A European coalition united by the cause of Greek liberty defeats the Turkish navy to create an independent Greek state and further weaken the grip of the Ottoman Empire in Europe
Early on a bright Saturday morning in October 1827, a combined fleet of British, French and Russian warships was slowly manoeuvring into line a few miles out from the entrance to Navarino Bay in the western Peloponnese. In the van were the British ships under Admiral Codrington, who, as the senior ranking officer, it had been agreed should assume overall command. Some 5 miles to the rear were the French and Russians. Bottled up inside the bay, a large Ottoman fleet made up of Egyptian, Turkish and Tunisian vessels lay at anchor. What was to happen next hung delicately in the balance and to a large extent would be determined by events out of the immediate control of the supreme commanders.
Although officially the fleets were not at war, the ships of the western allies were intent on entering the bay at the ready. Charles McPherson, a sailor aboard the British frigate Genoa recalled that the ‘tubs were filled with shot and everything else prepared’. The men were at battle stations, and at six bells in the forenoon watch (11.00) they mustered into position encouraged by their officers; Lieutenant Broke with the words:
Now, my men, you see we are going into the harbour today. I know you’ll be right glad of it; at least, I suppose you would be as much against cruising off here all winter as I am. So, I say, let’s in today, and fight it out like British seamen, and if we fall, why there’s an end to our cruise. I hope, when the guns are to man, you’ll all be at your stations.
Many of the men had been up most of the night, so if they could they took the opportunity to grab some sleep between the guns as the ships advanced towards an unknown outcome.
If the two fleets were not at war, the question was, why were they so primed for action, for the Ottomans, led by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, too were at the ready. The European allies, as was to become more common practice in recent times, were acting as mediators in a bloody conflict between Greek revolutionaries or freedom fighters and their Turkish over-lords. The Greeks had raised their banner of liberty on 25 March 1821 in a bid to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, and with their supporters had swiftly taken control of much of the Peloponnese. In the following euphoria a revolutionary government was installed in Nafplion, but its continuing survival was heavily dependent on aid and money from abroad. If the mood of the people throughout Europe and America might be moving in favour of ideas of national liberation encouraged by the French Revolution, their governments were more cautious, and the nascent Greek government had to put all its diplomatic efforts into achieving official international recognition as the revolt dragged on. In a mismatch of resources with the Turks, the Greeks had one advantage, their skill as sailors. The rebels’ initial success had been largely due to their makeshift navy, whose efforts had prevented the Turks from reinforcing their troops from the sea. Initially caught on the back-foot and bottled up in their few remaining strongholds, when the Turks finally reacted, they did so in strength and with ruthless ferocity. To quell the revolt, in 1822 Sultan Mahmud II turned to his semi-autonomous Egyptian vassal, Mehmed (Muhammad) Ali Pasha. Mehmed Ali and his son Ibrahim had spent the years since Napoleon’s invasion reforming and modernizing Egypt with the help of European expertise, and as a result he possessed a modern, disciplined army and navy, trained in the main by French officers. Mehmed and Ibrahim were also ambitious and the Sultan was wary of their growing power. As an inducement for them to commit to helping the Ottoman cause, the Sultan offered the Pashliks of Crete to Mehmed and the Morea (the Peloponnese) to Ibrahim if they would re-conquer the Empire’s lost territories.
Crete had never been totally lost to the Turks but it still took two years for Mehmed’s Egyptian troops to finally bring the island to heel. With Crete subdued, the Sultan’s plan was to use it as a stepping-stone to bring the Greek islands back under control and to invade the Peloponnese. In the meantime, an army coming overland from the north would have the Greeks squeezed within a pincer movement. The Sultan’s plans were delayed when the Greek navy managed to thwart the Turks’ attempts to take the important islands of Samos, Spetses and Hydra, stalling their invasion of the Peloponnese and forcing the Turkish fleet to withdraw to Bodrum, where they waited to be joined by an Egyptian fleet out from Alexandria. Ibrahim had decided to concentrate his efforts on the Peloponnese and a vast armada of 400 ships, including 54 warships and transports carrying 14,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and 500 artillerymen plus their 150 cannon, the largest seen in the eastern Mediterranean since Napoleon’s invasion, set off for its rendezvous.
