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The Princely Pasha of Crete

Giritli Mustafa Naili was a boy soldier who became one of the richest men in the Ottoman Empire, ruling Crete with an even-handedness many foreigners admired. By David Barchard

  • Giritli (Cretan) Mustafa Naili Pasha, painted by Luigi Aquaroni.
    The Albanian effectively governed the island single-handed for 25 years

Among the tombstones in the nineteenth-century Ottoman graveyard at the southeast corner of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul stands the headstone of Giritli Mustafa Naili Pasha, three times grand vizir of the empire and, for just over three decades, ruler and virtual proprietor of the island of Crete (Giritli means Cretan).

By the time he was laid to rest, on December 29, 1871, the pasha had long been a senior grandee at the sultan’s court and an influential member of his council of state. But this final, honorific phase of Mustafa Naili’s career is just one of many surprising twists in a remarkable life, most of which had nothing to do with Istanbul or the sultan. He had arrived in Istanbul only twenty years earlier, already in his mid-fifties, having spent most of his life not as a servant of the Ottoman Empire, but as one of the main lieutenants of Kavalalı Mehmet Ali Pasha, governor of Egypt and arguably the most serious rival the Ottoman dynasty ever faced.

Mustafa Naili was born in 1798, the year Napoleon and the French army invaded Egypt, showing that the entire Middle Eastern world was effectively up for grabs. His family were in the forefront of those who reached eagerly for the limitless opportunities that opened up. Mustafa’s birthplace was in the northwestern corner of the Islamic world, in the village of Polyen (today on the frontier between Albania and the Greek province of Kastoria). In March 1801, the infant Mustafa’s father, Ismail, and his two maternal uncles, Tahir and Hasan, joined an Anglo–Ottoman military expedition organised by Selim III to fight the French troops in Egypt. Tahir seems to have become one of the main associates of “Kavalalı” Mehmet Ali, an Albanian tobacco merchant from Kavala turned irregular soldier, and, as events were to show, a military and administrative genius.

When they arrived in Egypt, Mehmet Ali and Tahir belonged to a corps of 6,000 Albanian troops, distinct from the other Ottoman forces and regarded by Europeans and Egyptians as much more unruly than the Anatolian Turks. Almost from the first day, Mehmet Ali’s personality propelled him to the leadership of the Ottoman troops. Egypt at this point was a country without a master. By 1805, after a series of messy and brutal fights and battles, Mehmet Ali was its undisputed ruler, recognised as vali (governor) by the sultan.

By then Tahir was dead, assassinated by two janissaries in Cairo. “He was originally a brigand and loved to kill,” wrote an Egyptian observer. Mustafa’s father, Ismail, also died around this time. The child and his mother returned home to Polyen, but in 1809 his uncle Hasan sent for him in Arabia. By then Mehmet Ali’s regime had more or less consolidated its hold on Egypt and was tentatively beginning to expand into the rest of the region. The Ottoman state was militarily so weak that Mehmet Ali and his Albanians were the only instrument left to Sultan Mahmut II when trying to quell local rebellions. But Mehmet Ali aimed much higher than just being the lieutenant of the sultan: he hoped eventually to capture Istanbul and supplant the ailing empire with his own modernised Islamic Near Eastern state.

Mustafa was eleven when he returned to the Middle East, where he had about the toughest upbringing imaginable. He grew up among soldiers in camp, with no opportunity for formal education, and not in Egypt but in the Hijaz desert, in modern Saudi Arabia, where, almost exactly a century before Lawrence of Arabia, his uncle, Hasan Pasha, was subduing the Wahhabis on behalf of Mehmet Ali and the sultan.

These were daunting circumstances in which to grow up, but Mustafa Naili thrived. It is recorded that his uncle, who seems to have adopted him as a son, let him lead war-bands against the rebels while still more or less a child, presumably in his early teens.

