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The Greek Freedom Fighters of 1821

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Vice Admiral Dr. Stylianos Politis H.N.

Vice President of Hellenic Historical Commission







The Greek Freedom Fighters of 1821

and their Status under International Law


The views expressed in this article are those of the author

and do not reflect the official policy or position

of the Hellenic Ministry for National Defence












The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare

Conference of Army Historians

Washington, 7-9 August 2007

We are in 1821 in the Ottoman Empire, an empire which consisted of many nations under the Turkish yoke. Subject people, especially Greeks, were not pleased with the existing regime and for this reason many unlucky risings aiming to national independence, took place1. The final and successful uprising started that year. The Greek State symbolically celebrates it on 25 March, the same date that Orthodox celebrate Annunciation. The two celebrations share a common point for the Orthodox Greeks: the beginning of the rebellion betokened the freedom of the nation, and Annunciation announces the coming of Saver Christ.

The 1821 rebellion was clearly a national insurrection of the Greeks. Despite the fact that its moving spirits tried to raise many subject nations only the Greek nation finally responded. Rigas Fereos2 verses in Thourios (war song) which had been sung for almost thirty years before the rebellion and set the fire that led to the 1821 explosion describe the situation: “Bulgarians and Albanians, Serbs and Greeks, islanders and inlanders with a common urge for freedom, lets take our swords.” Another feature of the revolt was that it was an overall rebellion with no social elements. All Greeks, poor or rich, revolted. Especially at the sea the rebellion started from rich islands, such as Hydra and Spetses where their inhabitants lived in luxury, and islands which were enjoying great profits from the Ottoman state such as Chios, Samos and Symi. It is worth mentioning that the rich Greek ship-owners of the time, gladly offered their ships to the fight and headed the revolt as Admirals, although after the liberation they were totally destroyed financially3.

The 1821 Rebellion didn’t start at a favourable period. International circumstances were against such movements. The Great Forces were dominated by the spirit of the Holly Alliance which favoured the Ottoman Empire although it was not their member4. Some years before, the Vienna Congress (October 1814-June 1815) expressed perfectly the spirit of the time. Metternich having the participants’ tolerance at the conference, addressed Kapodistrias – the first governor of Greece – who was at that point representing Russia and told him: “Europe doesn’t know Greeks! It recognises only the Ottoman state, under the sway of which are the Greeks who live in Greece… 5

The news of the Greek rebellion reached the representatives of the Great Forces, while conferring in Ljubljana (Laibach 26 January – 12 May 1821) on measures against the revolutions in Neapoli and Piemonte. The movement itself, only seven years after the Waterloo battle, troubled the attendants. This revolt, a particular case among other similar movements, was a threat for the much desired balance in Europe after Bonaparte’s crushing. Its particularity was based on two strategic factors: firstly the geo-strategic position of Greece which is a bridge between two continents, and secondly its success would mean the subversion of the status quo and possibly the breaking of the Ottoman Empire with unexpected developments in the region6. For this reason, the Alliance decided to support the Turkish positions.

In order to describe the nature of the armed conflicts between the Greek rebels and Turkish army, the description of the irregular warfare should be clarified. The answer to this question even today presents many difficulties and it has not been defined yet. Even the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Center until nowadays continues to emphasise on the study of the law of armed conflicts which is enforced during regular military operations. It is though generally accepted that irregular warfare is a conflict during which some or all forces engaged (on any side) do not belong to the regular forces of legally constituted states. Based on the above definition the rebellion war operations, especially during the first phase, should be included within the framework of the irregular warfare as the Greek forces didn’t belong at least in the beginning, to the regular armed forces of a legally constituted state7.

