Blazing the way to Freedom? Was Greek fire-ship instrumental wresting naval supremacy from the Ottomans during the War of Independence?
The aim to this is essay is to examine if the Greek fire-ship was instrumental in wresting naval supremacy from the Ottomans during the Greek War of Independence (Revolution of 1821 to the Greeks) and the reasons why. War at sea was a crucial part of the conflict and so the navies of both belligerents will be briefly examined in order to explain their performance and attitude in relation to the subject of this essay.
The cause of the conflict.
The Greek Nation after losing its political independence due its defeat by the Romans became part of the Roman Empire. After the Empires division during the 4th century AD the Greeks were among the subjects of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. When the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine Empire the Greeks became subjects of the Sultan during the 15th century AD. The decline of the Ottoman Empire after the mid 17th century gave the rise to the secessionist tendencies of its Christian subjects. Following many earlier attempts that all had ended with a blood bath, the Greeks rose again in revolt in March 1821. After a long and brutal war, a small part of Greece was recognised by the Great Powers of Europe as an independent state in1830.
The Ottoman Navy
While the Byzantines and Westerns initially considered the Ottoman Navy as a collection of pirates, the Turks manage to create significant fleets from the 15th century onwards and dominate the eastern Mediterranean and seriously challenging Western Naval Powers of the time. While in the “age of the galley” except the officers and the marines the ottoman crews were composed by Christian slaves1, as time passed the practice was abandoned. The Ottoman Empire started then conscripting young men from the Aegean islands and other littoral (mainly Christian) provinces2. Thus during the 18th and early 19th centuries the Ottoman Navy relied a lot on the Christian subjects of the Empire (mainly Greeks) for manpower3. When the revolution broke out the Porte imprisoned or executed the majority of its Greek sailors if they had not already dessert. The Sultan in order to put his ships in the water again impressed port workers and hired Algerians, Tunisians or even Genoese mercenaries4. Some times crews were lured by the promise of looting the wealthy Greek islands5.
The Ottoman admirals were unqualified individuals who had often purchased their commission6. The Turks suffered also their arsenals destroyed by an accidental (?) blaze in 18237 but the situation did not improve at all during the conflict and by 1829 the Ottoman navy was still in a sorry state8. Under these conditions it is hardly surprising that overall performance of the Ottoman fleet was poor. The Sultan turned to his Egyptian vassal Mohammed Ali for help. The Egyptian navy was reorganized upon European lines and its crews were commanded by French officers9 but the bad relations between the Turkish and Egyptian admirals hampered the its performance too.
The Greek Navy
Greek Maritime tradition starts from Prehistory as the various museum exhibits of the Cycladic civilization testify. While during the early period of the Ottoman occupation the Greeks were among the unfortunate galley slaves of the Turks gradually they started resuming their maritime vocation. The first breakthrough for the Greek mariners came after 1774, when the Ottoman Empire, after beaten by the Russians, was forced to allow tax exemption to vessels under the Russian flag. Greek capitalized on that and registered their ships in Russian port lists10. The Napoleonic Wars allowed many Greek islanders to make their fortunes by blockade running11. As Barbary pirates subjected the vessels and cargoes to attacks, they were armed (6-16 guns) and hence the Greek mariners became accustomed to naval warfare12. In the Aegean islands, maritime skills were taught to boys from childhood and the sea became the essence of their lives13. This can explain the superior seamanship demonstrated by the Greeks during their struggle.
Discipline as understood by the navies or merchantmen of the period did not exist in the Greek ships. Except the captain there were no other ranks and frequently decisions were taken after the captains consultation with his crew. The men were all related to the master and the ship was seen something lie a family property. That means they were very brave to repel pirates but unwilling to risk much in an engagement with a war ship. Most fleet engagements were done with long distance firing and few casualties 14. To counter the Ottoman ships of the line the Greeks resorted in what we call today “asymmetric warfare” with the use of fire-ships. (called burlota).
Employment of fire-ship is first time recorded in the Greek history during the 5th century B.C. 15 This method of attack was also used to good effect by the Western navies during the 16th and 17th centuries. In Greek waters the fire-ship is recorded to have re-appeared during the 18th century at the battle of Tchesma16 between the Ottomans and the Russians. The fire-ship had to be prepared by a private individual who would offer a usually old vessel for the purpose and would also go into the expense of arming it. A price between 30000 to 100000 piastres was the cost according to historian N Vasilatos. Fist square holes (called ruboi) were opened on the deck and were filled with balls made of sulphur, potassium and gunpowder. Then they covered the balls with brushwood. Round the mast they put (below deck) 4 half barrels with gunpowder. All rigging and sail were soaked with flammable material like tar and resin. The arrangements were made so that the fire would start from the vessels rear. The reason was the crew would stir and attach the fire-ship on the target and then escape with a boat that was called scabavia. It was towed for this reason attached to the fire-ship’s stern. The captain would go last after setting the ship on fire with a torch. The wooden ships of the “age of sail”, with their flammable waterproofing were particularly vulnerable to this mode of attack. The communities of the naval islands Hydra, Spetzae and Psara specially selected the captains of the fire-ships. The crews were all special volunteers estimated to be less than 500. The morale of these men was high from a combination of religious conviction17 and from the high regard in which were held by their peers. They would attack either by silently coming close to moored ships at night or in a battle during the day by using gunfire smoke as cover. During the day it was a very dangerous action, as the Ottomans would use guns and muskets against them at close ranger. The Greeks would fire blunderbusses with buckshot (trobonia) to cover the men working to attach the fire-ship on the enemy vessel. After that they would board their escape boat and row to a shipped enticed with their support.18 It must be noted that the Aegean Sea dotted with big and small islands and straights that hinder manoeuvring was the ideal location for this type of warfare and made the Ottoman captains very nervous19 and timid.
