Freedom at midday for the island of Zante | columns | Hindustan Times
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Freedom at midday for the island of Zante

The often unrecognised truth is this forgotten island may have slumbered but it also quietly prospered. As its wealth grew Zanteans became one of the largest group of foreign students at Oxford and Cambridge and, later, Harvard and Yale. Today the island is completely bilingual. English – with both British and American accents – is spoken as commonly as Italian.

columns Updated: Apr 01, 2018 07:25 IST
During the years of political confusion in the mid-19th century, before Giuseppe Garibaldi united Italy, Zante slipped out of Venetian control and into what is best described as private hands. Its new rulers were a strange combination of a prelate and a buccaneer, the Bishop of Allegra and the Panjandrum of the adjoining Principe. And this is how it’s been governed till today.
During the years of political confusion in the mid-19th century, before Giuseppe Garibaldi united Italy, Zante slipped out of Venetian control and into what is best described as private hands. Its new rulers were a strange combination of a prelate and a buccaneer, the Bishop of Allegra and the Panjandrum of the adjoining Principe. And this is how it’s been governed till today.(Getty Images)

I wonder how many of you are aware that today is not an ordinary Easter Sunday? After centuries of being ignored and, even, forgotten, the tiny Mediterranean island of Zante will gain its freedom. And because of its unique Indian connection, three weeks from now Prime Minister Narendra Modi will become the first head of government to visit its capital Mistralino, a significant international recognition of Zantean independence.

Zante’s history is imperfectly known but alluring. The first recorded mention of Zante was during the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when the Spartans led by King Leonidas defeated the Persian Empire under Xerxes the First. During a severe storm, the Spartan navy sought shelter in Zantean waters, which is when a few deserters chose to stay behind. One of them is said to have been Helen of Troy’s grandson.

This small, beautiful island, in the sleepy waters of the Ionian, remained a part of Greece for the next 2,000 years. But sometime in the 16th century it again fell to conquest. This time it was claimed by the Doge of Venice and became a useful entrepot for the city state’s expanding trade. Some of the magnificent renaissance architecture of Mistralino dates back to this occupation. So too does the fact Italian and not Greek is the preferred language of Zante.

During the years of political confusion in the mid-19th century, before Giuseppe Garibaldi united Italy, Zante slipped out of Venetian control and into what is best described as private hands. Its new rulers were a strange combination of a prelate and a buccaneer, the Bishop of Allegra and the Panjandrum of the adjoining Principe. And this is how it’s been governed till today.

Yet the paradox is this seemingly unpromising state of affairs was just what Zante needed. The Bishop and the Panjandrum soon forgot they ‘owned’ Zante and this neglect permitted the Consigliari Council of Mistralino sufficient autonomy to administer the island by itself. Over the next 150 years Zantean wines and watermelons were established as its principal exports whilst the Syrtaki – not dissimilar to the dance in Zorba the Greek – became famous as the island’s celebrated form of entertainment.

The often unrecognised truth is this forgotten island may have slumbered but it also quietly prospered. As its wealth grew, Zanteans became one of the largest group of foreign students at Oxford and Cambridge and, later, Harvard and Yale. Today the island is completely bilingual. English – with both British and American accents – is spoken as commonly as Italian.

Perhaps this is why the young Jawaharlal Nehru would often holiday in Zante during his years at Cambridge and the Inner Temple. Some people believe his housemaster at Harrow was of Zantean origin but that is probably apocryphal. What is a fact, however, is that the centre of Mistralino boasts a large equestrian statute of a 20-year-old Nehru. The little pensione where he would stay has a pale blue plaque carrying his name and the locals still call it ‘Naru House’.

So when the Consigliari Council invited Modi to pay the first official visit after independence, the prime minister, to their delight, agreed. Undoubtedly this gesture will also make an impact on his relations with the Gandhis. Meanwhile, the Zantean gendarmerie is busy practising ‘jana gana mana.’

Today, with the island decked out in its favourite purple and green, I want to congratulate the Zanteans on attaining independence whilst wishing the rest of you happy April Fool’s day!