The Bay of Navarino

Visiting places where a fierce war once raged, is not one of my favorite activities. Some people like to visit the trenches of the First World War. Others travel to Normandy just to see where the British and Americans landed in the final year of the Second World War. Others ‘collect’ military cemeteries.
Yet I must admit: in Greece I recently discovered that it can definitely have its charms, to visit a place where a war has been fought, and in the meantime try to imagine what happened, decades or centuries ago.

The Greek war of independence.

Greece has been part of the Ottoman Empire for a very long time. The period of Ottoman rule started in the 15th century. For centuries, there was some resistance from the Greeks against the rule of the sultans, but at the beginning of the 19th century that resistance became larger and better organized than before. In 1821 the war really broke out. In recent years I have read many books about this Greek struggle for independence. Scientific books by historians, but also reports by people who were there: famous Greek army commanders and gang leaders such as Kolokotronis and Mavrokordatos.
In the first years, the Greeks fought against the Turks without much help from abroad. But the tide turned in 1827. The great powers England, France and Russia decided to join the war. Formally to support the poor Greek people, but in fact their involvement was mainly motivated by self-interest. For the great powers the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea was of great strategic importance. On July 6, 1827, the great powers signed the Treaty of London, and formally declared that they would support the Greeks. George Canning, British Prime Minister at the time, played a major role in this decision.
Meanwhile, the sultan stubbornly persisted in his efforts to reconquer and hold the “Rum-millet” – as the area where Greeks lived was called. At a certain point, in the autumn of 1827, the great powers decided for an ultimate demonstration of their power. Scene of this event was the west coast of the Peloponnese.

Visiting Pylos.

To get a picture of that dramatic event, I traveled to the southwestern corner of the Peloponnese. There, in the Messinian region, overlooking the Ionian Sea, lies the coastal town of Pylos.
On a stormy afternoon I climb the steps of the Neokastro. This fortress was built in 1573 by the Turks. It is a beautiful fortress, built of huge thick high walls of beige-gray stones. Once on top of the high castle walls, I have a great view over the Bay of Navarino. Due to the location of the island of Sfaktiria, here off the coast of Pylos, a natural bay has been created. The opening to the bay is about a kilometer wide, and the entire gulf measures about five by three kilometers.

The battle of Navarino.

In the autumn of 1827, Ibrahim Pasha’s fleet was anchored here. His fleet involved 89 ships with no less than 2438 guns; a large fleet that effectively filled the bay completely. The Allies had no intention of attacking Ibrahim’s fleet. The plan was to intimidate the army commander in the hope that he would retreat or surrender. That is why the British, French and Russians, led respectively by generals Edward Codrington, Henri de Rigny and Lodewijk van Heiden, sailed with 27 ships – loaded with 1276 guns – towards Navarino, as the town of Pylos was called at that time.
Ibrahim informed the three generals through a messenger on October 20 that they were not allowed to enter the bay. Codrington, in turn, said that he was not pleased to receive orders. Hé was the one who gave the orders, was his message. Such a tense atmosphere between enemy armies had to end badly. And that indeed happened.
A few shots were fired from one of Ibrahim’s ships, to which the soldiers from the French ship Sirene fired back. Then all hell broke loose. 116 ships converged in the bay and fired guns at each other. In the course of the afternoon the bay turned into one big conflagration. With all the fire and smoke, the use of any type of war strategy was impossible. Also, there was no room for skillful maneuvering in the relatively tight bay. By early evening, 3,000 Turkish Egyptians had been killed, 1,109 wounded, and 81 ships had been destroyed. On the side of the Allies, the lost was less, 181 soldiers were killed and 480 wounded.

I have seen paintings of this naval battle in various museums, and I always found them impressive. But now that I see the bay for the first time with my own eyes, I get a much better picture. The Battle of Navarino must have looked like Armageddon, the end of the world, to the inhabitants of this town. It must have been a gruesome spectacle, with deafening noise. It seems that you can still see ships lying on the bottom of the bay, and diving clubs occasionally take people on a dive to one of the many wrecks.

Back on the central square of Pylos, the Platia Trion Navarchon, next to the monument to the three generals, I drink a glass of white wine and eat some fresh kalamari. A group of Pakistani migrants is fishing in the harbour. Very simple, with a simple fishing line. Their children run back and forth on the quay. They shout excitedly when a fish is caught. Probably they are completely unaware of the great and dramatic historical event that took place in this bay, almost 200 years ago.

More information.

Would you like to visit the village of Pylos and the Bay of Navarino? Pylos is some 270 kilometres from Athens, and 200 kilometres from Patras. The closest airport is Kalamata. It has some 5000 inhabitants, and there are a lot of hotels, restaurants and cafes. The area is famous for its beaches and castles from the Byzantine era.