As far as my mental timeline is concerned, 1821 means the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, which I first became aware of thanks to Lord Byron, the baddest of all the bad boys of Romantic poetry. (This does not make me unique. Byron also introduced many of his European contemporaries to Greek aspirations for independence from the Ottoman Empire. His death at Missolonghi* led to an outpouring of pro-Hellenic support.)
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Greeks had been part of the Ottoman empire for roughly four hundred years. For much of that time, they had enjoyed a privileged position. Educated Greeks dominated the Ottoman administration and Greek merchants had a near monopoly on trade in the Turkish Mediterranean.
Privilege is not the same thing as independence, however.** In the late eighteen century, vague discontent turned into Greek nationalism thanks to two international movements. Romantic Hellenism created an interest in ancient Greek mythology and literature throughout Europe, bringing with it a belief in ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy, and contemporary Europe.*** At the same time, the revolutionary ideals of the American and French revolutions led nationalist groups across Europe to dream of new states based on shared languages and culture rather than imperial provinces shaped by the political maneuvering of the great imperial powers.
The Greek war of independence began on March 25, 1821, with an unsuccessful raid into Moldavia by a group of Greek expatriates who belonged to a secret society dedicated to liberating Greece from Ottoman rule. Two weeks later, a popular uprising convulsed the Peloponnesus. The Turks retaliated viciously.
At first, European governments, which were not by and large supporters of nationalist aspirations on the American and French model , were hostile to the Greek cause. European popular opinion was not. Philhellenes rallied to the cause of Greek independence. They organized balls, breakfasts, and exhibitions to raise money to help the rebels. Women donated their jewels to the cause. Young men followed Lord Byron’s example and volunteered to serve with the rebel army.
Public opinion finally swayed political power. Britain, Russia, and a reluctant France forced the Ottomans to accept Greece as an independent nation in October 1827.
It turns out that Europe’s monarchies had reason to be twitchy about independence movements: it was a hot issue in 1821. Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Santo Domingo, El Salvador, and Venezuelan all proclaimed their independence from Spain.
But wars of independence weren’t the only thing that happened in 1821. (What a surprise!) Here are some of the highs and lows, in no particular order:
- Egypt invaded and conquered the Sudan, with a nod of approval from Britain —basically the opposite of a war of independence.
- French linguist Jean-François Champollion published his work on deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone. (An event that caught my imagination as a very young history nerd.)
- English scientist Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic rotation, the principle behind the electrical motor. (An event that did not catch my youthful imagination, alas.) He went on to make other discoveries that allowed electricity to become a powerful new technology rather than a science nerd party trick. Obviously more important than deciphering hieroglyphics in the broader scheme of world history.
*From fever, not on the battlefield. Just so we’re clear.
**Revolutions often begin among the relatively privileged who aspire to more rather than among the poorest of the poor.
****Lots there we could unpack, but we will leave it for the moment.