Which is though the legal regime of the Greek freedom fighters? We should recall that we are referring in 1821! Although the principle of self-determination of people was solemnly recognised together with the Human Rights by the French Revolution, times were still obscure. Even in 1907, article 2 of the Hague Convention8 protected spontaneous resistance of the inhabitants of an attacked region, but didn’t cover legally the resistance of occupied territories9. Until then any resistance against occupation army was illegal! It was nearly in our time, on 24/10/1945 when paragraph 2 of Article 1 of the UN Chart recognised the right of self-determination and consequently that of national independence of people10. Then the General Assembly on 27/11/1953 was able to claim the right of peoples and nations to self-determination which when freely exercised can lead to the formation of an independent state11. Its 3114 (XXIX) decision on the definition of attack followed and recognised the right to people living under foreign sovereignty12 to fight for national independence. Finally, the Geneva Convention of 12th August 194913 together with the two 197714 additional Protocols on the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflicts, covers the protection of the right for self-determination of people and their fights against foreign occupation.

If the question on the legal regime of the Greek freedom fighters was put under the present law of armed conflict, the answer would be very easy. However, if we transfer ourselves at the time and try to examine the legality of a similar rebellion based on the existing customary law, we would meet great difficulties. For this reason the reply to the question based on facts of that time, consists of two parts: firstly whether the Greek rebellion was legal and secondly whether the customary law during the armed conflicts against the Turks was respected. The image reflecting the legal regime of the 1821 fighters, consists of these two aspects.

As already mentioned, in the beginning of the rebellion the spirit of the Holly Alliance was predominant and consequently the brave fighters of the national regeneration, were originally illegal rebels. No state could support them for this reason. Moreover, the war rules of the time were not valid for the Greeks as they were not considered belligerents. The naval blockades were not recognised15, the existence of neutral states was not accepted and the fighters arrested were not considered war prisoners. This situation though soon changed on their favour. The first Greek Government was nominated on 15 January 1822. Haiti was the first country that recognised the 1821 Greek Revolution and the country's right of independence. The Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer, following a Greek request for assistance, addressed a letter on 15 January 1822 to A. Korais supporting the Greeks and recognising their right to freedom and self-determination16. A year later, on 18 January 1823, Great Britain recognised it, while later, on 25 March, it recognised Greeks as belligerents. At the end of that year, on 2 December 1823, the President of the United States, James Monroe, recognised with a proclamation the existence of Greek territory and urged the Congress to appoint an American Ambassador to Greece. These decisions were the first victory of the rebellion and the starting-point of the contemporary Greek State. Greek people recognise it and are thankful to the Haiti, British and American nations. More and more states with the exception of course of the Ottoman Empire17, started sympathising the Greek rebellion and gradually indirectly recognised it. The fight for Independence was retrospectively legitimized.

The second aspect which refers to the enforcement of the law of armed conflicts during the fight against the Turks, is easier. The leaders of the rebellion wished to respect international war rules. There are many shocking relevant proves. Th. Negris, Foreign Minister of the Greek territory, emphasised to the Minister for Interior the direct need to secure “rule of law” otherwise “the Administration would not be in a position to give public guarantee (garantie publique) to the foreign states as a base for all diplomatic bonds”. General Makryannis also expressed the same beliefs in his memories by stating: “Without law we cannot go ahead, and other states would not recognise us. They will consider us common criminals18”. The leaders of the rebellion tried hard to respect the rules of the existing at the time international law. It was part of the general framework of revolted Greece’s successful foreign policy, and aimed at gaining positive impressions and covering the legal gap which described the early revolutionary actions. During the Rebellion, there is no record or act of violence against foreign – neutral – nor armed or terrorist attack that took place outside the theatre of war19.