The planned invasion got no further when a Greek fleet of up to 75 ships engaged 100 of the Ottoman fighting ships in open water off Cape Gerondas close to the island of Leros. Using their favourite weapon, the fireship, the Greeks managed to destroy six enemy warships, but at considerable cost. Nevertheless, the Turks were obliged to delay again and winter in Crete until, in February 1825 on French advice Ibrahim decided it would be to his advantage not to wait for the calms of summer that suited the lighter Greek ships but to launch his invasion now.
On the 23rd and 24th Ibrahim landed the advance party of his army at the Turkish-held former Venetian stronghold of Modon (Methoni). Having taken his opponents by surprise he was soon making good the Turkish losses, aided in part by civil war and dissention between the Greek factions. He set about ravishing the countryside, securing Turkish positions and besieging Greek strongholds. The harbour and forts at Navarino were taken in early 1825 and followed by Argos within striking distance of Nafplion. In the meantime, the Turkish army under Reshid Pasha had advanced on Missolonghi, where the poet Lord Byron had died (1824), from the north. After a prolonged siege the town eventually fell in 1826 after it was starved into submission with Ibrahim’s aid. Next June Reshid was in Athens, the last major stronghold in central Greece. After six years of brutal warfare the Greek revolt was floundering.
While many Philhellenes across Europe and America had been galvanised by Byron’s death and the devastation of the Morea to continue the fight for Greek liberty, their governments were still sitting on the fence, wary of their rivals and the consequences of intervention on the international balance of power and the established order. Without official foreign backing, the revolt looked doomed. However, reports that Ibrahim intended to make the Peloponnese into a wasteland and then people it with immigrants from Egypt, coupled with the courage of the beleaguered fighters, played into the Philhellenes’ hands and enough public support was mobilized to finally persuade the British, French and Russian governments to act. The Russians were already committed to helping their Christian Orthodox brethren, and perhaps gain a little territory at Turkish expense for themselves, and with the sympathetic George Canning replacing Castlereagh as Britain’s Foreign Secretary the policy of non-intervention brokered by Prince Metternich, his Austrian counterpart, at the conclusion of the Napoleonic War began to unravel. To pre-empt Russian unilateral action, in July 1827, Canning, now Prime Minister, persuaded France and Russia to sign the Treaty of London whereby the three powers agreed to induce an armistice between the belligerents and start peace negotiations. The terms of the Treaty urged the Sultan to recognize the independence of Greece while remaining its supreme ruler. The Porte, the Ottoman government in Constantinople, was understandably unwilling to make such concessions from a winning position, while the hard-pressed Greek provisional government at Nafplion was happier to accept the terms.
As the diplomatic posturing got underway, the Greek government were quite willing to talk, but this did not put an end to the fighting, which continued, in part encouraged by Western volunteers leading groups of irregulars. Particularly responsible were Sir Richard Church and Lord Thomas Cochrane, an army and a naval commander, who had so wholeheartedly thrown themselves into the Greek cause that although they were theoretically acting on behalf of the government they were independently waging their own war against the Turks. Their activities led to the Turks protesting that they could not negotiate while hostilities were continuing. Back in Egypt, Mehmed Pasha was tiring of the lack of progress in bringing the war to a conclusion and vacillating in his commitment to the Sultan. Thrust into this volatile situation with the task of keeping the peace and promoting the peace negotiations was the recently-appointed Commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Codrington. How the Treaty was to be enforced had been left unclear, so in the knowledge that the Turks were reluctant to accept mediation, the British government had issued a clarification to Codrington setting out a specific course of action for him to pursue going forward:
In the event anticipated of the refusal of the Porte to admit the mediation and to consent to an armistice, you will then, in the first place, have to enter on friendly relations with the Greeks, and next to intercept every supply sent by sea of men, arms, destined against Greece and coming either from Turkey or Africa in general.
