On 20 October 1827 a combined fleet of British, French and Russian vessels destroyed the Ottoman fleet at anchor in Navarino bay in Greece. The battle is notable for being the last major engagement involving only wooden sailing ships, and also a decisive step in the journey towards Greek and eastern European independence.
An empire in decline
Throughout the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was known as “the sick man of Europe.” In an age characterised by seeking to maintain the fragile balance between the great powers, the decline of this once-mighty empire was a source of concern for the British and French, with Russia poised to capitalise on this weakness.
The Ottomans had once struck fear into the Christian nations of Europe, but a lack of technological innovation and defeats at Lepanto and Vienna meant that the zenith of Ottoman power was now a thing of the distant past. By the 1820s the scent of Ottoman weakness had spread to their possessions – particularly Greece. After three centuries of Ottoman rule Greek nationalism awakened with a series of revolts in 1821.
Fight for freedom
Greece was the jewel in the Ottoman crown, dominating trade and industry in the Empire, and the response of the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II was savage. The Patriarch of Constantinople Gregory V was seized upon after mass and publicly hanged by Turkish soldiers. Unsurprisingly, this escalated the violence, which erupted into a full-scale war.
By 1825, the Greeks had been unable to drive the Ottomans out of their homeland, but at the same time their revolt had survived and lost none of its potency. However, 1826 proved to be decisive as Mahmud utilised the modernised army and navy of his Egyptian vassal Muhammad Ali to invade Greece from the south. Despite heroic Greek resistance, by 1827 their revolt appeared to be doomed.
In Europe, the plight of the Greeks proved to be highly divisive. Since Napoleon had finally been defeated in 1815 the Great Powers were committed to retaining an equilibrium in Europe, and Great Britain and Austria were firmly against siding with Greece – recognizing that fighting against Imperial hegemony would be hypocritical and counter-productive for their own interests. However, France was once again proving troublesome.
With the hated Bourbon dynasty restored after Napoleon’s final defeat, many Frenchmen had a romantic idea of the Greek struggle, seeing parallels with their own oppression. By presenting the Greek resistance as a heroic Christian struggle against Islamic oppression these French liberals won many supporters across Europe.
Coinciding with this movement was the death of Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1825. His successor Nicholas I was fiercely nationalistic and made it very clear to the other powers that he was determined to assist the Greeks, who shared his Orthodox faith.
Furthermore, Conservative British Foreign Minister Castlereagh was replaced by the more liberal George Canning, who was more inclined to intervene in the Greek War. The main motivation for this, however, was still to ensure that Greece did not fall into aggressive Russian hands whilst appearing to be supporting the Tsar’s cause.
The road to Navarino
In July 1827 Britain France and Russia signed the Treaty of London, which demanded a cessation of Ottoman attacks and full autonomy for the Greeks. Though the Treaty was nominally not taking sides, it was proof that the Greeks now had the support that they desperately needed.
The Ottomans, unsurprisingly, rejected the Treaty, and as a result a British naval force under Admiral Codrington was sent off. Codrington was a man unlikely to exercise much tact, as a vehement hellenophile and battle-scarred veteran of Trafalgar. With this fleet approaching Greek waters by September, the Ottomans agreed to cease the fighting as long as the Greeks did the same.
However, the Greek armies, which were commanded by British officers, continued to advance, and the truce broke down. In response, Ottoman commander Ibrahim Pasha continued to commit civilian atrocities on land. With a fight seemingly inevitable, French and Russian squadrons joined Codrington on the 13th October. Together, these fleets took the decision to enter Ottoman-held Navarino bay on the 18th.
A bold plan…
Navarino was the base of the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets, and a well-protected natural harbour. Here, supposedly the presence of the Allied fleet was supposed to serve as a warning, but inevitably battle was joined. Codrington’s tactical plan was immensely risky, involving a full engagement of the Ottoman fleet without the opportunity to withdraw from this close-quarters fight if necessary.
This plan reeked of confidence, and showed the immense faith the Allies had in their technological and tactical superiority.
…but it paid off
Ibrahim demanded the Allies leave the bay, but Codrington replied that he was there to give orders, not to take them. The Ottomans sent fireships into the enemy, but failed to cause enough confusion to prevent a well-ordered advance. Soon superior Allied gunnery took its toll on the Ottoman fleet, and the former’s superiority was quickly making itself felt across the line.
Only on the right, where the Russian ships fought, were there serious difficulties, as the Azov sunk or crippled four ships despite taking 153 hits herself. By 4 P.M, just two hours after the battle started, all the Ottoman ships of the line had been dealt with, leaving the smaller ships at anchor, which were savaged in the ensuing fighting despite Codrington’s attempts to end the battle.
The admiral would later pay homage to the courage of the Turkish fleet in his despatches, but out their 78 ships only 8 were now seaworthy. The battle was a crushing victory for the Allies, who did not lose a single vessel.
A pivotal moment
News of the battle sparked wild celebrations across Greece, even in the areas held by Ottoman garrisons. Though the Greek War of Independence was far from over Navarino saved their fledgling state from destruction and would prove to be the pivotal moment in the war.
As a British-lead victory, it also prevented the Russians from taking up the role of the benevolent saviours of Greece. This proved crucial, as the independent nation which emerged from Navarino would prove to be an independent one largely absent from the games of the Great Powers. Greeks celebrate 20 October, the anniversary of Navarino, to this day.