There is no doubt that the leadership of the revolution wanted to set a legal framework in order to realise its intentions, and gave the necessary instructions to the armed fighters. From the very beginning of the Rebellion, written recommendations and proclamations were issued. Rules for naval visit and search were provided and were even more lenient than the present ones. They were recorded in vol. VII of Hydras Archives, dated 19 April 1821 – immediately after the revolt! They were addressed to the Captains of the Hellenic Fleet, explaining the necessity of respecting certain laws and giving clear instructions. The remark on the procedure of maritime controls was very important as it claimed that attention should not be given unless the ships were carrying weapons or hostile army; only in that case the Greek ships should stop them and remove their cargo by paying the relevant charge, or oblige the troops to return to the place of departure. In addition, the speech of the Chief of the Hellenic Fleet, during his swearing ceremony, was very touching as he gave an oath to respect foreign property, even the Turkish one. A relevant circular (no. 2186 11-111822) was also issued by the temporary Government of Greece so that the nation would not be considered voracious as accused by its enemies20. The right of prize was also instructed to be exclusively restricted to the cargo which had a proven hostile destination, while Ottoman citizens on board should not be arrested when in high sea. Ships in high sea should be persecuted without though confiscating their cargo. These rules were much more lenient than the presently existing ones. In 1826 in Hydra, the “Collection of Principles from the Original and the Treaty of Europe on the Right of the Nations to Sea Prizes and Neutrality”, a recording of the customary legislation on the sea war law dedicated to Admiral Andreas Miaoulis, by count Alerino Palma di Gesnola21, was translated and printed into Greek. Meanwhile a remarkable effort was made by the Temporary Administration to respect the “toute prise doit etre jugee” rule meaning that prize should be examined by the relevant judge to consider it legal. Professor K. Ioannou discovered that the first committee on prize, consisting of three members, was formed following a provision issued by the President of the Executive Council on 12 October 1822. Ioannou claims that many similar committees were operated by the Ministry of Marines or even locally, ie the Sea Court of Messolongi. Th. Chalkiopoulos mentions that a permanent prize court was formed on 24 April 1825. It was restructured on 27 April 1827, reformed by Ioannis Kapodistrias on 8 February 1828 and got its final form by the Resolution on 10 April 1829 on “the organisation of the sea court22”. In April 1925, Sp. Skoufos, using the pseudonym “Patriot23”, published a very important book, “Mr Vattel’s extracts on the Law of the Nations”, containing all chapters considered “related to the present needs and situation of the country” referring to the law of neutrality, war prisoners, protection of non-combatant and armed conflicts.

The final issue to be examined refers to the fighters’ level of discipline. The land fighters were coming from partisan groups of the unredeemed Greeks, formed immediately after the fall of Constantinople. These people were living “alone as lions on the mountains24” without ever bending to the Ottoman State. The folk songs of the time prove that all Greeks admired them; they were carrying their armament openly and proudly and their appearance differed from other Greeks. When the Revolt started many patriots joined them. Their leaders were called “Oplarhigos” – military leader - and were enjoying their partners’ respect. Their post was mainly inherited from father to son, if the son was capable. The almost certain agnation proves the high level of discipline and submission to the leader under condition that he behaved properly. Otherwise the punishment was very strict. When for example, an oplarhigos insulted the honour of a Turkish girl, he paid with his life the violation of the customary local law. His comrades killed him! There was iron discipline and the respect of the customary law was very strict25. Their emblem was the bicephalous eagle - the ensign of the Byzantine Emperors. They considered the last Emperor as their King and according to the legend Konstantine Paleologos did not die fighting for Constantinople, but he was saved the last moment by an angel who turned him into marble and hid him so as to raise him with God’s will to set Greeks free. This legend was commemorated with gunshots during Easter time, a celebration showing God’s ability to raise even the dead. As far as the naval forces are concerned, it is worth mentioning that such booming shipping could not exist without a high level of discipline26. Moreover, the existing records of the implementation of maritime law proved that legal training existed many years before the Revolution. The international features of shipping and the similarity of dangers and problems, led to the establishment of a customary maritime law which was valid in the Mediterranean. It was implemented meticulously by the Greek mariners years before the 19th century when the Naval Regulation of the Eptanisos State of the Ionian (1800) and the Naval Laws of the self-administrated Hydra (1804) and Spetses (1814) were published. The base of these rules was Consolato del Mare which later became the Ancient Rhodes Maritime Law and developed into the Venetian Legislation on Marine Insurances which equated Greek with Venetian mariners since 160227. When the Rebellion started, ships stopped flying the “slavery flag” imposed by the Ottomans and raised the revolutionary one which varied from place to place but had a common feature the cross and the crescent turned upside down.

