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The Greek Revolution of 1821

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The statue of Adamantios Korais in Athens. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Yorgos Kontarinis)

The Greek revolution of 1821 was a remarkable event, for it led to the emergence of the first nation state in the domains of the Ottoman Empire that had ruled the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean for centuries from its capital Constantinople, captured from the Byzantines in 1453. The revolution was an occurrence that transcended the confines of the Ottoman Empire, it can be considered an event of global significance. The Greek rebels were inspired by the ideas of the European Enlightenment and the examples set by America’s proclamation of independence in 1776 and the French revolution of 1789.

The Greek rebels benefitted from the intellectual, political, and material assistance offered by the Greeks in the Diaspora. Among them were the intellectual Adamantios Korais, the visionary rebel Rigas Velestinlis and the Philiki Etaireia (Friendly Society) an organization of Diaspora merchants. Korais lived in Paris and his writings, reflecting the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution that he witnessed firsthand, called for the cultural regeneration of the Greeks. Korais met Thomas Jefferson in Paris and the two men kept up a correspondence in which Korais solicited the American founding father’s advice on the events in Greece. Rigas, better known as Rigas Fereos, was the most prominent among the activists who envisioned parallels between the French Revolution and a future Greek uprising. He imagined a Greek-led Balkan republic emerging on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He also apparently made plans for an uprising but the Habsburg authorities arrested him and his co-conspirators in Vienna and handed them over to the Ottomans who executed them in Belgrade in 1798. The Philiki Etaireia, established in Odessa in Russia, worked directly to lay the ground work for the uprising.

The Greek revolution was global also because it resonated throughout Europe and the Americas. Its successful outcome would be determined by the intervention of the Great Powers – Britain, France and Russia – on the side of the Greeks. Prior to that, American and European philhellenes had offered substantial material and moral support to the revolutionaries. European philhellenes expressed their admiration for the Greeks, and those with literary and artistic talents were moved to shed light on the plight of the Greeks. They included the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote “we are all Greeks” in the preface of his verse drama Hellas (1821), Lord George Byron, who had traveled to Greece to aid the uprising, and the French artist Eugène Delacroix whose oil painting The Massacre of Chios completed in 1824 provided immediate and dramatic publicity to the worst instance of atrocities committed by either side during the Greek revolt, this one being the destruction of the island of Chios and its inhabitants by the Ottoman fleet. The bravest philhellenes, about five hundred, formed a volunteer force to fight on the side of the Greeks, but their services were short-lived as most of them perished in their first major battle at Peta, near Arta in western Greece in 1822. Finally, a philhellenic committee in London managed to arrange for the first of two loans to be made to the Greeks, but it was weighed down by huge commissions and a high interest rate. This contributed some material help next to the considerable morale boost the philhellenes provided, but ultimately the fate of the uprising would be decided by the foreign policies of the European Powers, not their intellectuals or public opinion.

In America, there was already a strong philhellenic movement because of the significance Americans attached to the legacy of Classical Greece. Its best expression was the proliferation of Greek Revival architecture along the East Coast. News of the Greek uprising galvanized Americans because they saw the Greek quest of freedom as a direct reflection of America’s achievement of freedom in 1776. Americans also supported the Greek cause because they saw the Greeks as fellow Christians and also as human beings who were suffering under the Ottomans. Towards that purpose volunteers such as the physician Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) traveled across the Atlantic to help the Greeks and prominent citizens of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia formed committees that raised funds for the Greeks and chartered ships that brought them arms and supplies.

The early proclamations of the leaders of the 1821 revolution combined invocations of the new ideas of nationhood with the Orthodox religious identity. The first uprisings took place in Peloponnese (known then as the Morea) in southern Greece and in the Danubian Principalities, where a Greek force entered from Russia. The uprising in the principalities came to a heroic end very soon but not before its leader, Alexandros Ypsilantis (1792-1828), a Greek who had served in the Russian army, set the tone of the revolt with his proclamation issued on February 24, 1821 titled, significantly, Fight for Faith and Motherland. The text that followed called upon the ‘Hellenes’ to join the uprising in order to follow the example set by Europe – that was wondering at the inertia of the Greeks – and to gain freedom, to heed Divine Providence that called upon them to raise the cross, and finally, in order to emulate the heroic deeds of their ancestors at Marathon and Thermopylae.

