Revolt in the Levant
No, not Syria today, but Greece nearly 200 years ago.
The Greek Revolt, which broke out 194 years ago today, was a curious business. Although it only concerned the fate of a small population on the fringe of Europe, it was always an international affair. The flames of the revolution were fanned not from within Greece, where the Orthodox Church was on friendly terms with the Ottoman Empire, but by Greeks living abroad who wanted the Byzantine Empire back, and by the non-Greeks who supported them and dreamed of a return to the glories of the days of Pericles. These were the Philhellenes.
Greece and Britain are at opposite ends of the European Union and politically seem to have little in
common. We send them our tourists and in return they send repeated requests to return their Marbles.
Yet it is strangely the case that probably no-one did more to create the modern Greek state than the British. I suppose I should add "except for the Greeks themselves" but, as we shall see, that may not actually be the case. Britain produced more Philhellenes than anywhere else and, in one of the many ironies of the situation, it was in no small part because we had the Parthenon Marbles that so many were inspired to help Greece.
This is a part of our history we have largely forgotten for far too long, so here is the story.
A ship of the East India Company in Corfu harbour
It was always unfortunate that for the Classically trained Englishmen than ran the show that the British Empire mostly consisted of places they'd never heard of. However in the Ionian Islands they were in their element. Unfortunately the reality of a marginal life on a small island meant that the actual Greeks they bumped into rarely fitted their preconceptions of Homeric heroes and Sapphic beauties. "The constant use of garlic and the rare use of soap, impress an Englishman very disagreeably," wrote one disappointed administrator.
British rule was mildly benevolent despotism. The enlisted men of the garrison seemed to spend most of their time drunk on the local wine, thus setting the trend for the British tourists that would arrive 150 years later, whilst their social superiors promenaded in the sunshine. Enough Greeks tries to copy the latter that new Orders of Chivalry were created to reward them and the rules of cricket were translated into Greek (απο ξυλα means 'bowled' apparently).
Guilford, like most of the other Brits in the Ionian Islands, was sympathetic to the Greek cause, but maintained the strict neutrality that his government demanded.
The islands provided a haven for thousands of refugees from the fighting and a vital postal service that allowed the beleaguered Greek rebels to communicate with the outside world, but otherwise could not help Greeks in their fight.
Commodore Gawan Hamilton
|HMS Cambrian by Jack Sullivan (1976)|
That man was the Royal Navy's Commodore Gawan Hamilton. Hamilton is a bit of a mystery to the historian. He breezes in on his frigate HMS Cambrian, spends five years sailing round the war zone, turning up when most needed, dispensing sage advice to both sides, and keeping his head when all about him are loosing theirs, sometimes literally. He then puts down a nest of pirates in Crete and disappears from history. We know very little about him, but he appears to be a remarkable man even in a navy that was, at that time, full of remarkable men.
In 1823, for example, he arrived in Napflio just as the town has fallen to the rebels and the victorious Greeks were getting ready to massacre the Turks. Hamilton persuaded them to let the Turks leave in chartered ships, taking 500 to Smyrna in his own frigate.
The next year Hamilton was back in Nafplio. The revolt had just suffered a major defeat and the army of the Turkish vassal the Pasha of Egypt was closing in on the seat of the revolutionary government, which was paralysed with fear. But when the Egyptians arrived they found three ships bearing the White Ensign moored in the harbour and a rumour sweeping the countryside that the British had orders to fire in the defence of the town. The Pasha withdrew, the revolution survived and Hamilton sailed away again.
Finally he appears again in1827. Two main factions each claiming to be the legitimate government of Greece, each with their own base, and the revolt was paralysed, with neither party prepared to back down. Once more the Commodore arrived in the nick of time and once again he managed to sort things out, arranging a meeting at a neutral venue where, even though they failed to sort out who ran the country, they at least managed the vital task of agreeing who was to lead the Army and the Navy.
The Legion and the Regiment
|The Battle of Peta|
Volunteers from across Europe flocked to the Peloponnese with dreams of fighting alongside a modern Leonidas in a new Battle of Marathon. When they got there they found themselves in a confusing guerilla war alongside bandits-turned-rebels, who often as not turned back to bandits again, and who cared nothing for chivalrous warfare and even less for military discipline.