All the above-mentioned, prove that the level of discipline both inland and at sea was extremely high. Consequently, the Administration’s orders could be obeyed and relevant offences could be controlled. That discipline was based on the healthy tradition of the inland fighters, the familiarisation of the mariners with the international customs as well as the admiration they had for the heroes of the Greek Antiquity who were dedicated to the divine War Law as taught by Homer. This admiration was expressed with an early sensitivity for the protection of cultural monuments. Odysseas Androutsos, a pure patriot, while beleaguering Acropolis noticed that the Turks were knocking down and breaking the columns of the Parthenon. When asked, he was informed that Turks were taking the lead which holds the capitals, in order to make bullets. He immediately contacted them and gave them the necessary munitions under condition to stop their disastrous work. The Turks used them to fight against him, injured and killed many of his braves, but the monument was saved28!

The institutional framework of the Greek Fight for Independence was run by law that its leaders carefully imposed. The Greek fighters followed faithfully the law of armed conflicts which existed at a period when international law of armed conflicts was customary; they were also considered legitimate fighters forming army corps with deliberated discipline - possibly stricter than the existing military one. In order though to be more objective, we should not ignore although it is unpleasant, the fact that a few declensions from the rules took place. Rarely the local elderly notables or “Dimogerontes” interpreted the existing laws as they liked and made the relevant decisions29. They were the exception to the rule and resulted from violating the orders of the Administration. It is important to mention then and during the war, books on international law were translated and printed for distribution along with other detailed instructions to the fighters. Those who violated the law of armed conflicts were punished and they even had to pay compensations adjudged by the Prize Courts.

Nowadays, law of armed conflicts is well-known and without being an obstacle to the enforcement of the principles of contemporary strategy, it mitigates the exterminatory mania of the fighting sides. It is right to consider that this constitutes the most obvious progress of international law30. Throughout the years, faith to it was a common feature of all brave soldiers and civilised people. Its approved enforcement during the Greek Rebellion, fulfils us with national proud and shows the ideological continuation between modern and ancient Greeks. Although during ancient times, written laws existed, the law of armed conflict was unwritten simply because everybody believed so strongly in it that there was no need for registering it. Dion Cassious31, referring to Greek antiquity, mentioned that it was not necessary to write the law of the war as it is respected even during the worse hostilities. An excellent sample of civilisation is the fact that the Ancient Greeks followed these rules fastidiously, especially at a time when other peoples’ ferocity was out of question. The fighters of the Greek Regenerations have set the same example.



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1 Approximately seventy unsuccessful revolts took place. The most important ones were in 1463 when Sparta and Arcadia revolted and in 1479 so did Mani. Revolutionary actions continued with successive revolts in 1495,1499 and 1571. In 1585 a revolt took place in Vonitsa and Xiromero, in 1600 in Thessaly and in 1611 in Ioannina and Thesprotia. From 1770 to 1790 revolts took place in the Peloponnese and in 1808 Thessaly revolted again. VOUKALIS D., Synoptic Political and Constitutional History of Modern Greece, page 19 (Βούκαλη Δ., Συνοπτική Πολιτική και Συνταγματική Ιστορία της Νεώτερης Ελλάδας, σελ. 19).

2 Freedom fighter and poet. Born in the middle of the 17th century in Thessaly and killed around 1798. PAPARRIGOPOULOS K. Compendious History of the Hellenic Nation, p. 531-2 (ΠΑΠΑΡΡΗΓΟΠΟΛΟΥ Κ. Επίτομος Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, σελ. 531-2)

3 Before the Revolt, maritime commerce had gradually passed to the Greek hands. See ALEXANDRIS K.A., The Renaissance of our Maritime Force during the Turkish Occupation, p. 113-26, 159 et seq. (ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΗ Κ.Α., Η Αναβίωσις της Θαλασσίας μας Δυνάμεως κατά την Τουρκοκρατία, σελ. 113-26, 159 et seq.)

