History of the Navarino Bay

Battle of Navarino

The naval Battle of Navarino was fought on 20 October 1827, during the Greek War of Independence (1821–32), in Navarino Bay (modern-day Pylos), on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula, in the Ionian Sea.

An Ottoman armada, which, in addition to imperial warships, included squadrons from the eyalets (provinces) of Egypt, Tunis and Algiers, was destroyed by an Allied force of British, French and Russian vessels.

It was the last major naval battle in history to be fought entirely with sailing ships, although most ships fought at anchor. The Allies’ victory was achieved through superior firepower and gunnery.

The central factor which precipitated the intervention of the three Great Powers in the Greek conflict were the Russian Empire’s ambitions to expand in the Black Sea region at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and Russian emotional support for the fellow-Orthodox Christian Greeks, who had rebelled against their Ottoman overlords in 1821.

Russia’s intentions in the region were seen as a major geostrategic threat by the other European powers, which feared the disintegration of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of Russian hegemony in the Balkans and the Near East.

This induced Great Britain and France to bind Russia in a joint intervention to secure Greek autonomy in a manner which preserved Ottoman territorial integrity. The Powers agreed, by the Treaty of London (1827), to force the Ottoman government to grant the Greeks autonomy within the empire and despatched naval squadrons to the eastern Mediterranean Sea to enforce their policy.

The naval battle happened more by accident than by design as a result of a manoeuvre by the Allied commander-in-chief, Admiral Edward Codrington, aimed at coercing the Ottoman commander to obey Allied instructions. The sinking of the Ottomans’ Mediterranean fleet saved the fledgling Greek Republic from collapse.

But it required two more military interventions, by Russia in the form of the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–9 and by a French expeditionary force to the Peloponnese to force the withdrawal of Ottoman forces from central and southern Greece and to secure Greek independence.

The Ottoman Turks had conquered the old Greek-controlled Byzantine empire during the late Middle Ages, taking over its territory and its capital, Constantinople, and becoming its effective successor-state.

Ethnic Turks were the “master-nation” of the empire, holding political and military power, but were a minority of the empire’s population, even of its Muslim population (as they were outnumbered by their Arab subjects).

Although officially Islamic, its Christian inhabitants (Greek, Balkan, Armenian and Christian Arab) represented roughly half the total population. Although granted freedom of worship and generally better treated than non-Christians in most European countries, non-Muslims in the Ottoman empire were subject to heavy discriminatory obligations.

They were required, in accordance with Islamic Law, to pay a special poll tax, the jizya, which in times of poor harvests could be a crippling burden on mainly subsistence-level peasants.

Under the hated devşirme (military levy system), Christian communities were also forced to surrender 1 in 5 infant boys of each annual class to the Ottoman military (the finest physical specimens being selected by the recruiting-sergeants). These would be permanently separated from their families, and moved to military orphanages, where they were raised as Muslims and trained as warriors.

When they reached adulthood, they were recruited to the finest regiments of the Ottoman army, especially the elite Janissary corps (from Turkish yeniçeri = “new men”).

The Ottoman empire had once been the foremost military power in Europe, reaching its apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it posed a serious threat to Christian Europe. Its armies overran the entire Balkan peninsula and Greece, and reached the borders of Austria, laying siege to Vienna twice (in 1529 and 1683).

Its fleets dominated the Mediterranean sea. However the Ottomans had gradually fallen behind the other European powers as they failed to modernise their political institutions, economic system and military forces.

During the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire steadily lost territory in eastern Europe to the neighbouring Austrian and Russian empires (which annexed Hungary and southern Russia respectively).

By the start of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was the most economically backward and militarily weak of the great powers. But it’s territory, even after the continuous retreats, remained vast and strategic: it encompassed the Balkans, Anatolia, and all the Arab lands from Persia to Morocco.

The latter were seen by London as having crucial geo-strategic significance as they constituted the link between the Mediterranean and Britain’s empire in India.