“This Brilliant Victory.”
The words announcing the success of the Allied fleet over the Ottoman’s at Navarino on 20th October 1827 are not from an English newspaper. The words are taken from a detailed report on the battle published in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in 1828.
The battle of Navarino was one of the pivotal moments in the Greek War of Independence; the destruction of the Ottoman fleet would combine with a renewed Greek and Allied campaign that would lead directly to the final negotiations that would establish the modern Greek State. Medals would be struck and special gratuities paid to its veterans. News of the victory spread throughout the world, including to Australia. The significance of Navarino would be celebrated and remembered in Australia for many years to come, underscoring not only pride in the major British role in the battle but also of its part in the success of the Greek war of independence.
New ships would be named after the battle, one of which made many trips to Australia as a transport bringing new arrivals to the various colonies. Locations were named after the battle. Treacherous rocks in the Bass Strait were named Navarino Rocks. A major bridge in the growing town of Hobart would be named the Navarino Bridge, its construction paid for by public subscription. Two Scottish Navarino veterans would be recorded as having addressed a meeting in Adelaide. The passing of Navarino veterans – from Admirals to sailors – in Australia or elsewhere in the world would also be reported in local newspapers.
And for years after the battle, racehorses would be named Navarino, keeping the name prominent in the Australian press.
But the Australian connection to Navarino was not limited to newspaper reports and the naming of horses and bridges. My research has shown that a number of veterans of the battle came to Australia – some for short periods, others longer, some seeking to settle and others not. And some would remain in Australia and be buried in its soil. This is the story of three of them.
One of these veterans was the former Royal Navy Captain Richard Bunbury. By the time of the battle, Richard was a young midshipman, no more than 13 years old. Fate would see him serve aboard the flagship of the British Admiral Codrington, HMS Asia. He may have well heard the orders shouted across the ship to raise anchor and down sails as Codrington ordered the Allied fleet to enter Navarino Bay to face the enemy fleet. The Allies 27 ships and around 1,200 cannon now faced the 89 ships of the enemy with nearly 2,500 cannon. He may also have witnessed the first shots of the battle as the Ottoman’s fired on HMS Dartmouth at 2.30 pm.
After this Richard would have witnessed the explosions and carnage as the battle unfolded around him. HMS Asia was soon engaged against two enemy ships. Both fleets were anchored close together, a murderous fire taking place at close range. The scene would be depicted in the painting by the artist George Reinagle who was present at the battle, aboard HMS Mosquito.
One of the Allied sailors aboard another British ship – HMS Genoa – has left us a vivid first-hand account of the ensuing battle. He writes of the terrifying and incessant sound of the guns, of the cheers of the gunners interspersed by the shrieks of the wounded and dying. As deadly wood splinters and pieces of wood flew through the air, this sailor thought that the ship decks looked like a carpentry shop. Each ship shook as one after another enemy ships caught fire and blew up. Admiral Codrington’s own young son – a midshipman aboard HMS Asia – was wounded twice and peppered with splinters. The Admiral himself was hit more than once during the battle, with Ottoman snipers attempting to kill the tall Allied commander. On one occasion he missed being felled by a falling mast.
One significant death of the day was that of the only named Greek sailor to fall at Navarino. Petros Mikelis was serving as Codrington’s navigational pilot when he was killed by an Ottoman sniper.
It is believed that many other Greek sailors died in the battle having been pressed into service aboard the Ottoman ships, along with a number of captured British and American sailors.
When the battle ended at 6 pm the Ottoman fleet had been destroyed and not one Allied vessel lost, although many were badly damaged. The Russian flagship Azov is reported to have been hit 156 times by Ottoman shells, suffering more dead and wounded than any other Allied ship. HMS Genoa suffered the most casualties of any of the British ships with twenty-six killed including its commander Captain Bathurst. And while the Allies suffered just over 600 casualties, the Ottoman forces suffered an estimated 10,000 killed and wounded.
The battle’s survivors
Midshipman Bunbury survived the battle but not without injury. As he sailed to Australia with his new wife in 1841 he would remark to another passenger that he had lost his right hand in the battle, somewhat amusingly remarking that he had “fed it to the Turks at Navarino.” Richard sought to settle in the new colony at Port Philip, arriving as the town that would become Melbourne was making its first impact on the land. He most likely came ashore at Williamstown’s Gem Pier, Melbourne’s first sea port. They would live first in Brunswick Street, then move to Darebin Creek, before acquiring a cattle station in the Grampians in western Victoria. The Bunbury’s would become good friends of Victoria’s then Superintendent Charles La Trobe, effectively the then British governor of the settlement. In his interaction with the local indigenous population, Richard exhibited much of the prejudice and ignorance prevalent amongst the settlers at the time. Richard died in 1857 although it is unclear from the records whether Richard died in Australia or returned to England with his family.
One who would remain in Australia was one Lieutenant Alfred Aubrey. Shropshire-born Alfred had joined the British Royal Navy in 1803 and saw service at the battle of Trafalgar aboard HMS Bellerophon. While there is some lack of clarity as to the ship on which he served at Navarino, the report of Alfred’s death in 1885 contains his account of the battle, of his service there along with his brother. While he was unhurt, he spoke of his brother having been “cut in two at Navarino.” After leaving the navy, Alfred made his way to the Victorian Goldfields to attempt make his fortune. In this he would fail like so many others, ending his life as a pauper in Bendigo where he would be buried.
One veteran who spent less time in Australia was the former Royal Navy Surgeon Dr Charles Inches who had served aboard HMS Cambrian at the battle. His ship had arrived just in time to take part in the battle, having been earlier dispatched to Kalamata Bay to observe Ottoman military actions there. As the sole surgeon aboard the ship Charles would have treated the wounded and dying aboard HMS Cambrian as they were brought to him, many for amputations. Charles would sail to Australia on many occasions as a surgeon aboard convict transports and as medical officer at Sydney’s Spring Cove Quarantine Station in 1837. He died at Glasgow in 1851.
These are just three of the nine Navarino veterans who came to Australia that I have been able to identify so far. Still more sailors with Australian connections sailed in Greek waters during the independence war. Through their lives they connect Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia as well as Victoria and New South Wales, to Greece’s war of independence.
The battle of Navarino should take its rightful place in the bicentennial celebrations taking place throughout this year. Just as Australian sailors aboard ships like HMS Perth (amongst other Australian warships) took part in the defence of Greece in 1941, so these sailors helped Greece in its hour of need nearly 200 years ago. Here in Australia we should remember both the impact the victory had on Australian sentiment and especially remember those largely now forgotten Navarino veterans who came here in the years after war. They represent an enduring link between Australia Greece’s fight for freedom.
READ MORE: Between history and ‘mythistory’
I look forward to working with others in the Australian-Hellenic community to create a permanent memorial to these veterans in Australia. Richard, Alfred and Charles – and their comrades – deserve nothing less. So in 2021 we should raise a glass to the Navarino veterans who came to our shores and played such an important part in the liberation of Greece in 1827.
Jim Claven is a trained historian and freelance writer who has been researching and writing about various aspects of Greece’s history sand its connection to Australia for many years, particularly the Hellenic connection to Anzac across both World Wars. His researches into Australia’s Navarino story are drawn from Australian and British newspaper collections, the British National Archives, other Australian documentary sources as well as published accounts of the battle. He thanks Paul Sougleris of Papaflessas for his encouragement. He can be contacted via email: email@example.com