4 ROUKOUNAS E., Diplomatic History 19th Century, p. 40 (ΡΟΥΚΟΥΝΑ Ε., Διπλωματική Ιστορία 19ος Αιών, σελ. 40)

5 Vienna Congress with the participation of the diplomatic representatives of the European states apart from Ottoman Empire (October 1814 – 9 June 1815). The later first Governor of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias was serving the Tsar then. NIKOLAOU CH. International Political and Military Treaties – Agreements and Conventions, p. 59 (ΝΙΚΟΛΑΟΥ Χ. Διεθνείς Πολιτικές και Στρατιωτικές ΣυνθήκεςΣυμφωνίες και Συμβάσεις, σελ. 59).

6 See TOMAI F. “How the Great Forces feared the Revolution of 1821- The international Diplomatic Environment on the Eve of the Revolt of the Slave Greeks Against the Turks”. Page A16 (Βλ. ΤΟΜΑΗ Φ., «Πως οι Μεγάλες Δυνάμεις Φοβήθηκαν την Επανάσταση του 1821 – Το Διεθνές Διπλωματικό Περιβάλλον τις Παραμονές της εξέγερσης των υπόδουλων Ελλήνων κατά των Τούρκων», σελ. Α16).

7 Cf. Irregular Warfare Special Study, Joint Warfighting Center, August 2006, p. II-6.

8 Convention on Laws and Customs of the War on Land and Regulation Attached , article 2 of Regulation, See PERRAKIS S., MAROUDA M. – N. Armed Conflicts and International Humanitarian Law, p. 311 (ΠΕΡΡΑΚΗΣ Σ., ΜΑΡΟΥΔΑ Μ. –Ν. , Ένοπλες Συρράξεις και Διεθνές Ανθρωπιστικό Δίκαιο, σελ. 311 (Β.Δ. 21-12-1900, ΦΕΚ Α’ 223/1901)).

9 See KATEVENIS G, Guide of the Public Law of the Sea, p. 11-2 (ΚΑΤΕΒΑΙΝΗ Γ. Εγχειρίδιο του Δημόσιου κατά Θάλασσαν Δικαίου, σελ. 11-2).

10 See PAPADATOU P., Terrorism, p. 23-31 (Βλ. ΠΑΠΑΔΑΤΟΥ Π., Η Τρομοκρατία, σελ. 23-31).

11 U.N. General Assembly, 15th Sess. Official Records, Supp. No. 16 (A/684) p. 66.

12 U.N. General Assembly, Res. 3114 (XXIX), 14 Dec. 1974

13 See PERRAKIS, MAROUDAS op. cit. footnote 8, p. 31-212 (Law 3481/1955) (ΠΕΡΡΑΚΗ, ΜΑΡΟΥΔΑ- Νόμος 3481/1955, ΦΕΚ Α’ 3/1956).

14 Ibid., p. 213-302 (Laws 1786/1988 & 2105/1992) (Νόμοι 1786/1988 ΦΕΚ Α’125/1988 και 2105/1992, ΦΕΚ Α’ 1966/1992).

15 Naval blockades of the Turks on 2 May and 23 August 1821 were officially recognised. See IOANNOU K., External Policy and International Law in ’21, p. 61-4 (ΙΩΑΝΝΟΥ Κ., Εξωτερική Πολιτική και Διεθνές Δίκαιο στο Εικοσιένα, σελ. 61-4).

16 See: KOKINOS D., Greek Revolution,, vol 2, pp 444-6, (ΚΟΚΙΝΟΥ Δ., Ελληνική Επανάστασις" τόμος 2, σελ. 444-6), MICHAILIDIS Ch.,” Greece's Obligation to Haiti Newspaper Eletherotypia, 14 January Athens 2010 (ΜΙΧΑΗΛΙΔΗ Χ., «Το Χρέος της Ελλάδας προς την Αϊτή». Εφημερίδα Ελευθεροτυπία, 14 Ιανουαρίου, Αθήνα 2010.)

