1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Capo d'Istria, Giovanni Antonio, Count

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CAPO D’ISTRIA, GIOVANNI ANTONIO [Joannes],[1] Count (1776–1831), Russian statesman and president of the Greek republic, was born at Corfu on the 11th of February 1776. He belonged to an ancient Corfiot family which had immigrated from Istria in 1373, the title of count being granted to it by Charles Emmanuel, duke of Savoy, in 1689. The father of Giovanni, Antonio Maria Capo d’Istria, was a man of considerable importance in the island, a stiff aristocrat of the old school, who in 1798, after the treaty of Campo Formio had placed the Ionian Islands under French rule, was imprisoned for his opposition to the new regime, his release next year being the earliest triumph of his son’s diplomacy. On the establishment in 1800, under Turkish suzerainty, of the septinsular republic—a settlement negotiated at Constantinople by the elder Capo d’Istria—Giovanni, who had meanwhile studied medicine at Padua, entered the government service as secretary to the legislative council, and in one capacity or another exercised for the next seven years a determining voice in the affairs of the republic. At the beginning of 1807 he was appointed “extraordinary military governor” to organize the defence of Santa Maura against Ali Pasha of Iannina, an enterprise which brought him into contact with Theodoros Kolokotrones and other future chiefs of the war of Greek independence, and awoke in him that wider Hellenic patriotism which was so largely to influence his career.

Throughout the period of his official connexion with the Ionian government, Capo d’Istria had been a consistent upholder of Russian influence in the islands; and when the treaty of Tilsit (1807) dashed his hopes by handing over the Ionian republic to Napoleon, he did not relinquish his belief in Russia as the most reliable ally of the Greek cause. He accordingly refused the offers made to him by the French government, and accepted the invitation of the Russian chancellor Romanzov to enter the tsar’s service. He went to St Petersburg in 1809, and was appointed to the honorary post of attaché to the foreign office, but it was not till two years after, in 1811, that he was actually employed in diplomatic work as attaché to Baron Stackelberg, the Russian ambassador at Vienna. His knowledge of the near East was here of great service, and in the following year he was attached, as chief of his diplomatic bureau, to Admiral Chichagov, on his mission to the Danubian principalities to stir up trouble in the Balkan peninsula as a diversion on the flank of Austria, and to attempt to supplement the treaty of Bucharest by an offensive and defensive alliance with the Ottoman empire. The Moscow campaign of 1812 intervened; Chichagov was disgraced in consequence of his failure to destroy Napoleon at the passage of the Beresina; but Capo d’Istria was not involved, was made a councillor of state and continued in his diplomatic functions. During the campaign of 1813 he was attached to the staff of Barclay de Tolly and was present at the battles of Lützen, Bautzen, Dresden and Leipzig. With the advance of the allies he was sent to Switzerland to secure the withdrawal of the republic from the French alliance. Here, in spite of his instructions to guarantee the neutrality of Switzerland, he signed on his own responsibility the proclamation issued by Prince Schwarzenberg, stating the intention of the allied troops to march through the country. His motive was to prevent any appearance of disagreement among the allies. The emperor Alexander, to whom he hastened to make an explanation in person, endorsed his action.

Capo d’Istria was present with the allies in Paris, and after the signing of the first peace of Paris he was rewarded by the tsar with the order of St Vladimir and his full confidence. At the congress of Vienna his influence was conspicuous; he represented the tsar on the Swiss committee, was associated with Rasumovsky in negotiating the tangled Polish and Saxon questions, and was the Russian plenipotentiary in the discussions with the Baron vom Stein on the affairs of Germany. His Mémoire sur l’empire germanique, of the 9th of February 1815, presented to the tsar, was based on the policy of keeping Germany weak in order to secure Russian preponderance in its councils. It was perhaps from a similar motive that, after the Waterloo campaign, he strenuously opposed the proposals for the dismemberment of France. It was on his advice that the duc de Richelieu persuaded Louis XVIII. to write the autograph letter in which he declared his intention of resigning rather than submit to any diminution of the territories handed down to him by his ancestors.[2] The treaty of the 20th of November 1815, which formed for years the basis of the effective concert of Europe, was also largely his work.

