The godfathers of Greek independence
From its very inception as a nation state, Greece learned that it needed allies with shared interests and values to successfully fight the Turks
The Greek War of Independence, which reached its bicentennial this month, is usually associated with Lord Byron, the most famous of an estimated twelve hundred Philhellenes who arrived to fight alongside the Greeks in the first half of the war. Philhellenism was key to the success of the Greek revolution, stoked by a belief that an ancient civilisation was rising from the ashes. Within that movement, a very small number of people made an outsized contribution.
Byron’s death in Messolongi in 1824 had an electric effect on public opinion because he was, quite simply, a rock star. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in which his wandering hero mused about freedom for the Greeks twelve years earlier, had sold ten editions in three years. And Byron was, after all, a British lord.
“The enthusiasm he awakened perhaps served Greece more than his personal exertions would have done, had his life been prolonged,” concludes George Finlay, Byron’s friend and historian of the Greek War of Independence.
Byron’s personal influence facilitated two Greek loans raised on the London stock exchange. They were mis-spent and overcharged-for, but they helped to establish the authority of a nascent government. But his main contribution was to reignite a Philhellenism tinged with disillusionment, as the ramshackle organisation and military ethics of the Greeks became apparent to Europeans who’d idealised them.
At the battle of Peta in 1822, hundreds of Philhellenes were massacred because of the paid defection of a Greek captain (Gogos Bakolas) to the Turks. Survivors were aghast to witness the massacre of Muslim civilians that typically followed the fall of major citadels, and the looting of their property, which should have gone to the government as collateral for the English loans.
“Women and children were frequently tortured before they were murdered,” fumes Finlay, citing the account of a French colonel, Raybaud, who witnessed the fall of Tripoli. “After the Greeks had been in possession of the city for forty-eight hours, they deliberately collected together about two thousand persons of every age and sex, but principally women and children, and led them to a ravine in the nearest mountain, where they murdered every soul.”
These massacres are also attested to in the memoirs of Greek captains. Such behaviour led William St Clair, in his brilliant but bilious 1972 history, That Greece Might Still be Free, to call the revolution “less a war than a series of opportunistic massacres”.
The politics of the revolution were arguably just as ugly. Greek captains instigated two civil wars for wealth and influence in the affairs of the new state. These cost money and men, and left Greece defenceless when the sultan launched his second counteroffensive in 1826.
Mavrokordatos used great power antagonism to Greek advantage
The problem, says Thanos Veremis, professor emeritus of history at the University of Athens, is that “the principal opponents of the Ottoman Empire were their former functionaries.” The armatoli of the Roumeli (mainland Greece) were territorial brigands who sometimes harassed the Ottoman gendarmerie and sometimes fought alongside them for pay. The primates of the Morea (or Peloponnese) were former tax collectors for the sultan, who prepaid him each year’s revenue and then collected it with interest. Money was their object. “Every primate strove to make himself a little independent potentate, and every captain of a district assumed the powers of a commander-in-chief,” says Finlay. The vision of such men for Greece was not to surrender their powers to a national government, but to preserve the feudal system with themselves as masters.
Yet Europe and the United States “were more or less convinced that this was a case of revival of ancient Greece, and they couldn’t be swayed that this was not the case,” says Veremis. And Greece had a second exportable culture — Christianity. Sultan Mehmet unwittingly highlighted it by hanging Orthodox patriarch Gregory V in Constantinople along with dozens of metropolitans. “That put the fear of God in the rest of the church, who ran and joined the War of Independence, which they would never have done under different circumstances,” says Veremis. More consequentially, it further drove European and American public opinion in favour of engagement.
One Greek who understood the importance of this international dimension was Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Phanariot whose ancestors had ruled Moldova under the sultan for successive generations. He authored the first Greek constitution of 1822, inspired by the liberal constitutions of the United States and France. It lay down equality before the law, security of property, and taxation on the basis of law. This represented the systemic change from despotism Greeks wanted, but “the laws passed were intended to fascinate Western Europe, not to operate with effect in Greece,” (Finlay), because the captains made their implementation impossible.
