“The greatest admiral that Russia had ever known“ - Dmitry Senyavin’s victory at the Battle of Athos in 1807

1 July (June 19) 1807, the Russian Vice-Admiral Dmitry Nikolayevich Senyavin decisively defeated a Turkish squadron in the Battle of Athos off Northern Greece during the final stages of the first part of the Russo-Turkish War.

“On Sundays, holidays, there's naught I take delight in, Like gossiping of war, and war's array, When down in Turkey, far away, The foreign people are a-fighting.” (Goethe “Faust”)


“The Battle of Athos in 1807” as imagined by the Russian painter Alexej Bogolubov (1824-1896) in 1853. 

When the War of the Third Coalition between Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden and France and her satellite states broke out after the short-lived Peace of Amiens in 1803, things began to get rather complicated in the Eastern Mediterranean. Just five years before, Napoleon’s Armée d'Orient was evacuated from Egypt and Syria, nominally still part of the Ottoman Empire after several crushing defeats inflicted on Ottoman armies by Kléber and Napoleon himself. Now, the Porte had, all of a sudden, become an interesting potential ally of France on Russia’s southern flank. Unfortunately, the Sultan was still allied with the British, who famously were instrumental in throwing the French out of Egypt in the first place. Since the enemy of one’s enemy is usually a good friend and Napoleon fought the Russians, the arch adversary of the Ottomans, Sultan Selim III suddenly found himself in bed with Napoleon for help in recovering lost territories in the Balkans and making Tsar Alexander’s life a hell, for instance at Austerlitz in 1805. Tensions between the allies grew, Collingwood, as supreme commander of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, was ordered to get the British point across and sent a squadron of 8 ships-of-the-line under Sir John Duckworth to the Dardanelles to threaten the maritime lifelines, the Turkish fleet and the City of Constantinople itself while the French helped the their new friends to bring the coastal defences of the Bosporus up to date. In the meanwhile, the Tsar ordered Admiral Dmitri Senyavin to sail the Baltic Fleet into the Med and make a stand as well. Early in February 1807, Senyavin’s 11 ships-of-the-line were already in the Aegean when Duckworth issued an ultimatum that was refused by Sultan Selim. The British squadron finally tried to force the Dardanelles on 19 February, a hail of fire with everything the Ottomans got, from siege artillery dating back to the days of the Conquest to modern pieces rained down on them and Duckworth was forced to withdraw with his tail between his legs. Senyavin arrived four days later, Duckworth embarked upon a rather hare-brained expedition to Alexandria and the gifted Russian admiral got down to work on Constantinople.


Sir John Duckworth’s ill-fated attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1807 by Thomas Withcombe

Instead of trying to show Johnny Turk what’s what, eh? and run his head against the wall like Duckworth, Senyavin acted a bit more carefully. He captured the Island of Tenedos of Homeric fame as base and like the snakes that came from there to strangle Laocoon, the Russians cut off the Ottoman capital from the rest of the empire and bound the Turkish battle fleet, twice their size, to keep them away from the city. Within two months, food riots broke out in Constantinople and Sultan Selim was forced to do something. The first squadron sent forth against Senyavin was brought to bay off Tenedos, lost three of its eight sail-of-the-line and the rest was driven back into the Dardanelles. Selim was forced to abdicate and his successor Mustafa IV felt that now something substantial ought to be done, really. On 27 June, Kapudan Pasha Seyit-Ali left Constantinople with 10 ships-of-the-line and 5 large frigates, outmanoeuvred the becalmed Russian squadron, occupied Tenedos, laid siege to the island’s fortress and then the wind freshened and in came Senyavin. On the next day, July 1st (19 June), the Russians found the Ottoman squadron anchored between the island of Lemnos and Mount Athos and went straight at them. Forming his ships into two lines of battle, not unlike Nelson at Trafalgar, the Russians charged into the Ottoman centre to sandwich and capture Seyit-Ali’s flagship “Sadd a Bahri“, an 84 gun third rate, and keep the rest at bay. The battle raged for the next four hours, concentrating on the Turkish flagship and the large 120-gun 1st rate “Mesudiye”, while three Turkish captains refrained from taking part in the battle, probably politically motivated. Finally, “Sadd a Bahri“ had to strike her colours to Senyavin, two more damaged Turkish ships-of-the-line were wrecked on the following day and the rest fled back to Constantinople, the Russians had defeated the powerful Ottoman navy twice in two months and were in a position top dictate terms and then, on 7 July, Tsar Alexander concluded the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon and Russia was out of the war, with France and with the Ottoman Empire. The squadron in the Mediterranean was ordered back home and without being able to follow up form his two victories, Senyavin literally wept.


Alexej Bogolubov: After the Battle of Athos, showing the “Sadd a Bahri“ after her surrender as a prize at the end of Senyavin’s line

Five of Senyavin’s battleships were ordered to Sevastopol, the other seven, including the prize captured at Athos, to their home base at St Petersburg to fight their former Swedish allies. The Russian admiral shook hands with Collingwood in Gibraltar and found himself facing the next dilemma. According to the clauses of the Treaty of Tilsit, the Tsar was forced to declare war on Great Britain sooner or later and he did, on 26 October 1807 while adverse winds blew the Russians into the mouth of the River Tagus in Portugal, just when the French invaded Lisbon and the Royal Navy blockaded the place with 15 ships-of-the-line. And besides being a more than capable admiral, Senyavin proved to be a quite original diplomat as well. He simply declared his squadron to be neutral, refused to obey every French order to bring his ships, guns or men into action against the Portuguese or Spanish since Russia was not at war with them. When Wellington’s victory at Vimeiro in August 1808 forced the French out of Lisbon again, Senyavin still had to deal with Sir Charles Cotton’s large squadron and with the threat to blow up his ships and set Lisbon ablaze, he negotiated to get escorted to Britain with the Russian flags still flying to be interred in Portsmouth until the end of the war. Leaving two of his battleships, no longer seaworthy, behind in Portugal, the Russians were finally allowed to leave England and arrived back home in Riga on 9 September 1809, two years after the end of the war they were originally supposed to win and nearly did.

 And more about the Battle of Athos on: