Monday, March 13, 2017
Tales of Cyprus: “Law and order and village justice in Cyprus…”
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Today I would like to share with you an article of our Australian Cypriot friend, Constantinos Emmanuelle who has been running a project called "Tales of Cyprus" and a website at www.talesofcyprus.com
He is an Australian Cypriot professor and his latest article that he had shared with us on social media was how life had been concerning "law and order" in Cyprus about 80 years ago… Entitled "Law and order and village justice in Cyprus", Constantinos Emmanuelle, in summary tells us the following:
"…Since I began my research for Tales of Cyprus a few years ago, a few murder mysteries have surfaced. Unfortunately, when I try to investigate the facts I am faced with hearsay, speculation and rumour. Sadly, many of these domestic 'family-based' crimes that occurred eighty or so years ago are impossible to investigate or verify. I am sure that there are hundreds of these 'cold cases' in Cyprus.
They say that desperate times cause desperate people to do desperate things. This was certainly true in Cyprus many years ago. The poverty was so fierce in fact that sometimes a father had no choice but to steal a lamb or a sack of grain or perhaps raid a fruit tree in someone else's orchard in order to feed his family. The laws were at best, disproportional and unsympathetic to the economic depression that existed at that time and quite often impossible to enforce. The starving population often had no choice but to resist and ignore the laws imposed on them.
When the Turkish rule of Cyprus ended in 1878, the British found the island to be in a wretched and backward state. The unjust Ottoman system of taxation, especially that of the 'tithe' (having to give the government a tenth of what you grew or owned) tormented many Cypriots, especially those living in rural communities.
Furthermore, the ruthless exploitation of the farmers by the moneylenders (with their exorbitant rates of interest) meant that most people were unable to pay their debts and were consequently sent to prison. Unless a relative or friend was found who was willing to pay off the debt (with accumulated interest) the accused could expect to languish behind bars for years. Sometimes, the only way out of prison for these wretched souls was to allow the Crown to sell their property to pay off their debts. When this happened, the freed farmer would discover that their entire way of life had ceased to exist and they would be forced to either learn a new trade or adopt a life as a shepherd or worse; a beggar.
In his book, 'Leonarisso and Vasili: a journey into the past', Antonis Fella claims that many peasants endured shame and humiliation after the forced sale of their land. The village Mukhtar might put up a written notice on the door of the village coffee shop stating that the field of 'so-and-so' was put up for auction to pay for his debts. Fella discovered that many moneylenders would often hound the poor peasants in the courts to force them to mortgage their houses or plots of land so they could pay off their debts. This was a time when the rich and the influential did what they wished at the expense of the weak, the poor and the powerless.
The pioneer travel writer Olive Murray Chapman observed, that because Cypriots preferred to invest all their money in land they did not have the financial means of tilling or sowing their land. They were therefore obliged to borrow money at enormous interest (over twelve percent at times).
The unrealistically high levels of tax and debt imposed on a largely ignorant rural community forced many Cypriots to resort to a life of petty crime. Adding to their financial woes was the fickle and devastating affect that Mother Nature had on their properties with frequent droughts, plagues and fires.
Samuel White Baker in his book "Cyprus as I saw it in 1879" describes the common natives as courteous, gentle and affectionate but addicted to petty larceny. He confirms that sheep stealing was the most common offence and that thieves are rarely caught as they usually snatch a few animals when a large flock might stray away from their shepherd in a remote and uninhabited area of the mountains.
In the first few decades of British Rule a vast array of laws were introduced to try and stem and reduce the destruction of the natural environment. Many Cypriots however chose to ignore the law in a desperate act of defiance. One example of this was the Forest Law, which was introduced in 1913. Many goat herders and inhabitants from the mountainous villages retaliated against this law by deliberately setting fire to the forests. These acts of arson soon became commonplace in Cyprus.