The Greek fire-ships in action
When the Aegean islanders join the Revolution in April 1821 they prevented the Ottomans ability to transfer reinforcement from Asia Minor to Europe and assist their blockaded forts. The capital also started suffering shortages20. When the Tunisians vassal of the sultan destroyed the city of Galaxidi the Greeks tried to avenge them selves with a fire-ship attack. It was badly executed during daytime and the crew were captured and executed by impalement21. The Turkish fleet entered the Aegean in May 1821. A double deck frigate was leading and her guns kept the whole Greek fleet out of range. The Greeks made a successful fire-ship attack by pretending to make a boarding action and burned it outside Lesbos22. Another attempt of the Turks to subjugate Samos was prevented by the Greek fleet. Worried of the Turkish guns the Greeks attacked again with fire ships and despite being repulsed by European mercenaries they again forced the Turks to retreat23. Next year the threat of fire-ships allowed the Greeks to save some survivors of the Chios massacres and avenge them by killing the enemy admiral Kara Ali in a daring nightly fire attack24. Another attempt of the Ottoman fleet to subjugate the Aegean Islands was foiled off Tenedos again with successful fire-ship attacks. The Ottoman fleet was again penned in the Dardanelles25.
During 1823 the Greek attempted to foil again Turkish attempts to overpower them and supply their besieged forts. This time the Ottomans used smaller craft as they considered their ships of the line vulnerable to fire-ship attacks Initially the Turks were successful because the Greek fleet was kept out of Action for luck of funds. But when the Greek ships took to the sea they were also hampered by bad weather to effectively use their fire-ships. Yet the Turks once again retreated to their arsenals and the enemy held coasts were left exposed to Greek raids26. Next year the Turks retaliated by destroying the island of Psara. The Ottomans with the aid of the Egyptian fleet were planning to do the same to Samos and join with the Egyptians there. The Greek fleet opposed them and when the Greek fire-ships burned three Turkish vessels the Ottoman fleet retreated again despite its superiority.
After that the Greet fleet sailed south to engage the Egyptians. The two fleets met its other at the gulf of Geronde. The more disciplined Egyptian crew resisted the Greek fire-ship attacks27. In a second engagement the Egyptians resisted again successfully the Greek fire attacks but the Tunisian vassals of the Ottomans lost their flagship and the assault on Samos failed. Another attempt of the Turk-Egyptian fleet to press on the attack was again foiled by Greek fire-ships whose crews defied the enemy’s defensive fire and burned their targets. The Muslims terrorised by the fire ships retreated28. The Turks sailed to Istanbul and the Egyptians to Crete. The Greeks attacked again attaching a fire-ship to her but its English captain, despite the desertion of some sailors, managed to save his ship29. The Greeks had dispersed even the vaunted Egyptians but they could not continue for luck of funds and had to return home30. The Egyptians then risking chances in bad weather landed in Pelopenessus. A successful fire-ship attack came too late to prevent them from making progress31. The Greeks though were again successful in terrorising the Turkish fleet with their fire-ships and again prevented it from joining forces with the Egyptians32. A Greek massive fire-ship attack to the Egyptian fleet in Crete had limited success because coastal batteries protected the enemy ships33. In 1825, after a series of defeats inflicted to the Greek army by the Egyptians the Greeks attempted to force their withdrawal by attacking with fire-ships the port of Alexandria. Yet political strife prevented this plan to materialize in time After that with the use of fire ships they dispersed the Turkish fleet blockading the town of Mesolongi and supplied the garrison34. The Turks attempted to attack the Greek fleet also with fire ships but Greek boats, whose crews fired blunderbusses, repulsed them thus demonstrating the correct way of resisting fire-ship attack and the need of resolute defence to foil it35. In 1826 the Greek fleet intercepted the Ottoman fleet again near the island Chios. The Turks foiled a fire-ship attack by managing to sink it36 but they again returned to base having again failed to link up with the Egyptians. Cochrane, commanding the Greek fleet attempted to attack Alexandria but the element of surprise now was lost, the operation failed.37 But the Greek fleet remained in command of the sea as the enemy preferred the safety of its coastal forts.
