Russo-Turkish Conflict to the Berlin Congress 1877-78:
Australian Colonial Reaction

By Stavros T. Stavridis and Vahe G. Kateb

The Australian colonists followed the Near East crisis with keen interest. As part of the British Empire they depended on the Royal Navy for their protection and security from real or imagined enemies like France and Russia. The possibility of war existed between Great Britain and Russia during the 1870’s -1880’s which was something that would have concerned the Australian colonies from a security point of view. There is no doubt that if an Anglo-Russian had conflict occurred, Australian colonials would have volunteered to fight in the British Imperial Army; Australians volunteered during the Khartoum crisis in 1885. Charles Henry Pearson and Charles Snodgrass Ryan were two Australians who had an indirect and direct interest in the Russo-Turkish war. This article will be divided into four parts.

A short biography of Pearson and Ryan

Charles Henry Pearson (1830-1894) was born on September 7, 1830 in Islington, London. During his life, he worked as a historian, educator, politician and journalist. He was appointed Professor of Modern History at Kings College, London 1855-64 and traveled widely in Europe. Arriving in Melbourne in the early 1870’s, he taught at the University of Melbourne 1873-4 and was allied with the Age newspaper. Pearson was a great believer in promoting secondary and tertiary education.

Charles Snodgrass Ryan (1853-1926) was born at Killeen Station, Longwood, Victoria on September 20, 1853 and was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He commenced his medical course at the University of Melbourne 1870-72 and completed his studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1875. He furthered his medical studies in Bonn and Vienna.

While in Rome, he saw an advertisement in the Times where the Ottoman Government required 20 military surgeons. He saw this as an opportunity to have some adventure and gain medical experience as a surgeon. Returning to London, he was interviewed by the Ottoman Embassy and two days later departed for Constantinople. Ryan served in the last stages of the Turco-Serbian war in the middle of 1876 and spent 4 months at the siege of Plevna in 1877-78. In early 1878, he became a Russian prisoner of war after of the fall of Erzeroum and was decorated by the Sultan for his services as a soldier and surgeon. Ryan returned to Melbourne in June 1878 and was a practicising surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital till 1913. He maintained close relations with Turkey and served some years as its Consul in Melbourne. As fate would have it, he served in the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) against the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915.

The Pearson lecture

On December 18, 1877 Professor Pearson presented a fascinating lecture at Kew Town Hall (Melbourne) on the Russo-Turkish war. Pearson claimed that he had visited the Balkans, northern Turkey and Russia sometime during the late 1850’s.

He outlined the history of the Ottoman Empire from the time of the Crimean War till the present conflict. Turkey’s access to the European money market was a retrograde step resulting in a national debt of £200 million from 1854-1874. Moreover the Sultan’s profligacy on new palaces and purchasing an ironclad naval fleet contributed to Turkey defaulting on its loan obligations.

During the summer of 1875, Turkish authorities in Bosnia used force to collect taxes from the peasants who resisted and commenced a war.

Pearson believed that Russia "[would like]. . . to see Turkey bankrupt and misgoverned … [and] they would . . .[like] to postpone the collapse for 10 years.” On the other hand, a victorious Turkey would become emboldened to demand peace terms that would place the Christian populations of the Balkans in an awkward position. He mentions that the Indian Moslems might be pleased to see the Sultan defeating the Russian Czar.

Even if Russia achieved a decisive victory over Turkey, Pearson did not believe that Russia would annex Constantinople. Russia might gain in Europe with Bulgaria being freed from Ottoman rule and demand compensation in Asia. Britain was the only power standing in the way of a Russian occupation of Constantinople. No one really wanted another European war.

Pearson concluded that “one result of the war would be the amelioration of the condition of the Christian subjects of the Porte and that the martyred thousands of Bulgarians would prove not to have died in vain.”

An Australian Ottoman officer/surgeon

Another interesting Australian colonial perspective is the involvement and participation of Melbourne-born surgeon Dr. Charles Ryan who served as a medical officer in Osman Pasha’s army during the Russian siege of Plevna in 1877. Dr. Ryan's accounts of the Plevna siege appeared in the columns of the Argus newspaper in January 1878. He studied medicine in England, Germany and Vienna before going to practice medicine in Servia.

According to Dr. Ryan, the battle at Plevna was fierce and bloody, with both Russian and Turkish sides sustaining huge troop losses. He recounts the mounting wounded, the insufficient food and medical supplies to assist the wounded soldiers. Ryan mentions that he was involved in firing at the Russians and in one combat situation fatally wounded one of them.

In one battle where Russian forces approached a Turkish fortification Bashi-Bazouks (Turkish irregulars), Circassians and Arabs deserted in great numbers. Ryan got really angry with them and summoned them to return to battle. He stated:

“I was on horseback, with my whip in my hands, sending all the soldiers who had run away back into action. Later, I got so enraged that I drew my sword and threatened to kill them did they disobey me, I slapped in the face a Turkish officer of the same rank as myself. Never in all my life was I in such a rage, for I have thrown so much enthusiasm into all my action since I joined the Turkish service…”

His action worked wonders for the troops under his command who ended up fighting with great skill and determination against the Russians.