Further instructions from Canning emphasised that the desire of the Allies was to enforce the armistice without recourse to military intervention, but in the event of all other means being exhausted, Codrington was free to resort to military force. It was with the purpose of maintaining the armistice that Codrington had arrived with a squadron of ships at Navarino in October 1827 in the wake of a large fleet of Ottoman reinforcements.
Codrington was a bluff, highly experienced navy man. He had joined at the age of 14 and gone on to distinguish himself as captain of HMS Orion at the Battle of Trafalgar under Nelson over twenty years previously. Courageous in action, he was conscientious and naturally cautious in his planning, and his devotion to his officers and crew was rewarded with their loyalty. It might be thought that his direct manner, which had brought him into conflict with his superiors when speaking up on behalf of his men, would make him unsuitable for the delicate role of mediator and leader of an uneasy alliance. Even if he was not a natural diplomat, Codrington took his task seriously, scrupulously attempting to maintain an air of impartiality and acting out his peacekeeping orders, as he saw them, in good faith; but his membership of the London Philhellenic Committee reveals where his true sympathies lay. His fellow admirals were not necessarily so restrained in their judgement. Also veterans of the Napoleonic wars, as were many of the lesser ranks on both sides, the admirals were united in their sympathy to the Greek cause. Marie Henri Daniel Gauthier, Comte de Rigny, had fought with courage against the British during the blockades of Cherbourg and Le Havre in 1811, and the commander of the Russian fleet, Count Lodewijk van Heiden, was a Dutchman who had offered his services to the Tsar’s navy during the complicated period of shifting alliances that pitted him against the French and then with the French against the British. With the recent history of the allies so fresh in the minds of many of the participants, it was only to be expected that Codrington had misgivings about how collaboration between such recent enemies might be effected. Even Ibrahim Pasha had fought during the recent wars, taking on the British in Alexandria in 1807 and forcing them to retreat out of Egypt.
Unlike Codrington, who had not served in the Mediterranean for over forty years and had only just over six months to get acquainted with the region, de Rigny had been sailing these waters for the last five years and was experienced in local sensibilities and on good terms with the Egyptians. With a tactful, easy-going nature, he was prepared to take things as they came, even by force if necessary. The two commanders were initially wary of one another and with the overall command of the fleet falling to Codrington there was naturally some unease on the part of de Rigny at first. They had first met in Smyrna at the beginning of August after Codrington had completed a familiarisation tour starting out from the British base at Malta that took in Nafplion, where he was required to restore some order between rival political factions. It was there that he had learned of the Treaty of London and he travelled on to Smyrna to receive instructions from Stratford Canning, cousin of George and the British Ambassador in Constantinople. Although Codrington and de Rigny both wanted to alleviate Greek suffering, they also found common cause in the need to stamp out indiscriminate piracy, something the Greek sailors were engaged in to supplement their meagre livelihoods. Because the Treaty had been drawn up by politicians far from the events unfolding on the ground, it was vague enough to offer some differences of interpretation, but both were of the view it would eventually lead to Greek independence. Austria’s non-signatory of the Treaty left possible areas of disagreement as to how to deal with its neutrality, especially as in reality the Austrian captains tended to interpret the terms of their neutrality in favour of the Turks.
