The story of a community
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|An author who has penned the history of two families in the Levant|
I am the eldest son of the eldest son of the T Bowen Rees who crops up regularly in connection with the church in Boudjah, and have inherited some of the family papers both for the Rees family and for the Werry family who came to Smyrna when Francis Werry was made Consul for the Levant Company at the end of the eighteenth century. Reading these documents gave me the impetus for the book.submission date 2004
Incidentally, I have always understood the word “Levant” to be the French word meaning “rising”, referring to the lands in which, for Western Europeans, the sun rose. It is still used in my area of Bordeaux by vine-growers to indicated the direction of the sun, ie. East, and West is indicated by the word “Couchant”, meaning “setting” (literally, lying down).
MERCHANT ADVENTURERS IN THE LEVANT:
A chronicle of two families’ involvement with the Levant over three centuries
The book is about an area of commercial and diplomatic significance to Britain for centuries - the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Turkey and Egypt, otherwise known as the Levant - from the late seventeenth century to the Suez crisis of 1956. It does this by tracing, with much personal detail, the record of two British families, linked by marriage, whose lives for nine generations were bound up with the Levant as sea-captains, traders, consular officials and entrepreneurs. Use is made of published sources, but I have been able to draw on unpublished papers and correspondence in family possession as well as on privately published material. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was a large published literature on the Levant, but it was almost exclusively directed at the indigenous peoples, the history and the archaeology of the area, and ignored the European Levantine population. This is true even of writers like Freya Stark and Rose Macaulay. Across the Hellespont (Hutchinson 1987) by Richard Stoneman is a very readable introduction to this literature. There is a good professional History of the Levant Company by A C Wood (Frank Cass 1964), but this only takes the reader up until 1823, and it is short on personal histories and background. Bright Levant (John Murray 1970) by Laurence Grafftey-Smith is a lively account of Egypt in the first part of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on politics and diplomacy: it complements a similar but earlier account by Sir Ronald Storrs of his time in Egypt as a young diplomat, later Oriental Secretary, in the early years of the century (Orientations, Ivor Nicholson & Watson 1937). The focus of the present book on the continuing British involvement in the area in the form of two linked families over nine generations will be of interest not only to professional historians, but as much or more to general readers, who for historical, literary or family reasons are curious about the European connection with the Near and Middle East over the last three centuries. The manuscript runs to 80,000 words.
Before ever the East India Company was given its Royal Charter to monopolise trade between Britain and India, a powerful predecessor had been trading with Turkey, the realm of the Grand Signior, for two decades. This was the Levant Company, whose twelve founding members were given a royal Patent by Queen Elizabeth 1st in 1581 to trade with Turkey. All other English subjects were prohibited from trading in the dominions of the Turkish sultan. The monopoly lasted for more than two hundred years. During the course of these centuries, the commerce between the two realms expanded enormously, creating wealth at home and established interests and communities overseas for the English. In the process, British political interest and influence was slowly extended into the countries of the Near and Middle East, and much of the basis was laid for the nineteenth century British domination of the area, though little of it ever became formally part of the British empire. The book chronicles the part played in this process by the Werry family, originally of Cornwall, from the late seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, and their successors, the Rees family from Carmathen in Wales, who married into the last generation of Werrys.
Sea-captains and adventurers, four generations of Werrys sailed ships for the Levant company around the ports of the Eastern Mediterranean. In time of peace the ships carried cargoes for City merchants to Smyrna, Aleppo and Alexandretta; in more troubled times - and there were many of these - they held letters of marque from the Crown and fought as privateers, licensed pirates who were entitled to fly the English flag and prey on enemy shipping. They also served from the early eighteenth century onwards as Brethren of Trinity House, the great corporation for merchant seamen which effectively ran the Port of London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and built and manned the lighthouses round our coasts, from the time of the first wooden lighthouse on the Eddystone Rock built at the end of the seventeenth century. Links between the merchant seamen of Trinity House and the Levant Company were inevitably strong, and in due course Francis Werry, the fourth generation of sea-captains, became the Levant Company’s last Consul in its most important overseas trading port, Smyrna (modern Izmir) in Turkey. The second and third chapters of the book cover his life. Mr Consul Werry spent the 1780s and 90s as a merchant sea-captain and privateer before his appointment to the Smyrna post in 1794. There he lived through the Napoleonic Wars and the turbulent years of the Greek struggle for independence, supplying intelligence to Nelson and the other admirals of the British fleet, protecting, sometimes through force of arms, the British community from the attacks of the Turkish mob, entertaining a host of British travelers on their wanderings, among them Byron and his friend Hobhouse. The tension between the Levant Company’s commercial and diplomatic functions, which contributed to its eventual demise, emerges regularly in the Consul’s dealings with the British Government and navy. Nonetheless when the Levant Company’s charter was finally revoked in 1823, he was kept on by the government as HM Consul in Smyrna, the first British, as opposed to Levant Company, consul in the city. His vivid reports, first to the Levant Company, then to the Foreign Office, are held in the Public Record Office in London and illuminate this period of rapid political change, when opinion in England about the merits of the Greek insurrection was, at any rate initially, much divided.