The rebels in Morea invoked a similar range of rallying cries to persuade the population to rise up against the Ottomans. It was there the rebellion took root while the uprising in the Principalities collapsed. Ypsilantis fled to the Habsburg lands where he remained until his death in 1828. In contrast, the rebels in Morea where the Philiki Etaireia had done some good preparatory work, scored some early successes, as did their comrades across the Gulf of Corinth in Mainland Greece (Rumeli). Their struggle against the Ottomans consisted of guerilla-style attacks on fortified towns, and in the case of those that were ports they received support from vessels sent from the islands of Hydra and Spetses, off the Eastern coast of the Morea, that joined in the revolt. The leaders were the local notables and the heads of the local military bands who had been in touch with the Philiki Etaireia and had embraced the cause of a nationalist revolt against the Ottomans. Their proclamations echoed calls for political and religious freedom and they also called on the Greeks to prove themselves worthy ancestors of the heroic warriors of Ancient Greece.

The revolution began in March 1821, its symbolic moment coming when Greek Orthodox Bishop Germanos of Patra in Morea raised the flag of the revolt on March 25th, an important date in the Orthodox Christian calendar that marks the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. In fact, the revolt had begun a few days earlier in the same region.  With a large part of the Ottoman garrisons in Morea dispatched to the north to combat a local Ottoman warlord, Ali Pasha, the local Muslim population sought refuge in the walled towns and the Greek armed bands lay siege to them. There were bloody clashes between the two sides with the Muslims in Morea faring the worst. Indeed, the entire seven years the uprising lasted witnessed bloody battles and violence on combatants and civilians inflicted by both sides. There were Greek uprisings in many of the mainland regions and islands inhabited by Greeks, but the three areas where revolutionary activity was sustained and was ultimately successful were Morea, Rumeli (Central Greece) and the maritime islands of Hydra, Spetses and Psara whose merchant ships were transformed into a small but effective naval fleet. In a failed attempt to put down the Greek uprising, the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II ordered massacres of Greeks in the Aegean as well as in Smyrna and in Constantinople where the head of the Orthodox church, Patriarch Gregorios V was executed.

By the end of 1823 the Greeks had taken over major fortress towns in Rumeli such Mesolongi and they forced the Ottoman garrison in Athens to barricade itself on the Acropolis. Greek control of towns was even more extensive in Morea, and Nafplion emerged as the center of the Greek operations. One of the early major Greek victories came when a Greek force under Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1843) repulsed an Ottoman army that attempted to recapture the Morea at a fierce battle at Dervenakia.

Other significant clashes between the Ottoman forces and the Greek military bands took place in the regions of Roumeli and Epirus. One was at the Alamana Bridge near the town of Lamia in 1821, where the death of Athanasios Diakos (1788-1821) provided an example of heroic martyrdom and another was in 1823 at Peta in Epirus where the Greek forces led by Alexandros Mavrogordatos (1791-1865), a Constantinopolitan Greek and future prime minister of Greece, included many philhellenes from several European Countries. A battle near the town of Karpenisi in 1823 cost the life of Markos Botsaris (1788-1823), who was one of several leaders of military bands from Souli, the mountainous region of Epirus who played a significant role in the Greek uprising.

The rebels also benefitted from the skillful actions of the Greek navy that provided supplies and protection. The captain and merchant Andreas Miaoulis (1765-1835) who was from Hydra led the Greek naval operations. Konstantinos Kanaris (c. 1790-1877) a seaman from Psara, led several successful daring actions that involved setting fire and destroying Ottoman warships. After the end of the revolution he served in several government posts including prime minister in the 1840s.

In 1823, the Greek poet Dionysios Solomos, inspired by the heroism of the Greek rebels wrote The Hymn to Liberty that recounts the desolation of the Greeks under Ottoman rule, their hopes for freedom, and the early events of the revolution. Set to music three decades later it became the national anthem of Greece and later on of the Republic of Cyprus.