It was as the British and French admirals were getting acquainted in Smyrna that they received the news that Mehmed Ali Pasha had had another change of heart and a large Turco-Egyptian fleet of around a hundred ships had left Alexandria on 5 August to support to Ibrahim’s campaign in the Peloponnese. Under the command of Ibrahim’s brother-in-law Moharrem Bey, the Egyptian fleet of three frigates, nine corvettes, four brigs and six sloops had been supplemented by an Imperial squadron from Constantinople under Tahir Pasha comprising of two ships-of-the-line, five frigates and nine corvettes, and a Tunisian squadron of three frigates, a brig, six fireships and forty transports manned in all by 30,000 sailors, carrying 3,500 guns and over 4,500 men including 600 Albanian irregulars. Five of the warships had been built in France, and assisting the Turks were six former French naval officers under the leadership of Captain Jean-Marie Letellier, all of whom had served under Napoleon. In Mehmed’s words to his son, ‘It is not the sort of fleet you have seen hitherto. It is now a brilliant fleet in the modern style, and such as has never been seen before in the Muslim world.’ Ibrahim would assume overall command of the fleet as well as the land army when it arrived in the Peloponnese and it would be with Ibrahim that the allied commanders would have to deal.
Prime Minister Canning had warned Mehmed Pasha not to get further involved in the conflict on the side of Turkey as it might provoke a ‘hostile collision’ despite the best endeavours to avoid it. Disregarding Canning’s attempted intervention, the fleet arrived at Navarino Bay on 7 September. The bay offered a deep natural harbour just over 3 miles (5km) long by nearly 2 miles (3km) wide, protected along its length from the open sea by the small thin island of Sphakteria, leaving access to the bay by two narrow channels to the north and the south. The shallow northern channel is narrowed further by the presence of a sandbank that prohibits the passage of larger vessels. The southern wider channel, flanked by rocks, is just over half a mile (1,000m) wide, leaving enough room to pass through safely. Within the enclosed area of the bay, slightly to the north of the centre, lies the tiny island of Chelonisi. The town, which sits by a promontory at the southern end, is known by its ancient name of Pylos today and is mainly remembered as the home of the legendary wise King Nestor who supplied ships in support of the Greek cause in the Trojan War. A fort built in 425BC by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War on the northern promontory became the site of a castle after the Frankish conquest in the 13th century, and the settlement became known as Navarin in French or Navarino in Italian. The fortress and harbour then changed hands several times, having been fought over by the Venetians and Genoese, been held by the Spanish Navarrese Company and again by Venice before falling into the hands of the Turks in 1501 who used it as a base for piracy and their naval operations in the Ionian and Adriatic seas. In the aftermath of the Battle of Lepanto, Turkish naval vessels were scuttled near the northern entrance making access hazardous, so in 1572 the Turks replaced the Frankish castle, now known as the Old Castle (Palaiokastro), with a new fortress (Neokastro) to guard the wider southern entrance. Navarino continued to be a desired possession and during the Morean War of 1685 Neokastro fell to the Venetians before coming back under Ottoman rule when the Turks retook the Peloponnese in 1715. Navarino was then made the centre of a new Sanjak of the Morea and resumed its role as a base for the Ottoman navy. During the early success of their uprising, the Greeks took Neokastro, slaughtering the garrison before the Turks were able to react and attempts to send reinforcements were kept at bay by the Greek navy. Navarino fell back into Turkish hands in 1825 only when Ibrahim launched his brutal counter-offensive.
At first, the departure of the Turco-Egyptian fleet from Alexandria drew a different response from the two allied admirals. At this stage, as neither of their squadrons was as yet at full strength and the Russians were still on their way from the Baltic to join the allies, they were heavily out-numbered. As soon as Codrington learned that the ships had arrived at Navarino where Ibrahim was camped, he left Nafplion and four days later he had positioned his squadron outside the Bay with the intent of bottling up the Ottoman fleet where it could do no harm. In contrast de Rigny, reading Ibrahim’s intended strategy correctly, had decided to cruise off Kythera in the hope that the Turks would break out from Navarino and make for Hydra in an attempt to knock out the Greek navy’s main base, and he could then engage them at sea. In reality, neither the French nor British, with only 28 fighting ships between them, were really in a position to push for an encounter. Furthermore, the diplomatic message from home was to continue to encourage negotiation, even though the deployment of the Ottoman fleet in the Peloponnese was seen as an infringement of the terms of the Treaty that the powers had laid out.