Chapters 4-8 are based on the memoirs, privately published (copies are held in the British Library) of Consul Werry’s son Francis Peter (1788 - 1859), a young diplomat, who joined the Foreign Office in 1811 and was present at or on the fringes of the great events of the end of the war with Napoleon, culminating in the Congress of Vienna, where he served under Castlereagh and Wellington. His friend and patron was William Hamilton, not the complaisant husband of Emma Hamilton, but the secretary of Lord Elgin of the famous marbles, and a founder and future President of the Royal Geographical Society. Francis Peter was originally of interest to the Foreign Office because of his knowledge of Turkey and the Levant. To us his attraction lies partly in his struggles, as a young man without the powerful connections which were then indispensable to advancement in a diplomatic career, to make his way in the aristocratic milieu of the European courts to which he was attached. But it also lies in his lively pen, which gives a particularly engaging account of life in English society in the Levant at the end of the eighteenth century, and shows how soon that extraordinary mixture of languages, religions and cultures which characterised Levantine society had evolved. At the age of fifteen, as William Hamilton's companion, he traveled across Asia Minor exploring the ancient classical sites, recording the wild landscapes in which hyenas and the occasional leopard were still to be found, and staying with Turks, Greeks and other Levantines. After a short exile in Malta with the British community from Smyrna in 1809, during a time of political and military tension with Turkey, he returned to Istanbul, still policed by its Circassian janissaries, where he found legends from the time of the Byzantine emperors still alive in the mouths of the Greek clergy, and witnessed the recapture of some runaway Turkish slaves. Two years later, put surreptitiously ashore by a British man-of-war on the coast of Sicily, he was rescued by a Sicilian prince before making his way to London, and to the eventual haven of a post with the Foreign Office. A posting to St Petersburg was followed by duties at the two great conferences of Chatillon and Vienna where the shape of post-Napoleonic Europe was hammered out. His subsequent diplomatic career was a sad anti-climax. Appointed HM Chargé des Affaires at the Court of Dresden, he clashed with the British envoy, John Morier, son of his father’s old friend Isaac Morier, the Levant Company’s Consul-General in Istanbul, and both men were forced to take early retirement.
Chapters 9-14 describe the arrival on the scene in Turkey and subsequent fortunes of the Rees family of St Clears in Carmathenshire. The first of these was Thomas Bowen Rees, who arrived just in time to be present in the Crimea during the war with Russia, and whose son, also called Thomas Bowen Rees, married the eldest surviving Werry girl in the last generation of that family to bear the name. Through that union many of the family papers on which this book is based have been passed down. The Rees family were characteristic of the new kind of independent business adventurer who flourished in the Victorian area. Of relatively humble origins - the family in St Clears had kept one of the shops in that small town - they had none of the connections of wealth or family which were a prerequisite for those seeking to become members of the Levant Company in the days of that company’s monopoly of the Turkish trade. The first Thomas Bowen Rees went out as a representative for one of the Manchester cotton manufacturers, making and losing a fortune in the cotton and dyestuffs trades. Significantly, it was the assertion of British naval power in the Mediterranean which allowed him to redeem the family fortunes by landing a contract to victual the British fleet in the Black Sea in the last two decades of the century. His gradual transformation into a Levantine was symbolised by his marriage to a half-American, half-English Smyrna girl whose correspondence with her “English” mother was carried on in French, and whose first language was almost certainly Greek. Fortune having foiled their original plan to retire to England, the couple finished their days in Smyrna.
