9. The Mediterranean and the Levant

Muslim caliphates dominated much of the North African coast and the Levant areas to the east of the Mediterranean Sea, throughout the Middle Ages. In 1453 the Turkish Ottomans captured the great Christian city of Constantinople and much of the Balkans and South Eastern Europe fell into their hands. The Ottoman Empire began a long, gradual decline when they were turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Britain, which had virtually no strategic interests in the Mediterranean throughout that period, became involved in military and naval engagements in the Mediterranean during the War of Spanish Succession at the beginning of the eighteenth century. From that time Britain maintained a naval presence in the Mediterranean and became involved in matters arising from the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the hegemonic aspirations of France.

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Gibraltar is the only colony Britain has maintained in mainland Europe (ignoring the Angevin Empire of the 12/14th century and the tenure of Calais until 1558). Gibraltar is a rocky peninsula of less than two square miles at the southern tip of Spain. It has a good harbour and commands the narrow channel between Africa and Europe which connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

1704 England takes Gibraltar during the War of Spanish Succession.

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht confirms Gibraltar is a British possession. A motley population from around the Mediterranean, including some Sephardic Jews, is brought to the rock.

1779-1783 The Great Siege. Spanish attempts to retake the rock fail. Gibraltar remains a key part of British naval strategy throughout the following centuries and has withstood several attempts by Spain to claim sovereignty.

1967 A referendum confirms 99%+ of Gibraltarians wish to remain under British rule.

1973 Gibraltar becomes part of the European Economic Community as a dependent part of the United Kingdom.

2002 Another referendum confirms close to 99% of the people preferred to remain under British rule.

2020 Gibraltar and the United Kingdom leave the European Union under the Brexit terms.


1708 The island is captured from Spain by Anglo-Dutch forces. It is a Balearic island which commands access to the southern approaches to the French Mediterranean ports.

1713 The Treaty of Utrecht confirms Minorca is a British possession.

1721 The Royal Navy constructs a major deep-water Port at Mahon.

1756 Minorca is captured by France and the British Admiral Byng, who failed to protect the island, is convicted by court martial and is shot.

1763 The island is returned to Britain by the terms of the treaty of Paris which ends the Seven Years War.

1781 A Franco Spanish force takes possession of Minorca during the American Revolutionary War.

1783 Treaty of Paris, Britain agrees to hand Minorca over to Spain.

1798 Britain, needing a base in the Western Mediterranean during the French Revolutionary War, retakes Minorca.

1802 The island is handed back to Spain by the Treaty of Amiens despite objections from Nelson among others.

The Ionian Islands

1797 These islands, the largest of which is Corfu, off the western coast of the Ottoman lands in the Balkans are taken from the Republic of Venice by France.

1798 A Russian admiral takes the islands and established a Russo-Ottoman protectorate.

1807 Russia ceded the islands back to Napoleonic France at the Treaty of Tilsit.

1809 The Royal Navy establishes domination of the area at the battle of Zakynthos.

1815 The United States of the Ionian Islands is created under British protection at the Treaty of Paris.

1864 Britain transfers the islands to Greece (which gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830).


Malta is situated in the Mediterranean at the narrowest point between the coast of North Africa and Sicily. It has a long history as a strategic stronghold to various Mediterranean powers.  The Christian Order of St John occupied the islands for two centuries and kept the Ottoman Empire at bay.

1798 The Knights of St John are overcome by General Napoleon Bonaparte serving the revolutionary Republic of France.

1798-1800 The Maltese Uprising protests against the French pillage of Church property.

1800 The French garrison in Valetta surrenders to the Royal Navy. Malta becomes a British Protectorate.

1802 Treaty of Amiens. Britain fails to evacuate Malta as per the terms of the treaty and retains control throughout the Napoleonic Wars.

1815 The Congress of Vienna confirms British rule in Malta as a Crown Colony.

1869 the opening of the Suez Canal increases the importance of Malta as a Royal Navy base.

1921 Self-government is granted with an elected national assembly.

1930-2 Clashes between the Catholic Church hierarchy and the pro-British Constitutional party cause the suspension of the constitution.

1933 Malta reverts to being a Crown Colony.

1937 the Royal Navy HQ is moved from Valetta to Alexandria in Egypt.

1940-3 War brings Malta to the forefront of affairs throughout the North Africa campaign and the invasion of Sicily and the King awards the George Cross to Malta for the heroism and devotion of its people besieged for two years by Axis sea and air forces.

1956 A referendum to become a self-governing part of the UK wins 77% of the vote, but is inconclusive because it was boycotted by the Church and the Nationalist party.

1958 A State of Emergency suspending the constitution is declared.

1961 A new constitution is implemented.

1964 Malta becomes an independent state.

1979 the last British forces leave Malta.

2004 Malta joins the European Union.


1571 The Venetian-ruled island of Cyprus is conquered and becomes part of the Ottoman Empire.

1878 Congress of Vienna. The Ottomans allow Britain to occupy Cyprus and treat it as a protectorate in response to a feared Russian incursion into the Mediterranean sphere of influence.

1915 The island becomes a base for British operations against the Turks in the Dardanelles Campaign.

1925 Cyprus becomes a Crown Colony.

1955 A State of Emergency is announced to combat Greek campaign for union with Greece.

1960 Cyprus becomes independent with a constitution guaranteed by the UK, Greece and Turkey which is designed to keep the peace between Turk and Greek communities. Britain retains sovereign bases on the island.

1974 Greeks, sponsored by the Junta government in Athens, take over the government. Turkey then invades and takes over Northern Cyprus which has little international recognition. A UN buffer zone separates the two states.

2004 The (Greek) Republic of Cyprus joins the European Union.

The British Mandate for Palestine

1916 The lands of the Levant along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean are part of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Britain and France, by the Sykes/Picot Agreement, decide to divide the region into separate spheres of influence. France is to take control of the Syria/Lebanon coastal region whilst Britain will take over Mesopotamia including Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. It is suggested that Jerusalem, being the Holy City of three religions, requires that Palestine, the other part of the Levant region, should have an international administration. France and Britain propose jointly to supervise local Arab rule in the rest of the area – most of Syria, Jordan and some of northern Iraq.

1916/17 T E Lawrence, a junior British army officer who becomes universally known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, helps organise the Arab revolt against the Turks. The Arabs take Aqaba, an important Ottoman port at the head of the Red Sea and assist Allenby’s advance into Palestine with acts of sabotage and guerrilla warefare.

The Balfour Declaration proposes a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Balfour was the British foreign Secretary and the declaration was designed to win Zionist support in the Great War.

1918 General Allenby enters Jerusalem and Damascus. The Ottoman Empire is defeated and breaks up.

1920 The terms of the Sykes /Picot Agreement are modified at the League of Nations and Britain receives a mandate to administer Palestine and Transjordan. The mandate included recognition of the Balfour Declaration proposing the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

1921 The Cairo Conference installs the Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Transjordan, including the Jordan east bank, as British protectorates.

1937 The Peel Committee fails to resolve the ongoing violent conflict between Arabs and the British authorities arising from the formation of new Jewish settlements in Palestine.

1939 A British White Paper tries to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine and proposes a bi-national state.

1946 Jewish terrorists blows up the King David Hotel, British HQ in Jerusalem.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan becomes independent. Later renamed Jordan.

1947 Zionists continue to organise the illegal immigration of Jews from Europe. The United Nations Organisation proposes to partition Palestine. Britain terminates its mandate and Zionists declare the state of Israel.

An Arab coalition is defeated in the First Arab-Israeli war.

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