17 During the Revolt, Turks considered Greeks as armed insurgents, subjects of the Ottoman State. While trying to put down the rebellion, the Turks followed faithfully the Imperial Firman which was published immediately after the start of the Revolt on 3 May 1821. Directions were clear, fighters should be killed, children and women enslaved, their belongings distributed to the Muslims and their houses burnt.

18 See IOANNOU, op.cit.supra. footnote 15, p. 60-1.

19 Even the operation in Lebanon (1826), far away from the national territory which was to become free, was included to the wider area of operations as it belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The operation also of setting fire to the Turkish ships in Alexandria, Egypt from Kanaris was also part of them.

20 ALEXANDRIS K.A., The Naval Operations at Fight of Independence 1821-29, p. 167, 168 and 173. (ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΗ Κ.Α., Αι Ναυτικαί Επιχειρήσεις του υπέρ Ανεξαρτησίας Αγώνος 1821 -29 σελ. 167, 168 και 173).

21 The distinguished legist and politician Count Palma (1776-1851) was a philellenist and member of the Greek Committee in London. He came to Greece in 1821 and during the period of Kapodistria he was in charge of the organisation of the courts. In Otto’s time, he became Judge of Appeal and in 1840 President of the Commercial Court of Syros.

22 See IOANNOU, op.cit., supra footnote 15, p. 94-5. SEFERIDIS S., Lessons of International Public Law, book b, International Disputes and Conflicts, p. 728. MANOLAS S. Re. Prize Courts, p. 78, footnote 10. (ΙΟΑΝΝΟΥ υποσ 15, ΣΕΦΕΡΙΑΔΟΥ Σ., Μαθήματα Διεθνούς Δημοσίου Δικαίου, βιβλίο β’ , Διεθνείς Διαφοραί και Συγκρούσεις, σελ. 728. Επίσης ΜΑΝΩΛΑ Σ., Περί των Δικαστηρίων Λειών, σελ. 78, υποσ 10.

23 It refers to the important book of Swiss Emmerich de Vattel (1714-1767) entitled Droit des Gens ou Principes de la loi Naturelle Appliques a la Conduite et aux Affaires des Nations et des Souverains (1758).

24 Verse from “Thourios” Rigas Fereos.

25 PAPARRIGOPOULOS, op.cit., footnote 2 p. 453-62 (ΠΑΠΑΡΡΗΓΟΠΟΥΛΟΣ, op. cit., υποσ 2, σελ. 453-62).

26 ALEXANDRIS, op.cit., footnote 3, p. 210-302 (ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΗ, op. cit., υποσ 3, σελ. 210-302).

27 See ATHINAIOS E.N., The Legal Regime of our Pre-Revolutionary Marine”, p. 28-31, and SIMPSAS M., Navy in the History of Greeks, vol. 3, p. 169-74 (ΑΘΗΝΑΙΟΥ Ε.Ν., «Το Νομικό Καθεστώς της Προεπαναστατικής Ναυτιλίας μας», σελ. 28-31. Επίσης ΣΙΜΨΑ Μ., Το Ναυτικό στην Ιστορία των Ελλήνων, τόμος 3, σελ. 169-74).

28 See PIKIONIS D., Texts, publication of the Cultural Foundation of the National Bank A Greece (ΠΙΚΙΩΝΗ Δ. Κείμενα, έκδοση του Μορφωτικού Ιδρύματος της Εθνικής Τραπέζης)

29 See KONSTANTINIDIS T., Piracy and Raid and the Greeks, p. 102 (ΚΩΝΣΤΑΝΤΙΝΙΔΗ Τ., Η «Πειρατεία και Καταδρομή και οι Έλληνες», σελ. 102).

30 CF. Bluntsecli, Das Vokerrecht der zivilisierten Staaten als Reetsbuch dargestellt, Einleitung S. 9 und 10, from XATZILOUKA, op. cit. supra, footnote 5, p. 17

31 Dion Cassius, a Greek istorian, born at Nicæa, in Bithynia, about A.D. 155; went to Rome, and served under a succession of emperors; wrote a “History of Rome” from Æneas to Alexander Severus in 80 books, of which only 18 survive entire.

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