In 1821 Hasan was given an even more exacting assignment in a much more congenial setting. He was sent to Crete, which had fallen into the hands of Greek nationalists a few months after the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, in March that year. So began Mustafa Naili’s lifelong association with the island. But it was an inauspicious beginning, for Crete had been plunged into seven years of war during which about half its population died. The heaviest losers were the Cretan Muslims, who were besieged in castles along the coast, where so many perished from plagues that the balance of the population was permanently changed.

Around this time Hasan Pasha himself died. So, in early manhood, Mustafa Naili was orphaned once again. He inherited Hasan Pasha’s estate and for many years was paid an enormous annual pension by Mehmet Ali in memory of his uncle.

But Crete was only an outlying part of Greece. Mehmet Ali’s armies and fleets, which were more or less the only troops fighting against the rebels, could not spare the island many resources for any length of time. Although Mustafa Naili was by most standards too young for a full command, he was given increasing control over the troops in Crete. In 1824, when Kavalalı Hüseyin Pasha, Mehmet Ali’s son-in-law, left the island, Mustafa Naili was placed formally in charge, and a few years later he was made governor of Candia (modern Iraklion, capital of Crete).

These were years of violent and epic struggle. The Cretan ballads of the Greek nationalist rebels, lacking the generous imagination of their Homeric prototypes, which could detect nobility and psychological complexity even in enemies, portray Mustafa Naili simply as a monster who vowed to “eat up his enemies like an anchovy salad”. But there were other observers on the island who saw him rather differently.

In January 1826, Monsieur de Saint-Sauveur, the French consul in Canea (modern Chania), introduced him to his masters in Paris in the following terms: “Mustafa Bey is a young man of 25 or 30 years who has been in the service of Mehmet Ali Pasha since his childhood. He is convinced that using violent measures will simply cause the numbers of insurgents to increase, and he has given proof on all occasions of the greatest moderation towards them. It has already been seen several times that when his troops have captured some of them, he pardons them and, after taking away their arms, sends them back to their village on condition that they keep the peace from now on. He never stops recommending the Cretan Turks to treat the Greeks gently and respect their property.”

In Cretan ballads, the insurgent leader Hajji Michalis confronts the pasha ­– like the sheriff in High Noon. The French consul tells us that actually the chieftain very nearly accepted a peace deal offered by the pasha, who was eager for a negotiated outcome.

In the next two years the Great Powers (England, Russia and France) smashed Mehmet Ali’s fleet at the battle of Navarino and enabled Greece to become independent. But the Duke of Wellington decided that Crete should remain Ottoman – though in practice it now belonged to Mehmet Ali and Egypt. Mustafa Naili was named serasker, or commander-in-chief, of the island. He introduced a new administrative system, including local councils of Christians and Muslims, loosely based on the Napoleonic model.

The Egyptians also brought in a completely new system of monopolies and taxes. These hit the indigenous Muslim aghas of the island much harder than the Christians, and most of the time Mustafa Naili ruled with the open approval of the Christians and the grudging consent of its Muslims. In 1833 new taxes provoked both communities, and there were meetings at the village of Mournies, near Candia, and in other parts of the island. On orders from Egypt, the protests were harshly repressed, and thirty-two merchants were executed. At Mournies they were hung from the trees in the grove where they had held their protest. This event has passed into the folklore of Crete as the main instance of the harshness of Ottoman (though really Egyptian) rule. It was soon utterly forgotten that the victims had been both Muslim and Christian.

Meanwhile Mustafa Pasha had built himself a mansion at Perivolia, outside Canea, and another home at Candia. Around the time of his first visit to the island, he had married Helena Bolanopoula, the daughter of an Orthodox priest in the village of Scouloufia, near Rethymnon. It was a love match and, the Albanians being notably relaxed in religious matters, he did not compel her to become a Muslim but allowed her to worship at her own small chapel in the garden. Connections with her family, the Bolanakis, remained strong – there is a family tradition that, in later years, some of them used their connection with the pasha to obtain posts as priests at Orthodox churches in Beyoğlu in Istanbul. A series of sons came from this first marriage, the eldest of whom was Veli Pasha, a future Ottoman governor of the island, known in Paris, where he served as ambassador at the time of the Crimean War, as Le Beau Véli.

