Straits Convention

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International agreement, signed in 1841, on access to the Black Sea; it denied passage in peacetime to non-Ottoman warships through the Straits connecting the Mediterranean and Black seas.

Until 1774, when the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great acquired territory on the north shore of the Black Sea, there was no question concerning passage of ships between the Black and Mediterranean seas because the Black Sea was essentially an internal Ottoman sea. After 1774 access to the Straits presented a persistent problem in international affairs. Russia sought to ensure its right to passage while opposing similar rights for other maritime powers; Britain, in particular, wanted to restrict Russian access to the Mediterranean as a threat to its aspirations in the Levant. The Ottoman Empire considered its control of the Straits essential to its sovereignty and a guarantee of its security and independence.

The Straits Convention of 1841 resulted from internal Ottoman problems and imperial rivalries. The Ottoman Empire had been wracked by the aspirations of Greece for independence and the threat posed by Muhammad Ali of Egypt in his efforts to establish control over Syria and possibly to replace the Ottomans as head of the empire. Russia and most other European powers supported the Greek cause. France supported Muhammad Ali in hopes of reaping benefits as his ally. Russia wanted un-hampered access to the Mediterranean and acknowledgment of its claim of protection over Christian Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and Austria-Hungary were suspicious of Russian designs.

Muhammad Ali originally supported the Ottomans in their struggle against the Greeks seeking independence; he sent his son Ibrahim ibn Muhammad Ali with an army to help the Ottomans subdue the Greeks in 1825. The venture was not successful, and by 1828 Ibrahim's army had withdrawn from Greece. Muhammad Ali then turned his attention to Syria in an attempt to expand his control of the eastern Mediterranean, launching an army led by Ibrahim against the Ottomans in the first Syrian war (18311833). France tacitly supported this effort; Britain, distracted by other international problems (particularly Belgium), did not; the Russians supported the Ottomans. Ibrahim's forces came within 150 miles of Constantinople, but in February 1833 Russia sent a naval force and troops to support the Ottoman defense of the city. France and Britain, fearing the prospect of Russian influence in the Ottoman Empire, called for mediation. The Convention of Kütahya (8 April 1833) conceded Ottoman Syria to Egypt but prevented Egyptian control of the empire as a whole. Because of its support, Russia retained its position as the Ottomans' principal ally. This was reflected in the Treaty of Hunkar-Iskelesi (8 July 1833), in which Russia and the Ottoman Empire pledged mutual support in any future conflict. The treaty also called for closure of the Straits to any naval forces threatening Russia.

The agreements of 1833 did not last long. In 1839 Sultan Mahmud II decided to deal with Muhammad Ali's threat by sending a military force against his son, Ibrahim, in Syria; thus began the second Syrian war. In spite of a force developed by Helmuth von Moltke of Prussia, the Ottomans were defeated at Nesib on 24 June and the Ottoman fleet defected to Egypt. Fearing that the breakup of the Ottoman Empire would not be in the best interests of Britain, Lord Palmerston, foreign minister and later prime minister, called for talks with Russia, Austria, and Prussia in London in 1840. In July the ambassadors of the four powers persuaded the Ottomans to recognize Muhammad Ali as hereditary pasha of Egypt and grant him control of Palestine (southern Syria) in return for a cease-fire within ten days. France, although now under a government more favorable to Britain, was noncommittal, and Muhammad Ali refused the compromise. The British, with help from Austria, occupied Beirut and Acre in October and November and helped the Ottomans defeat Ibrahim's forces in Syria. Muhammad Ali, no longer counting on French help, was forced to accept Egypt as a hereditary domain and return the Ottoman fleet to the control of Constantinople.

Russia, Austria, Prussia, Britain, and France then signed the Treaty of London on 13 July 1841, ratifying these agreements. Appended to the treaty was an agreement on the Straits question: "Warships of foreign powers have always been forbidden to enter the Straits of the Dardanelles and of the Bosporus." Lord Palmerston had succeeded in strengthening Britain's position in the Middle East, preventing France from gaining influence in Syria, and containing Russian advances in the Ottoman Empire. That empire was thus preserved for a time, its existence now guaranteed by the five major European powers. Muhammad Ali remained in control of Egypt, with special rights in the Sudan. Although all parties seemed to have gained something, the stage was set for continued jockeying for position in the Middle East.

see also hunkar-iskelesi, treaty of (1833); ibrahim ibn muhammad ali; kÜtahya, peace of; mahmud ii; moltke, helmuth von; muhammad ali; palmerston, lord henry john temple; straits, turkish.


Arnakis, George G. The Near East in Modern Times, Vol. 1: The Ottoman Empire and the Balkan States to 1900. Austin, TX: Pemberton Press, 19691973.

Hurewitz, J. C. Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East, Vol. 1: 15351914. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1956.

daniel e. spector