The battle of Chesma and the Russo-Maltese relations

During the 18th century Russia and Turkey were frequently at loggerheads, culminating in the Russo-Turkish war (1768-1774). One major battle in this war was the sea battle of Chesma (24-26 June 1770). The aim of this paper is to try to demonstrate the contribution, both direct and indirect, of the Maltese and the Order of St John in this Battle.



Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia had been trying to get the Order’s support in her attempts to secure a footing in the Mediterranean.

The Russo-Maltese Connection dates back to 1698 when the first Russian delegation reached Malta during Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful magistracy.  The most prominent member was the Russian field marshal Bojar Boris Petrovitch Sheremetev, who visited Malta in May of that year. During this visit, a Russo-Maltese ally against the Ottomans was proposed, but Perellos was too cautious to accept it as this would have involved the Order in the international struggle for European dominance. Perellos insisted on the strict neutrality of the Order and refused Czar Peter’s proposal. This attempt at approachment with Malta to gain support against the traditional Turkish enemy, however, opened an important path in Russo-Maltese relations.

Peter had sent an envoy to Malta, Russian volunteers had served on the Order’s ships and now Czarina Catherine II was writing charming letters to the Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca (1741-1773), sending him her portrait by Dimitri Gregoriovitch Levitzky and also dispatching a fleet to Valletta.

However, it was the Russian-Turkish war of 1768-1774 which hastened the positive development of relations between Malta and Russia. In fact this was the time when permanent diplomatic representatives were established.

Catherine and the Order of St John

Lampi, Johann-Baptist Senior, Portrait of Catherine II
In her assessment of the general condition of the fleet, Catherine noted: “We have ships, and men on them to abundance, but we have neither fleet nor sailors …. It must be confessed that they look like a herring-fleet which sets out every year from Holland, and not at all like a fleet of war.”  In fact, after having consolidated her position on the throne, she took important steps to improve the situation of the navy.

Exchange of Officers

The wily Czarina had been preparing for the conflict with the Ottomans for many years.  She realized that if she was to enter into the Mediterranean it would be highly advantageous to have Malta and the Order on her side.  Her first move had been for a request for two knights of the Order to serve on her galleys.  This request was made in 1764 simultaneously by her ambassadors in Vienna, Paris and Rome to the Order’s representatives in those cities.  Pinto replied through Count D’Hamilton, his ambassador in Vienna, that he felt very flattered by the Czarina’s request and had already in mind two knights, well versed in the theory and practice of gallery warfare (Smith and Storace hint that these could have been Chevalier the Marquis Sagramoso and Chevalier Count Giulio Renato de Litta. Eventually de Litta went). But before proceeding further the shrewd Grand Master wanted to know in what grade and rank those two knights would be serving in the Russian navy. Pinto demanded clarification as the request from Paris had hinted they would be given the rank of generals in command of the galleys, whilst the request from Vienna only mentioned a subaltern position which was felt to be below the dignity of the two knights who would be representing the Order in that far country.  Pinto also briefed his Vienna ambassador to sound that Court regarding the Czarina’s proposal, a measure which had already been suggested to the Order’s ambassador in Paris in view of the Polish king’s recent demise and the possibility of a clash of interests between Russia and the Catholic Powers, particularly France and Austria. The wizened, far-sighted Grand Master had no intention of embroiling himself or his Order in the gathering storm in Eastern Europe.

A year later, Catherine also asked the Grand Master if she could send Russian officers to Malta to be trained in the Order’s navy. Pinto received Admiral Sergius Babinkoff, who had been sent by Catherine, and agreed that six Imperial Russian Officers from St. Petersburg Naval Academy might train on board ships of the Order in Malta. Russians had trained on British, French and Dutch ships for a long time and consequently, the Grand Master could not refuse this request.  In a long letter Pinto expressed his ‘joy’ at the Czarina’s high esteem of the Order’s navy. He assured her that the Russian officers would be most welcome and would be treated on equal terms as the Knights.

