The October Riots of 1931 in Cyprus

FILE - Turkish, and Turkish Cypriots breakaway flags fly near to the fence dividing the Turkish Cypriots breakaway north part from Greek Cypriots part at the south, as in between is seen a U.N guard post during a sunset in divided capital, Nicosia, Cyprus, Friday, July 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

The British obsession of balancing the budget, increasing taxes, and using Order-in-Council measures played an important part in the Greek-Cypriots’ decision to seek a greater say inthe political and administrationaffairs of their country. However, Britain was not preparedto relinquish their hold on power.

The enosists (unionists) saw this as a wonderful opportunity topushtheir case for union with Greece. Their actions would test British resolve who used force to quell Greek-Cypriot nationalism resulting in Governor Storrs (November 1926- October 1932) dissolving the Legislative Council (LC).

A crowd had gathered outside the Commercial Club in Nicosia on October 21, 1931 to hear the news that members of the LC had resigned over the budget. Speeches made inside the club criticized the injustices of British rule and shouts for enosis with Greece could be heard outside in the street. The crowd increased from a few hundred to a few thousand. A priest “mounted the makeshift platform and declared a revolution was to be underway.” A Greek flag was flung which the priest kissed symbolizing the Cypriots demands for enosis with mother Greece. They were continual cries “To Government House, To Government House” where protestors saw this building as a symbol of British rule.

Police learned that a large number of demonstrators was approaching Government House, so additional police was placed at the entrance to stop them from entering the Governor’s residence. The protestors broke through the police line where they shouted enosis and demanded the Governor to come out and hear them. Storrs was prepared to listen to their grievances, so as long as they maintained a ‘respectful distance’ by inviting one or two of their leaders. However the situation turned nasty when some demonstrators started throwing bricks which smashed windows and someone got on top of the roof of Government House unfurling the Greek flag. Storrs issued instructions that force should be used to disperse the crowd.

Additional police reinforcements were brought to stop the stone-throwing demonstrators who had smashed many windows of Government House and even telephone equipment had been destroyed. The Colonial Secretary’s car along with some abandoned police cars had been torched. Unfortunately, the fire spread to Government House, which eventually was engulfed in flames.

The Riot Act was read in English and Greek, ordering the demonstrators to disperse, they refused to listen. Police fired a volley of shots resulting in 7 men being wounded and “two collapsed to the ground.” The rifle volley had caught the crowd by surprise who scattered into the streets of Nicosia. However this did not save Government House. The British Telegraph newspaper ran headlines such as ‘A Capital under Mob Rule’ and ‘Incendiarism by Cyprus Rioters’ to portray the Greek Cypriots in a negative light.

Storrs was worried that this rebellion might spread to other parts of the island. A curfew was proclaimed on October 22 with notices plastered on walls in both Greek and English in Nicosia. However, troubles broke out in Larnaca, Famagusta, Kyrenia, Limassol and Paphos that continued until early November. Storrs took the drastic step of deporting the ringleaders George Hajipavlou, Dionysios Kykkotis, Theofanis Tsangarides, Theofanis Theodotou, Theodoris Kolokassidis, and the two bishops of Kition and Kyrenia to Malta barring them from returning to Cyprus. He believed that such a measure would defuse the political tensions on the island.

To complicate matters, the Greek Consul Alexandros Kyrou left the island accused of being involved in the “anti-British disturbance.” The British revoked his authority (exequatar) as Consul where he would never be allowed to resume his diplomatic post in Cyprus. Kyrou’s involvement would have angered the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos who saw this as undermining his nations good relations with Britain.

There was a permanent garrison in Cyprus consisting of three officers and 123 men stationed in the TroodosMountains which was immediately summoned to Nicosia. Storrs telegraphed for additional British troops from Egypt to be dispatched by air and also the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet to send an aircraft carrier. British troop and naval reinforcements from outside began to arrive and slowly established some semblance of law and order on the island. RAF airplanes flew over Cypriot villages to keep a watchful eye on the situation from the air.

At the end of the demonstrations, some 30 people were wounded and six Greeks killed. More than 2,000 rioters were convicted who served sentences of varying periods. A “reparations Impost law levied fines of £34,315 on towns and villages held to be collectively responsible for seditious actions.” The idea of collectively punishing towns and villages for disloyal action was unjust and could only harm the relations between the British and Greek-Cypriots.

Storrs appreciated “the goodwill of the large Moslem population and other minorities towards the Government never wavered throughout the disturbances.” There was no suggestion that the demonstrations had been ‘premeditated’ or ‘prearranged.’ The serious troublemakers were ‘roughs’ and ‘students’ where “respectable citizens either kept out of the way, in order to avoid the stigma of disloyalty, cheered for union.” According to Storrs, the idea of union may not have had the support with some sections of the Greek-Cypriot community who probably prospered under British rule.

The Greek press fully supported the Greek-Cypriots’ action for enosis and criticized the actions of the British troops on the island. In a speech to the Greek parliament on November 18, Eleftherios Venizelos criticized the stance of the Greek press towards the British administration in Cyprus and British Government. Whilst he sympathized with the position of the Greek-Cypriots, he would not allow organizations to use Greek soil for insurrection in Cyprus. It was up to Britain to decide whether to keep Cyprus or not and its responsibility to help the Cypriots realize their aspirations. Venizelos disapproved of the Greek-Cypriot demonstrations of October 1931 and wished to maintain friendly relations with Britain. He continued to display his ambivalence towards the Cyprus question as he did during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

 The October riots of 1931 shook the British administration to its core thus forcing Governor Storrs to take strong energetic measures against the rioters and also leading to the dissolution of the LC. This was the first time the Greek-Cypriots challenged British authority , however, the issue of enosis remained alive in the national consciousness of  Greek-Cypriots for another two decades when they commenced their war of independence from British rule in April, 1955.