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Nelson’s “Tcheleng” or “The Knight of the Ottoman Crescent”

The “Medal of the Ottoman Crescent” Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg.

“Knight of the Ottoman Crescent”

The English Admiral Nelson died due to the wound he received in the Trafalgar Naval Battle on October 12th, 1805. The said naval battle resulted in the total defeat of the united French and Spanish fleets and was to determine the future of Europe for more than a century [*].

Nelson’s corpse was placed in an oak barrel filled with cognac that came as a war spoil and he was taken to England [*]. His casket made from the mast of the French ship l’Orient [*] captured seven years ago was ready; he had kept it with him, sometimes in the hold of the ship and sometimes in his own cabin.

Nelson was buried in London in a very stately and deeply sincere ceremony [*]. What especially interests us here is one of the titles placed on Nelson’s casket:

“Knight of the Ottoman Crescent”, that is, “Osmanlı Hilali’nin Soylusu”.

Nelson used this title, for example, when he signed the armistice of the Copenhagen Naval Battle (April 9th, 1801) as the victorious commander.

This issue attracted my attention for the first time during my visit of the section of the GreenwichMaritimeMuseum dedicated to Nelson. There was a notice under one of the pictures about a “tchelengh”. When I read this I looked at the picture more carefully and then I noticed the ornament on the admiral’s hat. First I thought this ornament could not have been a “çelenk”, a “wreath” in today’s Turkish. It could, at best, have been “a plume, a plume worn on a hat”. A quick look into the dictionary of the Turkish Linguistic Society revealed a second, albeit archaic, meaning: “a plume worn on a hat made from jewel or some metal”…

 

Lemuel Abott’s portrait of Lord Horatio Nelson dated to 1798. Here the frail admiral is more pale than usual. This particular portrait was made little later after he had lost his right arm. On his head was the “crooked hat” of the English sailors and on it was the “tchelengh”. The “Medal of the Ottoman Crescent”, the uppermost one of the three insignias on the left side of his chest. Greenwich Maritime Museum, London.

The plume, the plume worn on a hat. What was this thing doing on the hat of this exceptional Englishman who used to state, with pride, that his father was a priest?

I researched the subject within the limits of my means and here I present my findings. I am not a historian, but I was able to read the records of Nelson and those who fought together with him. Sadly, I was unable to read our Turkish primary records due to the change of the script [*].

Let us look at the picture again. Now look carefully at the medals on Nelson’s chest. You can make out the crescent and the star on one of them, can’t you?

Nelson’s wax statue at Westminster Abbey. The “Medal of the Ottoman Crescent” on admiral’s chest, the outermost one, can be seen clearly.

 

The Viennese painter Heinrich Fuger’s Nelson portrait dated to 1800. One can make out the “Medal of the Ottoman Crescent” clearly and one can tell the importance Nelson gave to this medal because of its central location on the portrait.

Egypt and the “Ottoman Palace”

The time was the period of the Sultan Khan Selim III (1789-1807) – Selim III, the Reformer. The Khan Selim III, who established the Nizam-ı Cedid, the New Order, was a poet and interested in music, and was, at the end, in spite of all the efforts of Alemdar Mustafa Pasha, strangled and his corpse was thrown out of the palace by the reactionary mobs. Egypt was very important for Istanbul; “Konstantiniyye” was receiving its rice and sugar from there. The Ottomans were in the midst of an economic change of which they could not make much sense; the ships from Egypt were arriving late, there were constant hikes in prices in Istanbul, it was a total disorder.

Just around this time, Napoleon (not yet the “Emperor of Europe”, just a French general) was given the task of invading Egypt. Napoleon defeated the Mamluks at the Battle of Pyramids and thus reinforced his presence in Egypt. The goal was obvious: India. On the way to India Egypt was the second strategic point. It was officially an Ottoman land, but ruled by the Mamluks, who in return sent provisions to Istanbul.

Two empires were not pleased by Napoleon’s passion for Egypt: The Ottomans and British Empire. The former was worried that it was going to lose its provisions and face a riot in Istanbul and the latter did certainly not want to lose India. France was in a good position. It had a shore on the Mediterranean and it was close to Egypt. But settling in Egypt alone was not enough. The heart of any military was its navy and therefore, it was very important to give it the utmost care possible; it took five years to build a ship.

