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1814-1821 - Path to War for Greek Independence

The modern state of Greece came into existence as a result of a protracted, bloody war against the Ottoman Empire between the years 1821 and 1832. The significance of the Greek War of Independence transcends the bounds of Greece and its history. It was the first major war of liberation after the American Revolution; it was the first successful war for independence from the Ottoman Empire; it was the first explicitly nationalist revolution; and it provided a model for later nationalist struggles.

The Greek War of Independence was the result of several factors. The ideology of a specifically Greek national consciousness, which had earlier roots, developed at an accelerated pace in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. The uprising of 1821 followed other Greek efforts to confront Ottoman rule directly. The most important of these events was the Orlov Rebellion of 1778-79. Inspired by the belief that Russia's war with the Turks signaled that country's readiness to liberate all the Christians in the Ottoman Empire, a short-lived uprising took place in the Peloponnesus beginning in February 1778. Under the ostensible leadership of the Russian Orlov brothers, the venture quickly failed because of poor organization and the lack of a coherent ideology, rapidly degenerating into looting and pillaging by both sides, but it set a precedent for violent resistance to Ottoman rule. The Orlov Rebellion also prompted oppressive measures by the Sublime Porte (the Ottoman government) that increased resentment against the empire.

The intellectual basis of nationalism came from the affluent and prominent diaspora Greeks of the eighteenth century. The two most prominent leaders of this group were Adamantios Korais and Rigas Velestinlis. Korais, primarily an educator, advocated the education of Greeks about their ancient heritage as the path toward emancipation. He played no active role in founding the modern Greek state. The fiery revolutionary Velestinlis wrote a blueprint for a new Greek state that would arise from the ashes of revolution against the empire. He was executed by the Turks in 1798.

Like so many subsequent revolutionary agitations, the Hellenic movement, which culminated in an armed national uprising, received its first impulse from a propaganda purely linguistic and literary. To the enthusiasts of the Greek revival the first step towards gathering up the broken threads of the national tradition seemed to be to make the modern Greeks familiar with the great monuments of their heroic past. The Church preserved for them the memory of the Orthodox empire; but a new force was necessary to carry the national imagination back, behind " the grandeur that was Rome " to " the glory that was Greece," and substitute for the national style of Romans (Roumaioi) the forgotten name of Hellenes. But the Greek language mirrored very accurately the heterogeneous constitution of the Greek race. The Hellenic foundation survived, but overlaid with elements representing each succeeding wave of barbarism which had swept over and left its jetsam on the soil of Greece.

Of the extent and importance of this racial and religious movement inside the Ottoman empire European statesmen, until the eve of the War of Independence, had little idea. There was, however, in the situation revealed between the Peace of Bucharest and the opening of the Congress of Vienna enough to alarm those interested in avoiding a renewed rupture between Russia and Turkey, and to suggest to them the expediency of bringing the integrity of the Ottoman empire under the guarantee of the treaties established by the Congress.

The sectional elements of Greek disaffection were gathered and organised in the great armed secret society, the Hetairia Philike, founded at Odessa in 1814, against which Metternich in vain warned the Ottoman Government. The fate of the place was now bound up with the destiny of the Ionian Islands. The little town of Parga had been freely delivered by the Pargiots to the British, with a view to preserving them from the very man who now claimed its delivery on the ground of a guarantee solemnly given. The choice lay between maintaining for ever a British garrison in a place which seemed to Ministers of a value quite incommensurate with the risk of complications to which it was likely to give rise, and surrendering a population which had placed itself confidently under British protection to a ruler who, in spite of his "supereminent qualities," was notoriously an unscrupulous ruffian. The latter course was adopted. By a Convention signed by the British and Turkish commissioners on May 17, 1817, the last citadel of' Greek independence was handed over to Ali Pasha. The wild hill-tribes of Albania and Greece were subdued by the bloody justice of a tyrant who would allow no robbery but his own.

To the Hetairists, the preoccupation of the Ottoman forces in Albania presented the best possible opportunity for executing the plans which had been long maturing. The organisation of the revolt being ready, it only remained to find a leader. The leadership was accepted by Prince Alexander Ypsilanti, son of a former hospodar of Wallachia and member of an old Phanariot family which boasted its descent from the Imperial Comneni. The prince, who had fought with distinction in the war against Napoleon and had been a popular figure during the gaieties of the Congress of Vierrna, was an officer in the Russian service and aide-de-camp to the Tsar. This alone would have suggested to the world the powerful backing of Russia ; and, when the prince, accompanied by other Greek officers in the Russian service, crossed the Pruth into Moldavia on March 6, 1821, he issued a proclamation in which, while calling on the people to rise against the Ottoman tyranny, he specifically stated that he had the support of " a Great Power." It is this claim alone which gives to the Greek rising in the Principalities any importance in history. For the rest, Ypsilanti's enterprise was futile. As for the promised support of Russia, on which he had expressed such confident reliance, he was soon undeceived. Metternich at Laibach had little difficulty in persuading the Emperor Alexander, repenting of his earlier encouragement of Liberalism, that Ypsilanti and his followers were but revolutionists of the usual dangerous type.

Though the apostles of Greek independence had long been agitating in the Morea and the islands, the rising was not the outcome of any carefully devised plan; nor, when it broke out, was there any organisation prepared to direct it. It began in isolated outrages on Ottoman officials and massacres of small bands of Albanian Mussulman mercenaries, which culminated in April 1821 in a general insurrection of the Christian population and the promiscuous slaughter of all Mussulmans. Within six weeks of the outbreak of the revolt not a Mohammadan was left in all the Morea.

The first phase of the rising culminated in the storming of Tripolitea, the capital of the Vilayet, followed by the butchery in cold blood of 2000 Mussulman prisoners without distinction of age or sex. By the close of 1821, with the exception of some half-dozen fortresses closely invested by wild hordes of brigands and peasants, the whole Vilayet of the Morea had passed from the obedience of the Sultan, and the insurrection had spread beyond the Isthmus of Corinth, throughout continental Greece, and over the mountain passes into Thessaly and Macedonia.

v In 1821 Greece met three major requirements for a successful revolution: material conditions among the populace were adverse enough to stimulate mass support for action; an ideological framework gave direction to the movement; and an organizational structure was present to coordinate the movement. Greek intellectuals had provided the language and ideas necessary for a nationalist struggle. And episodes such as the Orlov Rebellion provided a collective memory of violent resistance that made action feasible. During the 1810s, the other two conditions developed, then all three converged in the early 1820s.

The economy of the Ottoman Empire was seriously damaged by the general depression of commerce that followed the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. Near-famine conditions prevailed in most of the Balkan Peninsula, but the problem was not addressed at any level of Ottoman government, and resentment grew among the rural populace. The Greek movement also developed organizational leadership during the 1810s. The Filiki Etaireia, or Friendly Society, founded in Odessa in 1814, was the most important of many clandestine revolutionary groups that arose. Unlike other such groups, it was able to attract a substantial membership while remaining undetected by Ottoman authorities. The organization brought together men from many levels of society to provide an organizational base for the dissemination of revolutionary ideas and for coordinated action. By 1820, then, only a spark was required to set the revolution ablaze.

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Page last modified: 27-08-2016 15:33:34 ZULU