The Greek War of Independence 1821-1829: The Birth of International Humanitarian Intervention


A book  review essay based on The Greek Revolution 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe, by Mark Mazower, pub. Allen Lane, 2021.

 Jamie Arbuckle for Peacehawks


Last year was the bicentenary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence. As the war lasted until 1829, we will be observing many more such anniversaries in the next few years and, as though we were able to witness the birth of an ancient star, so we will, if we are looking closely, be able to revisit the birth of modern Europe. But if we look still more closely at that decade of two hundred years ago, we may see much more: the emergence of public opinion as a force in political affairs, and we will see also the birth of humanitarian  relief agencies as significant actors.  Moreover we may see how such intervention became a major contribution to conflict management in our times.

Mark Mazower has written an outstanding book of near contemporary history. The book is highly and meticulously detailed, and is yet an enjoyable read.  Those new to this material will be engaged and challenged; those with some familiarity with Greece will be delighted and refreshed by this book.

The more thoroughly to appreciate this work we must review briefly the political context and the mood of European governments in the early 19th Century.

Europe after Napoleon

The Europe of 200 years ago did not generally consist of the sovereign nation-states as we know them today, but was mostly organized as empires and their constituent entities. The sun never set on the British Empire, and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians generally ruled much of Europe. East and south of Europe nearly all was under Ottoman sway. Those imperial regimes had as their aim generally their own preservation, and liberalism and democracy both smelt highly of revolution, as had in fact occurred (as the Greek revolution began) less than fifty years ago in the United States and, more recently and much closer to home, in France.

The French Revolution had produced, among other things, Napoleon Bonaparte, who became the First Consul of France in 1799. In his struggle to assert French supremacy in Europe, he plunged all Europe into almost a generation of total war, war of a strategic scope, intensity and destructiveness as had not been seen in Europe since the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Never mind that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor in 1804; the popular currents he unleashed were anathema to imperial rulers, and the sigh of relief when Napoleon was deposed and deported (for the second time) in 1814 was internationally palpable.

Just seven years later, another revolution was simply unthinkable, even if it was in Greece. The news of greater interest in Europe was the death of Napoleon in St. Helena in May 1821. Events in Greece of just three months before that were of considerably less interest, and everybody who was anybody devoutly wished things to stay that way.  America in 1776, France in 1789, Haiti in 1791 and now in 1821, Greece – where might this all end? Who might be next? Italy, half of which, from the South Tyrol to Fiume, was ruled from Vienna?  You could see their concern.

But those imperial maps were to be redrawn several times in the years to come, usually violently, in a process which is continuing in our time.  Perhaps that process may be said to have begun in Greece 200 years ago. The misgivings of the emperors of Europe were to be amply justified in the coming two centuries; their sort of governance is almost incomprehensible today.

And, as ever, it all began in Greece.

The Coming of the Ottomans to Greece

The Ottoman Empire was founded in1299, and finally dissolved in 1922. From original territorial holdings of less than 500,000 square kilometers it expanded to encompass by about 1700 over 5 million square kilometers on three continents; its population in 1600 was about 35 million, nearly half of whom were “vassals”, these mostly Christians living in varying degrees of subjugation to their occupiers.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman invaders on Tuesday, 29 May 1453, and there began nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule of Greece. That day is to this day referred to by Greeks as “The Fall”; important transactions are avoided on Tuesdays.

Imperial vs. Public Attitudes

We have alluded briefly to the conservative attitudes in the courts of Europe; reactions to revolution ranged from dismissive to alarmist, mostly the former. A letter of recommendation on the young poet Alexander Pushkin praised his talent, but warned that he was attracted to “that system of anarchy which bad faith calls the System of Human Rights, Liberty and the Independence of Peoples.” Metternich wrote that “Beyond our eastern frontiers, three or four hundred thousand hanged, strangled, or impaled do not count for much.”  At any rate, the British wanted peace, and the French placed much value on their traditional close ties with the Sublime Porte.[i] Russia had fought eight wars with the Ottomans in the past 200 years, and were to go to war with a greatly weakened Ottoman Empire again in 1828-29 – but not now.

But those dismissive attitudes were to encounter a rude awakening as continued Ottoman excesses in Greece excited a hitherto unknown force: that of inflamed public opinion.