With the hostilities between the two sides at a stalemate, and infighting breaking out among the Greeks, the Ottoman Porte solicited the help of Egypt, a semi-independent province of the Empire in order to launch a counter offensive and quell the uprising. Sultan Mahmoud II realized he would have to solicit the help of Mohamed Ali, the pasha of Egypt and pay the high price demanded: the annexation of the island of Crete to the pashalik of Egypt and the appointment of Ali’s son Ibrahim as pasha of the Morea. The Egyptian general landed his troops in February, 1825, on the southwestern tip of Morea at Methoni, one of the forts still under Ottoman control. On its way to Morea the Egyptian army quelled an ongoing Greek uprising on the island of Crete in a bloody manner, giving early notice of Ibrahim’s belief in what Clausewitz would describe as the need to wage war in its totality.

Ibrahim’s campaign was indeed a turning point, but, improbably, his victories, that almost extinguished the Greek revolt, jolted the European Powers into action in support of the Greeks. Within eighteenth months of his landing, Ibrahim was in strategic control of almost the whole of Morea with the exception of the port town of Nafplio to the northwest and the plundering of the homes and livelihood of the local population gave rise to descriptions of smoking ruins and desperate escapes of villagers to the highlands with what livestock they could rescue. Ibrahim’s forces had come close to taking Nafplio following the attack he unleashed in the first few months of their presence that saw their conquest of the towns of Kalamata and Tripolitsa (present-day Tripolis), but his lighting progress through Morea had exhausted his supplies.

In early 1826 he turned his attention instead to mainland Greece and joined the Ottoman forces that had laid siege to the port town of Mesolongi on and off for over three years. This was where the philhellene poet Lord Byron had spent several months and had died in April 1824 when his health gave way. By that time the besieged had already become a cause celêbre among European philhellenes. They augmented that aura by attempting a desperate sortie out in late April 1826 only to be hacked down by the Ottoman forces who then plundered the city. Three decades later, the moment of the heroic exodus from the city’s walls became the subject of one of the best-known Greek romantic era paintings by Theodoros Vryzakis. Ibrahim then continued his devastation of Morea and Tripolitsa. But Nafplio and a few other smaller towns were still in the hands of the Greeks.

Throughout the Greek revolt the Great Powers had stood by, weighing whether to intervene. The future of the Ottoman Empire, that appeared to be increasingly fragile, caused tension among the European powers, each of which feared that one of the others might benefit from any territorial changes of the status quo. In light of the Greek gains in July 1827 Britain France and Russia signed the Treaty of London, that reiterated the terms of and earlier agreement that recognized the existence of “Greek Provinces” and the islands that the Ottomans were unable to control and asserted that henceforth Greece would be a dependency of the sultan and pay tribute but choose their own authorities. Crucially, the Powers undertook to ensure the “pacification of Greece” and to guarantee the viability of the terms of their agreement. An autonomous Greece suddenly emerged, if only still on paper.

The theory would turn into practice within a few months in a most dramatic manner when the Porte ignored the Treaty of London. One of the reasons Sultan Mahmud II was disinclined to back down was that Ibrahim had strengthened his position in Morea even though there were defiant pockets of Greek resistance, most notably the forces under Kolokotronis. But Ibrahim’s position was strengthened further thanks to the arrival of an augmented Egyptian and Ottoman fleet that anchored in the bay of Navarino, on the Southwestern Morea coastline. The treaty of London had provided for the creation of a tripartite British, French, and Russian fleet for the purpose of enforcing a Greco-Ottoman armistice. A joint British, French, and Russian fleet duly arrived on the scene in September 1827, in order to blockade Ibrahim’s fleet. The instructions issued to that fleet were imprecise and this became crucial when the tense stand-off between the three allies and the Ottoman Egyptian fleet escalated from an exchange of shots to a fully-fledged naval battle breaking out. At the end of that fateful day, October 20, 1827 the Egyptian/Ottoman fleet was completely destroyed and so were Ibrahim’s hopes of maintaining control of Morea.

The outcome of the naval battle at Navarino tipped the diplomatic as well as the military advantage away from the Ottomans and pushed the Greek cause closer to success. The Greeks obtained control of Morea and continued to fight the Ottomans in Rumeli. The Sultan’s retaliation against Russia, closing the Dardanelle Straits, the waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, backfired when the war that broke out between the two Empires ended with an Ottoman collapse. In the ensuing treaty of Adrianople (Edirne) in 1829 the Sultan was forced to promise autonomy to Greece. The final step in the process that had been unleashed in 1821 was when the Great Powers agreed to the establishment of an independent Greek state in 1830.