British Prime Minister Gladstone and the Armenian Problem According to Western Media

The Armenian Problem showed an intense development after the second half of the 19th century and became one of the most important international problems occupying the European and World agenda. Britain is one of the chief countries taking this problem to the World agenda. The political and economic links of Britain with the Near and Middle East, and especially its thought of using Armenians as a card against Russia, made this country produce and follow politics which are in favor of Armenians and against Turkey for its own interests. One of the chief architects in the development of these politics is British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.

William Ewart Gladstone was born in Liverpool on 29 December 1809 and died in Hawarden on 19 May 1898. He was a statesman, orator, and writer. He occupied the office of prime ministry five times in Britain. He is the fourth son of Sir John Gladstone who was a parliament member and an intellectual trader. Gladstone got an education at Eton and Christ Church College, the most famous college of Oxford University, and graduated from here in 1831. He was elected to the parliament from Newark and he started to appear as a young and strong speaker in the House of Lords from 1831 onwards (The Washington Post, May 19, 1898). Living between the years 1809-1898, Gladstone came to the office of prime ministry four times between the years 1868 and 1894. The politics he followed towards the Ottoman Empire in this period started the developments which accelerated the Armenian Problem.

Prime Minister Gladstone presented the goals of foreign policies of Britain to the public opinion as if they put a special interest on Armenians. As a result, “hostile” politics against the Ottoman Empire started to be executed. The extension of these politics was perceived as a support to “victimized” Armenians and the Armenian Problem in appearance. On the other hand, in reality, the question is the British interests in the region.

In this article, the newspapers such as The Times, the biggest British newspaper and semi-official media organ, and American newspapers The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Daily Tribune, The Hartford Courant, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times have been used. There are hundreds of news articles about Gladstone and the Armenian problem in these newspapers.

Although the interest of Gladstone with Armenians started with the San Stefano and Berlin Treaties, the reflection of this in public opinion and media, except for one news item, corresponds to the last stage of his professional life, the beginning of the 1890s. In one news item released with the title “Mr Gladstone and Armenian Problem” in The Times on 14 January 1891, Gladstone addresses Armenians through the Times: “You know that I suffer deeply of the current governmental system in Armenia. I have no doubt for the support of great powers in finding a solution for this and also I accept that Britain has a mission of making all kinds of effort to make them take action” (The Times, January 14, 1891). This statement means that Britain regarded the Armenian question as a “mission.” This is the indicator of the importance Britain placed on the problem.

After this news in 1891, there was no news directly on Gladstone and Armenians in Western media for more than 3.5 years. This situation can be evaluated as he probably avoided following such open policies in the period when he held the office of the prime ministry and he concentrated on the developments about Armenians more after he left the office. Gladstone’s real moves about Armenians would take place in the period between 1894 and 1897. The first developments on this would start in December 1894.

Gladstone sent a letter to the meeting arranged by Stevenson, who was the chair of the British Armenian Society, in St. Martin Townhall in London on 14 December 1894. He wrote these in the letter: “The bad statements about Armenians clenched the interest of the world to this question. I give my sincere wishes to you and everybody trying to reveal the truths. When the claims are proven, the truths will ask the world how much more these massacres will be watched” (The Washington Post, December 18, 1894, Tuesday; The Times, December 18, 1894). Gladstone showed with these words that the actual politics of Britain is to draw the attention of the world to the Armenian question. This letter is also important in terms of showing the intimate relation of Gladstone with the British Armenian Society in London.

Due to his close interest in the Armenian question, Armenians also showed their close interest in Gladstone. To the purpose of the 85th birthday of Gladstone, Armenians of London and Paris arranged a celebration program. The organization organizing this celebration program was again the British Armenian Society (The Times, December 31, 1894). In the program, the Armenians of London and Paris gifted a silver decorated wineglass to Gladstone (The Atlanta Constitution, December 21, 1894; The Times, December 21, 1894; December 31, 1894). Gladstone mentioned these interesting points in his speech in which he maintained the understanding of “Turkish hostility and Armenian patronage”: “there are some sound reports informing that there is a horrible and indescribable massacre in Armenia… History of Turkey is a sad and agonising history. This race has brought calamities to the world. If these stories of massacre, rape and genocide are correct, these will not go off eye and they can’t prevent them from being revealed” (Chicago Daily Tribune, December 30, 1894; The Times, December 31, 1894). As it is observed, the speech of Gladstone is based on words involving insults about Turks and Turkish History.