In October 1765 Lieutanant Timotheus Koslaninoff, and the officers Ivan Selifontoff, Nikolai Skuratoff, Fedor Mossoloff, Matthaus Kokowzoff, and Nikolai Ragosin were sent to Malta where they stayed between July 1766 and February 1769.  Basing himself on the report of Captain General Bali Belmonte, Pinto gave them a positive letter of recommendation, while in a letter dated 18 July 1769, the Czarina expressed her gratitude for the excellent treatment given to the officers. The names of some of these officers can be found later among the captains of the ships which formed part of the Russian squadron under Admiral G. A. Spiridoff in the Mediterranean during the Russo-Turkish War (1768-74).

Use of Malta’s Harbours

Catherine, like several other Russian sovereigns, wanted to use Malta’s excellent harbours as a base against the Ottomans but, mainly due to the interventions of France and Spain, these plans never materialized. Even during the Russo-Turkish wars of the 1770s and 1780s, the Order never officially abandoned its policy of ‘friendly’ neutrality.  Behind this façade, however, a large number of knights had, since the 1760s, favoured closer relations with Russia, the emerging European power. In fact there were several secret close contacts and well-prepared plans to support a Russian presence in the Mediterranean. Malta’s important role in Russia’s Mediterranean policies is reflected by the several so-called charges d’affaires, envoys, and officers sent to the island.

Pierre Bernard, Portrait of Emmanuel Pinto de Fonseca

In 1768, discussions were held in Malta about supporting the Russians in their fight against the Ottomans.  However, shortly before Admiral Sergeij Babinkoff’s ships reached Malta, Pinto received a note from the King of France, Louis XV proposed by the duke de Choiseul, expressing the king’s deep discontent with the Order’s involvement in the Russian expedition. The French even threatened to confiscate the property of the three French langues of the Order (Auvernge, Provence and France), should the knights insist in joining the attack against Turkey, ‘the most loyal of the French allies’.

Pinto hesitated: as Grand Master he depended on good relations with France and Louis XV, a sort of protector of the Order and he obeyed the French wishes.  His excuse not to participate in the Russian expedition was that the Order’s fleet had to proceed immediately to the Barbary Coast to protect Christian vessels and to punish the corsairs of Tripoli.

Naval Attack

There is mention of secret negotiations between Russia and the Order.  On 2 May 1769 a small Russian squadron under Spiridoff visited Malta’s Porto Grande. In the course of secret negotiations, a plan was drawn up for a joint Russo-Maltese naval attack of the Greek mainland. The commander of the Order’s squadron was to be the Alsatian Bali Flachslanden. Spies had informed Flachslanden about the poor state of defence of the Turkish fortresses in the Morea and on the Greek archipelago and the mediocre equipment of the Ottoman forces in Greece. Flachslanden had indeed worked out a plan for a joint expedition of the fleets of the Order and Russia into the Dardanelles up to Constantinople. The nineteenth-century pro-Russian historian Ernst von Berg even mentions a treaty between Russia and the Order concerning a joint attack against the Turks. However, no documents about this could be found and it does not seem very likely that Pinto or the council would have approved this.

Despite the Order’s official stand, quite a large number of members of the Order sympathized with the Russian proposals.  Unofficially some knights tried to meet the Russian requests halfway. The driving force behind this pro-Russian party in Malta was Georgio Giuseppe Maria Valperga, count of Masino, and Flachslanden himself. The latter passed over all his material about the Turkish forces and fortifications and assured the Russians of the help of his spies. Part of the Russian fleet was supplied from Maltese arsenals and, in case of need, the Russian ships were told they could return to Malta. Some experienced knights even joined the fleet. Among the prominent participants in the Russo-Turkish war was the knight of Malta Joseph de Maisonneuve who was then an officer in the army of General Rumanzoff. After the war Maisonneuve took up service in Poland.  Also, the ‘Commander of the Order of Malta, Massimi, a man of talent and good taste’, participated in the Battle of Chesma in July 1770. He actually witnessed the destruction of the Turkish fleet and made a detailed perspective view of this event.

