"... thus the tyrants exterminate themselves” - The Battle of Chesma in 1770

7 July 1770, off the Turkish coast of the Aegean during one of the endless Russo-Turkish War, the naval Battle of Chesma ended after three days with a decisive Russian victory over the superior Ottoman fleet.

“The battle of which I wrote to Diotima began. The ships of the Turks had taken refuge in the canal between the island of Chios and the Asiatic coast, and stood along firm land at Cesme. My admiral left the line with his ship, on which I was, and began the prelude with the first ship of the Turks. The furious pair was heated to frenzy at once with the first attack; it was a terrible tumult, intoxicated with revenge. … How this dreadful battle came to an end is known to you. Thus one poison punishes the other, I cried, when I learned that the Russians had burned the entire Turkish fleet – thus the tyrants exterminate themselves” (Friedrich Hölderlin, “Hyperion”)

Jakob Philipp Hackert’s “Untergang der türkischen Flotte in der Schlacht von Tschesme (1771, St Petersburg, Hermitage Museum)

A year before, a Russian squadron under the overall command of Count Orlov had sailed into the Mediterranean from the Baltic, the first time Russian warships appeared in the Med, to lend support to the Greeks fighting for their independence in an uprising later known as the Orlov revolt. Landing a few troops, far less than promised by Russian agents during the 1760s, to support the insurgents in the Morea, Orlov’s squadron of 9 small 3rd rate battleships-of-the-line proceeded into the Aegean to bring the Ottomans to battle.

Sighting 16 Ottoman battleships, 6 frigates and an armada of smaller craft anchored east of the island of Chios in Çeşme Bay on 5 July, Orlov decided to attack, ordered to form a traditional line-of-battle, entering the bay from the south and engaged the Turkish vanguard and centre decisively enough to make the Turkish commander, the Kapudan Pasha Mandalzade Hüsameddin, withdraw his ships in a defensive formation deeper into the bay under the protection of the local shore batteries, after close quarter fighting between “Sv. Evstafii“ (68) and “Real Mustafa” (84) leaving both battleships burning and finally blowing up.

A contemporary graphic summary of the battle.

The next day saw a Russian cannonade against the tight Turkish line that got Orlov nowhere near achieving anything and he tried another approach – During the night of 7 July he sent his Commodore Samuil Karlovich Greig, Samuel Greig, a Scotsman and ex-Royal Navy lieutenant in Russian service, with seven ships-of-the-line against the Ottoman squadron to cover the approach of three fireships, while a bomb ship and the rest of the Russian battleships kept the shore batteries busy. A thorough success. By 2 am, the first Turkish battleship exploded after salvoes of “Ne tron menya” (66) had set her topsails ablaze and her crew couldn’t extinguish the fire. Then Greig sent in his branders, two more Turkish ships-of-the-line caught fire and soon the whole Turkish line-of-battle was burning. Came dawn, Hüsameddin’s Aegean squadron was practically annihilated, 11.000 Turkish sailors were dead and the Ottoman Empire had suffered the worst defeat at sea since the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The marine poet Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky’s (1817 - 1900) imagination of the Battle of Chesma from 1881

The Russian victory made an enormous impression especially on Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule who did their part in helping the Russians to a final victory in the Russo-Turkish War. The Greeks, who fought the Ottomans in their “Orlofika”, the so-called Orlov Revolt, were left out in the rain though. With no more Russian support to speak of, mercenaries were hired by the Turks in Albania who put down the revolt together with Ottoman regulars in an orgy of blood. Greek independence was postponed for another 50 years.

Czarina Catherine the Great made the victory of her lover Count Orlov at Chesma into quite a spectacle, a new church and a palace were named after it in St Petersburg, two further monuments were erected at Gatchina and Tsarkoe Selo and while Orlov’s fleet lay off Naples, the resident and then famous German landscape painter Jakob Philipp Hackert was charged with painting a great daub in commemoration. Since seascapes weren’t exactly the Brandenburgian’s strong side and the artist had never seen a warship burn, Orlov ordered one of his older frigates to be blown up in the harbour, the most elaborate and expensive model an artist ever had, as Goethe later commented on the event during his Italian Journey.

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