Perversely, the very same European powers that had feared the wrath of the Turkish invaders for centuries felt compelled to bolster the Ottomans’ fragile regime to deny each other and the Russians an advantage that would upset the geopolitical balance of power.
Despite his sincere reformist ambitions, heading into the second half of the 19th century the hopelessly corrupt Ottoman court of the spend-thrift Sultan Abdulmecid I was used to being financially bailed out by a series of massive loans supplied, somewhat begrudgingly, by successive British and French governments, that they came to rely upon these glorified welfare checks as a matter of course.
From his throne in the Winter Palace outside Saint Petersburg, Czar Nicholas I watched the piecemeal defanging of the once fearsome Grand Turk with increasingly undisguised delight. With each passing year, the number of Turkish ships plying the waters of the Black Sea became smaller, even as those of his own celebrated navy increased steadily. His generals were still dining off the reflected glories of his illustrious ancestor, Alexander I, who, along with the infamous Russian snows, had put an end to Napoleon’s glory-hungry megalomania in the winter of 1812.
Sensing a ripe opportunity to profit from the misery of his rival ruler, in 1853 the opportunistic Czar Nicholas made up his mind that the time was right to consolidate and expand his acreage in the disputed peaks and valleys of Transcaucasia.
Hoping to pull off a fait accompli, the czar sent his armies pouring into the sleepy Ottoman back-waters abutting his already rambling realm in July 1853 in an effort to Russify as much of the long neglected territory as possible, even managing to snatch up several poorly defended Turkish fortifications along the river in the process.
The sultan, unexpectedly roused from his torpor by this bold challenge to his sovereign borders, angrily protested. He also lodged an emphatic complaint to his British and French paymasters, who attempted to mediate. When the czar ignored Turkish demands for an immediate Russian pullback, the sultan rashly declared war on the Russian Empire.
Alarmed by the prospect of the Russian hordes steamrolling their way to Constantinople in a fortnight, the British and French issued a peculiar joint statement. They assured the czar that since war had been declared on him, they recognized the right of Russia to defend herself and would pursue a middle course along the lines of a guarded, conditional neutrality emphasizing monitoring and mediation. London and Paris would stand by and refrain from mobilizing their troops provided that any forthcoming Russian military response was constrained, symmetrical to the threat, and remained purely defensive in spirit.
For a short while, both sides seemed to be taking the measure of each other, albeit warily. After a tense but relatively bloodless summer, on October 4, 1853, Turkish troops began a two-pronged offensive. They started with what amounted to a series of minor attacks along the Danube line. But a major conflict soon developed in the Caucasus Mountains, where the Turks threw everything they had into pushing the Czars’ troops back across the disputed frontier.
The Turks caught the Russians off guard, and by sheer weight of numbers, managed to force the Russians to pull back. Buoyed by this success, the emboldened Abdulmecid ordered his troops to press on, harrying them into the birch forests of Russian Georgia with a view toward reclaiming Turkish honor and then beating a path toward the peace table to settle the border question in his favor before his momentum, munitions, money, and luck ran out.
Meanwhile, the czar chafed at the restraints placed upon his legions but muted the rattling of his Cossacks’ sabers,with the result that by month’s end the whole of the Russian Caucasus Corps was under the threat of a potentially humiliating encirclement. Eager to close that trap, the sultan sent a supply convoy of transport steamers escorted by several frigates scurrying across the Black Sea to bolster his forces. This convoy managed to get through, thoroughly galling the Russians, who resolved that it would be the last.
To that end, a Russian squadron came roaring out of its base at Sevastopol on Russia’s Crimean Peninsula. Fifty-one-year-old Admiral Pavel Nakhimov, a veteran naval officer, commanded the Russian squadron. He planned to send any such future convoys straight to the bottom of the Black Sea.
One month later, an anxious Abdulmecid, oblivious to the beefed-up Russian presence, ordered up a second, more muscular convoy to be supported by several ships of the line to resupply his increasingly rickety offensive. Fearing a widening of the conflict, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe, who had been keeping tabs on the developing situation in an effort to contain and control it, insisted that the sultan scale back the firepower escorting the supply ships to a handful of much smaller frigates.
