Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Surprising Greek Hero: The Very English Lord Byron

George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron, was one of the more colorful characters of the late Georgian period. Many remember him to this day for his poetry and his many, many scandalous love affairs. After all, this was a man at one point was declared (albeit by an ex-lover) as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

There was another side to this man, though. This practical and political side would lead this English poet to have a small role in the history of labor and the history of another nation: Greece.

For Lord Byron, one artifact of his birthright was a seat on the House of Lords--a fortunate convenience for a man very critical of the status quo. Byron's poetry was often full of scathing critique and satire of both domestic and international political issues, and he made many impassioned speeches in Parliament to champion the causes he felt just. His first period in Parliament (March to June 1809) was brought to an end by a trip to Europe. He would later return to Parliament in 1812 though his permanent departure from England in 1816, forced both by rumors about his behavior and heavy debt, would end his domestic political career.

During his time in Parliament, Lord Byron championed many reformist causes, or by some people's reckoning, revolutionary causes. For example, he supported Irish independence both in poetry and political speeches:

"Thus has Great Britain swallowed up the Parliament—the constitution—the independence of Ireland, and refuses to disgorge even a single privilege, although for the relief of her swollen and distempered body politic."

He later would even pen poetry suggesting some support for the independence of India. These were not exactly popular positions at the time.

He also supported the Luddites. They were an anti-industrialization movement centered around textile workers whose jobs were being eliminated by new technologies. Protests turned to a campaign against mills in the north of England. The destruction of mills combined with attacks on magistrates lead to the deployment of thousands of troops against the Luddites.

As one can surmise, the Luddites were not some genteel opposition movement. They were a near revolutionary force that conservative aristocrats viewed with disgust and trepidation. In contrast, Lord Byron, who viewed the Luddite cause as arising from social justice concerns by people being harmed and destroyed by dubious automation that benefited others more than the workers, supported the movement both in Parliament and in his poetry. Whether one thinks him a fool or praises him for that, it definitely was a very radical position.

Even after leaving England, he would continue to contribute to political newspapers and discussions, generally supporting causes that placed him firmly in opposition to many landed, aristocratic interests. A lot of this was heavily influenced by his Romantic worldview.

Byron later became involved with the Greek independence movement. At the time, the Greeks were under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. He'd spoken and written of his belief in Greek independence for some time, but the start of open insurgency in 1821 further crystallized his support. While some of this support was just part of his natural tendency to support most independence movements,  Greece also held a special place in the hearts of many Western intellectuals of the period due to its ancient contributions to Western thought.

Generous financial and literary support by Byron gave way to more direct military aid in 1823, including his formation, using his own money, of the Byron Brigade (including refitting warships). Besides his equipment, he ended up in command of Greek rebel soldiers.

Despite his literary talents, he had no military experience at all, but it seems the Greeks weren't going to risk offending a man who was giving them a considerable amount of money and for whom they had a great deal of respect anyway. He was to take part in a major assault on a Turkish fortress, Lepanto, but before the force could depart toward the objective, he fell ill. Over the next few months he fought disease, incompetent  doctors, and infection until finally succumbing to his aliments at Missolonghi, Greece on April 19, 1824 at the not so ripe age of 36.

Despite his very minimal involvement in the actual fighting, years of financial, political, and literary support garnered him a large amount of Greek respect. In Greece, many still consider him, despite his non-Greek background, a hero of the Greek War of Independence. There was even a three-day period of mourning following his death there and a city northeast of Athens still named after him, Vyronas (Βύρωνας). His death in Greece helped focus even more international attention on the conflict and arguably helped to contribute to the entry of other Western powers on the Greek side.
Pretty good for a man who was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."