By the beginning of the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was already in decline. The other Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia) saw potential benefits for themselves in this decline but they also recognised possible threats to their national interests. A declining power could destabilise the delicate balance of power in Europe and the Near East.
At the same time the Russian Empire was seeking to expand its sphere of influence over Constantinople and the European lands controlled by the Sultan. As long ago as 1725 the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, had expressed an interest in competing with Britain for control over India. As the eastern frontiers of Russia extended further east through the Caucasus the British Government became increasingly concerned that Russia still had plans for India.
Increasing tension between Russia and the Ottoman Empire dragged the other Great Powers into the Crimean War in 1853-56. The defeat of Russia forced her to reconsider her expansionist plans. She now concentrated on gaining control of the whole of the Caucasus.
The Black Sea and its surrounding lands, including the Balkans and the Caucasus, remained strategically important for all of the Great Powers right up to the end of the First World War.
Click here for more information about the strategic significance of the Caucasus
The Caucasus and the whole Black Sea region became more internationally significant after Napoleon defeated the Russian army at Friedland in Prussia in 1807. The two countries signed the Treaty of Tilsit and became allies. Russia agreed to come to the aid of France in its war with Great Britain and her allies. In return France would make sure that Russia acquired Moldavia and Wallachia, two territories in Europe controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Today these regions on the Danube are part of Romania and Moldova.
If the Sultan refused to surrender these lands France and Russia planned to attack the Ottoman Empire and divide up its European territories in the Balkans between them. This threat to the region concerned the other Great Powers, particularly the Habsburg Empire, and Britain became concerned when Napoleon proposed to the Tsar that France and Russia should join forces to seize India from the British. However before they could put this plan into action the two allies fell out when the Tsar opened up Russian ports to neutral shipping to promote more trade. This contravened the Treaty of Tilsit and led directly to Napoleon’s armies invading Russia in 1812.
The British regarded India as the jewel in their Imperial Crown. They had feared Russia’s intentions towards India ever since Peter the Great had expressed an interest in the sub-continent in 1725. From that time onwards Russian influence had started to spread eastwards along the Black Sea and the gap between the south eastern border of the Russian Empire and the north western frontier of India had been gradually narrowing. Now the barriers to further Russian expansion were the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Afghanistan, China and Tibet.
This British cartoon, published in 1878, entitled “Save me from my friends!”, shows Sher Ali, the Emir of Afghanistan, in the middle with The Russian Bear on one side and the British Lion on the other. The British often referred to this strategic rivalry between themselves and Russia during this period as “The Great Game”. The Russians called it “The Tournament of Shadows”.
In the early 19th century both Russia and Britain were seeking to control the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mahmud II. Constantinople controlled the Straits (the Bosphorus and the Dardenelles) which the Tsar described as “the key to the house of Russia’. Whoever controlled the Straits could either blockade Russia’s Black Sea fleet or restrict its access to the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Britain also wanted influence with the Sultan because Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire and British ships used the Suez Canal to get to India.
By the 1830s the power and influence of the Ottoman Empire was in decline. In 1821 the Greeks had revolted against Ottoman rule. Russia supported her fellow Orthodox Christians against the Sultan. In 1833 there was a revolt in Egypt against the Sultan led by Mehmet Ali, the Sultan’s own viceroy .
It is about this time that the world’s media began to talk of the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe”.
Although the British Ambassador to St Petersburg in his report to the Foreign Secretary in 1853 quotes Tsar Nicholas I describing the Ottoman Empire as “a sick man” the phrase “the sick man of Europe” was first used by the New York Times, 12 May, 1860.
In 1833, Russian diplomats persuaded the Sultan to sign the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi. In return Russia agreed to protect the Ottoman Empire from external attack and the Sultan agreed to close the Straits to foreign warships whenever Russia was at war.
The other Great Powers were deeply concerned about Russian expansionism. She had designs on control of the southern Caucasus which would increase the potential for a land invasion of Persia and Afghanistan and this threatened British interests in India. Russia was seeking more influence over those European lands held by the Ottoman Empire where the majority of the population were Orthodox Christians. This concerned Austria-Hungary, Prussia and France. Also the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi gave Russia free access to the Mediterranean through the Straits and this concerned all of the Great Powers.
Britain responded by invading Afghanistan to create a buffer state between India and the Russian army. They were the first but by no means the last foreign power to learn how difficult a military occupation of Afghanistan can be. The Great Powers also persuaded the Tsar to abandon his Treaty with the Sultan and in 1841 the Sultan agreed that the Straits should be closed to all foreign warships except those who were allies of the Sultan in wartime.
Competition between the Great Powers for influence over the Sultan continued to increase in the mid-19th century and eventually they clashed over the Ottoman lands in south-east Europe. Treaties negotiated in the 18th century had given responsibility to France for the protection of Catholics in the Ottoman Empire and responsibility to Russia for the protection of Orthodox Christians. Both clashed over which Church should control the holy sites in Palestine. Both appealed to the Sultan who decided in favour of the French. Russia retaliated by invading and occupying Moldavia and Wallachia. The Sultan declared war on Russia in 1853 and soon the other Great Powers were being dragged into what came to be known as the Crimean War.
The destruction of an Ottoman squadron of ships in the port of Sinop in northern Anatolia by Russian warships in 1853 provided Britain and France, allies of the Ottoman Empire, with the grounds for declaring war on Russia. Ottoman forces attacked Russian armies on the Danube and in the Caucasus and were defeated. An Ottoman fleet sailed along the Turkish coast of the Black Sea and was then trapped in port and defeated by the Russian Black Sea fleet. French and British battle fleets sailed into the Black Sea to support the Sultan. The Russian fleet was blockaded in its home port of Sevastopol and the Russian Crimean army was defeated in 1854 in the Battles of Balaklava and Inkerman. The Russians abandoned Sevastopol a year later.
The Treaty of Paris, which formally marked the end of the war, left Russia without a fleet in the Black Sea and she had also lost her protectorate rights over the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.