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HISTORICAL OBSERVATIONS: The Arthur Nicolson incident in 1885

January 27, 2024

Arthur Nicolson (1849-1928), 1st Baron Carnock, was a British diplomat who served in Berlin, Constantinople, Athens, Tehran, Budapest, Tangiers, Madrid, St. Petersburg, and finally as the Permanent Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, 1910-16. He was an experienced and widely traveled diplomat who served in some important diplomatic posts.

In the early 1880s, the Greek government began tree planting to beautify the area around Mt Lycabbetus with certain trails off limits to the general public. The government posted gendarmes to prohibit entry to some of these trails. One gendarme named Loukas Kalpouzos went off his head against the British Charge d’affaires in Athens at the time – Arthur Nicolson.

Nicolson and his wife decided to take a stroll along one of these paths, only to be confronted by Kalpouzos. The British diplomat tried to explain in English to Kalpouzos to no avail. Kalpouzos grabbed Nicolson by the arm, assaulted him, and hit his wife with a stick. Nicolson was slapped as well. Frightened by their ordeal, they left immediately while Kalpouzos threw stones at them. According to Kalpouzos’ family, he was insane. The Athenian newspaper, Paligenesia reported on this incident on January 7, 1885, which resulted in a diplomatic and political crisis in Athens.

Nicolson saw the Greek premier, Harilaos Trikoupis, and demanded the dismissal of Kalpouzos. Despite differences between Nicolson and Trikoupis, the latter was a known Anglophile who wanted to minimize any potential fallout over this unfortunate incident. Several days later, Trikoupis made a statement in the Greek Parliament expressing “[his] deep sorrow, and [his] government’s willingness to do everything…to satisfy the English government.” Kalpouzos was imprisoned for two months, serving his sentence at Nafplion, and then the government “dismissed him from the army, and ordered that the dismissal and the imprisonment be announced at a public meeting in the barracks.”

Even the Greek Foreign Minister, Alexandros Kontostavlos, the President of the Council, the aide-de-camp of King George 1st, Efthymios Hatzipetros, and the commander of the Gendarmerie visited Nicolson to formally apologize regarding this episode. One would have thought this matter had ended.

Enter the German ambassador, Brincken, “who told Nicolson that the solution offered was not [enough] and greater public satisfaction should be given.” Nicolson reappraised the situation and “now demanded a public apology from the entire Athens division of the Royal Gendarmerie, which numbered about 100 men.” To make matters worse, the Aion newspaper published on January 7, 1885, the following account: “in the middle of the Syntagma square, two squads of local guards were lined up, […] under the command of Major Stefanos. When the Consul of England, Mr. Merlin, arrived, the military force presented their weapons, and the order of the Ministry was read. With Mr. Merlin’s head uncovered, the music praised the English royal anthem, and the military force and the citizens gathered around it.” The German Ambassador congratulated Nicolson for his “firmness and circumspection” for forcing the Greeks to apologize for the bad behavior of Kalpouzos.

In a satirical poem titled ‘A Few Verses with fury in Great Britain’ written by Giorgios Souris in Romios magazine on January 12, 1885, he stated: “New scorn once again in our poor homeland | new insult even shame again | for they found an English nobleman and an Englishwoman brave Britain, England the great | our little homeland asked to be humiliated he came again to teach us another lesson.” Souris further commented that the shame was not on Greece but on England.

Nicolson tried to apologise to Trikoupis and hoped “the gendarme might now be released and pardoned,” and continued “I feel sure, that you will accept my proposal in the friendly spirit in which it is offered, and that it will assist towards obliterating an incident which has caused to no more pain than myself.” Several days later, Trikoupis responded that Nicolson’s action could not be forgotten. In fact, Nicolson’s formal apology smacked of arrogance, snobbery, and condescension, which did not remove the humiliation of the English anthem played at Syntagma Square in the presence of the Greek gendarmes. It was intended to teach the Greeks a lesson that the British Legation could intervene and influence Greek domestic politics.

A British parliamentary paper tabled in the House of Commons in March contained Nicolson’s correspondence with the Foreign Office regarding the assault. Nicolson mentioned that the Greek parliament voted on a motion in which “113 Deputies voted for it and 19 against, most of the opposition abstaining.” It was hoped the matter would end there, but Trikoupis’ hold on power was somewhat tenuous. The taxation and economic measures of Trikoupis plus the Nicolson affair gave opposition leader, Deligiannis an excuse to criticize Trikoupis at every possible opportunity inside and outside Parliament.

In parliament, Trikoupis lost a vote of confidence 104 votes to 108 and the next day resigned as premier, on February 5. King George summoned Deligiannis to the palace, asking him to form a new government and a time when Trikoupis’ taxation and economic measures were hitting the lower strata of Athens very hard.

Claiming to have the support of the people, Deligiannis was accompanied by demonstrators to the palace playing their pipes, drums, and firing shots in the air. The protestors shouted loudly “down with oil,” “down with rising prices,” and “down with taxes.” Deligiannis’ four meetings with the King to form a government came to nothing. The King then invited Trikoupis to form government until elections were called. On April 5, Deligiannis won in a landslide, winning 184 seats out of a total of 245. Trikoupis won only 56 seats. While the Nicolson affair was not the direct cause of the elections, it triggered a set of political events that brought Deliyannis into power.

In conclusion, the Nicolson incident could be viewed as a storm in a teacup but its effect resulted in a diplomatic and political crisis which destabilized the Trikoupis administration and helped Deligiannis to become premier.

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