Chapter 10 illustrates how the extension of British military and naval power, first into Cyprus, then into Egypt provided further opportunities for British entrepreneurs. Among these were Thomas Rees’s three sons. In Cyprus, they shared a house at one stage with the young Lieutenant Kitchener, while he was carrying out a survey of the island and they were supplying the British army of occupation. In Egypt, they were present at the siege of Alexandria in 1882 and at the closing stages of Arabi Pasha’s revolt. Thence they went down the Nile to Khartoum, where they were engaged in supplying the British Army under Lord Wolseley, attempting (vainly) to rescue General Gordon. The headquarters of the British army and administration was in Cairo, where they all returned after the end of the campaign. One son remained in Cairo until his early death at the age of 29; he became briefly a newspaper proprietor, started a company for dredging the Suez Canal, backed his younger brother’s shipping business newly starting up in Turkey, while at the same time continuing his contracting business with the British army. A passionate gentleman rider, his favourite Arab remained unbeaten at the Cairo race club until a British thoroughbred was sent across the sea to put the local bloodstock in its place. Meanwhile the two younger brothers, now in Alexandria and Smyrna respectively, carved out their own business careers, the one as a supplier to the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean, the other as the founder of a small line of cargo ships. All three illustrate the variety of opportunities which British arms, on land and on sea, had brought to entrepreneurs in the Levant.
Chapters 11-14 trace the fortunes of family of the youngest of the brothers, Thomas Bowen Rees, husband of Zoe Theophanie Werry, the last and eccentric heiress of the Werry name and effects. They illustrate how the Europeans of the Levant were able to survive and indeed to some extent profit by the buffetings of the 1914-18 War, despite temporary exile from Turkey, now an enemy nation; and how the conflict between Greece and Turkey in 1923 finally put paid to the favourable regime which foreigners living and trading in Turkey had enjoyed to a greater or lesser degree since the Byzantine era. Some Europeans managed to hang on to their businesses for a while yet, and the old European villages [archive views of Boudjah, the former Rees house] on the outskirts of what was no longer Smyrna, but Izmir, continued to flourish [views of the former Rees office building - internal ornaments] until the second World War, though with waning vitality. Steadily though the commercial life of the European communities ebbed away, much of it moving for a time to Alexandria, in Egypt, until that too was brought to an abrupt end by the failed attempt by Britain and France, in collaboration with Israel, to seize the Suez Canal back from Colonel Nasser in 1956. The Rees family, with close ties by now to a considerable number of the other European merchant families of the Levant, kept a connection with Turkey to the very end, and there are attractive descriptions of the life both there and in their new base of Alexandria. Their role as, once again, victuallers of the British forces during the Dardanelles campaign is described, as is the rise of the New Egypt and Levant Shipping Company [details] which they founded, and their connection with Eugene Eugenides, the “Smyrna merchant” who figures in T S Eliot’s disparaging verse in the Waste Land. But all this is set in the context of the colourful social world of the Levant, with its great variety of languages, nationalities and origins. The family’s final legacy to that world lay, perhaps, in the work of Noel Rees, grandson of the Thomas Bowen Rees who emigrated from Carmathen. Appointed British Vice-Consul in Izmir in 1941, more than a hundred years after his great-great-great-grandfather Francis Werry had retired as British Consul in that city, he organised the escape of hundreds of Allied soldiers and airmen, and thousands of Greeks, from the islands of Greece and the mainland, after the German occupation of those territories. By then commissioned into the RNVR and head of MI9 in Izmir, he had the satisfaction of accepting the surrender of the German forces in the Dodecanese, islands adjacent to those which, during Consul Werry’s tenure, more than a hundred years previously, had been taken under British protection.
Tom Rees 2004
Merchant Adventurers in the Levant, ISBN 0-9545566-1-5, 244 pages, 31 illustrations (7 colour). Book sold out in 2006 - segment.
Notes: 1- In publications post-mortem of Noel Rees, there little mention of the man and his work with the escape network he helped establish. One book that mentions him is ‘MI9: Escape and Evasion 1939-1945, M.R.D. Foot & J.M. Langley - Book Club Associates, London, 1979’, but the details are scant - segment:
2- In October 2009 the researcher George Poulimenos kindly provided me with a summary article on the book to be published in the future detailing the exploits of George Miniotis during WWII, who operated under the command of Noel Rees.
3- The T. Bowen Rees & Co. were in addition to managing their own ships, agents to a variety of maritime companies, for example as shown in this advert: In addition the company also had a part to play in the evacuation of refugees from Smyrna in 1922 as this newspaper image shows:
4- The history of yachting in Turkey, in which the Rees family were always prominent, is covered by an article penned by Brian Giraud, submitted in February, 2010, viewable here:
5- In February 2012 Tom Rees submitted an article written earlier concerning ‘Some British diplomatic travellers in Turkey 1801-12’, which includes two Levantine characters amongst it players: Jack Morier and Francis Peter Werry.