Key point: The Russians were able to win, despite the Ottoman's long-standing dominance. This would change the course of history and show that the Ottoman Empire was not as strong as it once was.
It was late in the morning of November 30, 1853, and the Black Sea was living up to its name. Aboard the 44-gun Ottoman warship Auni Allah, the men of the fore watch, their duty done, had only just headed below decks, tramping wearily down the rickety wooden steps leading into the rabbit warren of dank, dark passageways deep within the bowels of the ship. Happy to be relieved and chilled to the bone, they were eager for the welcoming sight of the row upon row of dingy hammocks slung beam to beam across the length of the berth deck and the promise of sleep that awaited them. But fate, it seemed, had other plans.
The storm that had so relentlessly threatened to batter their ship into matchsticks had finally petered out. Several days before, in the dead of night, with their creaking conifer masts groaning under the strain of this seemingly relentless autumn gale, Patrona (Vice Admiral) Osman Pasha, the 61-one-year-old Turkish officer in overall command of both the ship and the flotilla to which it was attached, had been compelled to suspend squadron operations for the duration, prudently deciding that it would be better for the Auni Allah and her sister ships to put in at the nearest friendly port and wait it out.
From the quarterdeck of the Auni Allah, which was Pasha’s flagship, the order went out accordingly, and the corresponding signal pennants were sent fluttering up the halyard, directing each of his captains trailing along in formation to follow their lead, come about at once, and proceed due south with all possible dispatch.
With their storm-drenched canvas sails whipping in the wind, the rest of the flotilla swiftly corrected course and followed after the flagship. Changing tack, even as the punishing winds and the sea swells lashed them without respite, they made for Cape Sinop, where the Isthmus of Ince Burun curled outward into the sea like a beckoning finger and the moribund northern Anatolian coastal town of the same name offered the Auni Allah and the other 11 vessels of the patrolling squadron the promise of a refuge harbor, a safe haven in Turkish home waters through the long, tempest- tossed night.
But this all too idyllic sanctuary proved to be woefully short lived, for the break of day was not their friend. As the rising sun began cutting its way through the lingering cloud cover, spreading its gleaming rays over the frosty, white-capped waves, the dark specter of an altogether different kind of storm was already gathering on the near horizon. Indeed, as Osman Pasha’s ships lay complacently at anchor they did not yet know that they were literally squatting in the eye of this new maelstrom. As the morning mist slowly began burning away toward the early afternoon, the squadrons’ sailors going about their business above and below decks suddenly found themselves being jolted out of their doldrums by the raw shouts of the lookouts. This alarm was quickly followed by the urgent whistle call to action stations.
As Pasha and his captains squinted anxiously through their spyglasses and junior officers aboard every ship gripped the deck rails with throats gone dry, a pounding, Western-style drumbeat echoed across the harbor electrifying each ship’s company. The drums were quickly joined by the dour notes of the buq, the traditional Mohammedan trumpet horn whose shrill alarm was soon resounding loudly throughout the entire squadron.
In seconds, the sultan’s proud wooden ships sprang to life, reverberating with the sound of the purposeful, thumping footfalls of their respective crews as barefooted comrades began pushing through the lower passageways and rushing to their posts fore and aft on the upper decks, each man on every ship eager to answer the pasha’s call to duty.
One of the cardinal axioms of warfare is to learn to expect the unexpected. However, moored at anchor as they were in one of their own home ports, the Ottoman sailors had believed they were safe. The crewmen aboard ships were a hardy lot, but they were psychologically unprepared for what came next, the solitary sound of one of the flagship’s gunners suddenly piercing the overcast gloom with a lone cannon shot plunging impotently into the depths.
There followed an eerie calm that went on for several odd seconds. Even then, some of the old salts in the squadron might have been forgiven if there were still those among them who remained hard pressed to imagine that they were actually in any real danger. In any case, that lone gunner’s report was soon enough answered in spades. Aboard the Auni Allah the hapless swabbies below decks barely had time to blink. The next thing any of them knew, the fusty tranquility of their womb-like world below the waterline suddenly erupted, descending pell mell into a pandemonium of splintered wood and shredded humanity. All around them the briny wooden walls began to buckle and burst, blasted to bits by an unseen enemy and a weapon of destructive
power hitherto unknown upon the high seas. Shot to pieces in a matter of moments, the Auni Allah’s forward bulkheads shook and shuddered, groaning like a dying sea beast as they began collapsing inward. Hoarse shouts and oaths to Allah competed with the screams of the wounded as desperate crewmen clam- bered over the mangled and the dead in a desperate bid to escape. Suddenly, there was a terrific explosion. The ship listed violently, everything went black, and the dark green sea came pouring in.
Taken almost completely unaware, bunched and bottled up in the harbor like so many sardines in a tin, the Turks found it difficult enough even to weigh anchor with any speed, much less maneuver to any advantage. The Auni Allah and her sister ships, the whole of Osman Pasha’s flotilla, quickly realized to their horror that, barring some immediate manifestation of the baraka, they were little more than sitting ducks, entirely at the mercy of what would shortly prove to be a devastating, pitiless naval bom- bardment that was now poised to pulverize each and every one of them.
Preoccupied by the storm that had threatened to shred their mainsails, Pasha and his captains, having been caught asleep at the helm, were all in for a deadly penance. In a way, they were about to pay the butcher’s bill for the negligence of generations. They now found themselves defenseless because, like the empire they served, they had failed to detect the immediate presence, much less sufficiently appreciate the threat posed, by a hostile, resolute enemy of determined, single-minded, shark-like ruthlessness, that had been circling the waters, almost under their very noses.
Like languidly complacent Sultan Abdulmecid I in Constantinople, they had been blind to the ever more menacing intentions of a ruthless, steadily encroaching nemesis whose warships now boldly appeared directly before them in strength, massing at the entrance to the harbor to test their seamanship and bedevil their disbelieving eyes. Here then was the opening shot of what was soon to become the Crimean War.
Turkey and her increasingly sclerotic empire were long derided as the perennial “Sick Man of Europe.” Turkey was once the primary menace to Western civilization, but its many decades of gangrenous decline were truly a dismal reversal of fortune. It had not always been so, and no student of history, military or otherwise, could say that the Turks had not had a good run. But for the once mighty Turks, it was the rise of Russia, a great power coming late to the scene, that more than any other factor would prove to be their undoing.
Starting in the late 17th century, the dynamic young Czar Peter the Great feverishly began the arduous task of modernizing his vast but back- ward domains. Importantly, he built a large modern navy modeled after those of his West- ern European counterparts.
By the 1770s, his successor, Catherine the Great, had robustly waged a short, sharp war against the Ottomans in a quick bid to enlarge the territory of her already huge realm at Turkish expense. She successfully managed to wrest the whole of the Crimean Peninsula from Turkish suzerainty and sent her spanking new ships, captained by some of the world’s most illustrious seamen-for-hire, such as American hero John Paul Jones, into the northern Black Sea directly across the water from the Turkish homeland. The stage was set for all that followed over the course of the next century, and the events at Sinop would prove to be the linchpin.
The rise of Russian power and prestige upon the world stage was increasingly linked to Turkey’s declining fortunes. More than any other rival, the Russians were a constant source of misery for the beleaguered Turks. Doggedly pursuing their quarry, continuing to lust after more and more of her territory, the Russian czars steadily increased their empire throughout the 1800s by continually nipping at the edges of the Ottoman domains.