During these years, Mustafa Naili strove to keep himself abreast of changes in the world. He learned to speak Greek well, though he could not read it (he could, however, read both Turkish and Arabic, contrary to claims made later in his life that he was illiterate); he hired European tutors in military studies for himself, and in other studies for his sons. He developed a courtesy and manners which belonged to the modern metropolitan world. When the philhellene Robert Pashley visited Crete in 1833, he was surprised to find the pasha rising to welcome him into the room at the beginning of the meeting and again to say goodbye to him at the end, “an honour which probably no European ever received until within the last half-century”.

Throughout the 1830s Crete was a crucial link between the Albanian world and Egypt. The island was a stopping-off place for Albanian soldiers of fortune from the Balkans travelling south to join forces with Mehmet Ali. From time to time Mustafa Naili organised them into bands and took them off on expeditions in Syria on behalf of Mehmet Ali, for Egyptian rule then extended from Arabia through Syria, Palestine and Adana. Expeditions against the sultan by the Egypt-based forces continued through Anatolia, and when Sultan Mahmut II died, in June 1839, the ruler of Egypt had just annihilated the Ottoman armies at the battle of Nizip, and, soon after, the Kapudan Pasha, or lord high admiral, betrayed the Ottoman fleet to him. Mustafa Naili Pasha and many others must have assumed that the empire’s last hour had arrived. It turned out not to be so. Little more than a year later, Mustafa Naili was no longer ruling Crete on behalf of Mehmet Ali but as a regular Ottoman vali in the name of the sultan. Soon after Mahmut II’s death, the Ottoman government appealed to England and Russia to quell Egypt. In 1840 Egyptian power was crushed and all Mehmet Ali’s lands outside Egypt were taken from him.

One of the lost possessions was Crete. While Britain was contemplating what to do in the area, it commissioned detailed reports on the wealth and economies of both Crete and Egypt. On one of his military expeditions to Syria, in 1839, Mustafa Naili briefed Sir John Bowring for a parliamentary report on the assets of Crete. It turned out that his own salary – 2,500,000 piastres, or about £25,000 in British money of the day, an enormous amount – made up around a quarter of the total declared revenue of the island. (Bowring points out that Mustafa Naili may very well not have declared its full extent to him.) The large income was in theory the pension bestowed on Hasan Pasha and still being drawn by his nephew as a mark of the esteem in which Mehmet Ali held him. The Pasha of Crete was one of the richest men in the Ottoman Empire: many thought him the richest. Bowring’s report emphasises, as others do, that the Pasha was more popular with the Greeks than with the Muslims of the island.

“The governor, Mustafa Pasha, is a man of mild character, and having a very high salary, has not those inducements to oppress the people which the pachas of Turkey usually have; he therefore cannot be accused of injustice or oppression, but he must of course execute the orders he may receive from Egypt; he keeps in check the presidents of the councils who would willingly adopt the unjust principles to which they have been accustomed in continental Turkey. He is therefore liked by everyone, and especially by the Greeks,” Bowring wrote.

The fate of the Ottoman Empire – and the future relations between its citizens of different religions and contending nationalities – was a topic to which Mustafa Naili had produced his own answer, according to Sir Adolphus Slade, a British admiral who knew him during his Istanbul years. The pasha thought there could be an alliance between Christian and Muslim landowners which would forestall the disruptive forces of nationalism.

In the spring of 1840 he seems to have put this theory to the test in what looks like a discreet attempt to establish himself as Prince of Crete in his own right. Since his opponents were the aghas of Crete, Mustafa Naili imported arms and distributed them to the Christians. There was a famous precedent for this on the island. In 1813 a much earlier governor, Hacı Osman, had used armed Christians to help him slaughter the janissaries of Canea at a fatal lunch party. By the 1840s, however, this strategy would not work. The Christians refused to carry out their allotted role in support of the pasha. An insurgency began which was put down only with help from the British navy and the government in Istanbul. Despite this, Mustafa Naili kept his job governing Crete for a further decade.