Abdulmecid reluctantly agreed, even though he had already lost a brace of ships that month, the Medzhir Tadzhiret and her sister steamer, the Pervaz Bahri, boarded and captured within sight of the Anatolian coast after being quickly overwhelmed by Russian ships of the line. Thus, a much less brawny flotilla duly set sail that November to resupply the Turkish army, already beginning to bog down in the Caucasus. That flotilla was under the command of the venerable Patrona Pasha.
By that time, the Russian squadron was prowling the Black Sea waters hungry for a kill. Indeed, the czar put so many vessels on the water that he had all but attained supremacy of the great waterway. Nevertheless, the weather was so miserable and punishing to any who dared to test the Black Sea in autumn that the Russians, Nakhimov included, were continually compelled to return to port for refitting. The same Novem- ber gales that had battered Osman Pasha’s flotilla into submission were also having their way with their would-be pursuers. By the end of November, Nakhimov was down to three ships of the line, one frigate, and a lowly steamer to doggedly continue his interdiction mission.
Nevertheless, eagle-eyed lookouts aboard Nakhimov’s gargantuan flagship, the Imperatritsa Maria, caught sight of Osman Pasha’s ensign fluttering in the breeze high atop the Auni Allah, which was at anchor in the harbor at Sinop with the rest of his flotilla in the last week of November. Gazing hard at them through his spyglass, Nakhimov could hardly believe his eyes. From his perch on the Imperatritsa Maria’s quarterdeck a few leagues out to sea, they looked like a colony of basking sea cows wait- ing for the sun to come up.
Resolving to keep his quarry bottled up, Nakhimov stealthily deployed his squadron on the far outskirts of the harbor’s entrance. He arranged his ships in a horseshoe-shaped configuration designed to blockade the enemy ships. He then sent his immediate subordinate, Rear Admiral Fyodor Novosilsky, dashing off in his frigate to Sevastopol to scrounge up more firepower. Novosilsky dutifully returned on the last day of November with an additional half dozen ships andthepromiseofstillmoretocome.
Osman Pasha’s lookouts spotted Nakhimov’s squadron soon after it began fanning out just beyond the entrance to the harbor. But Osman Pasha ventured that the enemy would not dare to come any nearer because Sinop, picturesque little harbor town though it was, was nonetheless a fortified one, boasting several cannons designed to blast the hulls out of any potential attacker.
But there was one more detail that convinced Pasha to sit tight in the harbor that day. Having been in the Navy since the 1820s, he was decidedly old school. As a dyed-in-the-wool naval traditionalist, the idea of large fighting ships attacking vessels that were smaller than their own and of a different, lower class was considered dishonorable in the extreme. In his world, such things simply were not done.
Likewise, a gentlemen could never bring himself to do anything as low and as dastardly as attack a ship resting at anchor. In truth, most of the navies in the world still adhered to this chivalrous code. But it was about to become painfully clear that Nakhimov was no gentleman.
By November 30, Nakhimov had cobbled together an attack force composed of six ships of the line, two nimble frigates, and three workhorse steamers. Each was appropriately fitted out and battle ready. His command boasted more than 700 guns and enough cannon balls and shot to make mincemeat out of Pasha’s command, which owing to the meddling of Queen Victoria’s ambassador, consisted of seven small frigates, three corvettes, and two rusty support steamers.
But Nakhimov’s squadron had one more item in its arsenal. Nakhimovs’ ships of the line were also equipped with a revolutionary new addition to their armament, a breakthrough in weapons technology that gave them a decidedly more lethal capability at sea than had ever been seen before, known as the Paixhans gun.
Named for its inventor, Frenchman Hans-Joseph Paixhans, the Paixhans gun was a heavy-duty, extended-range artillery piece that was originally intended exclusively for armies fighting on dry land. Unlike traditional smoothbore, bronze cannons, Paixhans guns fired shells with ignitable, delayed fuses. This unique innovation proved to be even more fearsome upon the high seas.