After becoming a problem, doing advocacy and hosting any development about Armenians, Britain took another very important step about the issue in May of the same year. They arranged a national protest meeting at St. James Hall against the massacres and oppression of Christian Armenians in Turkey. Gladstone didn’t attend this meeting himself but sent this letter to Argyll Duke who presided over the meeting: “I sincerely feel great affection for this meeting arranged in order to protest the evil massacres in Turkish Armenia and be insistent in the immediate implementation of the article 61 of Berlin Congress” (The Times, May 7, 1895). This letter of Gladstone was welcomed with joyful applauses by the crowd attending the meeting.

There were some people who were criticizing the policies of Gladstone as well. One of these people was one of the important war reporters of Britain, Ellis Bartlett. An important discussion, which was also reflected in the media, took place between Bartlett and Gladstone. Bartlett wrote these lines including these important warnings in his letter addressing Gladstone:

“Sir, I protest a sentence you used about Armenian question in your last letter for the sake of honour and justice. You are saying that you attribute the crime of last massacre in Armenia to Sultan of Turkey and his officers and soldiers. I would like to express that there is not even slightest evidence that Sultan is responsible for these massacres or hid the perpetrators, even if the claims are true… For the sake of honesty and real humanity, I protest this injustice and hypocrisy which accuse Muslim Turkey without trials and which silently throw it to its strong and Christian enemies”

(The Times, May 10, 1895).

These statements of Bartlett show that the politics of Gladstone in Armenian question are wrong. Gladstone, on the other hand, replied to Bartlett: “I think that we have a strict attitude about Armenian question in order to obtain a possible benefit from the negotiations” (The Times, May 10, 1895). Gladstone admitted in a way with this reply that they exaggerated in the Armenian question. The reply of Bartlett to this answer from Gladstone was: “Dear sir, I protest that your great name was written under the brutal accusation of Ottoman Empire and Army collectively before the correct evidences are revealed and especially the report of the commission about the crimes is published” (The Times, May 10, 1895). That is to say, Bartlett opposed that the name of a person who held the prime ministry office was involved in the Armenian question and was insistent that the Ottoman Empire should not be accused before official evidences are suggested.

Despite such criticisms, Gladstone continued his activities in favor of Armenians. The New York Times published this letter of Gladstone full of reproach about Europeans on 25 June 1896: “Nobody uses even semi-strict language against Sultan and his representatives. Europeans hold an attitude which covers forgiving the vileness of Sultan. I can never approve of this”(New York Times, June 26, 1896).

A last article is on 19 October 1896. A meeting was arranged by the British Armenian Society at St. James Hall. The purpose of the meeting was announced to be “national protest” against the “barbarity of Sultan.” Gladstone sent a letter to this meeting. It was written in the letter: “There are still on-going series of massacres. I see that Sultan stubbornly continues the extraordinary opportunities given to him. Sultan is living his victory for now, but only for the time being, with the piteous and shameful reasons. Sultan will eventually be condemned by the humanity civilization and he and his bloody-minded brutal followers will also get their share” (The Times, October 20, 1896).

William Ewart Gladstone, who made such big activities for Armenians, Armenia, Turkish hostility and the Armenian Question, and especially devoted himself almost completely to this issue after the last period of his prime ministry, died in London Hawarden town on 19 May 1898. He was an important personality who held the prime ministry office for four periods. After his service of prime ministry four times in intervals until 1894, he avoided public work. However, this distance remained in the official dimension. He almost dedicated himself to unofficial public work and a very special matter that he wasn’t able to involve in in the period of his prime ministry service or he didn’t want to seem to be involving in due to his official duty. This was nothing else but the Armenian question.

Also, there is this anecdote in a biographic study about him. He said to one of his sons: “I started this campaign in 1876 and I will sustain it no matter how long it lasts.” As the starting point of the Armenian problem roughly appeared in this period, this is information to be taken into consideration. It is apparent that the Armenian problem was not of course created by Gladstone, but the efforts of Gladstone in order to make the problem come to an international dimension are obvious. If Gladstone hadn’t backed this problem so much and had made it so coherent with British politics, how the Armenians drew the attention of the international community towards the end of the 19th century could not have happened. Gladstone was able to put this issue on the British agenda first and then the priorities of European countries with his activities and intense studies between the years 1894-1897. European countries got interested in Armenians thanks to Britain and in this way, the issues of “Armenian patronage and Turkish hostility” could be made appropriate with its own foreign policies and brought to the agenda of the international community and world. Gladstone never neglected Armenians with his intense activities in this period, arranged programs for them and attended these programs in-person.

Lastly, these words of Gladstone summarize his fundamental philosophy about Armenians: “Service to Armenia is service to civilization.” Armenians owe a lot to William Ewart Gladstone. It is a matter of fact that the biggest debt in the problem of obtaining an international dimension is indisputably owed to this British prime minister.


Chicago Daily Tribune.

New York Times.

The Atlanta Constitution.

The Times.

The Washington Post.

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