The constitution raised the flag Mavrokordatos intended by stating Greece’s intentions. “Deception is important. The way people perceive facts becomes in itself a fact,” says Roderick Beaton, who recently retired as professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek literature at King’s College London. “It’s the rather remarkable way in which the Greek collective leadership managed to present itself in a document that could be read around the world.”
Mavrokordatos knew that European hard power would be needed in addition to money and sympathy. Russia, a fellow Orthodox country regularly at war with the Ottoman Empire, had been the natural early focus of the Greek revolutionaries. Catherine the Great had sent a ramshackle detachment of ships to raise rebellion in the Peloponnese in 1770, which ended in a bloodbath. She had also championed the recreation of a Byzantine Empire made up of Greeks, Albanians and Bulgarians, headquartered in Constantinople and controlled from Moscow, that would provide a warm water port for grain exports.
That was clearly out of favour with the French and the British, the premier maritime power of the day, whose empire was in direct competition with Russia’s in Afghanistan. This was especially true in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, when the great powers had agreed on maintaining the European status quo. Mavrokordatos used great power antagonism to Greek advantage. He wrote repeatedly to British foreign secretary George Canning, arguing that the Ottoman Empire was in irrevocable decline and patronising Greece would provide Britain and France with a stockade against Russian expansion.
Greece’s soft power and geopolitical argument worked in succession. In 1825, the Greek revolution was on its knees. Sultan Mehmet had enlisted Egyptian prince Ibrahim to ethnically cleanse the Peloponnese and its people with more dependable Muslim Arabs. What ensued was nothing less than wholesale slaughter. The normally divided Greek captains joined Mavrokordatos in appealing to Britain for help. Britain, France and Russia jointly agreed to intervene for Greek autonomy in 1826, and they decimated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino the following year to put a stop to Ibrahim’s butchery.
Greece became the first European nation state established on the liberal values of the American and French constitutions
The balance of power did not hold for long. Russia once again stole a march on its partners, attacking the Ottoman Empire in 1828. The Treaty of Adrianople the following year gave it control of most of what is today Romania, and coastal Bulgaria. “Wellington, who is absolutely no friend of the Greeks, is heard to say at the end of 1829 that an independent Greece is part of the geopolitics of balancing Russian expansion as the Ottoman Empire weakens,” says Beaton. In 1830, the Treaty of London gave Greece full independence. Greece thus became the first European nation state established on the liberal values of the American and French constitutions.
Britain, and specifically Canning, may have had a plan all along. Napoleon’s defeat had given Britain Egypt and the Ionian islands, making it an Ottoman neighbour for the first time. “[Canning] said, ‘why not bring in the Greek state, make it ‘independent’ and as lords of the sea we will manipulate it to the utmost,’ which is what happened,” says Veremis.
There is evidence for such a grand plan. In 1823 Canning recognised Greek ships as belligerents, sparing them from boarding and searching. They were thus able to harass a much larger Ottoman navy so effectively as to cut off Constantinople from eastern Greece. It is tempting to assume that Canning sought to assimilate such a capable merchant marine.
Veremis goes further: “In my estimation, the battle of Navarino was no untoward event, as was written at the time. I am sure Canning told [Admiral Edward] Codrington shortly before he died, ‘If the Turks and the Egyptians give you trouble, shoot them out of the way, drown them.’ I am sure, because there is no other explanation [for the fact that] they really devastated the Egyptian fleet, they blew them out of the sea.”
Greece spent its first century of independence appending most of the lands where Greeks had lived since antiquity, and its second fighting fascism, communism and the downturns of the global economy. Through this all, it has retained and even strengthened the liberal values its allies have questioned; but it continues to fight against Western perceptions that it fails to live up to ancient ideals. Perhaps that will be addressed in its third century.
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