The poet’s generosity 200 years ago helped to pave the way to independence, and he is still seen as a hero
Racked by fever, prone to fits of delirium, consumed by his last great passion – the liberation of Greece – Lord Byron lay on his sickbed. It was 18 April 1824. The great Romantic poet would be dead the next day.
“I have given her [Greece] my time, my means, my health,” he is recorded as saying in a moment of lucidity. “And now I give her my life! What could I do more?”
Byron’s death in Missolonghi, the malaria-ridden town where he had spearheaded the Greeks’ revolt against Ottoman rule, induced instant shock, convulsing the English-speaking world.
The man who was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, a celebrity of his day who was loved and loathed in equal measure, had spent a mere 100 days in the land whose freedom he had championed so vociferously.
“The loss of this illustrious individual is undoubtedly to be deplored by all Greece,” its provisional government declared hours after the news filtered through. “But it must be more especially a subject of lamentation at Missolonghi, where his generosity has been so conspicuously displayed.”
As Greece celebrates the bicentenary of its war of independence, a banknote unearthed by the Observer in the country’s state archives sheds new light on the poet’s fabled generosity. It also offers indelible proof of his commitment to the Greek cause.
In the cheque Byron stipulates that £4,000 – roughly £332,000 today – be paid to Giovanni Orlando, a representative of the provisional government that, alarmed by the way the war was going, had approached the British peer for funds.
The money was to go towards emergency needs – notably financing a fleet to defend Missolonghi from besieging Ottoman Albanians. Both sides agreed it would be repaid against a much bigger loan to be raised in London where Orlando was headed.
“Because of his fame, Byron was much forged,” said Dr Christine Kenyon Jones, who studied many of the poet’s manuscripts in the course of co-authoring a new study of Byron’s portraits, Dangerous to Show.
“But it looks as if this is an original signature attached to the script of a clerk, which he seems to have impatiently corrected. Byron’s handwriting, like his personality, was fast and free, so there’s a contrast between the clerk’s careful hand and his own confident signature with its bold, open ‘B’ and characteristic flourish on the ‘n’.”
That the document should have lain unnoticed in the country’s archives for so many years was extraordinary, she said.
Byron agreed to the loan in Kefalonia, part of the British-run Ionian Islands where the poet and his coterie of fellow travellers had stopped on their way to Greece. The cheque, subsequently cashed in Malta, was taken in the form of silver Spanish dollars and transported in trunks to Missolonghi by the poet.
The money was then used to fund fighting ships run as a commercial enterprise by profit-minded Greek islanders.
“The demand came from the legislative body,” wrote Pietro Gamba, the Italian count who was with Byron throughout the ill-fated expedition and had witnessed the exchange in Kefalonia in November 1823. “A squadron of 14 vessels, nine Hydriot and five Speziot, would then immediately put to sea.”
The poet soon threw in his lot with the cosmopolitan polyglot Alexandros Mavrokordatos, who became the first leader of independent Greece in 1822.
From the outset, Byron used his fame to internationalise the Greeks’ fight for liberty, inspiring a motley crew of foreign philhellenes raised on the classics to rally to the cause – both on and off the battlefield. His role as a moderniser, embracing the values of the Enlightenment, was decisive in determining the course of an uprising otherwise plagued by factional intrigues and outbreaks of civil war.
“Byron helped the revolution resolve itself in the way it did, creating what at the time would be a progressive … modern nation state,” said Roderick Beaton, emeritus professor of modern Greek studies at King’s College London.
“Greece did not follow the example of other parts of the Ottoman Empire that became nominally independent, but were run by local warlords.”
But Byron’s willingness to part with such a large slice of his personal fortune also had an immediate impact – one that Beaton believes helped change the course of events.
“His financial contribution was crucial,” said the academic whose book, Byron’s War, is regarded as the definitive account of the poet’s involvement in the revolution.
“No historian of the war has really paid attention to this fact but the Ottoman Albanian troops who were besieging Missolonghi suddenly disappeared as soon as word got out that Byron had lent this money and the fleet was sailing out of Hydra and Spetses.”
Byron’s loan, combined with a loan later raised in London, had the effect of “tipping the scales crucially in favour of the elected Greek government and against the warlords”.
The poet’s death so early on in the revolution has linked him inextricably to Greece, where in this anniversary year his heroic status is once again being highlighted.
Byron himself had vowed that if Greece should fall, “I will bury myself in the ruins.”
Instead, he ended up being eviscerated and embalmed with his remains sent back to England on the brig that had ironically carried the first instalment of the loan raised by private speculators in London.
“He died in a strange land, and among strangers,” the devastated Gamba recorded in his journal. “But more loved, more sincerely wept he could never have been, wherever he had breathed his last.”
There is a bridleway in north western Greece, where Lord Byron had made his way with the Greek fighters in the early 19th century, he remains an important figure in the struggle for independence, Greece will forever be in his debt. When a nation suffers centuries of oppression, persecution, even the levy of their first born, to supply the Janissaries, for the Ottoman Sultans, there is and always will be a burden of responsibility to honour those who laid down their lives for Greece.