Crete makes it onto the European agenda and acquires a sort of independence
During the 1880s, under the Pact of Halépa, Crete had Christian governors onto whose Greek names a Turkish title was grafted. The one who was most popular and served the longest term was Yiannis Fotiadis Pasha, a skilled administrator. There was a General Assembly in which the Christians had a 49–31 majority, and a Cretan Gendarmerie recruited from both Christian and Muslim communities. The Christians seem to have been more or less content with this arrangement, but the Muslims, accustomed to seeing themselves as the ruling class, were outraged. Forced to go along with the assembly, they disguised their antagonism to the whole system as factional politics. But the reality was clear enough to provoke another Christian revolt in 1889.
Having encountered many discrepancies in the various narratives of the ensuing events, I’ve chosen to follow Woodhouse’s account, published in Modern Greece: A Short History (London 1986). I’ve added some details that don’t appear to conflict with his version.
Karatheodori tried sincerely to fulfill the sultan’s promise, but after only six or seven months resigned in frustration at his inability to overcome the local Muslims’ intransigence. (Or else he was recalled because he wasn't doing a good job, or because he was doing a good job—accounts vary.) The sultan doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to help; his attitude toward the reforms he had promised might be characterized as passive resistance.) At the beginning of 1897 there was an outbreak of more serious trouble: this time many of Chaniá’s Christians were massacred, and their quarter of the city was burned. The local Greek leaders got out of town and set up camp on Akrotíri, the high peninsula overlooking Chaniá, where they declared the union of Crete with Greece. Eager volunteers from all over the Chaniá district and other parts of the island flocked to join them.
Back in Greece, war fever boiled over.
As a vague though passionate aspiration, the Great Idea had no fixed definition of Greece's territorial aspirations, but this map (based on Greece's claims when the maps were being redrawn in the aftermath of World War I—a time when the Great Idea was still very much alive in the minds of the country's leaders) gives a good idea. Territory that belonged to Greece at the end of the 19th century is colored blue; territory that Greece felt entitled to add to this is colored yellow (sort of). Of course at its absolute greatest extent—before the Arab conquests in 7th century and the Turkish conquests that came later, the Byzantine Empire was much larger than the blue and yellow areas. But the politicians knew that they could only claim territory that still had a significant population of Greeks—and the yellow areas on the map do qualify—though, as you might suspect, the story they tell isn't always the whole story. Differences can exist over what constitutes a significant population, and rival parties have a tendency to make up for the lack of exact figures with patriotically inspired estimates.
If the Great Idea as shown here were to become reality, Turkish Istanbul would once again be Greek Constantinople, and the entire Aegean Sea would be a Greek pond.
Needless to say, the Great Idea could be realized only at the expense—very likely the mortal expense—of the Ottoman empire. It would also require both Serbia and Bulgaria to curtail dreams of restoring their former empires, since the boundaries of the three—which existed at different times—overlap in some places.)
All these young nations, like others at the time, including newly unified Italy, yearned passionately to rescue their ‘unredeemed brethren’—the irrredenti, in the Italian term that came to be used more or less generically—who lived in suffering (at least according to the standard nationalist view) on the wrong side of borders not their own. This vision wasn’t limited to right-wing parties; most citizens tended to share it in one degree or another.
Some of Greece’s irredenti lived in places that it was unlikely any Greek army could ever liberate, but not all of them were so far away. Several parts of what has since then become modern Greece—certainly including Crete and many smaller islands, but also the northern districts of Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace—were still Ottoman territory, substantially populated by Greeks and either bordered by Greece or lying in waters close enough for Greece to claim. Epirus, however, was also home to many Albanians, and Thrace to many Bulgarians, while Macedonia was a thorough mishmash of Albanians, Greeks, and Slavs (whom both Serbia and Bulgaria were ardent to claim as their own). Greece ultimately came into partial possession of these three territories, but had to divide each with one or more of these other nations, in proportions that have never satisfied all parties concerned.
So Greece drew up war plans, rejected furious Ottoman demands to get out of Crete, and even sent 2,600 irregulars across the northern border into Ottoman Macedonia to stir up trouble there. The Turks responded by declaring war, but it wouldn't be quite fair to label them the aggressors.
