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The British bridge builder

Sir Walter and Lady Sendall with Phaneromeni staff and girls in 1894

By Angelos Anastasiou

When Cyprus became part of the British Empire in 1878, it didn’t really. The island’s status was somewhat murky, and can be reduced to this: Ottoman ownership, British administration. But in studying the period from 1878, through 1925 when Cyprus officially became a colony of the British, to independence in 1960, this is just one of the peculiarities one will encounter. A lot like the island’s modern history, there is any number of fascinating stories to be found.

Some of these are contained in Diana Markides’ new book, Sendall in Cyprus 1892-1898: A Governor in Bondage which was launched this week. Historian Markides researched and compiled the mesmerising story of Sir Walter Sendall’s stint as High Commissioner of Cyprus at the end of the 19th century.

Sendall was the fourth high commissioner (the title then given to governors) appointed to Cyprus by the British, so the first question the reader is faced with comes before the cover has been flipped: surely the first guy – or the last one, for that matter – would ignite a researcher’s interest more than the seemingly random-ordered fourth guy? What could be so special about Sir Walter? The book provides an abundance of answers with every page turned.

Any half-decent physicist will tell you that time-travel is a merely theoretical concept, but much more than a historical account of Sendall’s time in Cyprus, Markides’ book manages to transport the reader to a time that seems incomprehensible to the average citizen of any modern democracy. At times, it takes suspension of disbelief to realise that the story isn’t a plot conjured up by an overly imaginative fiction writer.

feature angelos - Etching of Sir Walter Sendall

The story begins a few years before Sendall’s arrival to Cyprus, introducing his hapless predecessor, Sir Henry Bulwer – a “gentleman of leisure”, and not much more. After reading some of his deeds, it comes as no surprise that a) he was summarily replaced, and b) on arrival, Sendall found a sorry state of affairs, with an economy in shambles and too few personnel to work with.

The instances he was forced to deal with bordered on the comical: the reader encounters one police commandant Sendall described as a “confirmed invalid”, another who had been unwilling to ride a horse, a third introduced as a “likeable dimwit”, and an alcoholic depressive as director of posts. Shortly after arriving, Sendall made informal inquiries for a transfer – to no avail.

He was thus forced to get on with the getting the job done, and it took him less than a year to clash with the British treasury, which controlled the colony’s purse strings like Cerberus guarded Hades. The so-called “do-nothing policy” was aimed at fleecing the Cypriots for all the taxes they could pay, and then some – the modern-day equivalent of making a quick buck.

The ‘bondage’ alluded to in the book’s title refers to a private letter by Sendall to his close friend Sir Robert Meade in 1895, in which he expressed the wish to cut his Cyprus posting short and be assigned to another jurisdiction, “owing to the bondage under which we live to the Treasury”, which made the position of governor “most disheartening, and, in a sense, humiliating”.

Sendall is described as an exceptionally intelligent man with a keen eye for the long term and a genuine understanding of his role as colonial governor. Not only was he quick to realise the political risks of the “spend-nothing-and-tax-harshly” policy, but he was a cultured person with a particular fondness for languages and classical scholarship.

Of particular significance to Sendall’s legacy was his handling of a devastating flood in Limassol in 1894.

A view of Limassol after the flood in 1895
A view of Limassol after the flood in 1895

So much so that in June 1895, on the occasion of Sendall’s departure to London on home leave, the famous Limassolian and Cypriot ‘national poet’ Vassilis Michaelides wrote a poem in his honour as the high commissioner made his way to the Limassol port. One verse reads “wherever you go, let the way/be strewn with daphne and laurel/and where you tread let there be/roses and lilies.”

In this idiosyncratic patch of the world, parts of this narrative would likely offend members of both the Greek and Turkish elements – which one suspects is proof of its historical worthiness. Like a giant painting entitled ‘Sendall’ but depicting an array of seemingly unrelated instances and anecdotes traversing the full spectrum of life in Cyprus during his time as governor, the book is enriched by several colourful accounts of not just events, but also their prior background and subsequent impact.

The book encompasses the period from a severe economic downturn primarily driven by the 1887 drought, which left farmers without crops and the government without tax revenues, and the bursting of the wine bubble by a protectionist tariff slapped on wine imports by France – a major market for the wine-producing villages of Limassol and Paphos. It was a time of painful but necessary economic correction which saw the birth of Cypriot middle-class politics, a budding movement for Enosis and opposition from the Muslim community, tinged with overtones foreshadowing the level of intercommunal strife that was to erupt more than half a century later.

Labelled a “compulsive bridge-builder” for both his focus on improving (or creating) communications infrastructure – and, indeed, dozens of bridges – during his time as governor, as well as the harmonious and fruitful cooperation he managed to foster between the British government and the Christian and Muslim communities, Sendall left behind a transformed island potentially on the cusp of economic prosperity and cultural pluralism.

Peristerona bridge completed in 1897 copy
Peristerona bridge completed in 1897 copy

Sadly, as close as they seemed at the time, such grand achievements proved beyond reach, foreshadowing yet more of the island’s troubled future. For those who like their books with fulfilling moral lessons, the reason lies in the final pages of the book.

Sendall in Cyprus 1892-1898: A Governor in Bondage, by Diana Markides, published by Moufflon Publications, price 18 euros

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