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July 28, 2006

1866 and all that

35 years have passed and during this period the lives of our fathers as well as our own has been just a series of oppressive measures, injustices and misfortunes...we have to pay the most burdensome taxation that gets worse and worse each year...and justice is something quite unheard of for us...we are but slaves of another people.

No, not a rallying cry from modern day eurosceptics in Britain about the tyranny of the EU, but a communiqué sent from Crete to the Great Powers of Europe in May 1866, as a pre-cursor to the uprising of that year.

1866 We often mention Plateia 1866 as the main square in town and the place where our bus drops us off each morning - but what actually happened in 1866?

Crete was in rebellion against Ottoman Turkish rule for two years starting in 1866. The previous major rebellion in the 1820s had failed to see Crete united with the fledgling Greek national state, but had allowed it to win some concessions from the island's Ottoman rulers. Over the years these concessions were diminished, and in the end, as is often the case with revolutions, eventually the ruling power went a step too far for the people, even though now it looks like a relatively trivial local issue. In 1866 it was the Islamic Pasha interfering in a dispute about how the Christian monastic lands on the island should be organised.

Plateia1866b By August of 1866 a revolutionary council of Crete was urging the people to rise up against their masters, despite the opposition of the mainland Greek government, who were nervous that it would spark off a wider conflict with Turkey.

The rebellion was not without difficulties. Turkish troops outnumbered the Cretans by more than 2:1, and with the Turks enforcing a naval exclusion zone it was difficult to deliver the humanitarian and military supplies being volunteered by groups of supporters overseas. Whilst the Cretan troops were able to move through the island hiding in the forests and mountains, it was the civilian population that bore the brunt of the Turkish counter-revolutionary military action, with whole villages burnt out and destroyed.

The key event in 1866 was on the 9 November at the monastery of Arkadi. 300 Cretan rebels and around 600 women and children were taking refuge in the monastery when it was surrounded by Turkish forces. As the Turks broke through the walls following heavy bombardment of the monastery, the rebels deliberately blew up their own powder magazine, and utterly destroyed the monastery rather than have it and them fall into enemy hands. The majority of both Greeks and Turks were killed, in an example of a military Christian suicide martyrdom.

Plateia1866a The incident stirred up international diplomatic unrest about the way Turkish forces were behaving on the island, and began to swing things in the favour of Crete. The uprising went on for a further two years, eventually dragging into a stalemate, where the Turks could never fully flush out the rebels and suppress the uprising, but the Cretans were not strong enough to win any significant military victories. In the end the Ottomans issued a compromise Imperial decree, known as the Organic Act, which for the first time put Christians and Muslims on an almost equal footing within the administration of the island, but which was destined to last for only a few years.

Plateia 1866 gets its name from that struggle, and the square features stautes of several Cretan heroes from the struggle for union with Greece.

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