Later, to honour the Order for its ‘undercover’ support, Count Orlov sent 86 Algerian slaves he had captured in the Aegean sea to the new Grand Master Ximenes.


The naval Battle of Chesma took place between 24-26 June 1770 (or 5–7 July 1770 according to Russian calendar) near and in Chesma (Chesme, Çeşme or Tschesme ) Bay, west of Izmir, facing Chios, in the area between the western tip of Anatolia and the island of which was the site of a number of past naval battles.

By the peace treaty of Belgrade in 1739, Russia was not allowed to own a fleet in the Black Sea. When, in 1768, the Sultan declared war, it was necessary for the Russians to send a squadron from Kronstadt in the Baltic through the English Channel and the Straits of Gibraltar to block the Dardanelles and food supplies from Egypt to Istanbul. Two Russian squadrons, commanded by Admiral Grigory Spridoff and Rear Admiral John Elphinstone,  a British advisor, combined under the overall command of Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Fleet and went to look for the Ottoman fleet. Orlov, had never been to sea, but its real lights were two Scottish officers, John Elphinstone and Samuel Greig. Also, despite previous attempts by Peter the Great to inspire sea-legs in Russian ploughmen, only the Livonians or Estonians took to the ocean. By the time the leaky Russian fleet reached England, 800 sailors were ill.

Vigilius Erichsen, Pottrait of Count Orlov

Catherine commissioned corsairs, amongst them was at least one Maltese, Guglielmo Lorenzi, who commanded a squadron composed of his own ship, La Fama, and three other vessels financed by the Russian government.

After gathering at their base, Leghorn (Livorno) in Tuscany, Orlov’s fleet of 24 sails and other smaller craft finally reached Ottoman waters, arrived at the Morea and opened the attack upon all important fortresses and harbor towns, including Modon, Navarino, Patras, and Nauplion. It failed to raise a rebellion among the tricky Greeks and Montenegrins and then indecisively engaged the Turkish fleet off Chios.

It was on 24 June 1770 when the Russians came across the Ottoman fleet anchored in line just north of Chesma Bay. Details of the Ottoman fleet are uncertain but it included 14–16 ships of the line including Real Mustafa of 84 guns, Rodos of 60 guns and a 100-gun flagship.  In addition there were perhaps 6 frigate , 6 xebec , 13 galleys and 32 small craft, with about 1,300 guns in total.

About 10 of the ships of the line, of 70–100 guns, were in the Ottoman main line with a further six or so ships of the line in the 2nd, arranged in such a way so as to fire through the gaps in the first line.  Behind these, were the frigates, xebecs and the rest. The fleet was commanded by Kapudan Pasha Mandalzade Hüsameddin, in the fourth ship from the front (north end) of the line, with Cezayirli Gazi Hasan Pashain the first ship, Real Mustafa and Cafer Bey in the seventh.Two further ships of the line, probably small, had left this fleet for Mytilene the previous evening. After organizing a plan of attack, the Russian battle line sailed towards the south end of the Ottoman line and then turned north, coming alongside the Ottomans, with the tail end coming into action last.

The Ottoman fleet did nothing to prevent all this and the Turks withdrew to the deceptive safety of Chesma harbour.  Samuel Greig arranged a fiery lullaby for the sleeping Turks.  Overnight on 25-26 June, his fireships floated into the harbour of Chesma. This ‘ingenious ambuscade’ turned the harbour into an inferno, destroying 20 Ottoman ships almost completely.  Eleven thousand Turks perished.

It was the most disastrous day for Turkish arms since the Battle of Lepanto (1571). This marked the end of the Ottoman threat in the Levant and the crowning with great success of Russian expedition.


Can one say that the Order of St John played an important role in all of this?

The above demonstrated that although Grand Master Pinto was cautious, help was still given to Russia: this help was both direct and indirect. The Order assisted in training Russian officers who later participated in the Russo-Turkish War. Also, some knights of the Order eventually went to Russia and helped in the organization of and participated in the war and even in the Battle of Chesma.

 Joseph-Stephen Bonanno, B.A.(Hons) (Melit.)



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