Most cases that came before the Courts were for trivial affairs, such as assaults or not paying debts owed. Now and then however, there would be a case of a stabbing, which was generally the result of a tipsy quarrel and not an actual attempt at murder. The prison system quickly became inadequate with over-crowding seen by many as a real concern.
In his book, "In an Enchanted Island (1889)" the author William H. Mallock is shocked after visiting one of the prisons in Nicosia with his host, Colonel Falkland. He describes how despite its pleasant architectural exterior the interior of this prison contained cloisters that led to dark and depressing prison cells. In one section groups of men and boys are standing or sitting engaged in various occupations such as boot making, rope making and sewing trousers. They seemed to all share the same offence of sheep-stealing.
In another section of the prison the scene becomes more distressing for Mallock. Cramped together in dark, mouldy and smelly cells are large groups of men and boys accused of murder. The sheer number of these poor emancipated human beings astounds Mallock. "How could an island with barely 160,000 inhabitants have so many murderers?" he asks Colonel Falkland. He is told that there is more crime in Cyprus in proportion to the number of its inhabitants, than any other known country in the world. Many of the murders committed are a result of an argument or a half-drunken brawl at a wedding. "Wine flows freely, a quarrel arises out of laughter and suddenly, unexpectedly, a knife is flashed and turns red in a matter of seconds." Arguments resulting in murder can also be connected to sheep stealing or a dispute over land boundaries and water rights.
Mallock also discovers that family honour can also be the cause behind a murder and tells how a father killed his son on the day he was set free from prison on the grounds that he had disgraced the family.
Many women were also sent to prison; mostly for theft but a few for plotting the murder of a rival who was blocking their relationship with a potential admirer or perhaps an impending inheritance. Mallock noticed that some women had given birth in prison, which questions the reason for their imprisonment. Were they guilty of infidelity or did they have sex before marriage? Perhaps they were raped and became pregnant as a result, which would have been considered a crime and a sin all the same. In any case their poor innocent babies were compelled to live in the same squalor and filth as the adults around them.
As for the 'lunatics' in the prison, Mallock describes them as being quite old and living on their own in dilapidated cells. "They should be congratulated on their present condition," he says. "For madness had taught them how to smile when sanity could not. "
In the rural districts, the police or zaphtiehs are generally too far from the scene of a crime to be of any service. They were also too few in number for the proper supervision of the island. There was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment by the inhabitants, especially in the rural communities as they felt they were neither protected nor respected.
In the district of Karpasia, many criminals went unpunished simply because the court located in Famagusta was too far to travel for many of the victims. One newspaper article reports how five armed men broke into a house in Yialousa, tied up the couple that lived there and abducted their twelve-year-old daughter. The Ottoman zaphtieh that was summoned the next day not only arrived late but also discovered he could not understand the local language. These types of delays and obstacles allowed many offenders to avoid capture and literally get away with their crimes.
Bribery too was commonplace in Cyprus in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century; in particular between court officials and the accused. Scott-Stevenson discovered that a man named E… who was the Commissioner's interpreter at the Kyrenia courthouse would often threaten an accused person with the loss of their case unless they paid him a certain sum of money.
According to Scott-Stevenson, the village of Casaphani in the district of Kyrenia has the reputation of having the greatest thieves. Even the fat old Mukhtar, M… Effendi has made a lot of money looking after the thieves. Apparently, whenever a man is fined for stealing corn or for allowing his donkey to trespass onto a neighbour's field, the Mukhtar somehow managed to profit.
When I read stories about 'law and order' in Cyprus from eighty or a hundred years ago, I start to wonder if modern-day Cypriots (especially the authorities) have really evolved that much. Their 'learned behaviours' with regards to the law may have been shaped and influenced by the past. I do 'live in hope' that one day the newspapers in Cyprus will report less and less stories about crime, corruption and greed.
At least sheep-stealing has stopped…"
(You can read the full text of his article at www.talesofcyprus.com)
Photo: From cy police website - British period photo gallery…
(*) Article published in POLITIS newspaper on the 12th of March, 2016 – Sunday.