England had decided to destroy the French navy in order to protect its gateway to India. Admiral Nelson was assigned to the job. As to Istanbul, it could unfortunately not do anything but watch the developments passively, though with pleasure.

Nelson’s pursuit of Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet. For details click the link.

The task was not easy. The French fleet was to be found, trapped somewhere and destroyed and all this was to be done thousands of miles away from England. The French, on the other hand, were in their own backyard. They had virtually occupied Egypt and the forts and the towns were controlled by French soldiers. Accordingly, Nelson set sail for the Mediterranean, but he had to leave some of his ships in Gibraltar. He began searching without the four patrol frigates he desperately needed for this search. Storms and unfriendly governors were of no help. Let us not forget that there was no radio, nor telegraph. One came across a boat or ship by chance, changed course, caught up with the other vessel, set over by the use of tenders and asked whether or not they might have seen the French. Sometimes signal flags were used. It was a difficult job. But Nelson eventually found the French fleet. It was already well positioned in the Abukir bay of Egypt…

The Battle of Nile

Nelson knew, as any other admiral, that a fleet was well resistant to attacks if it was anchored in a harbor; there are examples.

It was summer time. The wind blew from northwest. The French navy was anchored in a line; their ships were facing northwest and their broadsides faced northeast. In other words, they were in a position to shoot anything that would sail into the bay.

Nelson was a different kind of person. His journal, from which I quoted in the beginning of this article, reflects sincere feelings. Oddly, he was a humanist shaped by blood and powder. He was fiery and restless, but he respected the law and the rights of others. He had qualities which were not yet fashionable in his time. For example, he listened to and consulted others. He had enormous, portable (!) meeting lounges built in his ships. He hosted the captains of his ships and the other administrative personnel in these lounges. [*] He knew his men well, he could almost read their minds. He knew to appreciate their abilities and encouraged them to share their opinions. He used to conduct endless brain storms. Especially before every attack, every thinkable scenario was played over and over again without ignoring even the slightest possibilities. However, he never neglected to end these discussions by giving the message that “a real conflict may develop differently. Do what you think is right, and always remember that I will back you.”

“The Battle of Nile” or the Abukir Naval Battle is a victory granted to England by bright strategies and brute force. Nelson, who knew very well that the circumstances were hardly advantageous, made an important decision and immediately, without any rest, right around dusk, started his attack. This was a first in the history of naval battles and just one of the risks Nelson took in his life, for there was no doubt that in a battle that was going to take place at night, those anchored were at even greater advantage. Moreover, Nelson did not even have detailed maps of the region. Brueys, the French admiral, was waiting calmly. Perhaps he did not expect Nelson to attack… Try to picture it: An anchored fleet, ready to fire, with the broadsides turned to a fleet trying to come upon it in darkness in uncharted shallow waters. The forts around were fitted out with the French fire power. The French were rested and the English soldiers were just arriving from a long sail.

On top of this, to the fourteen ships of the English, the French had seventeen ships, thirteen of which were ships of line. Among them was the famous l’Orient. With 120 cannons, she was an enormous ship. Just her one line of cannons had more firepower than total firepower of any one of the English ships. She was a gargantuan fortress under sails.

“Surprise is fundamental in War”

The Naval Battle of Abukir. The explosion of  l’Orient.

Nelson did not let himself get demoralized and the first English ships attacked. The day was August 1st, 1798, around six o’clock in the evening. The English ships approached the French line almost perpendicular. They were able to make to the French line without receiving much damage as this way they made small targets. But they could not fire their cannons on the broadsides, either.

Right at that moment, a French brig made an attempt to force the English to the shoals by a diversionary attack; but either the English knew that shoal or they guessed the intention and this attempt ended up with failure.

For plan of the Abukir naval battle click the link.

Right at that time, HMS Goliath, the first boat attacked, made a maneuver completely unexpected by the French:

Everybody was expecting Goliath to position herself parallel to the French line by turning to southeast. She was broad reaching and by just falling off she would have been able to fire her port cannons. Instead, Captain Foley made a different move by first getting closer to the wind and then falling off. This way she was positioned to the port side of the French line – between the ships and the bay’s beach. As said, this was a move the French had not expected, and thus were not prepared for it: Their port cannons were not ready for replying and the port sides of the ships were not in shipshape condition, the French had stowed everything to their port sides in a makeshift manner.

