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Woolley and the Politics of Force

If it were not for the Colonial Office’s objections, Woolley’s supposed legacy as ‘the island’s most liberal governor’ might have been quite different, as he leaned heavily upon the politics of force to combat threats to British interests.20 Whitehall generally accepted the governor’s assessment of the situation but not the severity of his approach. In August 1944, Woolley travelled to London to discuss with the Colonial Office his plans for curbing enosis agitation, the blame for which he placed squarely on AKEL. His first request was for a firm statement from the British government ‘that Cyprus would not in any circumstances be ceded to Greece after the war’. Woolley argued that this would encourage loyal Cypriots, dissuade further enosis agitation, circumvent certain Foreign Office officials in favour of secession, and counter international anti-colonial criticism. The Colonial Office insisted on subtler tactics. Nonetheless, Oliver Stanley, the secretary of state for the colonies, agreed to supply ‘an official statement in writing’ specific to Cyprus but in the unspecified future when it would not undermine the creation of a strong Greek government.21

Indeed, neutralizing the communist threat in Greece was deemed to be more important than neutralizing the communist threat in Cyprus. Nevertheless, as it would do with Governor Grantham in Hong Kong four years later, the Colonial Office considered it to be ‘most undesirable’ to give Woolley any doubt as to Whitehall’s faith in him to handle ‘any situation that might arise with firmness and vigour’. The Colonial Office, therefore, was more willing to compromise on Woolley’s last request: for powers ‘to control or prevent political activities which might lead to disorder’.22

The governor’s Executive Council (which was an advisory body consisting of the colonial secretary, attorney general, treasurer, commissioner of Nicosia, and three non-officials representing each of the island’s Greek, Turkish, and British populations) ‘very strongly urged’ Woolley ‘to recommend immediate condemnation of Akel, as an unlawful association’. They compared the current state of affairs with that in 1933, arguing that the proscription of AKEL ‘would not only restore tranquillity and put [a] complete end to seditious agitation, but would be hailed with relief by the bulk of the population’. Woolley, however, was not prepared to proscribe AKEL.23

According to Crawshaw, Woolley was more interested in a moderate policy aimed at those communists who broke the law, thereby tainting an otherwise compliant and valuable political party.24 More likely, however, Woolley believed proscription was an inadequate measure; instead, he wanted a broader and stronger range of legislative weapons, weapons which were increasingly being repealed elsewhere in the empire in the wider effort to reform British rule.25 For Woolley, these weapons included postal censorship, especially of mail to foreign countries, and the power to deport people as he saw fit. He hastened to add that the latter power would not be immediately used against AKEL; its ‘mere enactment [...] would have a sobering effect on extremists’. Furthermore, Woolley revisited a request denied to him the year before, for permission under defence regulations to enable the ‘closure of premises including Trades Union premises’, adding that ‘an entire new situation now exists’ in which such sites were ‘now being used for seditious agitation, quite unconnected with Labour matters’.26

While there was some support in the Colonial Office, Woolley faced considerable resistance. According to Kenneth Ernest Robinson, a principal in the International Relations Department, Woolley’s draft regulation authorized him ‘to close any premises in any town, village or area specified’ so long as it was ‘in the interest of public order, safety or defence’. Robinson minuted that he was unaware of any other colonial governor who wielded such power. Stephen E. V. Luke, the head of the Mediterranean Department, further objected because such regulations would prove both practically ineffective and politically damaging in Britain. Nevertheless, Stanley, while stressing the difficulties in restricting civil liberties ‘in advance of trouble’, authorized Woolley to prepare legislation which would enact all of the proposed measures ‘in the last resort’.27

Cypriot politics took a volatile turn in 1945, when on two occasions British authorities used deadly force against Cypriot communists. The first occurred on 25 March, Greek Independence Day, when an Akelist attempted to prolong an outdoor meeting in a village outside Lefkoniko. The nationalists protested and left for their premises. The communists responded by forming an illegal procession to follow them. The official account claimed that after a number of warnings were ignored, the police fired five rounds. The procession dispersed, leaving behind two dead (a man in his twenties and a twelve-year-old boy) and many injured, one of whom died soon thereafter.28

Less than one week after the Lefkoniko incident, on 31 March, Akelists, with help from some Cypriot military personnel, stole eight Bren guns, six pistols, fifty-eight rifles, and about 2,300 rounds of ammunition from the Cyprus Voluntary Force’s armoury near Nicosia. According to Woolley, the theft ‘reminded their opponents of the menace to life and property that [AKEL] constitute’ as there was ‘no doubt [.] that these arms were destined for use not only against the Police but against AKEL’s political opponents’. Woolley immediately enacted a new defence regulation which allowed for life imprisonment with a minimum seven-year sentence for the theft or unlawful possession of British arms.29

Instead of denying the allegations, AKEL promptly declared that the arms were intended for Palestinian fighters embroiled in the Jewish insurgency against the British in the mandate of Palestine (1945-1947). Police soon discovered the arms buried in the garden of a member of AKEL and, under Woolley’s new defence regulations, two Akelists were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and one Akelist to twelve years.30

In the Colonial Office, the theft of military arms invoked both memories of the 1931 riots in Cyprus and current anxieties regarding the armed Zionist insurrection in Palestine. Luke ‘feared that under the leadership of Akel Cyprus politics may be entering an altogether tougher and more [dangerous] phase, as the result of which for the first time there is a risk of violence in the Palestinian sense’. There was hope that a firm hand would ‘kill any taste for violence’ among Cypriots, who were ‘not made of the same stuff as the Arabs or Jews’. That said, the Colonial Office was concerned about provoking domestic and international criticism for mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Woolley therefore revoked this provision on 2 October, after having secured convictions against the three communists.31

Later that month, deadly force was used again. AKEL and its Union of Cypriot Ex-servicemen had been allegedly fomenting agitation within the Cyprus Regiment regarding the slow demobilization of Cypriot troops, the difference between the discharge terms of Cypriot and British soldiers, and the government’s lack of sufficient resettlement plans—as well as spreading rumours, for example, that the British were going to redeploy Cypriots to various territories to break strikes and suppress liberal organi- zations.32 On 8 October, 200 Cypriot troops mutinied at the Famagusta Camp, refusing to board a ship destined for Palestine. Indian troops, at a time when many in Whitehall were questioning their reliability in carrying out ‘a firm policy’, opened fire and killed Sergeant Takis Kythreotis and wounded four soldiers. British authorities managed to suppress the mutiny but not the rising tide of local distrust (fomented by AKEL) of the government.33

AKEL made the most of these two incidents. The Home Office in London noted the distribution of pamphlets by the Committee for Cyprus Affairs, the supposed London branch of AKEL, which claimed that the bloodshed in Lefkoniko was a result of Cypriot police shooting at ‘200 people as they were peacefully returning from Church’.34 Regarding the mutiny, Harold Giles Richards, the chief assistant secretary of Cyprus and acting colonial secretary, bitterly complained to the Colonial Office that AKEL ‘at once fell a-sighing and a-sobbing when they heard of the death of the unfortunate Sergeant Kythrotis [sic] adding that a funeral and demonstrations ‘of a peculiarly nauseating kind’ followed. In Larnaca, leftwing trade unions responded by officially passing proposals that Cypriot soldiers should steal as many arms and as much ammunition as possible from military armouries. On 25 November, a Cypriot soldier discharged his .38 pistol at a British police constable near Famagusta.35 Cyprus witnessed a number of AKEL-led demonstrations, while Cypriots led small mutinies in Italy and North Africa. The British authorities interpreted these events as ‘signs of a coming storm in Cyprus’.36

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