The pivotal event in the Greek War of Independence (1821–1832), the Battle of Navarino was in large part the result of misunderstandings at all levels. The battle occurred alongside the island of Sphacteria, site of a famous battle during the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century b.c.e.
Greek attempts to secure independence from the Ottoman Empire had coincided with attempts of Sultan Mahmud II to reform his quasi-medieval army, abolishing the Janissary Corps. Lacking a suitable military force the sultan had been forced to request aid from his over-mighty subject Mehmet Ali, the pasha of Egypt, in 1825. Mehmet dispatched his son, Ibrahim Pasha, with a powerful naval and military force, which rapidly turned the tide of the hitherto slow moving war in favor of the Ottomans.
The interests of the great powers had been sparked by religious and historical considerations. For many in the west, Greece was the cradle of western civilization, and should not be subject to Muslim tyranny. The Russians were less concerned with cultural antecedents; the Greeks were fellow Orthodox Christians. Amid the chaos and barbarism of an insurrectionary war the British government tried to keep control of the key issues, maritime trade and the balance of power. They wanted to end a conflict that had caused a serious outbreak of piracy in the Aegean, before it could spread. A three-party agreement with France and Russia was intended to impose a cordon on the belligerents, while preventing the other two powers from exploiting the conflict for their own advantage. The tripartite naval squadron, under the overall command of Trafalgar veteran Admiral Sir Edward Codrington in HMS Asia, comprised eleven battleships, nine frigates, and a few smaller craft. Faced with piracy, intransigent allies, uncertain orders, and a powerful foe Codrington might have been forgiven for doing nothing. Instead he was prepared to use force to cordon off the belligerents and impose a settlement (all three admirals, "horrified by Ibrahim's atrocities" perpetrated against the local population, "stretched their neutrality in favor of the Greeks" [Woodhouse]). On 14 October his force arrived off Navarino Bay, with Admiral de Rigny commanding the French and Admiral Heiden the Russian squadrons. Inside the bay, Ibrahim's Turco-Egyptian amphibious task force included three battleships, nineteen frigates, and another forty smaller warships, along with transports for his army. Codrington and de Rigny had already interviewed Ibrahim, who agreed not to act until he had received instructions from the sultan. However, the Greek fleet under Lord Cochrane was active, and Ibrahim attempted to put to sea in pursuit. The allies escorted his ships back into the bay. Information received by the fleets suggested the Egyptian forces were using scorched earth tactics, and depopulating parts of the Morea. Unable to hover outside the bay indefinitely Codrington led the fleet into the bay around midday on 20 October. The Muslim ships were drawn up in a deep crescent formation with their flanks supported by batteries, but they allowed the British ships to anchor inside their formation. With the tension on all sides at breaking point it was inevitable that the situation would explode. When HMS Dartmouth sent a boat to request that a Muslim fireship be moved the Turkish crew opened fire, killing an officer and several seamen. Firing quickly became general, with the French and then Russian fleets sailing in under fire from the shore batteries, coming to support the British. After some four hours the firing died away. The firepower of the allied fleets proved decisive: three-quarters of the Turco-Egyptian fleet had been sunk or burned. The allies lost 174 killed, and 475 wounded, nearly half of whom were British. The Muslim forces lost at least four thousand. Navarino was the last naval battle fought under sail, but it was hardly a contest.
While the British government referred to the battle as "an untoward event" (anxious not to destroy the Ottoman Empire), and dismissed Codrington, Navarino broke the political impasse surrounding the Greek question. Russia declared war on Turkey in April 1828, and Egypt left the conflict in August. Hard pressed by Russia, and fearful that his vassal would break away, the sultan had to concede Greek independence, which was secured by the Treaty of London in May 1832. Mehmet Ali, dissatisfied with Cyprus as his reward for services, conquered Syria, challenging the sultan. When France exploited the chaos to invade Algiers in 1830 it seemed the region was about to collapse, but domestic instability, and the exhaustion of the other parties, soon restored order. However, the threat of a breakaway Egyptian state allied to France remained real until the British Syrian campaign in 1840 returned Mehmet Ali to his original status, and restored the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Bourchier, Lady. Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington. London, 1873.
Woodhouse, C. M. The Battle of Navarino. London, 1965.