On the 26th of September 1815, after the proclamation of the Holy Alliance at the great review on the plain of Vertus, Capo d’Istria was named a secretary of state. On his return to St Petersburg, he shared the ministry of foreign affairs with Count Nesselrode, though the latter as senior signed all documents. Capo d’Istria, however, had sole charge of the newly acquired province of Bessarabia, which he governed conspicuously well. In 1818 he attended the emperor Alexander at the congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, and in the following year obtained leave to visit his home. He travelled by way of Venice, Rome and Naples, his progress exciting the liveliest apprehensions of the powers, notably of Austria. The “Jacobin” pose of the tsar was notorious, his all-embracing ambition hardly less so; and Russian travellers in Italy, notably the emperor’s former tutor, César de Laharpe, were little careful in the expression of their sympathy for the ideals of the Carbonari. In Metternich’s eyes Capo d’Istria, “the coryphaeus of liberalism,” was responsible for the tsar’s vagaries, the fount of all the ills of which the times were sick; and, for all the count’s diplomatic reticence, the Austrian spies who dogged his footsteps earned their salaries by reporting sayings that set the reactionary courts in a flutter. For Metternich the overthrow of Capo d’Istria’s influence became a necessity of political salvation. At Corfu Capo d’Istria became the repository of all the grievances of his countrymen against the robust administration of Sir Thomas Maitland. At the congress of Vienna the count had supported the British protectorate over the Ionian Islands, the advantages of which from the point of view of trade and security were obvious; but the drastic methods of “King Tom’s” government, symbolized by a gallows for pirates and other evil-doers in every popular gathering place, offended his local patriotism. He submitted a memorandum on the subject to the tsar, and before returning to Russia travelled via Paris to England to lay the grievances of the Ionians before the British government. His reception was a cold one, mainly due to his own disingenuousness, for he refused to show British ministers the memorandum which he had already submitted to the Russian emperor, on the ground that it was intended only for his own private use. The whole thing seemed, rightly or wrongly, an excuse for the intervention of Russia in affairs which were by treaty wholly British.

On his return to St Petersburg in the autumn of 1819, Capo d’Istria resumed his influence in the intimate counsels of the tsar. The murder of the Russian agent, Kotzebue, in March, had shaken but not destroyed Alexander’s liberalism, and it was Capo d’Istria who drew up the emperor’s protest against the Carlsbad decrees and the declaration of his adherence to constitutional views (see Alexander I.). In October 1820 Capo d’Istria accompanied the tsar to the congress at Troppau. The events of the year—the murder of the duc de Berry in March, the Revolutions in Spain and in Naples—had produced their effect. Alexander was, in Metternich’s exultant language, “a changed man,” and Capo d’Istria apparently shared his conversion to reactionary principles. The Austrian chancellor now put forth all his powers to bring Alexander under his own influence, and to overthrow Capo d’Istria, whom he despised, distrusted and feared. In 1821 Alexander Ypsilanti’s misguided raid into the Danubian principalities gave him his opportunity. The news reached the tsar at the congress of Laibach, and to Capo d’Istria was entrusted the task of writing the letter to Ypsilanti in which the tsar repudiated his claim, publicly proclaimed that he had the sympathy and support of Russia. For a while the position of Capo d’Istria was saved; but it was known that he had been approached by the agent of the Greek Hetairia before Ypsilanti, and that he had encouraged Ypsilanti to take up the ill-fated adventure which he himself had refused; he was hated at the Russian court as an upstart Greek, and Metternich was never weary of impressing on all and sundry that he was “using Russian policy for Greek ends.” At last nothing but long habit and native loyalty to those who had served him well, prevented Alexander from parting with a minister who had ceased to possess his confidence. Capo d’Istria, anticipating his dismissal, resigned on the eve of the tsar’s departure for the congress of Verona (1822), and retired into private life at Geneva.

On the 11th of April 1827, the Greek national assembly at Troezene elected Capo d’Istria president of the republic. The vote was a triumph for the Russian faction, for the count, even after his fall, had not lost the personal regard of the emperor Alexander, nor ceased to consider himself a Russian official. He accepted the offer, but was in no hurry to take up the thankless task. In July he visited the emperor Nicholas I. at Tsarskoye Selo, receiving permission to proceed and instructions as to the policy he should adopt, and he next made a tour of the courts of Europe in search of moral and material support. The news of the battle of Navarino (20th of October 1827) hastened his arrival; the British frigate “Warspite” was placed at his disposal to carry him to Greece, and on the 19th of January 1828 he landed at Nauplia.