Contact having been made between Codrington and Ibrahim, the niceties of diplomacy through intermediaries began to prove difficult for men more used to action rather than talking. Codrington’s negotiating position was made more difficult by his awareness of the continued activities of Cochrane and Church. This meant he had to try to keep them on a leash while at the same time holding Ibrahim back from any retaliation. Ibrahim protested, again with some justification, that he was being asked to uphold a ceasefire and engage in talks as the Greeks carried on operations regardless. Indeed, at that very moment Church was eyeing up Patras and Cochrane planning a revolt behind Turkish lines in Epirus, beyond the agreed combat zone. If Ibrahim was to pull back, the Turks wanted guarantees, but as things stood they felt they were free to interpret matters in their own interest. So, on 21 September, while the talks continued and despite the warnings against any hostile action, a part of the Turco-Egyptian fleet slipped out of Navarino, apparently making for Hydra as de Rigny had anticipated. Codrington was now forced in the circumstances to prepare for a possible battle even though he was heavily outnumbered. Luckily for the British, it was then that de Rigny and the French squadron made a timely appearance at Navarino, putting a halt to the Turks’ plans. The more aggressive de Rigny added his own warnings to the Turks with the result that Ibrahim now felt it prudent to invite Codrington and de Rigny for a face-to-face meeting on 25 September.
The face-to-face conference took place in Ibrahim’s tent outside the town walls from where, seated on his sofa, he had a fine view of the bay. The meeting was carried out within an atmosphere of the utmost politeness and protocol. Important matters were only to be discussed after coffee and the smoking of a chibouque, a Turkish tobacco pipe with a ten-foot long stem. When it was time to get down to business, Codrington and de Rigny frankly pointed out to Ibrahim that under the terms of the Treaty it was their duty to intercept any reinforcements being sent to him for use against Greece. In return, Ibrahim politely pointed out that he was a soldier and under orders from the Sultan to attack Hydra. The admirals acknowledged his own sense of duty but warned him that if he put to sea they would be forced to act, and it would be an ‘act of madness that the Sultan could not applaud’ for him to engage with them as the destruction of his fleet would surely follow. They added that although his obstinacy would offer them the opportunity as military men to distinguish themselves, their priority was the maintenance of good relations between their respective countries. Ibrahim in response declared that as his government had not foreseen such a situation of confrontation between the two fleets, he promised he would suspend operations until he received further instruction from Constantinople. The admirals on their part said that the Greeks had accepted the mediation of the Allies and Codrington would put a stop to the activities of Church and Cochrane.
On 13 October, the Russians finally arrived to rendezvous with the British south of Zakynthos, followed closely by the French, bringing the three squadrons together for the first time. Codrington met Heiden and de Rigny aboard his flagship the Asia, but not together. Insisting that he needed to head for Zakynthos for provisions, de Rigny excused himself before the Russian admiral came on board. The Allies were by no means fully ready for action and their combined force was still outnumbered by the Turco-Egyptian fleet. Although Heiden’s complement was complete, comprising his flagship, the Azov, three other ships-of-the-line (Gangout, Ezekiel and Alexander Nevsky) and four frigates (Constantine, Povernoy, Elena and Castor), the British lacked two ships-of-the-line, the Genoa and Albion, both undergoing repairs at Malta, while Captain Hamilton in the frigate Cambrian had been sent off to track Ibrahim’s progress to Kalamata and ensure the safety of the Greek population. There were only four French ships present, two ships-of-the-line, Trident and Breslau, and two frigates, Sirène and Amide.
Codrington informed his fellow commanders of his latest orders and intelligence from Constantinople and the three were in general agreement that pressure should be put on the squadrons of Ibrahim’s fleet to return to their respective home ports. De Rigny acknowledged this might entail the Allies’ entering Navarino bay, so he would be obliged to abandon his surveillance of Hydra. He returned the next day from Zakynthos just as the third French ship-of-the-line, Scipion, joined the fleet from Kythera having been refitted with a new mast. Once the Allies had taken up position outside Navarino, de Rigny made contact with the renagadoes, the French naval officers employed by Ibrahim to help in the preparation of his defensive line. Through them de Rigny may have been able to gain inside knowledge as to the Turks’ activities and then it only remained to persuade them not to fight their fellow countrymen. With their work done all left Navarino on 17 October aboard an Austrian ship, except for Letellier, who was sick.