The Greeks and the Turks fought a long war. As far as any professional naval officer of the time could see it was rather unlikely that an ad hoc of merchant ships could stand up to a war fleet. But the conduct of the two belligerents demonstrated a different development of the situation than what was normally expected. The Greeks recognising their tactical and operational problems attempted to counter the Ottoman fleet with the employment of what can be described as “naval guerrilla tactics”. They attacked at night as in the case of the Ottoman flagship that was burned after the massacre of Chios having also the side effect of decapitating the Ottoman command. They also used the confusion of naval battles as in Tenedos to launch surprise attacks under the cover of gun smoke. The poorly trained Ottoman sailors38 plagued by incompetent and officers developed a senseless fear of fire ships39 and were more than eager to abandon the fight. The Egyptian fleet performed slightly better because of the superior skills of its European officers but the fact that in 1825 had to risk a winter trip in foul weather to land the Egyptian army in south Greece proves that it considered the Greeks formidable opponents. It was clear the Ottomans had little chance to seriously threaten Greek naval superiority40. As described above fire-ships were instrumental in procuring victories for the Greek fleet. The terror that these means of attack inspired to the enemy gave the Greeks command of the sea. This had the side effect to expose Eastern Mediterranean to piracy not to mention the Sultan’s inability to restore order. This triggered the reaction of the Great Powers of the time that led to the Battle of Navarino and the recognition of Greece as an independent state.
Cochrane, who commanded the Greek navy of the period stated that: “ the burlots (fire-ships) were the only hope of Greece”41. And another British eyewitness of the period, Blaquière, was of similar opinion42. The Duke of Wellington after learning of the first fire-ship actions and learned of the respective performance of the two belligerents wrote: “The Greeks have the superiority at sea; and those who have this superiority must be successful”43. He saw his prophesy coming true in 1830 when he was involved in the diplomatic moves that led to the creation of the Modern Greek State.
After examining the above-mentioned history it can be seriously argued that the Greek fire-ship crews (bulotierides) were instrumental in wresting naval supremacy from the Ottoman fleet and if we are put it poetically they did “blazed the way to freedom”.
Samuel Gridley Howe A Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, N. York 1828
Edward Blaquière The Greek revolution: its origin and progress: together with some remarks on the religion, national character, &c. of the Greeks London 1824
George Finlay History of the Greek revolution W. Blackwood and sons London 1861
The Cambridge Modern History Cambridge University Press 1907 Volume 1 page181
Thomas Wright History of the Reigns of George IV and William IV, being a continuation of Hume, Smollett and Miller’s History of England to the present time, etc. London 1836
E. Littell, Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, Volume 23 Boston 1833 (Article The fall of Turkey)
R. C. Anderson, Naval wars in the Levant, 1559-1853 Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1952.
David Brewer David Brewer Greece, The Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence TAURIS London 2012
Suraiya Faroqhi The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It I.B.Tauris, London 2006
Argoliki Vivliothiki (Argive Library) in Greek as seen from their website on 21-3-2015
Article Pyrpolika1821, “Istoria” magazine issue 75 Sep 1974 (in Greek) as seen from the web on 21-3-2015
1 S Faroqhi The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It page 129
2 P. J. Haythornthwaite The Napoleonic Source Book Paperback Arms and Armour 1995 page 249
3 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, Introduction xxix
4 The Cambridge Modern History 1907 Volume 1 page181
5 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, page 199
6 Ibid page 129 footnote
7 G. Finlay History of the Greek revolution page 5
8 Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, Volume 23 page 298
9 R. C. Anderson, Naval wars in the Levant page 513
10 D. Brewer Greece, The Hidden Centuries: pages 205, 206
11 Ibid, page 207, E. Blaquière The Greek revolution: page 22
12 Brewer 207, Blaquière page 22 as above
13 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution, introduction xxix
14 Ibid page 34
15 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 7.53.4
16 R. C. Anderson, Naval wars in the Levant page 288
17 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution introduction xxviii
18 Translated excerpt from online article of N. Vasilatos on Argoliki Vivliothiki web page (in Greek)
19 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution page 282
20 E. Blaquière The Greek revolution: page 113
21 Translated excerpt from online article of N. Vasilatos on Argoliki Vivliothiki web page (in Greek)
22 E. Blaquière The Greek revolution: page 113
23 Ibid page 158
24 Ibid page 200
25 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution pages 131-133
26 Ibid pages 157,158
27 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution page 208
28 Ibid page 210
29 Ibid page 211
30 Ibid page 212
31 Ibid pages 237,238
32 Ibid pages 254, 255
33 Ibid page 257
34 Ibid page 292
35 Ibid page 293
36 Ibid page 348
37 The Oriental Herald and Journal of General Literature, Volume 16 page 61 London 1828
38 The Cambridge Modern History 1907 Volume 1 page181
39 G. Finlay History of the Greek revolution page 88
40 R. C. Anderson, Naval wars in the Levant page 499
41 S.G. Howe Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution page v442
42 E. Blaquière The Greek revolution: page 204
43 The Cambridge Modern History 1907 Volume 1 page181