The Captain “who left the Line”

This decision of Foley, the captain of Goliath, was much discussed as Foley conducted this maneuver on his own initiative. As mentioned above, Nelson did encourage this kind of initiative and he himself was once a captain “who had left the line”. Some claim that Foley must have planned this change ahead of the battle. He probably decided to carry out this preconceived possibility as he approached the French line.

How did Foley make this decision?

François Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers, the French admiral, had his fleet anchored in a very strategic bay, but when the English approached they noticed this: The French ships were swinging on their anchors! That is, instead of kedging the ships from the sterns as well, they were on only one anchor, free to wing. Only due to the wind and the current the ships were facing northwest. Now, this had implications which the English picked up: If the French ships were swinging then there should have been sufficient room between the French line and the beach to accommodate the English ships without going aground.

Goliath advanced until between the French line and the beach, fell off and then dropped her kedges and held onto their kedges – a very difficult maneuver, when done on the fly. Dropping the kedges  and slacking the cables carefully, the Captain Foley brought his ship to a full stop. He had reached the ideal position; he devastated the first two French ships with one volley. This formed the start of the close battle. In the meantime, and following the example set by Goliath, HMS Zealous and Orion, too, made their way to the port side of the French either by beating to windward or through the anchored ships and began firing on the French. As expected the French reply remained weak.

Nelson was on HMS Vanguard, the fourth ship. Vanguard was still partially damaged from the storm experienced off the coast of Corsica and described by Nelson in a letter as the storm that punished his arrogance [*]. Swiftly, Vanguard and those behind her approached the French line, this time to the starboard side of the French line, and began their attacks. Due to the chaos that had erupted, the French could not even use their starboard cannons efficiently.

As the last English ships were entering the bay, HMS Culloden sounded ten fathoms and immediately afterwards, without finding the time to sound again a further time, she went aground. Seeing this, the ships following her immediately changed course and one by one they passed from the leeside of Culloden, which had become a mark now. So the English had won this victory even with one less boat [*].

As you would see, in all this maneuvering there was the risk that the English could hit their own ships while bombarding the sandwiched French ships.

Nelson’s injury

Nelson’s left eye was not functional; due to an injury suffered in a previous battle, he was blind in this eye. This time, during this close battle, he was hit above his right eye: “A piece of skin dropped over his only eye that could see, the bone came out and the English admiral sank into the deepest darkness.” Those around him thought, because of the immense bleeding, that his wound was fatal and they took him to the “cockpit”, “operating room” [*]. The operating room was an unpleasant sight. Heads, arms, legs. The walls were painted red, so that blood stains would not show. When the ship’s surgeon left the patient on whom he was operating and moved towards his admiral, Nelson instructed him, according to some in a manner worthy of the historical moment, and according to some at the risk of losing his life, “after my gallant friends”. Obviously he was trying to keep the morale of his sailors high. Upon this, the surgeon first took care of the “friend” he was already operating on and then moved again towards his admiral, but Nelson insisted on waiting for his turn, according to the witnesses who reported this incident. If he had not acted in this way, this would have probably resulted in disorder. When the surgeon eventually treated him, everyone was relieved to find out that the injury was not fatal.   

The light from l’Orient reflects on the injured Nelson. A portrait painted by Guy Head in 1798.

Meanwhile, the news that there was a serious fire on l’Orient had made it to the cockpit.

The French ships had not removed the paints and oils they needed to paint the broadsides (they could have done it easily) and it had now become impossible to put out the flames started from those barrels.

Nelson immediately gave the order for the English lifeboats to go to l’Orient and save the French. At the same time, he asked for the pen officer in order to dictate the victory letter to be sent to England. But the pen officer, one Mr. Campbell, was in no shape to write such a letter; so Nelson wrote the letter himself [*]. At 10 PM, the news that the fire on l’Orient had become overwhelming reached him. Now the whole bay was bright because of the fire; one could “distinguish the flags of the vessels”. Upon this, Nelson sneaked out of the cockpit to the deck and continued to observe the battle.

