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Don Pacifico Affair - 1850

Perhaps the best example of low-risk yet effective “gunboat diplomacy” was Britain’s use of its navy to extract reparations from the Greek government after mobs plundered the home of a British citizen, a Gibraltar-born Portuguese trader named David Pacifico. Infuriated by the Greek government’s refusal to punish ringleaders or to pay for damages, the Palmerston government ordered the Royal Navy into the Aegean, authorized it to seize Greek ships and property, and blockaded the port of Piraeus in 1850. Utterly unable to contest Britain’s blockade, the Greek government came to terms after two months.

On the international stage, Britain’s pre-eminent position seemed increasingly vulnerable: while it was one of the few European countries in which revolution had not struck in 1848, the changes in governments elsewhere and the rise of powerful new states on the continent threatened to disrupt the balance of power in Europe and create new imperial rivals.

As everywhere the forces of constitutionalism seemed to be battling those of absolutism – in the Iberian peninsula, in central Europe, in the Ottoman Empire – Britain’s ability to position itself at the forefront of the forces of progress and freedom, upon which so much of its identity and influence rested, seemed increasingly difficult.

Two British subjects, George Finlay and David Pacifico, demanded compensation for losses sustained byin 1836 and 1847 respectively. Pacifico’s claim in particular captured the imagination of the public. Pacifico, a Gibraltar-born Jew serving as Portuguese Consul-General at Athens, had claimed British assistance, as a British citizen, in his hitherto unsuccessful claims for compensation against the Greek government for damage to his property caused during anti-Semitic riots in Athens.

It had been the custom of the Greeks for many years to celebrate the feast of Easter by burning an effigy of Judas Iscariot. It happened that, at Easter 1847, one of the Rothschilds was staying at Athens; and the Greek Government, unwilling to insult the wealthiest capitalist in Europe, forbade the burning of the effigy. This was attributed by the populace, not to the presence of Lord Rothschild, but to the influence of Don Pacifico. Hence the outrages to his person and property.

The Greeks, deprived of the privilege of burning the image of a dead Jew, determined to avenge themselves by an attack on a living one; and, after service on Easter Sunday, broke into Don Pacifico's house, "swearing dreadfully," beat his wife and the Pacifico children, smashed his furniture, tore his papers to pieces, and robbed him of his money and jewels.

It was Pacifico’s case that really ignited the affair, particularly once the British Government took up the cause when it became clear in 1848 that no settlement was forthcoming. The claim of some £26,000 was exaggerated, as everyone knew, but Palmerston’s willingness to back Pacifico was in reality a product of his desire to force a showdown with Greece over a number of issues, such as tensions between the two countries over government of the Ionian islands, and other claims for compensation, such as Finlay’s (who felt he should have received more money from the Greek government when some of his land was taken to form part of the royal palace gardens).

Sir W. Parker, who commanded the British fleet in the Mediterranean, arrived off Salamis on the 11th of January. A so-called pacific blockade of the Greek coast was proclaimed January 24, 1850. The Royal Navy was charged with mounting a blockade of Greek ports in order to force concession to the demands for compensation to Pacifico and Finlay as well as, hopefully, forcing a settlement of outstanding disputes over territorial control in the Ionian islands.

The Royal Navy proceeded to put a little pressure on the Greek Government by seizing a few gunboats. The gunboats, however, were crazy vessels, and the Greeks declined to give way. Parker accordingly proceeded to seize Greek merchant-vessels exclusively engaged in Greek commerce. By the middle of February more than forty merchantmen were in the custody of the British fleet.

These drastic measures created a flutter of excitement in diplomatic circles. As soon as the news reached England, Brunnow, the Russian Ambassador at London, demanded an "explanation of a proceeding the serious importance of which it was impossible" not to recognise.

The refusal of the Greek Government to yield was due, as he thought, to the advice of the representative of France. This advice was consistent with the policy which France had continuously pursued of thwarting him at Athens, and inconsistent with the duties and obligations of a good neighbour. Irritated as he was, he had too much good sense to avoid the chance of extricating himself from an embarrassing situation.

These events created a prodigious sensation in England. It was seen that for a trumpery claim of a few thousand pounds, the justice of which was doubted by many Englishmen, and which was enforced from a weak Power in a manner which many other Englishmen thought brutal, the risk of war, first with Russia and then with France, had been lightly encountered.

Fearing not least that it might damage Britain’s credibility and standing with the European Great Powers, a motion was introduced into the House of Lords by leading Conservatives censuring Palmerston and the Whig government in June 1850. That motion passed with a majority of 37 and threatened to damage not only Palmerston, but also the rest of Lord John Russell’s government along with him. Thus the debate moved to the House of Commons with a great deal at stake.

It was against this backdrop then, that the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, delivered the four and a half hour speech in defense of his foreign policy in the House of Commons in that debate of 25 June 1850. While it was a long speech, it is what he said in the last couple of minutes that has usually been remembered:

"I therefore fearlessly challenge the verdict which this House, as representing a political, a commercial, a constitutional country, is to give on the question now brought before it; whether the principles on which the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government has been conducted, and the sense of duty which has led us to think ourselves bound to afford protection to our fellow subjects abroad, are proper and fitting guides for those who are charged with the Government of England; and whether, as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen]; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong."

This principle was an important part of the way in which Palmerston was infusing his foreign policy with an ideological spirit, backed up with an explicit commitment to action. By the end of the debate Palmerston apparently stood vindicated by a 46-vote majority for the government. Palmerston’s stock had rarely stood higher and outside Parliament the victory was taken as a statement of Palmerston’s (and the country’s) determination to uphold British interests and safeguard its people.

William Gladstone did not hide his objection to Palmerston linking Britain with an enslaving Roman Empire at the end of his speech and Richard Cobden, the noted radical politician (and well-known champion of free trade and pacifism), issued his by now familiar warnings about the financial costs and moral failings of a bellicose foreign policy, but bolstered by his ministerial colleagues’ determination to save the government, Palmerston emerged victorious.

This was a clear example of Palmerstonian gunboat diplomacy in action, and, it seemed, the British people liked it. Palmerston was cheered by crowds as he left Parliament and Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, observed that Palmerston was now ‘the most popular man in the country’.

The Don Pacifico affair, and the ‘civis Romanus sum’ principle, therefore, became clear symbols of a deeper story of British support for liberal constitutional progress and the promotion of self-government by free peoples against perceived absolutist despotism throughout the world, whether that be through backing constitutionalists in the Iberian peninsula in the 1830s and 1840s, Poles in the 1840s, Italians in the late 1850s or Danes in the early 1860s – all were fighting for constitutional rights against autocratic regimes.

As Foreign Secretary in the 1830s, Palmerston had spoken of constitutional states as the ‘natural allies of this country’ and described the forces of conservatism and reaction as ‘the immediate causes of all the revolutions that happen from time to time’. Tying western, liberal powers together would produce ‘many results favourable to the civilization and happiness of mankind ... in due course of time’.

The only remarkable thing about the Don Pacifico affair then was its use of gunboats to promote these values. But it also created an image of Palmerston that appealed to Britons, including many of those who were without the vote but hungry for a sense of political progress and liberty, and perhaps even glory. And it boosted British prestige on the international stage, creating an image of power and determination that would resonate at the Foreign Office long after Palmerston had left the stage.

An assertive, perhaps bombastic, Palmerstonian foreign policy generated a powerful image. Since, as Palmerston said, ‘every state would be disposed to give up three out of every four questions sooner than go to war to maintain them’, such images helped hide which three. But perhaps just as importantly, careful representation of policy served a valuable domestic purpose too, keeping a domestic population on-side with ideas and images that played to their hopes, aspirations and maybe also to their prejudices.

France, deeply interested in the welfare of Greece, offered its good offices, as a result of which an agreement was reached on July 18, 1850, between representatives of the three governments. British claims other than those of Pacifico were declared satisfied,3 and the claim of Pacifico for the loss of his documents establishing his rights against Portugal was submitted to an arbitral commission. The conflict was eventually settled by Greece paying £150 to Don Pacifico.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:22:20 ZULU