The Little Known Turkish Roots of Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, Britain’s eccentric former Prime Minister is seldom, if ever, brought up in relation to topics of Armenian and Greek interest (though that he won the “most offensive Erdogan poem” competition is certainly of interest . What did he do with the £1,000 prize? Your guess is as good as mine!).

In fact, he is so removed from the Armenian conversation, that one might be forgiven for thinking his first formal contact with Armenia came in the form of a 15 minute-long phone conversation with a Russian prankster claiming to be the newly elected Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan.

As for his connections to Greece, we all know of his love for the Greek classics, but perhaps not-so-much with the modern state.

But curiously enough, the Johnson family history is intimately, if not fatalistically, tied to that of the Armenians and Greeks.

The story really begins in turn of the 20th-century Constantinople, where the young Ottoman technocrat, Ali Kemal Bey, was at the incline of a relatively modest rise into the ranks of the Bosphorus intelligentsia.

Kemal, the son of a Circassian slave and a Turkish business magnate, had grown up in all the comforts expected of his privileged status. He was educated in the prestigious new schools set up by Sultan Abdul Hamid in the hopes of preparing the dying empire’s future generation of technocratic reformers.

Instead, these campuses became hotbeds of opposition to the Sultan’s absolutist ruling style. Graduates, who took on the monicker Young Turks (this is before they were known for Armenian and Greek Genocide, or hosting left-wing talk shows), had adopted a decisively Western-oriented outlook, spoke fluent French and longed to replicate the democratic, bureaucratic and industrial reforms they had witnessed in the capitals of Europe in their own country.

His time in the Ottoman school system exposed Kemal to liberal ideas, causing him much trouble with the authorities. He was eventually imprisoned and exiled to Syria.

In time, Kemal developed an ‘Ottomanist’ ideology. He argued for a free and multicultural Ottoman Empire, united under a civic Ottoman identity rather than ethnic nationalism. He had been vocal about the Empire’s treatment of its minorities such as the Armenians.

Kemal’s family wealth afforded him the luxuries of travel, and London quickly became a favorite destination. He met his first wife, a British woman named Winifred Brun in one such sojourn.

By the time she died while giving birth in 1910 to Osman Kemal Wilfred Johnson — Boris Johnson’s grandfather (are you connecting the dots now?) — the situation in Kemal’s native Constantinople was changing rapidly.

Abdul Hamid II, by now known through the macabre epithet ‘the Red Sultan’, had finally been overthrown following the Young Turk revolution an attempted counter-coup.

A resolute liberal and anglophile, Ali Kemal strongly disapproved of the Committee for Union and Progress’ (CUP) instigation of the 1913 Ottoman coup d’état. He denounced the “Three Pasha’s” authoritarian rule and increasing overtures towards Germany.

While his contemporaries in the CUP—the major force behind the increasingly nationalist Young Turk movement—had so admired social-Darwinism and Meiji-Era Japan, Kemal had looked to Britain as a model for bureaucratic reform, industrial growth and democratic proliferation.

It is in this period of turmoil that Kemal briefly returned to Constantinople, marrying his second wife before escaping to Britain with his children. In a feat of poetic irony, Kemal’s son by his second wife, Zeki Kuneralp, would years later become the intended victim of a failed ASALA attack while serving as Turkish ambassador in Madrid.

Kemal made the most of his British exile. As the Great War unfolded, he spoke out passionately and repeatedly against the deportations, expropriations and organized massacres now known as the Armenian Genocide.

He was also unequivocal in placing the blame directly on the CUP leadership.

Putting pen to paper in his opus magnum, Fetret (“Interregnum” in Turkish) written as a sort of ode to his son Wilfred, he laid out his vision for a modern Turkey: monarchical, but constitutional; Islamic, yet secular; modern, while rooted in tradition; distinctly Turkish, yet welcoming of its Armenian and Greek minorities.

Ali Kemal would soon see the opportunity to participate in the creation of the country he had so dreamed of. By 1918, the defeated Ottoman government, exhausted from four years of fighting, signed the Armistice of Mudros, formally ending military operations.

The CUP was swiftly deposed to be replaced by a provisional government under the supervision of the Allied occupation force. Ali Kemal Pasha briefly served as Interior Minister (a post once held by Talat Pasha), where he oversaw the establishment of the first court-marshals against the perpetrators of the Armenian and Greek Genocides.

But Kemal’s zealous struggle to prosecute the CUP, combined with his reputation as an Anglophile, brought him many enemies in interbellum Turkey. His vocal opposition to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s increasingly popular nationalist movement proved to be the last straw.

In November 1922, he was kidnapped from a barbershop mid-shave. Coincidentally, this barbershop was located in the lobby of the Armenian-owned Tokatlıyan Hotel in Beyoğlu.

The hotel had been one of the first European-style establishments in Turkey. Having survived vandalism during the Genocide, it was eventually reacquired by the Armenian Church, which maintains the property to this day. Kemal’s fate would much more tragic.

His captors placed him on a train to Ankara, where he would be tried for treason by the Kemalist authorities. The train never reached its destination.

He was apprehended shortly after his departure and lynched by an angry mob. The crowd hung a sign with the fictitious, Armenian-sounding name “Artun Kemal” around his neck as a final display of indignity for his defense of the Armenians.

His memory would live on in Turkey as one of the country’s most iconic traitors.

In Britain, Kemal’s characteristically unconventional charisma would echo in his great grandson, Boris Johnson: a “small-c” conservative, a defender of the monarchy with great confidence in the strength of the British model and a tendency to make public gaffe after gaffe.

Johnson even praised his great-grandfather in a 2008 interview with the BBC, saying “he stuck to his guns.”

This article first appeared in The Armenian Weekly in 2018 and has been slightly amended for today's context.

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