The Siege of Chios

The islands of Greece in the 19th Century could be described, much as they can be still today, as seafaring or as producing islands. Mark Mazower tells us they could also be characterized as food deficit or food surplus islands (p 148). Each had its own particular value to the emerging nation, especially for the warlike operations of the rebellion and for the support of the population. Mazower tells us that the traditional seafaring islands were Psara, Spetses and Hydra. These had relatively large fleets, intended for fishing or for cargo, were generally crewed by skilled and experienced sailors, and were to become a principal fighting arm of the revolution. These had to barter with the producing islands for their sustenance.

Those food producing islands were principally Santorini, Naxos, Paros, Milos and especially Chios, which latter outweighed all the others combined. These traded with the island fleets to move their produce.

Mazower tells us that in the summer of 1822 “… Chios would become the site of killings that shocked Europe.”  The Imperial Fleet reached Chios on 30 March; most of the defenders withdrew in the first hours. The invaders slaughtered without check or mercy for two weeks.  The avowed aim of the “occupation” was to “put to death any male inhabitants they found. The women and children were to be sold into slavery.” (p 151). “In the space of a few weeks”, Mazower relates, “… around 23,000 Greeks had been  killed and an estimated 45,000 shipped into slavery – more than half the original population.”  The war had been “… waged chiefly against civilians.  By the middle of May, there were fewer than 20,000 people left on Chios …” (p 152). Whatever the point may have been to so wasting the population and the land one wished to continue to govern, is as incomprehensible then as it is today – perhaps we might ask Bashar al-Assad to comment?

And so the sacking of Chios and the extraordinarily brutal treatment of her population were not only a severe setback for the Greeks, but the inhumane treatment of non-combatants inflamed international public opinion.  That force, for such it was to become, would despite the dismissive attitudes at the courts of Europe, significantly shape European reactions to the revolt.

Worse, much worse, was to come.

The Siege of Missolonghi

Lord Byron (George Gordon) was the most famous and fashionable Romantic poet in the world. Born in 1788, and despite a clubbed foot, he travelled widely in the Middle East and in Greece. Famous as well as a leading Philhellene, he toured Greece for two years from 1809 to 1811, reputedly leaving his initials on the base of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion.  Of his travels he said, “If I am a poet, the air of Greece has made me one.”  He is said to have influenced and inspired Pushkin, Heine, Berlioz, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Verdi, Turner and Delacroix. Drawn by the Greek revolt, he returned to Greece in 1823. There, at Missolonghi, weakened by exposure and general ill health, he contracted a debilitating fever and died on 19 April 1924, aged 36 years.  His death invested Missolonghi with a Romantic renown across nearly the entire world, and ensured that events there would be quickly and widely felt in a very close and personal way by people in all walks of life.

Missolonghi sits atop a deep and narrow lagoon north of the Gulf of Patras. The surrounding terrain is mostly littoral plain, with no natural defences, nor, as the threat grew, and despite a narrowly failed Ottoman attempt to land in 1822, had much been done to improve its almost defenseless state.

In January 1825 the assault was renewed by a large Egyptian-led force intended to eradicate Greek resistance in Western Roumeli, that is, that area to the west of the Pindos Mountains which run roughly north-south, and generally lie some 50 kilometres to the east of Missolonghi.

The Egyptian force crossed the Pindos from the northeast and, by June Missolonghi was completely invested. The besieged town was soon choked with refugees, food and all supplies were increasingly scarce, and resupply could only be landed across the lagoon.  However, when the Ottoman fleet appeared at the entrance to the lagoon, forcing the withdrawal of a Hydriot resupply convoy, the prospects for a successful defense of Missolonghi dwindled to nearly nil. An incredibly brave defense in the face of brutal attacks could not be indefinitely sustained. Repeated demands for surrender were rejected; the Greeks of Missolonghi never wavered in their determination to suffer whatever they must, and never to submit at any cost.

By the early spring of 1826 it was decided to attempt a break-out by the remaining able-bodied; as Mazower relates it, “Of the approximately 9,000 inhabitants of Missolonghi when the sortie took place, perhaps some 1,800 escaped, including 200 women; about 3,000 were killed during the fighting in and around the town, and some 3,000 to 4,000 women and children were taken as slaves.” (p 317). Two-thirds of the people of Missolonghi had been killed or enslaved.

