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Historical Observations: Anglo-Ottoman views of the Greek Revolt in 1826

The Ottoman Government informed Grand Admiral Mehmed Husrev Pasha on March 27, 1826 regarding its refusal of British mediation between the Sublime Porte and the Greek revolutionaries. What follows below is a summary of an official Ottoman document translated into English in the book titled: ‘Those Infidel Greeks’ edited by H. Sukru Ilicak.

The Governor of Rumelia stated that British merchants “gathered 200,000 purses of piasters to the deliver to the Greek rebels” and that his patrols had intercepted “1,200 purses of piasters,” sent as part of first instalment to Missolonghi as military pay.” The British ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Stratford Canning (1825-7) was informed about this incident.

Meanwhile, Admiral Husrev was instructed to confer with the British naval commander of the Ionian Islands regarding the actions of the British merchants. There was a sense of distrust on the part of the Turks of British motives during the Greek war of independence, whom the book notes had the habit of resorting “to deceits and ruses in pursuing political goals and that one should never trust them.”

After his arrival in October 1825, Canning requested an audience with the Reisulkuttab, (an official in the Ottoman Imperial Council), to highlight Britain’s views of the Greeks. The latter mentioned the local support of local British officials aiding the Greeks. Canning conveyed the British position that Russia intended to declare war on the Ottoman Empire over the Greek question. Britain was prepared to mediate between the Turks and Greeks to annul Russian intentions. Canning hoped for a positive response from the Ottoman Government.

The Ottoman Imperial Council met to discuss the British offer of mediation. They rejected the British proposal like past offers made by Russia, Austria, France, and Prussia on previous occasions. The Turks found these offers were “in contradiction with the holy law and sovereignty rights” and inexorably opposed to reconciling with the Greeks. It is interesting that “the British are now in haste to repeat this offer, although they refrained from being involved in similar offers by the [other major European powers] to this effect in the past.” With the Turks’ failure to suppress the Greek revolt, they believed the British had cast their eyes on bringing the Morea under its influence, “similar to the case in the Ionian Islands, for which reason they are currently giving aid to the Greeks.”

In their ensuing meeting, the issue of Russian aggression was raised. The Ottoman document stated the Russian Emperor Alexander who died in December 1825 was determined to go to war with the Turks over the Greek issue. However, his death prevented him from taking action. The Turks were elated, “praise be to God.”

The Turks thought that the British may have been concerned with the possibility of “grave sedition and rebellion raging on in Russia, as well as the imminent fall of Missolonghi.” This would allow the British to achieve “their goal immediately by intimidating the [Ottoman] State along with the Russians [i.e. a possible war with Russia].”

The Ottoman document states that British policy changed during the past two years resulting “from the designs of the British Prime Minister [sic] Canning.” A change in British policy was made by George Canning (1822-1827) during his tenure as foreign secretary. Robert Jenkinson, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool was the British premier during the period 1812-1827. George Canning’s predecessor, Lord Castlereagh, supported the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire which would act as a bulwark to Russian expansion to the South. On the other hand, Canning favoured the Greeks and the creation of a Greek state that would serve British interests in the eastern Mediterranean. He was keen to elicit Russian support in solving the Greek question with Anglo-Russian negotiations which began in April 1826.

The Turks correctly assumed that Canning (“the prime minister”) was seeking “to gain popularity in [Britain] by having the consent of the Sublime Porte in [placing] the Greeks under British influence.” In 1824 and 1825, Canning favored British banks making loans to the revolutionary Greek government and also encouraged private subscriptions to the London Greek committee for the Greek cause. Overall, Canning adopted a flexible foreign policy compared to Lord Castlereagh and at the same time maintained formal neutrality in the conflict between the Greeks and Turks.

The “Greeks [Rum] raised this sedition and rebelled on the perverted claim that they were the genuine Greek [Yunan] government, aiming to restore a past administration of their own by refusing to be the raya of the Exalted Sultanate.” From their perspective, the Turks were angry with their Greek subjects who raised the banner of revolt against their lawful sovereign. The idea “aiming to restore past administration” could mean past glories of the Byzantine empire.

The British offer was conceived as an attempt to advance Greek claims and to “end their rayah status completely” – so thought the Turks. A Rayah was a Christian subject ruled according to Ottoman law. Under Islamic law, Christians in Turkey were considered second-class subjects. The idea of a Greek government was abhorrent to the Turks.

“God forbid, this would cause a multitude of drawbacks that are likely to bring graver harm than the declaration of war by Russia or Britain. In consideration of the holy law and sovereignty rights, the participants in the Imperial Council decided unanimously to advise the rejection of the British proposal resolutely.”

Besides the Greek insurrection, the Turks were afraid that the revolutions in Spain, Portugal, and Italy in 1820 and the Decembrist revolt in Russia in 1825 could foment new revolutions in other regions (Balkans and Near East) of its empire.

The Ottoman admiral was provided with “the minutes of the Imperial Council” and the discussion between the Reisulkuttab and Stratford Canning. Furthermore, Turkish rejection of the British offer was said to be not “contrary to [our] religion and the Muhammadan law.”

In conclusion, when negotiating with the British commander, Husrev was instructed to follow the official line (outlined above) in these documents and to try to have them stop aiding the Greeks.” This recent book of Ottoman documents referenced above contains many others items which illustrate their perspectives during the war.

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This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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