Before departing Plevna for Erzeroum, Ryan offered some kind words about the Turks. He described Osman Pasha, the Turkish Commander, as a popular figure among the soldiers, a man who was an independent-minded and capable leader and who lived a simple life. Osman Pasha did not like Europeans, but Ryan stated that he got on very well with him. He praised the Turkish soldier as a very brave and excellent fighter who “is half-fed, half-clothed, knocked about, and yet he says nothing, except that he does all and risks all for his “Padishah” (Sultan).”

Dr. Ryan arrived in Erzeroum sometime in January 1878 taking charge of a hospital for wounded Turkish soldiers. On February 28, the Argus described the siege in Erzeroum without mentioning Dr. Ryan’s name. It was the The Times of London article of January 23 that revealed Ryan’s name running an English hospital in Erzeroum. On August 15 the Argus reported that Dr. Ryan was decorated by the Turkish government for his services as a surgeon and for combat during the siege in Plevna. He received three decorations: the Fourth Orders of Osmanlie and Medjidie and an ordinary war medal. The Osmanlie decoration was rarely given and awarded only to those of high rank in the Ottoman army. A Turkish document which appears to bear the signature of Sultan Abdul Hamid gave permission for Ryan to wear these orders.

Congratulations from down under

Once the Treaty of Berlin was signed, Australians sent resolutions and congratulatory telegrams to the British Prime Minister, Lord Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli), complimenting him on the success of British diplomacy in Berlin. At a meeting convened by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne at the Town Hall on July 29, 1878, attendees lavished praise on the achievements of Lord Beaconsfield.

J. G. Francis, Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Victorian Colonial Parliament, moved a motion which read “that this meeting hereby expresses its profound appreciation of the ability and patriotism of the Earl of Beaconsfield and his colleagues in the settlement of the Eastern Question.”

This resolution had overwhelming support from the attendees but there was one dissenting voice. Mr. Service believed that British diplomacy had spared the Australian colonies from a war. He stated:

…Perhaps these colonies were more interested than any other portion of her Majesty’s dominions in the maintenance of peace…if there was any part of her Majesty’s dominions likely to be pounced upon by the Russians in case of an outbreak of hostilities, we knew that our shores were the first that would be visited; therefore these colonies should be very grateful indeed that they had escaped the danger and humiliation to which they [might] have been subjected.

There may be some truth in the assertion above that the Russians directly threatened the security of the Australian colonies. The Australian colonies felt isolated and vulnerable as a white British outpost located in the South West Pacific.

During the meeting Rev. Potter dissented and proposed his own amendment to Francis’s resolution. He was jeered by the audience. Potter thought that an objective opinion could not be expressed so long as the Eastern question remained unresolved over Constantinople. He believed that Turkey was incapable of holding onto Constantinople, so therefore it was imperative that some power should control this city with its military forces “or else [be] able to secure a European alliance that would enable it to maintain possession of the place.”

Potter’s remark over Cyprus wasn’t appreciated by the audience. Before England could be congratulated upon any settlement including the possession of Cyprus, the people of the island hadn’t been consulted in this matter. Nevertheless, he was grateful that Britain had prevented a war. His amendment lapsed and the original resolution was unanimously adopted. The Governor of Victoria was requested to forward the motion to Lord Beaconsfield in London.

In conclusion, the Russo-Turkish conflict and the Treaty of Berlin certainly aroused the interests of the Australian Colonials from a strategic and defence point of view. Dr. John Ryan was the first Australian to serve as a soldier and surgeon in the Ottoman Empire and was also a Turcophile.

© Not to be reproduced without the written permission of the authors

(Posting date 22 August 2006)

About Stavros T. Stavridis

Stavros Terry Stavridis was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1949 of Greek parents. He migrated to Australia with his parents in September 1952. Stavros has a Bachelor of Arts (B.A) in Political Science/Economic History and B.A (Hons) in European History from Deakin University and M.A in Greek/Australian History from RMIT University. His MA thesis is titled "The Greek-Turkish War 1919-23: an Australian Press Perspective."

Stavros has nearly 20 years of teaching experience, lecturing at University and TAFE (Technical and Further Education, the equivalent of Community College in the US) levels. He has presented papers at international conferences in Australia and USA and has also given public lectures both in Australia and on the West Coast of the US. Many of his articles have appeared in the Greek-American press. He currently works as a historical researcher at the National Center for Hellenic Studies and Research, Latrobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia.

Stavros' research interests are the Asia Minor campaign and disaster, Middle Eastern history, the Assyrian and Armenian genocides, Greece in the Balkan Wars 1912-13 and the First World War and history in general.

About Vahe G. Kateb

Mr Kateb is the Director of the Armenian Language Program on Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Radio in Melbourne, Australia. He has completed a Masters dissertation titled "Australian Press Coverage of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1923" at University of Wollongong in 2003.

HCS maintains a large selection of fine pieces written by Mr. Stavridis which viewers are invited to view at the URL

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