Mazower describes what came next:


When, in this supercharged atmosphere, the news arrived of the dramatic ending of the town’s torment, there was surprisingly a wave of outrage and an outpouring of odes, cantatas, laments and elegies, publishers in half a dozen countries advertised sermons, verse dramas, dirges …  which were sold au profit des Grecs. Philhellenism was becoming a cultural force unifying very diverse swathes of European society, indeed helping to create something we might term a liberal European conscience.  (p 329)


Europe Awakes

And so the sleeping giant was awakened, as all across Europe, Russia and North America public opinion was stirred, then shaken by events in Greece. Conservative hostility to democracy, fear of revolution and scorn for events in other lands seemed to melt away. A traditional reluctance to intervene in the affairs of other governments, no matter how cruel or corrupt they might be, is with us today, and respect for sovereignty and for “domestic jurisdiction” are enshrined in the Charter of The United Nations. Then, as now, that wasn’t enough for an aroused people. As Mazower said, “The idea of justifying a possible intervention in the  internal affairs of another state on humanitarian grounds was perhaps a first in international affairs …”.  (p 35)

Active philhellenism had up to now been primarily military, and had initially been mostly soldiers or wannabes, such as Byron. But after Missolonghi, sympathy for Greece began to concentrate on the sufferings of civilians which, as in modern relief operations, were based on a clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and the responses so engendered were entirely private. Efforts centred on collecting funds and delivering relief in situ. And, as today, it was quickly determined that if aid was to reach its intended beneficiaries, it would probably be outsiders who would effect that delivery.

This phenomenon of humanitarian relief by private organizations led, indirectly and much later in the 20th Century, to an acknowledgement that there might arise a need, a responsibility even, to protect a beleaguered civilian population from the scourges of war.  This would, nearly 200 years later, be called the Responsibility to Protect: R2P.[ii]

We cannot infer a too-direct descent of our modern NGOs from those early beginnings. The agencies created 200 years ago to address the plight of civilian non-combatants were not truly organizations. That is to say, they were instruments, formed for a narrow and temporary purpose. They were not institutions, and they had no corporate life beyond their immediate purpose. With the liberation of Greece, all faded away.  The first modern NGO was probably the International Red Cross, which was not formed until 1863.  But the concept of a need, indeed a responsibility to intervene across borders was truly born in the course of the Greek War of Independence. Mazower calls it “ … the beginning of a modern phenomenon: – a policy of organized international relief … “. (p 379). The concept of private civilian relief efforts was not lost, and eventually and after much further suffering, led to our modern array of non-governmental humanitarian relief organizations.

The Greek War of Independence:  Denouement at Navarino

On 20 October 1825, as the sacking of Missolonghi continued unabated, and the Ottomans having refused to negotiate any relief, a combined British, French and Russian Fleet confronted a much larger Ottoman-Egyptian fleet in the Bay of Navarino.  By 5 PM the Battle was over. The European fleet had lost 182 dead, 489 wounded, and had lost no ships.  The Ottoman-Egyptian Fleet  had suffered 4000 dead and missing, and had lost 60 ships.

By the Treaty of London of 1827, “the Powers” forced the Ottoman government to grant Greek autonomy; the Ottomans withdrew from the waters and the territories of Greece in August 1828, and the Egyptians in October of that year.  The Greek War of Independence was over, and Greek independence was secured.  Russia’s victory in her 9th Ottoman War (which was considered to have been enabled by the defeat at Navarino) forced recognition by the Porte of Greek suzerainty in May 1832.


Like so much of our common cultural inheritance, it began in Greece: a popular uprising inflamed a Romantic cultural mentation, as in the linkage of Byron’s death with the siege of Missolonghi. From this there then developed a public sense of responsibility to react to the suffering of others, which in turn led to an intervention which was from the outset deplored by almost all European governments.  That intervention, initially military (or quasi-military), was as events progressed transformed into a largely civilian and non-governmental effort to relieve the suffering of non-combatants.  If today’s NGOs cannot truly be said to have had their birth in the Greek War of Independence, they were certainly conceived there and, however long their gestation may have been and however incomplete their current development may be, their presence and their significance today are real. The problems: organizational, legal and doctrinal which were then raised are largely with us yet.

But it all began there, in that great morning of our days.   Read the book, won’t you?





[i] The Ottoman Imperial Court at Constantinople was known as the Sublime Porte. The city was re-named Istanbul in 1930.  Ironically the new Turkish name is Greek: eis ten poli = in the city

[ii] See our article in this website, R2P vs. State Sovereignty: The Last Refuge of Scoundrels, Peacehawks, 22 January 2010. The policy to be known as R2P was adopted by newly all member states of the U.N. in September 2005

2 thoughts on “The Greek War of Independence 1821-1829: The Birth of International Humanitarian Intervention

  1. Noemi Gal-Or says:

    Thanks for this book review. The events described are certainly relevant to the current politics in the region — the immediate and the wider — in more ways, beyond the interesting focus on the modern origins of public opinion and the human relief NGO.

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