In the mountains of Greece these methods worked well, whereas the standing-bravely-shoulder-to-shoulder tactics of the volunteers proved suicidal in the face of superior Turkish numbers and artillery. The first Regiment was wiped out gloriously in battle in an insignificant village called Peta. A few disillusioned survivors returned to Europe to warn of the futility of it all, but still people volunteered. Proving that the krauts did used to actually like the Greeks once upon a time, the next unit formed was called the German Legion. It went out six months later and suffered the same fate as the Regiment.
When this disaster failed to stop the exodus of hopeful heroes the French authorities took action and shut the port of Marseilles to volunteers.
The Crown and Anchor Committee
|The Crown and Anchor|
The London Philhellenic Committee meant business. They had access to vast quantities of cash in the form of loans and bonds and they would eventually end up sending to Greece both Britain's greatest poet and her most famous sailor, as well as commissioning the most potent fighting ship then afloat.
|Lord Byron lands in Greece|
However nobody who knew him could have believed he would have been happy just to be the banker of the revolution. Stopping off in the Ionian islands on the way, where he contemplated buying Ithaca, he eventually landed in Missolonghi, where one of those claiming to be leading the revolt had his HQ.
Byron soon acquired an entourage of Albanian bandits who were happy to take his money and strut their stuff, but who all promptly ran away when he tried to use them to attack the Turkish fort at Lepanto. He was contemplating the utter failure of his plans when he fell ill and, after bloodletting failed to make him any better, he caught sepsis and died.
Whilst it was certainly a death in Greece and probably a death because of Greece, it was hardly a death for Greece. Byron had absolutely no desire to pop his clogs in such a depressing manner. But it was a death, and the Hellenic Republic still celebrates Byron as the foreigner who died to free their country; a pity really, because there are many better candidates, the chief one of which we are about to meet.
Frank Abney Hastings
The Greek Revolutionary Navy was a nautical version of the guerrillas of its Army; small, lightweight vessels that could run rings around the lumbering Turkish men-o-war. The leaders of the Hellenic Navy were a colourful bunch, the most outlandish of which was a woman called Laskarina Bouboulina who was supposedly so ugly she had to take her lovers at gunpoint. Well, that's the story, but I suspect in reality she just used vast quantities of retsina like everyone else.
He got use to the regular beheading of captured Turks on the deck and the democratic nature of the Hellenic Navy, where everyone shouted orders but nobody obeyed them and each ship voted on whether to follow the orders of its Admiral. He had some success in a small, borrowed Greek vessel, and when no ship at all was available he used an island, laying siege to the Turkish forces in Napflio from an off-shore fort.
However Hastings had grander plans than that. He wanted the most powerful warship afloat, and thanks to the money from the Crown and Anchor Committee he was going to get it.
In Nelson's navy of brilliant but eccentric sea captains, Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was the most brilliant and eccentric of them all. As a frigate captain he had made more prize money out of capturing French ships than anyone else. He was the inspiration for the heroic captain in Master and Commander, written by one of his midshipmen, and so ended up being played by Russell Crowe.
Buying himself a seat in the House of Commons as a Radical he made himself unpopular by railing against corruption in the navy. When in 1814 he was the only person to make money out of a hoax that Napoleon had died he was imprisoned for fraud. He was dismissed from the navy, expelled from parliament and lost his knighthood.
Still protesting his innocence he served in the wars that freed South America from colonial rule, commanding the navies of Chile and then Brazil. He performed heroic feats of arms for both, and then argued about the money afterwards.
|The second siege of the Acropolis|
Cochrane arrived as the crisis was approaching. The rebels had assembled their largest army yet and, under the command of an Irish General called Church, were trying to relive the siege of the Acropolis. They had captured the port of Piraeus from which they could approach the citadel under cover of olive trees, safe from Turkish cavalry and cannon. Pretty hard to believe now, but that's how it was then.
Rather confusingly Church, the General, was at sea on a yacht and Cochrane, the Admiral, had come ashore. Not surprisingly this unorthodox command system failed miserably. Church and Cochrane tried an alternative route and the Greek army was mown down in the open. The two leaders escaped by wading out to waiting boats, but most of the soldiers weren't so lucky. The rebellion looked doomed.