Codrington met Heiden aboard his flagship on 16 October, where he was made aware of Heiden’s opinion that the Tsar had probably already declared war. Heiden and Codrington got on well, but for his part Codrington continued to stick by his orders, insisting that war was not inevitable. Even so his patience was running out. His squadron was nearing battle ready, with every man at his post, and the talk amongst the ratings was, as Charles McPherson of the Genoa put it, of ‘the impending conflict’. On 18 October the three admirals met aboard Codrington’s flagship Asia. The Allies were faced with a dilemma, and it was forcing their hand. They could continue the blockade through the winter – this would be difficult, expensive and ineffective in curtailing Ibrahim’s activities on land – they could move into the bay in the hope that their mere presence would impede the enemy fleet and bring about a change of heart on his part, something they thought unlikely, or they could enter the Bay to actively impress on Ibrahim that he must obey the treaty.
The admirals unanimously chose the latter course. For Codrington it was the only option that could bring a halt to Ibrahim’s ‘brutal war of extermination’ and end the suffering of the Greek population. Both de Rigny and Heiden were of the opinion this would inevitably lead to bloodshed, but Codrington still misread the Turkish mind. He assumed Ibrahim would see the futility of the situation and relent, not understanding the overriding Ottoman sense of honour and fatalism. To safeguard themselves from criticism the three drew up a protocol outlining their reasons for taking independent action in view of the vague nature of their instructions.
The next day the Genoa and Albion arrived from Malta accompanied by the brig Mosquito bringing the fleet nearly up to full strength. In the meantime, Captain Hamilton had reported in person that Ibrahim’s troops were carrying out a brutal scorched earth policy that was reducing the population of Messenia to starvation. Codrington sent Hamilton back to Kalamata, accompanied by the sloop Philomel and the Russian frigate Constantine to add weight. Hamilton’s mission was to contact the Greeks and make whatever effort to protect them from the ‘barbarities’ of Ibrahim’s army, and to push the Ottomans back within the confines of Navarino. At the same time, he sent a letter signed by the three admirals to Ibrahim, who he assumed was in Navarino, via Colonel Craddock aboard the cruiser Dartmouth. The letter accused Ibrahim once again of violating the armistice, something that Ibrahim would defiantly have rejected if he had seen it, but he was actually at Modon preparing to lead his army in person. It was now too late to deter Ibrahim and the various ships returned to the fleet. Whatever Ibrahim’s misgivings about taking on the Allied fleet, the mood in Constantinople was not conciliatory and instructions had been sent to him the same day to continue with the plan to attack Hydra regardless of the consequences. Events were rapidly moving towards an inevitable showdown.
By now the die was cast and Admiral Codrington gathered his senior commanders together aboard the Asia to give them their operational orders, orders based on sound intelligence. He was well informed on the size of Ibrahim’s fleet and its disposition, backed up by the topographical survey written by Captain Leake that would be published in his Travels in the Morea in 1830, and the local knowledge of Greek pilots and fishermen. In addition, as a keen historian, his reading included Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and the description of the encounter that took place at Navarino during which a combined Athenian naval and military force overcame the Spartans encamped on Sphakteria island. Thucydides gave a detailed topographical description and the problems the Athenians encountered with the weather. Captain Leake too reported that the exposed area outside the southern entrance was problematic to maintaining a position, especially during winter. Codrington noted that the Athenians had sailed around the island through the passage by ancient Pylos, an option no longer practical due to the increased size of the ships. There was a similarity with the present situation, as the Turks had a gun battery guarding the bay on the island. The Spartan fleet was also drawn up in the confined space of the bay blocking both entrances, and it was here that the Athenians took them on, after failing to entice them into open waters.