Haslar Heritage Group

Section One - Historical Background

In 1808 and 1809, a large number of Russian sailors, along with some Russian cavalrymen, passed through the naval hospital at Haslar near Portsmouth.  The story of how they got there and how they eventually returned to Russia constitutes a fascinating and little-known chapter in the Napoleonic wars, one that took Russian sailors on a five-year journey from Kronstadt in Russia (near St. Petersburg) to fight French in the Adriatic Sea and Turks in the Aegean before surrendering to the British in Portugal.  The story spans a period of Russian military activity in the Mediterranean, initiated by a mentally unstable Tsar and concluded on a raft in the middle of the Niemen River near the town of Tilsit.

Russian interest in the Mediterranean had been sparked when Tsar Paul of Russia had been selected for the honorary position as Grand Master of the Order of Malta.  The subsequent seizure of Malta in 1798 by French troops under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte, en route to Egypt, had prompted Paul to join the alliance assembling to oppose France.  The French seizure of Egypt placed France in opposition to the Ottoman Empire, and in an unlikely alliance, Russian and Turkish forces joined together to fight the French.  The result was the expulsion of French troops from the Ionian Islands, formerly Venetian territory that had been occupied by the French in 1797, as well as the support of a rebellion in Naples that would expel French forces from southern Italy.  While subsequent actions would see Paul withdrawing from the war, Russian interests in the area remained.  The Ionian Islands were organized as the “Septinsular Republic” under Russian protection, while the Tsar pledged his support for the restored Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (often referred to simply as Naples) composed of Sicily proper and the southern end of the Italian peninsula.

Russian interest in the Mediterranean would continue even after Paul’s assassination in 1801.  Paul’s son and successor, Alexander, viewed Russia as protector of the Septinsular Republic and Naples.  When hostilities erupted between France and England again, Napoleon Bonaparte, now head of state in France, moved to seize Italian ports to close them to British shipping.  The prompted Alexander to begin a corresponding buildup of land and naval forces in the Ionian Islands to oppose them.  By June of 1805, French activities had become sufficiently alarming that Britain was able to assemble a new coalition to oppose France, composed of Britain, Russia, Sweden and Austria.

Since 1804, Russian forces had been assembling in the Ionian Islands, sailing from Sevastopol and Odessa (the diplomatic situation with the Turks remaining cordial for the moment), and also from Riga and St. Petersburg.  Three separate squadrons had been sent from the Baltic, the Squadron of Captain-Commodore Alexi Samuelovich Grieg departing Kronstadt (main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet protecting St Petersburg) on 25th October 1804, that of Rear Admiral Dimitri Seniavin departing Kronstadt on 22nd September 1805, and a third squadron commanded by Captain-Commodore IA Ignatyev departing Kronstadt on the 31st August 1806. Admiral Seniavin assumed overall command of Russian forces in the Mediterranean upon his arrival.

From 1805 to 1807, Seniavin’s forces coordinated activities with British forces in the Mediterranean to oppose the French, successfully sweeping the Adriatic of French vessels and seizing several islands from the French while the British asserted their naval supremacy with Admiral Lord Nelson’s legendary battle of Trafalgar in 1805, crushing the Franco-Spanish fleet and permanently thwarting any French plans for an invasion of Britain. But by 1807, Napoleon had trampled all over Europe. His military genius had brought about the victories at Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstädt and Friedland. His eagles had flown over Berlin and Vienna, the capitals of two of Europe’s most powerful nations, Prussia and Austria. On the diplomatic front, he had convinced the Turks to oppose Russia.  

Unable to launch an invasion of Britain, Napoleon planned to beat the British through economic warfare by closing all European ports to British trade, proclaiming the blockade in Berlin on November 21, 1806.  The blockade extended to all ports controlled by the French, France’ allies and any other states that could be convinced, intimidating or coerced into joining the blockade. After the decisive battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807, where Napoleon rolled up the Russian lines and threw them back into the river Alle, the turn came for Russia to join the blockade.

The Treaty of Tilsit, signed by Napoleon and Alexander on July 7, 1807, radically changed the geopolitical situation of Europe. With the treaty, Russia changed sides, becoming an ally of France and an enemy of Britain. Under the terms of the treaty, Russia would turn over the Ionian Islands to the French and vacate the Mediterranean.  Admiral Seniavin immediately began preparing for the long voyage back to Krostadt.

