A Congenial Task
The years that followed this enforced retirement of Mr. Gladstone were by no means idle years. They supplied him with the time necessary to complete his book called "Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age." The study of Greek literature fascinated him; "the blind old man of Scio's rocky isle" possessed for him an everlasting charm. It must, therefore, have been peculiarly pleasant to him when he was called on, in 1858, to go to Corfu as Lord High Commissioner to the Ionian Islands.
There was an outcry in England when Mr. Gladstone was selected to inquire into the grievances of the Ionian Islanders.
"They propose to send out a man on a mission to the disturbed Ionian Islands for no other reason than because he is fond of reading Homer!" they murmured.
The Ionian Islands were at this time in a disturbed condition. For the past forty-three years they had been under the protection of Britain; but for some time now there had been growing complaints, not so much against British administration as against being under Britain at all. It was necessary to send out a man who should discover the real secret of their discontent. And this Mr. Gladstone did. He arrived at Corfu in November 1858.
"It must have been to him like the actual realization of youth's best dream when he stood on the soil of Greece; when he went from island to island of that enchanting country for which nature and poetry and history and tradition have done so much; when he saw the home of Ulysses and the fabled rock of Sappho; and, above all, when he climbed the Acropolis of Athens and gazed upon the Parthenon, and, turning his eves one way, looked on Mount Hymettus, and, turning another way, saw Salamis, and then, on a clear day, the outlines of the steep of Acro-Corinthas."
To a man steeped to the lips in all the poetry, the history, the traditions of Greece, this must have been a day of days.
But, disregarding a keen desire to give himself up to sight-seeing, he gave himself up loyally to the task he had undertaken for the British Government. He gave public addresses at Corfu and other Greek islands, speaking always in the best Italian, which the people understood. He made full inquiry into every complaint, and he soon arrived at the root of the matter, and discovered there was but one cure for the real grievance. They yearned, these Greek islanders, with an almost romantic yearning, to be united once more to the kingdom of Greece.
"We are Greeks!" they cried, and we want to be united to the people of our own blood."
The people of the islands received Mr. Gladstone with enthusiasm; they believed him to he in favour of this great wish of their hearts; they cheered him, not so much as the Lord High Commissioner sent officially front England, as "Gladstone the Philhellene."
His tour through the islands was one triumphal progress; his path was strewn with flowers, his words were hung on eagerly.
He, on his part, did all he could to make the idea of British protection more attractive to the islanders. They listened and cheered him, but they stuck to their colours—they insisted on union with the kingdom of Greece. Mr. Gladstone saw the justice of their demand; he saw that nothing short of this would satisfy them.
"We can easily crush them by superior strength, but until we have extinguished the life of the last Greek islander, we cannot extinguish the just and natural passion for union with parent Greece," he said emphatically at home.
And they did not speak vain. A few years later the question was settled.
The Greeks grew wearied of the heavy rule of King Otho, and at last in desperation "bundled him out of Athens, bag and baggage."
They asked our sailor prince, Alfred of England, to be their king; but this was impossible.
Finally, in the spring of 1863, George, second son of the King of Denmark, brother to the Princess of Wales, became King of the Hellenes, Ids kingdom including the Ionian Islands.