When Sir Harry Charles Augustus Eyres (1856-1944) was called out of retirement to be appointed as a temporary representative to Albania in 1921, the English diplomat found himself welcomed by a government who was gratified that the first diplomat from an established power had arrived in their country. Eyres’ appointment took place during a tense political period for Albania; recognition of the territory of Albania was being debated by both the Greeks and the Italians, and border disputes were becoming a troublesome issue.
British interest in Albania at the time may have been down to something else entirely; the writer William Bland put forward that petroleum had been found previously in southern Albanian by the occupying Italians. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which had contacts in the British government, such as Winston Churchill, and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had opened up negotiations with the Albanian government in 1920, so Eyres’ appointment was issued against a backdrop of political and economic intrigue.
Eyres was not the only Englishman to be working for British interests in the Balkan region, or indeed the only Englishman to have embraced Albania. Albania had previously witnessed the English adventurer John Newport fighting for Skanderbeg, and relatively more recently Lord Byron had visited Albanian shores to be entertained by local overlord Ali Pasha. However in the 1920s, there was a plethora of Englishmen in the region, not only assisting the cause of British influence in the area but all being pro-Albanian. Englishmen such as Morton Frederic Eden (1865-1948), who, according to Lampros Psomas, was a British spy operating in Albania, collecting intelligence and supplying Eyres with information. Eden was a pro-Albanian and was a member of the Anglo-Albanian Association, an association that was founded by Mary Edith Durham and a number of other pro-Albanians in 1913.
It was Eyres who contacted another Englishman, Lieutenant Colonel W.F. Stirling (1880-1958), to assist in the reorganisation of the Ministry of the Interior. Stirling was in Albania from 1923-1931, and wrote his autobiography Safety Last, which had a foreword by none other than poet Siegfried Sassoon and covered Stirling’s memoirs of his time in Albania in a chapter. Stirling served under King Zog (Ahmet Zogu), and in his book, Stirling claims to be instrumental in the Pact of Tirana in 1926, advising Zog, which brought in Italian loans, but also seemed to be the beginning of the end of any British influence in Albania. Indeed, Stirling writes about the fate of the oil exploration:
‘Meanwhile, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had acquired a concession from the Albanian Government to prospect for oil. After drilling in a number of places, an oil-bearing stratum was discovered in the low hills north of Valona, and several wells were sunk. The quantity of oil found was considerable but the quality was poor. It was so thick that it was almost impossible to pump, so that a refining treatment at the wellhead would have been required before it could be piped down to the coast for shipment. At world market prices this was not a lucrative proposition for the company, so the concession was offered to the Italians, who accepted it at once.’
Stirling provides a first-hand account of the revolt in June 1924 headed by Orthodox Bishop Fan Noli, where Ahmet Zogu, who was serving as Minister of the Interior, had to flee. However, Zogu returned with the help of Yugoslav forces, and quickly re-established control of Albania, becoming prime minister in early 1925, then president, and finally king of Albania in 1928. With Zog establishing security in Albania after the revolt, Stirling writes how he was commissioned to return to England to get recruits and possible government support for organising a professional gendarmerie force. However, the British government refused to give official support to Stirling’s proposal, though he did go ahead and recruit soldiers, but they were to have no protection at all from the British government. The British Secretary of State had also informed Mussolini in Italy about the plans. Stirling went on to write that the attitude of certain members of the government was perhaps down to the fact that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was prospecting for oil and they did not want to arouse ill-feeling with the Italian government.
It was in 1926 that Sir Harry Eyres ended his role as envoy in Albania, and certainly Stirling’s role in the country was also coming to an end, as he writes in his autobiography:
‘As the years went by the Italians gradually began to turn against me, not for personal reasons but through the policy of their Government. They felt that I was the one obstacle to their gaining control of King Zog, since he was a close friend of mine and, to a certain extent, took my advice. At the same time the local political leaders feared me since I knew so much of their murky past and they disliked my influence with the King. The Jugoslav Government was also very suspicious of me.’
‘My position in the country was becoming daily more insecure, so that finally I felt safe only when I was up in the mountains with the tribes. In the circumstances, I reckoned that my usefulness in Albania was coming to an end, and in the spring of 1931 I resigned my post and returned to England.’
The period between 1921-1931 certainly witnessed an English influence in Albania, especially in relation to the ambitions of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in southern Albania. It can be said that Eyres, Eden and Stirling had an influence on political and economic affairs at the time, Eyres working with Eden and introducing Stirling, and for a brief moment in history, there was a definite drive by certain English men and women to promote Albania and to assist in the country’s development as a modern nation.
William Bland and Ian Price, A Tangled Web: A History of Anglo-American Relations with Albania, 19121955 (London: Albania Friendship Society of Southern California, 1986), p. 13.
R. W. Ferrier, The History of British Petroleum Company: The Development Years, 1901-1932, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
Lampros Psomas, A Spy in Albania: The Question of Southern Albania and Morton Frederick Eden, (University of Winchester, 2007).
W.F. Stirling, Safety Last, (London: Hollis and Carter, 1953).
Many thanks for Mevi Rafuna who has subsequently translated this article into Albanian and has found it a home in a number of Albanian news journals.