News of Tilsit prompted the British to take drastic action to prevent the French from again challenging British command of the seas. The Danish Navy was the second largest in Europe at the time, and it was imperative to the British Admiralty to keep it from falling into the hands of Napoleon. The British issued an ultimatum to Denmark, demanding that they turn over their fleet. Admiral James Gambier was sent to the Baltic with 24 ships-of-the line and 22 smaller vessels, and troop-transports carrying 30,000 troops to enforce the ultimatum.
Gambier first put into Öresund, Sweden, before descending on Copenhagen, where he received the Danish refusal to surrender.  On the evening of September 2 1807, the Royal Navy commenced bombardment of the Danish capital. Houses and churches were destroyed by cannon and shot and in flames, women children and elderly were killed. The bombardment continued for twelve hours. On September 5, Denmark surrendered and the Royal Navy sailed off with the remnants of the Danish navy in tow.  The effects of the bombardment were immediately made clear. Denmark allied itself with Napoleonic France. For the rest of the Napoleonic wars, Denmark was Napoleon’s most faithful ally. Scandinavia was once again divided between the greater continental powers as Sweden allied with Great Britain.

In October 1807, Seniavin began his journey to Kronstadt.  Some smaller vessels and those that were not sound enough for the long voyage were left behind, shifting to French-controlled ports where they would subsequently be transferred to the French in 1809.  a storm encountered sortly after leaving port damaged three of his ships of the line, forcing them to put into French-controlled ports for repairs.  The remainder of the fleet – composed of nine ships-of-the-line, two frigates and a brig through the western Mediterranean and passed the straits of Gibraltar without incident.  The British received news of his departure, however, and moved to intercept the Russians.  On November 10, after encountering another storm, Seniavin’s fleet, save only the brig, Shpitzbergen which had become separated, put into Lisbon which at the time was controlled by the French. Seniavin sent the speedy Swedish-built frigate, Venus, back into the Mediterranean with orders that the vessels left behind should remain in French ports.  Venus was subsequently sold to the Kingdom of Naples. Seniavin’s crews rushed to complete repairs, but within days of their arrival a British squadron appeared off the Tagus, effectively trapping Seniavin in port.  Shpitzbergen took refuge in Vigo to avoid capture.

For nearly ten months, Lisbon was the scene of an odd three-way standoff.  Seniavin, who personally detested the French, refused to cooperate with them in any way.  Admiral Sir Charles Cotton persisted in his blockade of the Russians, but either through communication with Seniavin or a canny reading of the situation decided not to push hostilities with the Russians.  Finally, in August 22, 1808, the French commander, General Jean Andoche Junot, trapped in Lisbon under blockade by land and sea, concluded the Convention of Cintra with the British.  The convention, which called for the surrender of Lisbon and the repatriation of French officers and men to France, did not include the Russian fleet, however.  Seniavin and Cotton instead worked out an amicable agreement whereby his ships would be sent to England under Russian colours to be “held as a deposit” until the termination of hostilities between the two countries, at which point the vessels would be returned to Russia.  All of the officers and men of Seniavin’s fleet were to be sent back to Russia aboard English ships without being considered in any way prisoners of war or debarred from further service.  The agreement set up the curious circumstances of the Russian sailors at Haslar.

In September 1808, Seniavin’s squadron surrendered to the British at Lisbon.  The vessels had spent up to four years away from their home port, and had spent nearly a year idle in Lisbon.  One of the Russian ships, the Rafail, had deteriorated during its time in port and had to be abandoned in Lisbon as unseaworthy.  The remainder sailed from Lisbon under Russian colours, bound for Portsmouth.  This included eight ships of the line: Svyataya Elena, Retvizan, Selafail, Yaroslav, Tverdyi, Moshyni, Skoryi and the Silnyi, with the frigate Kildyuin. [Note:  Russian sources indicate that the Shpitzbergen was sold at Vigo in 1812, but her officers and crew appear to have been taken to Portsmouth with Seniavin.]
All information remains copyright of Eric C Birbeck MVO & Robert Goetz and are not to reproduced without prior permission.
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