In the summer of 1850, as part of a tour of what were then the Ottoman islands, Sultan Abdülmecit made what seems to have been the only visit ever to the island by an Ottoman sultan. The imperial party, which included his two sons, the future sultans Abdülaziz and Murat V, were guests in the pasha’s home in Perivolia. On the face of it, the visit was a tremendous success. Mustafa Naili and his family emerged with flying colours, the recipients of all sorts of imperial compliments and felicities. Nonetheless some of the sultan’s entourage were evidently eyeing the situation in Crete with other thoughts running through their minds. A year later there was another official visit, though this time only from the lord high admiral.

Then, on October 5, 1851, the sand in the hour-glass finally ran out. An imperial steamer turned up at Canea with orders to take Mustafa Naili Pasha and his son Veli off the island and back to Istanbul. The pasha confessed to the English consul that he had no idea what was going on. As soon as he was gone, his sons and relatives were all turned out of their positions on the island.

Presumably Mustafa Naili passed some uncomfortable days wondering about his fate. As it turned out, he was given a post on the imperial council and a place at court, as well as a house on the Bosphorus at Emirgan. His town house was in Fatih and there is a family tradition that a sign over the door said “No Christians may enter here”.

For much of the rest of his life Mustafa Naili appears, perhaps understandably, to have been an extremely angry man. The target of his rage was Mustafa Reşit Pasha, statesman and leader of the Tanzimat reforms. Sir Adolphus Slade explains: “Redshid [Reşit] Pasha, when Grand Vizir, had turned Mustafa Pasha, the actual holder of the seal of state, out of the government of Candia – which post, held by him for twenty five years, had made him one of the richest men in the Empire.”

Yet Mustafa Naili himself rose to be grand vizir twice – or three times, according to some counts. He partook, perhaps rather too vigorously for his own good, in the robust infighting which senior Ottoman statesmen permitted themselves within the confines of the Ottoman court but would never have inflicted on foreigners.

In Istanbul the pasha’s family entered a world vastly larger and more sophisticated than anything they could have known in Crete. During the Crimean War, and again in the early 1860s, Mustafa Naili ensured that Veli was sent as ambassador to Paris. Veli’s dashing looks ensured that, as The Times put it in an editorial, he “peopled Père Lachaise with broken hearts”.

In September 1866, Mustafa Naili himself returned to Crete as imperial commissioner. An uprising had begun and he was brought in, in place of his son-in-law Ismail Pasha (a convert Greek), to pacify the island. He tried a combination of military force and negotiation with the local chiefs, as he had done so successfully in the 1820s, but he was now nearly seventy. On November 21 he was besieging the monastery of Arkadi when it was blown up and most of those inside it were killed. As it happens (though this detail is generally forgotten) the explosion was deliberately caused by its abbot. Salih, one of the pasha’s youngest sons, took good care of the prisoners and released them the following day. All the same, it was a gigantic public relations disaster, and Giritli Mustafa Naili Pasha knew it.

After a painful winter campaign in the mountains of Crete, he was dismissed and summoned back to Istanbul in March 1867. When he arrived in the capital, the Sultan declined to see him. It looks very much as if the pasha’s enemies at court used his disgrace to settle old scores. Ironically, in Crete some of the people he had been fighting respected him most. Jules Ballot, a French volunteer with the Greek insurgents, wrote that the pasha had come very close indeed to capturing and destroying the insurgents.

His final years were spent in relative obscurity. However, his grandchildren and descendants continued to grow and flourish after his death in the winter of 1871. There is even an English branch of the family. As for Giritli Mustafa Naili himself, he exemplifies the ability of brilliance to flare up in even the most far-flung corners of the Ottoman Turkish world, and to survive tenaciously against all the odds. ◆

David Barchard:
The author would like to thank Mustafa Naili Pasha’s descendants, Nilüfer, Tayyibe and Mustafa Gülek, who provided family photographs, and Mrs Iffet Sunalp, for information about family traditions.

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