‘Sea and Sardinia: Pax Britannica versus Vendetta in the New Italy (1870)’

Owain Wright

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    8 Citations (Scopus)


    The unification of most of Italy between 1859 and 1861 was greeted with enormous enthusiasm in Great Britain. Within a decade, however, a number of incidents had conspired to undermine Victorian optimism over the outcome of the Risorgimento. One example was the Zamponi affair of 1870, during which a Sardinian-born member of the British consular service became the target of a local vendetta. This article contributes to our understanding of how Sardinia and its people were perceived by the British, and how the island’s condition reflected upon the new Italian government a decade after unification. For the British, the occurrence of a vendetta against one of their public servants revealed fully the violent nature of Sardinian society, while the failure of the Italian government to intervene was interpreted as evidence of the limits of mainland authority over the island; this subject was especially pertinent, considering that Sardinia had been governed by Italy’s Piedmontese unifiers not merely since national unification, but from 1720. Moreover, the reaction of the British officials who despatched a gunboat to the island ostensibly to protect British interests betrays their readiness to dismiss Sardinia – if not the whole of Italy – as a barbaric and unruly land in which Britain could intervene, if necessary, by force. In this respect, the event enhances our understanding of the role of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean during a period in which British foreign policy is generally held to have abandoned Palmerstonian belligerence in favour of ‘splendid isolation’ in European affairs. Although a cross-party consensus on the benefits of non-intervention largely prevailed in British politics in 1870, the deployment of a British ship in Italian waters suggests that a tendency to resort to gunboat diplomacy lingered on in the Royal Navy and British officialdom. Furthermore, Britain’s role in the Zamponi affair allows its undoubted friendship with the fledgling Italian state to be set in context alongside its relations with other Mediterranean countries, echoing its heavy-handed treatment of Greece during the Don Pacifico affair of 1850, yet contrasting against the greater reserve shown in British diplomatic relations with Spain after the revolution of 1868. The episode also provides an opportunity to contribute to the interesting but much neglected history of the British consular service.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)398-416
    JournalEuropean History Quarterly
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2007


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