Princes.”

Consequently, the British administration, despite bringing some economic development to the island, was viewed by many Islanders as oppressive and exploitative. There was a growing sense of discontent among the local population, fuelled by grievances such as heavy taxation, restrictions on trade, as well as the lack of political representation. A particularly perennial grievance was the semi-feudal system of tenant farming where farmers were obliged to pay to the owners of the land they were cultivating, a proportion of their produce by way of rent, coupled with an entrenched culture of predatory lending that led to the practical serfdom of much of the productive population. The transition, encouraged by the British, from a diverse agricultural base to the cultivation of cash crops such as olives on Corfu and currants in Zakynthos also led to impoverishment as farmers became susceptible to extreme price fluctuations with no back up if the crops failed or there was a market oversupply.

The outbreak of revolution in mainland Europe, commencing in neighbouring Greece and later on Italy, served as a catalyst for dissent on the Islands. The liberal and nationalist ideas that permeated these revolutions resonated with many islanders who yearned for freedom and self-determination. The British were extremely wary of the Ionians desire for union with Greece, Commissioner Maitland admitting that the Ionian Islanders: “displayed the strongest sympathy in favour of the insurgents, who were of the same religious persuasion with themselves, with similar habits, language and manners.” Nationalist dissent was however dealt with harshly, where in one instance, martial law was declared and ‘offenders’ were executed, their corpses being displayed in iron cages on hill tops to act as a deterrent to the rest of the population.

However, these measures had the opposite effect, radicalising the populace, which began to organize and mobilize against British rule, forming the Ριζοσπάσται (Radicals) who openly began to question the legitimacy of colonial rule and demanding self-determination.

In 1848, news flowing in from the rest of Europe, as to revolts in Austria, Hungary, Germany, France and Italy, these being democratic and liberal in nature, with the aim of removing the old monarchical structures and creating independent nation-states, as envisioned by romantic nationalism, led to the creation of political clubs and newspapers who directed their ire at Britain, being as George Ferguson Bowen admitted: “full of the most bitter abuse of England… and openly advocating annexation to… Greece.”

The revolt on the islands was characterized by protests, demonstrations, and sporadic acts of violence against British authorities and symbols of colonial power. The insurgents, comprising a mix of peasants, workers, intellectuals, and nationalist activists, demanded political reforms, including the establishment of a representative government, the abolition of oppressive policies, and greater autonomy for the island. Thus in September 1849, as the price of currants fell, a revolt broke out in Cephallonia, with bands of armed peasants turning of their landlords. The newly arrived Commissioner, Sir Henry Ward declared martial law and despatched 500 troops in order to suppress the revolt, which they did swiftly and ruthlessly, given the divisions among the insurgents, lack of coordination, and external pressures that undermined the revolt’s effectiveness, resulting in 44 death sentences, summary executions without trial, and some three hundred pubic floggings for offences of disturbing the peace, obstructing soldiers or refusing to respond to soldier’s questions. The floggings, administered with the infamous cat-o’ nine tails, was considered a cruel and unusual punishment by the islanders who fulminated against such barbarities which they associated with Ottoman practice and many of those flogged eventually died from infections arising from their punishment.

The British soldiers then engaged in deliberate acts of terror in order to cow the local population into submission. Houses of dissidents were burned down, crops and plants were destroyed and mock executions performed with little discrimination being shown between those actively involved in the revolt and ordinary inhabitants. Further, in 1851, prominent Ionian personalities with a leadership role in society were exiled to Kythera, an island at the time that was practically deserted, with no infrastructure.

While Sir Henry Ward justified his repression in a speech to the Ionian Assembly by stating: “I had to deal not with an ordinary insurrection…. but with the congregated ruffianism of the community.” Elsewhere he stated that he “had seen… many of the same breed in Spain and Mexico and felt satisfied that nothing but the most rigorous measures would do.” The contemporary press was sceptical however, with the Daily News commenting that the amount of death sentences meted out: “certainly does not look like an error in the side of leniency,” stating further that Sir Henry Ward had “aped the cruelties and rigour of Austrian and Russian commanders,” while the Morning Chronicle also commented on the extreme nature of the punishments given to the locals. Nonetheless, Sir Henry Ward was never censured by his superiors and a few years later was promoted to governor of Ceylon.

In his magisterial work: “Revolutionary Spring, Fighting for a New World 1848-1849, historian Christopher Clark highlights how in the case of the Ionian Revolt, colonialist attitudes were prevalent among the British even though the Ionian Islands were not a colony but a protectorate. He provides ample evidence to suggest that the British saw the local inhabitants as lazy, idiots, thick, savages, orientals, ruffians, removed but one degree from donkeys, pointing out that this is the vocabulary colonial powers drew from when seeking to turn others into racial others.

Predictably, the harshness of the British suppression of the Ionian Revolt was cited by other repressive European Powers, when called upon to temper their own conduct. In 1851, for example, when British Prime Minister William Gladstone sought the intercession of the Austrian Government in order that political prisoners in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies be released, Prince Schwarzenberg wrote back stating that he saw no reason why he should be preached at by Britain on human rights considering the way it had suppressed the Ionian Revolt.

Despite its failure, the revolt in the Ionian Islands left a lasting impact on the island’s political consciousness and historical memory. It served as a poignant reminder of the enduring struggle for freedom and self-government, inspiring future generations in their quest for independence and national identity. Additionally, the events of 1848 contributed to the gradual evolution of political discourse and activism on the Islands, paving the way for later movements advocating for democratic reforms and territorial unification with Greece. As such, while short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, it remains a significant chapter in the island’s history, highlighting the aspirations, challenges, and complexities of the struggle for liberation and self-rule in the context of 19th-century European revolutions.