The Cretan Rebellion of 1897 and the Emigration of the Cretan Muslims

The Cretan Rebellion of 1897 and the Emigration of the Cretan Muslims

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the Cretan rebellion of 1897, which propelled Ottoman Crete to become an autonomous state and, eventually, caused it to be annexed by Greece in 1913. The rebellion prompted a mass emigration of the Cretan Muslim community to other parts of the Ottoman Empire. The vast majority of Cretan Muslims were indigenous Cretans whose families had converted from Christianity to Islam in the mid-seventeenth century after the Ottoman conquest of the island. The Cretan Muslims for the most part spoke only Greek and had never been to other parts of the Ottoman Empire. The decision to leave the island was an overwhelming loss of homeland, and distinctive cultural heritage. As Davide Rodogno claims, the Cretan emigration foreshadowed the Greek-Turkish population exchange during the 1920s.

Cretan affairs were indicative of the larger ‘Eastern Question,’ left by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the competition between the European Powers and nationalistic groups within the Balkans to acquire Ottoman territories for political gains. To many, the ‘Eastern Question’ was also code for the Ottoman Empire’s governance over its Christian citizens. The European public saw the events in Crete as a reminder of the Great Powers’ humanitarian failures in Armenian regions of Anatolia in 1894-96. In popular imagination, Crete also became a crusade-like struggle between the ‘oppressed’ Christian Cretans and the ‘oppressive’ Muslim Ottoman Government, which included the Muslim Cretans – thus, setting the political stage for a Muslim exodus.

In January of 1897, uprisings spread across Crete as Cretan Christian insurgents revolted against Turkish rule in the hope of promoting their goal of unifying with Greece. European warships and troops were sent by their governments to Crete to restore order. The political aspirations of the Christian insurgents led to brutal fighting with their Muslim counterparts. Both groups committed violent acts against each other. Due to sectarian fighting, many Muslims fled to the safety of the coastal towns of Canea, Rethymno and Candia to be protected by the European forces. The greatest migration within the coastal towns was in Candia under the control of the British forces, as the Muslim refugees fled their homes in the interior provinces. In a diplomatic correspondence dated 17 April, 1897 with Lord Sailsbury, Colonel Chermside illustrated the gravity of the situation stating that in a town of 54,755 inhabitants, there were 39,900 Muslim refugees that were in need of Ottoman relief. Unable to return to their homes, many of the Muslim refugees were left impoverished as their properties were either destroyed or appropriated by their Christian neighbours. Chermside concluded that the only solution to the problem would be a large Cretan Muslim emigration to other places in the Ottoman Empire once Christian Cretan political hegemony was established. Chermside believed that that movement of the Muslims from Crete should be similar to the migration of other Muslim peoples from Bulgaria, Serbia, the Caucasus and Bosnia. The emigration of Muslim communities from the Balkans and the Caucasus during the late 19th century was considered a humanitarian effort especially to protect the Christian groups on the edge of Europe; legitimizing the Great Powers’ as ethical and moral authorities.

Due to aggravated tensions related to the 1897 uprising, new hostilities broke out in Candia in September, 1898. Subsequently, the European Powers forced the Ottoman troops out of Crete and the Powers proclaimed the island an autonomous state under the protection of an international commissioner. European governments selected Prince George of Greece for the position, over the objections of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Once Prince George assumed the position of commissioner, he lifted the legal restrictions to allow the Cretan Muslims to emigrate from the island as an incentive for them to move. It was also hoped that by allowing the Muslims to leave the island, Christian refugees who had fled to Greece would be enticed to move back to Crete, thus relieving Greece of its humanitarian obligations.

For the Muslim community, the commissionership of Prince George was a clear sign of a union between Crete and Greece. With no sustainable future on the island, the Muslim population left in great numbers by the end of 1898 through 1899 - primarily to the port of Izmir. In November 1898, the number of Cretan Muslims arriving in Izmir was 3,000; by May of 1899, the number rose to 20,000. The flood of refugees slowed in the latter part of 1899, due to Ottoman restrictions, but Cretan Muslim families continued to arrive to Izmir as the island prepared for union with Greece and the population exchange of 1923. The Ottoman government, worried that the overcrowding of Cretan Muslims would cause religious tensions within Izmir, and relocated the Cretan Muslim families again. From Izmir, families were resettled in parts of Anatolia and other places within the Empire including Aleppo, Tripoli, Benghazi and Beirut.

Regrettably, the dislocation of the Cretan Muslims is just one example out of many communities that were caught up in the European Powers’ problematic notions of geopolitics, religion and humanitarianism under the banner of the Eastern Question. Unfortunately, the Eastern Question had a long lasting impact on the modern Middle East. Today, in 2017, the legacy of the Eastern Question still haunts the Middle East with the multitude of competing political agendas within the region and the European communities’ role in how to accommodate the displaced peoples affected by its intrigues.


Title Image: Greco-Turkish War 1897 Stereoview Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LOT11678.

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