Navarino's conflict of cultures
Images of literature and art played a crucial role in this naval battle, writes David Crane
From the sound of things lunch at the Karalis Beach Hotel was going very well. On the shelf behind the reception desk a row of caps and swords showed that we had come to the right place, but the manager standing guard couldn't help with the one question we wanted answering. He could clearly do us a line in French or Russian captains or the odd Greek admiral, but the British? 'Perhaps,' he suggested, with the shrug of a man who has already watched Arsenal crash out of Europe and was not to be surprised by British incompetence on any scale, 'Perhaps your Navy is lost?'
There are not many times or places abroad where it is a good thing to be British but you would have thought that if there was one safe bet it would be Pylos in the southern Peloponnese on the anniver- sary of the Battle of Navarino. On 20 Octo- ber, 170 years ago, an allied squadron under the command of Admiral Codring- ton sailed into its great natural harbour, and in a nautical answer to the %aka' dropped anchor within the enveloping cres- cent of the combined Ottoman-Egyptian fleets.
The official role of Codrington's force was to hold the peace between Greeks struggling for their independence and their Ottoman masters, but there were no illu- sions on either side that men brought up on Byronic philhellenism and Nelsonian bravado were itching for a scrap. To offi- cers who had fought at Trafalgar and could quote Demosthenes, instinct and culture were dangerously at one; to Christians, too, inflamed by Delacroix's images of Muslim brutality, the enemy was obvious. Race, religion, art and propaganda had all made Navarino an 'accident' that was waiting to happen, and when a panicking Egyptian sharpshooter opened fire, Philhellene and Christian Europe at last got what it wanted. The shot was returned, the exchange continued, and within minutes — as the coolly understated entry in the stained and battered log- book of Codrington's flag- ship, the Asia, has it — 'the action became general'.
The carnage that followed was the last great battle fought by sailing ships, the final fling of Nelson's cap- tains, and arguably the most decisive naval action ever fought. On the afternoon in 1827 when Codrington sailed through the narrow passage into the bay, Greece was fac- ing extinction, but when at 5.50 p.m. the guns finally fell silent along the whole line, its freedom was assured. In less than four hours the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet had been annihi- lated, and almost 60 of its ships crippled or destroyed without the loss of a single allied vessel. Eight thousand of their men had been lost at a cost of 176 British, French and Russian casualties. Modern Greece had, effectively, been born.
It is hardly as though the Navy has won so many battles of this scale over the last century and a half that it can afford to ignore this one, but of the three nations who fought at Navarino only a British ves- sel was missing from last month's 170th anniversary. There seemed to be a certain confusion locally as to whether the HMS York or what the French called the 'Nor- toomberlond' had been expected, but as it became obvious to the disgruntled clutch of Britons who had turned up that neither was coming, disappointment hardened into a mutinous resentment of another relegation performance on foreign soil.
It was apparently 'operational duties' that kept the Navy away but it seems a sad comment on resources, and a sadder want of imagination to let this of all celebrations slide. In the usual course of things the Contemporary engraving of the Battle of Navarino Greeks are not long on gratitude to for- eigners who come bearing gifts, but there is something of the atmosphere of Arnhem about Pylos in late October, a wonderfully hospitable and generous awareness of a shared history that makes the Navy's absence all the feebler.
There is such a shamelessly frank and uncomplicated pleasure in all Greek cele- brations of their independence too, such an unreconstructed triumphalism, that an anniversary like Navarino has a character peculiarly its own. Whenever the British have anything to celebrate there is the inevitable suit of sackcloth to be worn as well, but for the modem Greek there are never any of those complexities of Empire to get in the way of his sheer pleasure at the thought of the Turks taking another good thrashing.
And in Pylos on 20 October, with the flags of Russia, France, Britain and Greece everywhere, and the warships dressed as if they had come for a children's party, it was clear that even the missing York was not going to spoil the fun. During the morning ceremonies anthems were played and wreaths laid at the monument to Codring- ton and his fellow admirals, but with that done it was as if a village fete had been crashed by the military, turning Pylos into an odd medley of children in national dress and officers in shades, of town bandsmen, French sailors and a ship's crew of bewil- dered-looking waifs in Russian caps the size of satellite dishes who were clearly waiting for Michael Palin to take charge.
As night fell, though, and one short, vio- lent burst of fireworks lit up the warships riding at anchor, the vast natural amphithe- atre of Navarino took on a more sombre aspect. Almost every major sea-engage- ment throughout history has taken place close to land but Navarino was to all Mary Evans Picture Library intents a landbattle fought - out by ships, a remorseless and static killing-match slugged out at point-blank range that leaves nothing to the imagination.
You can still fix the posi- tions of the Asia and thc Albion, the Talbot, Rose, Philomel and Cambrian, the Sirene and the Armide, the Asoff and Alexander. On the floor of the bay Ottoman ships still lie undisturbed where they exploded and sank through the night of the 20th to the noisy toasts of allied officers in their wardrooms. Somewhere out in the darkness, too, is the rocky outcrop of Little Turtle Island with its monument to the British dead and, beyond that, black against the lighter sky, the low ridge of Sphacteria that defines the western limits of the harbour.
It is one of the curious and irresistible ironies of Navarino that the most brutal and least fluid of all battles fought by sail- ing ships should at the same time be the most poetic. To the generation who fought Navarino the cause of Greece was at once the cause of western religion and western culture, and at Homer's 'sandy Pilos' in 1827 these two muddled crusades reached a single bloody climax. 'Where're we tread, 'tis haunted, holy ground', Byron wrote in Childe Harold, but not even Missolonghi or Nauphlia, with its forlorn monument to the Philhellene dead in the Church of the Metamorphoses, can so eloquently conjure up the nexus of emotions and associations that drew 19th-century Europe to the defence of Greece as Pylos does.
It is impossible to justify the Battle of Navarino, but chug slowly beneath the cliffs where in 425sc Athenian soldiers finally ended the myth of Spartan invincibility, and it is not hard to see how it happened. For six years governments locked in that mini ice-age of reaction that followed on Waterloo had sat back and watched as Greece slid unaided to its destruction, but at Navarino Europe's navies showed that self-interest was in the end no match for a popular philhellenism that had made the landscape and history of Thucydides' Greece so central a part of the western imagination.
Navarino was as much a battle of cul- tures as warships, a stereotypical conflict of East and West in which history and the schoolroom and the images of literature and art played a crucial and formative role. To tamper only slightly with Byron's Don Juan, 'If you think 'twas Codrington that this did, I can't help thinking poetry assist- ed.' Back in London the government might look embarrassed and disown the victory, but it had been running against the tide of popular emotion too long. The navies had already done their job and the Greeks at least still recognise what they owe them. On the deserted island of Sphacteria, too, where the bones of Napoleon's Philhellene nephew once lay until ransacked by looters, the tiny onion domes of a brand new Rus- sian Orthodox Church suggest that they are not alone. It would be nice to think that the British shared something of that sense of history, but for the Pylos Chapter of the Blimpish Tendency a ship would have been more convincing proof than a wreath from the Embassy.
Next morning, as the Commandant Blai- son sailed out through the narrow southern outlet with the crew at attention on her decks, and the faint sound of a bugle drifted across the bay in one last salute, the Red Ensign hanging limp above the lonely outcrop of Turtle Island wore a particularly forlorn and abandoned look.