The Black Sea, into which flow the Danube, Dnieper, Dniester, and Don Rivers, is connected to the Aegean Sea and eventually the Mediterranean Sea by the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles. To the east of the Crimean Peninsula, which extends from the north into the Black Sea, the Kerch Strait leads to the considerably smaller Sea of Azov. Having facilitated trade for centuries, the Black Sea was virtually an Ottoman lake in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its history for much of the eighteenth and all of the nineteenth century was the struggle for supremacy of the two major powers on its shores: the Ottoman Empire and Russia. In the course of this struggle by the mid-nineteenth century, Russia emerged as the clear winner, but it was a long process that ended with the major debacle of the Crimean War.
Ever since the reign of Catherine the Great (r. 1762–1796) the Russian Empire had been expanding at the expense of the Ottomans. Catherine's dream (which turned out to be utopian) was the final conquest of Istanbul and the resurrection of the Byzantine Empire under Russian protection. With the Treaty of Küiçük Kaynarca (1774), the annexation of the Crimea (1783), and the Treaty of Adrianople (1829) Russian power increased. Russian victory in the War of the Dnepr Estuary (1788–1789) resulted in the fall of the last Ottoman fortresses and the emergence of Sevastopol as the major Russian naval base in the Black Sea. Crimea became the "New Russia," Novorossiya, the symbol of the expanding Russian frontier. Commerce also thrived as a result of the development of the ports of Kherson and Odessa. Particularly Odessa became the new hub of commerce and the symbol of the New Russia. From 1790 onward, with Ottoman agreement for the free passage of foreign-flag merchant ships through the Straits (Bosphorus and the Dardanelles), Russia became a major exporter of grain and salt to the Mediterranean and western Europe. Developed by a series of able governors, Odessa was a city numbering some seventy-eight thousand inhabitants by 1845; with a mainly Greek, Tatar, Armenian, and Jewish population. Odessa was declared a tax-free zone, and improvements to its harbor meant that the Black Sea was integrated into European commerce as it had never been before.
The Crimean War (October 1853–February 1856) was the only time that the Black Sea would dominate the world limelight in the nineteenth century. Ostensibly a war between the Ottoman Empire and Russia, its origins lay in the growing rivalry between Great Britain and Russia in the course of what came to be called the "Great Game"; struggle for supremacy in the Near East, Central Asia, and India. Although the Straits Convention of 1841 had determined that in times of peace the Black Sea would be closed to the warships of all powers, Britain and France continued to fear that Russia would make a dash across the Black Sea to seize Istanbul. The Crimean War ostensibly broke out over the demand of the Russian tsar, Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) to protect the privileges of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem against the Catholics, who were backed by the French. Russian forces crossed the Ottoman frontier on the Danube in October 1853 and officially started what came to be known as the Crimean War. The war was so named largely because its major theater was to be the Crimean Peninsula. After the destruction of the Ottoman fleet at Sinop on the north Anatolian littoral on 30 November, it appeared as though the Ottoman Empire was defenseless. In March 1854 Britain, France, Austria, and the Kingdom of Sardinia joined the Ottoman Empire. The key to the Allied campaign was the siege of Sevastopol. Much of the Russian navy was scuttled to block the entrance to the harbor, and after the landings at Balaklava, the battle for Sevastopol became an eleven-month siege in which more soldiers on both sides died of disease than in actual combat.
Western history books glorified the war, and romantic imagery such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson's (1809–1892) poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854), created the impression that the "Turks," whose war it actually was, were virtually absent. In fact the Ottoman forces, commanded by a very able general, Omar Pasha (a Croat convert to Islam), provided the main "cannon fodder" and Istanbul became the center for logistical support. It was there, outside Sevastopol, that Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), the "lady with the lamp," set up what would become the most legendary war hospital of pre–World War I Europe. On 11 September 1855 the Russians evacuated Sevastopol and scuttled what remained of their Black Sea fleet.
For most of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Black Sea would actually be dominated by the Ottoman fleet. The Ottomans, chastened by their experience during the Crimean War, built up a fleet of dreadnoughts that became the third-largest battle fleet in the world. The Russians, forbidden by the Treaty of Paris of 1856 from building a fleet, were virtually erased as a naval presence in the Black Sea up to World War I.
King, Charles. The Black Sea: A History. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2004.
Ortayli, İlber. İmparatorluğun En Uzun Yüzyili. Istanbul, 1983.
About 180,000 square miles (466,000 sq. km.), the Black Sea is connected to the Aegean Sea, the northeast arm of the Mediterranean Sea, by the Turkish Straits (the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus). Until the late eighteenth century, the Black Sea was controlled almost entirely by the Ottoman Empire, but the sea was opened to Russia in the Treaty of Kuçuk Kaynara (1774). Over the next century and a half, the Russians and the Ottoman Turks vied for control of the Black Sea. The Ottoman Empire attempted to keep Russia from establishing a military presence in the Black Sea, and the Russians attempted to push the Ottomans ever southward and prevent access to the Black Sea by the other European powers through the Turkish Straits. Control of the straits remained a live issue well into the twentieth century. After World War II, Josef Stalin, USSR premier, unsuccessfully pressured Turkey to revise the 1936 Montreux Convention, which barred belligerents from the straits and hence limited the ability of the USSR to use the Black Sea as a naval base. The Black Sea is also a major commercial shipping region. It is thus a vital economic link between Eastern Europe, Russia and other states of the former USSR, Turkey, and the states of western Central Asia, as well as a link between these states and the countries of the Mediterranean and the world.
see also montreux convention (1936); ottoman empire; straits, turkish.