At his direction the London Philhellenic Society had launched the SS Karteria, an iron ship powered by steam engines and equipped with monster 68 pounder cannons firing explosive shot. It's difficult to appreciate how far ahead of its time this ship was. Even getting the vessel to Greece had probably broken several records for an iron ship.
The Karteria was soon in action. In a series of hit and run operations Hastings wiped out Turkish forts, transports and warships. His opponents probably had no idea what they were fighting. Belching smoke, steaming straight into the wind and firing shells that reduced wooden warships to splinters it must have seemed like they were being attacked by some malevolent Greek god of old.
Hastings' ambition was to catch the Turkish fleet becalmed at sea, wipe it out and win the war in an afternoon. Had luck been with him he could probably have done it. As it was he did contribute to the end of the war, but not in a way he could have imagined.
Sir Edward Codrington
|Sir Edward Codrington|
However an Egyptian army marching across Greece laying waste to entire provinces was something they couldn't ignore. Hamilton was still around bring home tales of Greeks hiding in caves and surviving by boiling grass. Something would have to be done. Britain, France and Russia, each worried that either of the others would act alone and thus acquire a bit of valuable strategic real estate, together put forward a peace proposal called the Treaty of London.
The Greeks accepted it, as they were done for if they didn't, but the Turks refused. The three powers then sent fleets to Greece to make the Sultan comply. This called for very delicate diplomacy. Unfortunately for the Turks they gave the command to Sir Edward Codrington, the youngest captain to command a ship in the Battle of Trafalgar.
He found the Turkish fleet holed up in the harbour at Navarino, formed in a defensive horseshoe covering the entrance. The Turkish Admiral was understandably miffed that Codrington was asking him to lay down his arms whilst Cochrane's navy was still attacking him. Codrington explained that the Greeks had accepted the treaty and so weren't his problem.
|The allied fleet entering Navarino harbour|
Codrington now decided that there had been enough diplomacy and tried a tactic that even Nelson might have felt was a bit rash. He sailed into Navarino Bay and moored his ships inside the horseshoe, right under the Turkish guns. He was outnumbered, out-gunned and trapped by an unfavourable wind. It was an amazing bit of chutzpah, as if he was daring the Turks to try something.
And sure enough they did.
|The Battle of Navarino|
He had done what Byron, Hastings, Cochrane and Church had all failed to achieve and won the war for Greece. To the British public he was a national hero.
To his own government though he was an embarrassment. British policy then was to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russia. Now Codrington had just destroyed the fleet of an ally. When the public clamour had died down he was dismissed from the service.
So Greece was free. Ruined, diseased, bankrupt and indebted, but free. Or at least some of it was sort
of free. Athens, along with two thirds of the Greek population of the Ottoman Empire, was not part of the new kingdom.
However, there was no denying that for the first time in history a small nation had come into existence based on a unique ethnic mix, a model that was to be followed around the world in the next century as the Age of Empires came to an end.
The Ionian Islands remains British until 1864, when they opted for enosis with the rest of Greece, a decision which their colonial masters couldn't understand.
Guilford's Ionian University though is still there. For the first twenty years of the Greek state almost all the doctors, lawyers, academics and senior civil servants were its alumni.
HMS Cambrian eventually foundered of Crete and, although he survived, Hamilton disappears from history afterwards.
|Statue of Byron in Athens (Jennifer)|
Lord Byron posthumously became the hero in Greece that he never was at home, and today there are more statues of him there than there are here.
Hastings, the most useful Philhellene of them all, continued in the service of his adopted nation. In the year after Navarino he fired what may have been the last shot of the war at a Turkish fort near Missolonghi. Following up through the marsh he was shot in the arm and died of blood poisoning, aged 33. It would be another 25 years before the Royal Navy would launch a ship comparable to the Karteria.
Cochrane returned to Britain where he was forgiven and reinstated in the Royal Navy, had his honours restored and was eventually buried in Westminister Abbey.
Codrington spent the rest of his life defending his actions at Navarino and denying he was a secret Philhellene. Like Byron, he is now better remembered in Greece than at home, having several roads named after him.
Greece meanwhile is once again bankrupt and indebted, although still free. Let us raise a glass of Greek wine to them today - or maybe they should raise a glass of English beer to us?
Heaven's Command by Jan Morris (1973)
The Greek Adventure by David Howarth (1976)