Blue Water Empire
the British in the Mediterranean since 1800
I have always found something distinctly ‘un-British’ about the Mediterranean. I grew up thinking of the British empire – and British spirit – as being founded upon the open ocean: unconfined, stormy and there to be mastered. A route to the rest of the world and limitless opportunity. The Mediterranean, by contrast, always seemed a bit limp. It had no tides; its main purpose was as a tourist destination; it was (at least on its northern shore) very European in a way that Britain was not. It seemed as cramped as an Italian tourist beach in autumn.
But I was very, very wrong.
That is why reading Robert Holland‘s excellent book Blue Water Empire: the British in the Mediterranean since 1800 (Penguin, 2012) was such an eye opener to me. British history has been intimately bound up with the Med, and not just through the odd colonial oddity like Gibraltar or Malta, or through the search for a viable theatre in the Second World War. As Holland argues, it is the British that made the Med into something of a region, rather than a collection of regions. It was where Britain confronted Napoleon, and – many years later – where they found an outlet to take the war to Hitler.
In between, and indeed after, it was a key area for British interests, and a place where British influence was great. You can see the results in modern day Palestine, in Greece, in Egypt. Holland is also particularly good at explaining the history of places such as Cyprus, Corfu, Malta and Gibraltar, where the British empire was a key factor in daily life and nation building.
Near the end of the interview we also touch on the Mediterranean of today, and Robert Holland speaks movingly about the current economic crisis and its impact. He keenly regrets the inability of the states of the Mediterranean to see themselves as neighbours within a region, and the loss of a true pan-Mediterranean identity.
I was wrong about Britain and its relationship to this crucial region, and that’s why I both enjoyed reading the book and talking to the author. I hope you enjoy listening just as much.