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The Crimean War: The Real Reason Why

The war of 1853–56 was a calamitous clash of imperial ambitions. Turkey sustained heavy losses, but without them she might have ceased to exist. David Barchard puts the conflict in context

  • Cartoon by John Tenniel in *Punch* before war broke out: a Cossack threatens a Turkish sultan (July 23, 1853)

B etween 1768 and 1878, Russia and Turkey went to war six times as successive waves of Russian military expansion dismembered the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lost Crimea and the northern coast of the Black Sea, then much of the Caucasus, the Danube, and eventually its Balkan possessions. Most 19th-century observers assumed Turkey would ultimately be swallowed up in the Russian Empire, like the Emirates of Central Asia and the Caucasian provinces of Iran, and would disappear from the map and history.

But it never happened. In the middle of the 19th century the Crimean War dealt Russia a blow that set it and its expansionary hopes back many years. And this happened because on this one occasion, unlike all the other wars, Turkey fought not alone but with Britain, France and Piedmont as its allies.

By 1850 Russian hopes of turning Turkey into a protectorate ran high. Had Russia succeeded, it would probably have displaced Britain as the strongest international power. Fear of Russian expansion was almost an obsession among some British policy-makers, including Lord Palmerston and his loyal supporter Sir Stratford Canning, the British ambassador in Constantinople. Canning had spent most of the previous 20 years encouraging reform in Turkey so that it could resist Russia more effectively. The Russians discouraged change, supporting the traditionalists and anti-reformists at the Ottoman court. One Turkish ambassador was told by the Tsar that the Turks should not bother to learn European languages. Canning was also a long-standing friend and (at least in his own eyes) mentor of the principal Turkish statesman and leading reformist, Mustafa Reşit Pasha.

In the first half of 1853 the Russians ratcheted up their demands on Turkey, inexorably trying to chip away its independence. Canning and Mustafa Reşit worked closely to steer events towards a point where Britain would intervene – not an easy task since the British prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, known to his friends as “Athenian Aberdeen”, was essentially pro-Russian. Indeed the Russians had tried to neutralise British opposition by offering them a deal in January 1853 in which the two countries would have partitioned the Ottoman Empire between them, disposing of the possessions of the “sick man of Europe”. Britain refused. Had the partition happened, world history might have been very different, for in 1853, unlike 1919, Turks and Muslims were less demographically dominant in Anatolia than they later became.

By October the Ottoman–Russian confrontation had moved from diplomacy to war, which was declared on October 23. Turkey was still alone, but on November 30 Ottoman ships in port at Sinop were destroyed by the Russians, and Britain and France, fearful of a Turkish collapse, decided to go to war, though it was not formally declared until the end of March the following year. A spate of “Help the Turk” memorabilia appeared on sale in England,

‘Ottoman Lives’, by David Barchard, is due out later this year. He was one of the contributors to the Sadberk Hanım exhibition catalogue, [150th Anniversary of the Crimean War]

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Issue 49, April 2013 Travels in Tartary
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 49
  • Yevpatoria: Bathed in splendour

    With its healing brine baths and golden beaches, its wealth and variety of architecture, and its layers-deep history, this resort offers something for everyone – from hedonist to hypochondriac

  • No surrender for Anna

    Yevpatoria in Crimea was the home the young Anna Akhmatova, an icon of Russian literature, who fell foul of Stalin

  • Chekhov’s ‘Warm Siberia’

    Like many writers, Chekhov made his way to Crimea to nurse his TB in a milder climate. His two houses, now museums, became magnets for artists. One he left to his sister, the other to his wife.

  • Into the silence

    By any standard, Hüsamettin Koçan’s mountain-top Baksı Museum, in the northeastern Anatolian village where he was born, deserves a place among the world’s top ten remote museums.

  • Prince on Tour

    Philip Mansel on the future Edward VII’s Ottoman expedition

  • Connoisseur 49

    This silver goblet was one of more than 600 medieval treasures from Central Asia crowding Bonhams’ elegant rooms in Edinburgh for six days in January.

  • The Unlikely Saviour of Sancta Sophia

    Thomas Whittemore, the American scholar and philanthropist, was instrumental in restoring the Byzantine treasures of Ayasofya. Robert S Nelson delves into his enigmatic life

  • Heavenly Berries

    Mulberries come in an array of hues: black, white, pink, purple; some enticingly sweet, others astringent and healing. As Berrin Torolsan can testify, having grown up with them in her Istanbul garden, all are adored – by man, mallard and pine marten alike. Here she traces the history of this lucious fruit

  • Nine Days in Crimea

    From the towers of Tatary to the tombs of Scythian kings, from clifftop citadels to an underground castle, from Balaklava to the beaches of the Tsarist Riviera, Crimea is a land to fall in love with, waiting to be enjoyed, not destroyed

  • Parisian Panache

    The V&A’s Tim Stanley eyes up the Louvre’s astonishing new Islamic offering

  • The Dutch Orientalist

    Aard Streefland tells the story of the Dutch orientalist Marius Bauer (1867–1932)

  • Palaces of Silk

    As the Sadberk Hanım Museum celebrates the art of embroidery, Min Hogg marvels at the motifs of palaces, fruit and flowers, sea and cityscape, wrought stitch by stitch, to adorn every Ottoman home

  • Crimea: the Heartland

    The Crimean khans founded their capital in the fertile foothills of the Crimean Mountains in the 15th century. This was the nucleaus of the land known as Cim Tartary. The garden palace of Bahçesaray is a glorious reminder of the khans’ 350-year reign

  • Crimea: the South Coast

    Dramatic and picturesque, Crimea’s southern coast became a resort for doomed royalty and a refuge for ailing literati

  • Crimea: the West Coast

    Two ports – Sevastopol and Yevpatoria – rule Crimea’s flat west coast. One was built for war, the other for recreation. Both played a part in the Crimean War

  • Eastern Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula

    Geonese merchants, a millionaire painter and a symbolist poet brought fortune and fame to the eastern stretches of Crimea’s south coast and its fertile hinterland

  • The Crimean War: Into the Mouth of Hell

    Balaklava, Sevastopol, Inkerman, the Valley of Death – in Britain, where the savage toll was so acutely felt, these names still have the power to arouse pride and fury. Algernon Percy travelled to Crimea to visit the evocative battlefields

  • Crimean War: The Empire Strikes Back

    From the Danube to the Caucasus, conflict raged. The Ottomans were fighting for their territories and their lives, but the full story of their courage is only now being told, says the military historian Mesut Uyar 

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Issue 49, April 2013 Travels in Tartary
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  • War and Peace

    The London Academy of Ottoman Court Music, with Emre Araci

    £ 7.50
  • The Bosphorus by Moonlight

    The Prague Symphony Chamber Orchestra with Cihat Askin, violin. Directed by Emre Araci and produced by Ateş Orga

    £ 9.00
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