Let’s go back to what was happening in Crete during that eventful year 1897.
I'm afraid that this print distorts reality in several ways (though I'm sure the artist had staunchly patriotic motives). White boots are traditional male attire in Crete, and so are baggy vrakés ('breeches'), but for every rebel to be wearing a pair as blue as the national flag strains credulity almost as much as the placement of the chapel seen taking artillery fire in the middle distance.
The great powers had at last recognized that they needed to make a serious effort to settle Crete’s political future, rather than simply leave it up to the Ottomans. After the Greco-Turkish war had come to its ignominious (for Greece) conclusion, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians called their ships home, and the rest of the fleet—British, French, Italian, and Russian, each contingent under its own Admiral—took on the duty of imposing civil order and preventing both Greece and the Ottoman empire from sending any more soldiers to Crete. Each of the island’s four districts—Chaniá, Réthymno, Iráklio, and Lasíthi—was placed under the command of one contingent, which stationed troops in the principal city or cities.
The four occupying powers rather forcefully persuaded the sultan to declare Crete an autonomous state, in control of its own affairs even though still technically a part of his empire. (The legal term was “under Turkish suzerainty,” which differs from sovereignty in allowing some amount of self-rule. The concept was similar to that of the Irish Free State, which existed from the time of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1922 until the Irish Republic was proclaimed in 1949.) Turkish troops were to depart, and Crete would have its own flag, coins, and postage stamps. Prince George, the king’s second son, would come from Greece to govern the island under the title of High Commissioner.
The Christians of Crete were moderately pleased with the new political arrangement; it fell short of their ultimate goal of énosis with Greece, but was certainly no more than a step short of that. Muslim Cretans harbored radically different feelings, and were not inclined to express their displeasure tactfully. The occupying powers had too few boots on the ground to prevent all violent confrontations between the two communities.
It took some time to complete all the arrangements involved in setting up an autonomous state. Prince George had not yet arrived when, on September 6,1898, a group of Christian officials, under the authority of an Executive Committee set up to administer Cretan affairs in the interim, were scheduled to take over the tax collection offices in Iráklio, which was in the British district. Up to this time taxes were being collected by the Muslims, as they always had been, but the Cretan State had no other source of revenue. Iráklio was home to a militant Muslim community, currently swollen by refugees who had crowded into the city in flight from insurgent attacks (and in some cases, massacres). Trouble was likely.
Although British diplomats urged caution and further negotiation, the Russian, French, and Italian admirals were adamant that the takeover should go through as planned, and Britain's chief military officers, including Admiral Noel, were on leave. So the acting commander in Iráklio, a Col. Reid, led a detachment of 20 British troops to the tax office and demanded the keys. An angry mob of Muslims attacked, and shooting began. 17 or 18 British soldiers (some of whom had come to reinforce the original 20) were killed. The Muslims went on to murder some 300 to 500 Christians—most of the city's Christian inhabitants—including the British vice-consul, a Greek named Lysímachos Kalokairinós, who perished with his family when the mob set fire to the city's Christian quarter. Turkish troops stationed nearby eventually restored order, but only after the violence had continued for several hours.
The account I’ve given of the events in Iráklio differs from most of the accounts I’ve read, which describe a procession of Christian officials, escorted by soldiers and accompanied by the vice-consul, being set upon by the mob, and either say or imply that the vice-consul was killed on the scene. But the version I followed, by far the most detailed, is from a biography of a British diplomat who was in Crete at the time, and is said to be based on diplomatic papers as well as reports in the Times of London. The author, David Barchard, is a contemporary British journalist whose writings generally project a pro-Turkish view of events, but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt him here. I’ve looked at what Times archives I was able to get to on line, and found that they support the version of events that I found in his account.
The date of the attack is remembered in Crete (and memorialized in the name of the street where it occurred) as August 25 rather than September 6. That's because of the 12-day discrepancy between the western Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar that was then still being used in Crete and the Middle East, as well as Greece, Russia, and other Eastern Orthodox countries. Because of that 12-day difference, August 25 in Crete was the day dated September 6 in Europe.