The Battle of Navarino and an interesting find

Among the manuscripts held by the Caird Library and Archive is a file containing Lieutenant John Harvey Boteler’s observations of the Battle of Navarino. However his account contains much more information than simple notes on his role.

By Susan Gentles, Archivist, Cataloguing and Access

The Battle of Navarino took place 192 years ago on 20 October 1827 and was fought between a combined fleet of British, French and Russian vessels and the Ottoman fleet at anchor in Navarino Bay in Greece.

The battle was notable for being the last major engagement involving only wooden sailing ships, and also a decisive step in the journey towards Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Beginning in 1821 with a series of revolts, by 1827 the Greek fight for independence from Ottoman rule appeared to be on the verge of defeat. In Europe, despite initially being against intervening in the area, Britain and Austria eventually combined forces with Russia and in July 1827 signed the Treaty of London, demanding the cessation of Ottoman attacks and full autonomy for the Greeks. The Ottomans rejected the Treaty, and as a result a British naval force under Admiral Codrington was sent to Navarino Bay, the base of Ottoman and Egyptian fleets, to engage the Ottoman fleet.

The ensuing battle was a huge success for the allies, who destroyed or damaged all but eight of the 78-vessel Ottoman fleet while incurring no serious losses themselves.

News of the battle travelled fast around Greece, and although not by any means the end of the Greek War of Independence, was later seen as a crucial turning point in the war.

The file of interest (BTL/1/2/2), is a collection of papers of one John Harvey Boteler, a Captain in the Royal Navy who at the time of the Battle of Navarino, was serving in HMS Albion as a lieutenant.

The file is a collection of papers covering his experiences before, during and after the battle, as well as his later service in HMS Lyra.

Although it was common for officers to keep private notes and observations about voyages and battles they were involved in, and indeed was a requirement for all Royal Navy lieutenants to keep and submit their own logs until 1809, this file contains observations not commonly found in more official documents.

Boteler appears to have been an excellent draughtsman and made many pencil and ink drawings not just of his ship, the Albion, but also many incredibly detailed small-scale sketches of the battle itself, many of which do not hold back on the brutality resulting from the engagement.

The illustrations shown here are Boteler’s observations on the attacks on Ottoman vessels in the heat of battle. Somewhat critically, he has noted on this particular illustration that his figures are ‘too large’.

Boteler’s illustrations of the attacks on Ottoman vessels

Capturing the atmosphere post-battle, Boteler also collected songs that were composed to various popular tunes in the wake of the battle. Three versions of these are contained in the file, all simultaneously congratulating the British for their valiant efforts in the defence of Greek liberty and freedom.

One example was written by a piper in HMS Glasgow and was presumably published after returning to England, as this printed version shows.

Song lyrics for the ‘Battle of Navarin, Fought 20th October, 1827’ written by Alexander Grassie, a piper in HMS Glasgow

Although the majority of the file consists of these drawings and informal observations, Boteler also documented in great detail the losses incurred in the battle.

Not only does he record the Ottoman losses, but also notes the casualties on board his own ship. Although hailed as a comprehensive victory for the allied forces, Boteler recorded that on the Albion alone there were ten men killed in action, ten amputations, eight broken limbs, seventeen splinter wounds and the loss of one eye. Victory, it would seem, came at a high personal cost for some.

As well as documenting Boteler’s own observations, this file is particularly interesting as it links to other notable individuals whose stories can be found in the Caird Library’s collections.

Boteler seems to have been fond of collecting souvenirs, and contained in the file is a pencil sketch of Belem Castle in Lisbon, dated April 1827 and signed by Graham Gore. Gore was serving as a midshipman in HMS Lyra, Boteler’s previous posting before embarking into the Albion.

Gore’s own naval career was tragically cut short when he later embarked on Sir John Franklin’s fateful expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, which departed London in 1845. Boteler has annotated the reverse of the sketch to record this, adding proof that he reviewed the contents of this file some time after his own active career ended.

Pencil sketch of Belem Castle, Lisbon signed by Graham Gore, who would later perish on the Franklin Expedition

Boteler’s collecting of items which were not his own does not seem to be limited to those of his former shipmates. Also found in the file is a compass card on the reverse of which Boteler notes the following:

‘This compass card properly mounted in its crimson and gilt hanging box was taken away by me from the Turkish Admirals [sic] cabin at Navarin the morning after the battle 21 Oct 1827 when I boarded her to bring away the 2nd Captain, his Secretary, & 2 or 3 other officers’.

Further evidence of these officers on board the Albion can be found on the back of a small card, where Boteler has annotated two signatures written in Arabic script with the names of what he claims were two Turkish officers who shared his quarters for six months, recorded as Asahad Mahmut Hoji and Omar Hoji.

Boteler’s spelling of these names may of course be suspect and although this document suggests a level of familiarity between the three men, Boteler does not record what became of these officers once their six months on board the Albion were over.

Compass card which Botoler records he took from the Turkish Admiral’s cabin at Navarin

Although official accounts and reports of the battle can be found in other manuscript collections at the Caird Library and Archive, particularly those of Sir Edward Codrington (COD), Boteler’s file throws a light onto the life of a junior officer engaged in one of the last major naval engagements of the age of sail.

If you would like to know more about the Battle of Navarino, the Caird Library holds the following publications

  • Woodhouse, C.M. The Battle of Navarino, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965 (RMG ID: PBE1461)
  • McPherson, Charles. Life on Board a Man-of-war: including a Full Account of the Battle of Navarino, Glasgow: Blackie, 1829 (RMG ID: PBE1498)

Discover more at the Caird Library