Explosion of l’Orient

Right at that moment, the inevitable happened and l’Orient, this gargantuan ship, the most magnificent ship of the period, exploded as the fire reached its armory. Thereafter there was deep silence as if “an earthquake had happened” – all the firing had stopped. Then masts, yards, rigging, deck pieces, boards, cables, whatever there was began raining down from the sky. The English had already taken the necessary measures and wetted their decks, “tightly wrapped the sails”; they were prepared for potential fires and so they got out of this final, too, without much damage [*]. To some, this silence had lasted for twenty minutes and the explosion of l’Orient was heard from Alexandria, fifteen miles away.

L’Orient  After the Explosion

Cutting their anchor cables, the first four ships of the French line set sail towards France; only two of them succeeded.

The Pagan and Christian Traditions Mixed

This is the summary of the “Battle at the Nile”: Istanbul, the Palace and especially the “Grand Seignieur” , the Great Sir, Sultan Selim III Khan was much pleased from the results of this important battle that took place along his shores, but unfortunately without any positive or negative contribution from him. And, thus was born one of the sources of boasting in Nelson’s life.

Firstly, The Grand Seigneur – Our Great Sir – granted Nelson one of the plumed ornaments of one of his turbans. This alone was an extraordinary and exceptional gesture. “Granting a plume” is a tradition that existed among the Ottomans and whose roots go back to our pagan past. But there is no example in our history of granting a plume to a foreigner, especially to a non-Muslim. Among the Ottomans, plumes were granted to the commanders-in-chief and the state officials of highest rank as the greatest compliment. I wonder if with this grant Selim III Khan had intended to make a gesture appropriate for his “new order”? Whatever it may be, Selim III Khan did not stop here and granted Newton a medal as well [*]. Hence the “Medal of the Ottoman Crescent”. This was also the very first medal in Ottoman history. Again we come to an interesting point: The tradition of medals come from the Crusades. Here I would like to point to the fact that the German word for medal, “Orden”, has a double meaning. As this word refers to an medal, it also refers to a “cult, sect, class”, that is, to a group of people who turn their back to worldly values for the sake of Christianity, their religion, and who vow to sacrifice their lives for their religion [*]. Thus, Selim III Khan rewarded a Christian admiral with a gesture coming from a tradition in essence hostile to him and with this step started the medal tradition within the Ottoman state. In time, the origin of these medals were forgotten and with the “Medal of Independence”, the tradition was transferred to the Republican Turkey.

The chelengh granted by Selim III Khan to Lord Nelson.

I wonder if Selim III Khan had already known the contradictory nature of the compliment he made? Or was this another knowingly executed reform by him? I have no answers.

Sultan Selim III Han (1761-1808)

Mihrişah Sultan, mother of Selim III Khan, too, sent Nelson a box covered with valuable stones in order to express her gratitude. In addition to these, a fur coat and a sword granted by Selim III are mentioned, but in the records and the official documents only a plume and a medal are seen; that the other gifts were granted by the royal family is only a guess.

In spite of this, on the Trafalgar Day of 2002, that is, on October 21st, in an auction conducted by the famous auction house of Sotheby, “Nelson’s lost sword” was sold for 330.000 pounds.

“Nelson’s lost sword” revealed in 2002 by Sotheby

“Arrogant” Nelson

It seems that placing the insignia on his hat was Nelson’s preference and he did this with royal consent [*]. There is no other example of an English mariner placing an insignia on his “triangle hat”; after all, a plume/insignia is a decoration designed for a turban. Nelson’s insignia had another feature: The diamonds in the center of it were moved by a mechanism behind it and thus formed a very shiny glitter; it is told that Nelson often used to take off his hat during receptions and wound up this mechanism. Unfortunately, in 1951, the insignia was stolen from the Greenwich Museum. We can now only enjoy it through its photographs and Lemuel Abbott’s Nelson portraits exhibited in the Greenwich Museum, those portraits which had directed my attention to the subject.

Nelson’s two contemporary caricatures. On the left, Nelson is subduing the Nile crocodiles. One can see that some crocodiles are shedding “crocodile tears”. I think “Britannia” is written on the stick Nelson is holding. On the right is a grotesque Nelson. With his sable fur, insignia and “Oriental” sword, he seems helpless. James Gilray, 1798.

Epilogue

Mehmet Ali of Kavala, a Rumelian, accomplished what the French failed to do. He took the lead of the Mamluk army in 1805 and defeated the English in 1807. The English withdrawn from Egypt and could come back only 75 years later.

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