Capo d’Istria’s rule in Greece had to contend against immense difficulties—the utter poverty of the treasury, the barbarism of the people but recently emancipated, the continued presence of Ibrahim Pasha, with an unbroken army, in the south of the Morea. His strength lay in his experience of affairs and in the support of Russia; but he was by inheritance an aristocrat and by training an official, lacking in broad human sympathy, and therefore little fitted to deal with the wild and democratic elements of the society it was his task to control. The Greeks could understand the international status given to them by his presidency, and for a while the enthusiasm evoked by his arrival made him master of the situation. He thoroughly represented Greek sentiment, too, in his refusal to accept the narrow limits which the powers, in successive protocols, sought to impose on the new state (see Greece). But the Russian administrative system by which he sought to restrain the native turbulence was bound in the end to be fatal to him. The wild chiefs of the revolution won over at first by their inclusion in his government, were offended by his European airs and Russian uniform, and alienated by his preference for the educated Greeks of the Phanar and of Corfu, his promotion of his brothers Viaro and Agostino to high commands causing special offence. Dissatisfaction ended in open rebellion; the islands revolted; Capo d’Istria called in the aid of the Russian admiral; and Miaoulis, the hero of the Greek war at sea, blew up the warships under his command to prevent their falling into the hands of the government. On land, so far as the president was concerned, the climax was reached with the attempt to coerce the Mavromichales of the Maina, the bravest and most turbulent of the mountain clans, whose chief Petros Mavromichales, commonly known as Petrobey, had played a leading part in the War of Independence. The result was an insurrection in the Maina (Easter, 1830), and the imprisonment of those of the Mavromichales, including Petrobey, who happened to be in the power of the government. At the news of their chieftain’s imprisonment the Mainots, who had for a while been pacified, once more flew to arms and threatened to march on Nauplia; but negotiations were opened, and on the advice of the Russian minister Petrobey consented to make his submission to the president. Unhappily, when he was brought under guard to the appointed interview, Capo d’Istria, in a moment of irritation and weariness, refused to see him. Maddened with rage at this insult from a man who had not struck a blow for Greece, the proud old chief, on his way back to prison, called out to two of his kinsmen, his son George and his brother Constantino, “You see how I fare,” and passed on. According to the code of the Maina this was a command to take revenge. Next day, the 9th of October 1831, the two placed themselves at the door of the church where Capo d’Istria was accustomed to worship. As he passed in Constantine shot him down, and as he fell George thrust a dagger into his heart.

Authorities.—Carl W. P. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Graf Johann Kapodistrias (Berlin, 1864) is based on all the sources, printed and unprinted, available at the time of publication, and contains an excellent guide to these. This may be supplemented by the historical sections of F. de Marten’s Recueil des traites condus par la Russie, &c. (1874, &c.). A sketch of Capo d’Istria’s activity as president will be found in W. Alison Phillips’s The War of Greek Independence (London, 1897). Many of Capo d’Istria’s despatches, &c., are published in the collections of diplomatic correspondence mentioned in the bibliography of the article Europe: History. Under the Russian title “Zapiska grapha Joanna Capodistrias” is published in the series of the Imperial Russian Historical Society, vol. iii. p. 163 (St Petersburg, 1868)the Aperçu de ma carriére publique, written by Capo d’Istria for presentation to the emperor Alexander, and dated at Geneva 12/24 December 1826. Of unpublished materials may be mentioned the letters of Capo d’Istria to Sir Richard Church, vol. xvi. of the Church Papers in the British Museum (Add. MSS. 36453-36571). See further bibliography to chapter vi. of vol. x. of the Cambridge Modern History (1907).  (W. A. P.) 

  1. After his election to the Greek presidency in 1827, Capo d’Istria, whose baptismal names were Giovanni Antonio, signed himself Joannes Capodistrias, the form by which he is very commonly known.
  2. The letter was written by Michael Stourdza and copied by Louis.