Whose island is it, anyway?
Cretan resistance to Venetian rule had been strongest in the early years. After the general rebellion of 1363–64 under the flag of St. Titus had been suppressed, both the rulers and the ruled relaxed a bit and the comparative harmony of the Cretan Renaissance ensued, lasting until the Turkish invasion in the 17th century. The Ottoman period turns this timetable around: after that long war, there was little or no armed resistance for a century. It finally arrived with the beginning of the Romantic Age in the late 18th century—a time when the stirrings of ethnic nationalism were beginning in many parts of Europe where the people were coming to resent being subject to rulers who neither spoke their language nor respected their culture. Such feelings were by no means confined to European populations inside the Ottoman Empire. Resentment of Hapsburg rule was just as strong outside the Austrian “crown lands,” and even where revolutionary movements were essentially social, as in France, they generally included a strong nationalist component.
Catherine the Great, Empress of All the Russias, reigned 1762–1796
The first major uprising against the Turks in Crete wasn’t exactly a product of intellectual ferment, however. An important contribution was made by Tsarist Russia, in pursuit of its own imperial ambitions. The Empress Catherine the Great, like some of her predecessors, was highly interested in expanding her own empire at the expense of the sultan’s. She made it a Russian policy to encourage the national ambitions of all Orthodox Christians who lived under the Ottomans—a policy that Catherine’s successors continued throughout the 19th century, assisting and sponsoring national movements in the Balkans, particularly among the Orthodox Slavs there. (They showed much less interest in the national yearnings of Catholic Slavs like the Poles, many of whom lived under the Tsars’ own imperial authority.)
Alexei Grigoryevitch Orlov, 1737–1808
Catherine began with the Greeks, however, sending agents to contact potential revolutionary forces in the Mani, the most lawless and warlike part of the Peloponnesus. The Maniots began an uprising in 1770 when a Russian fleet commanded by Alexei Orlov (not Catherine’s lover; this was his brother) arrived off their coast. The fleet had had to come the long way, via the English Channel.

Russian agents had also approached an important Cretan merchant from Sfakiá (traditionally the most lawless and warlike part of Crete). His name was Ioánnis Vláchos, but he was better known as Daskaloyiánnis (‘Teacher John’) because of his education. He was a natural contact, wealthy enough to own several ships and to have done enough trading in the Black Sea to learn Russian. The agents promised him help from Orlov’s fleet if he would lead an uprising in Crete. So Daskaloyiánnis rallied a Sfakiot force and went on the warpath.
Orlov defeats the Ottoman fleet off Chios
The Sfakiots scored some early successes, but the promised Russian help never came, except for 50 soldiers put ashore when the fleet arrived. Orlov sailed into the Aegean and did win an impressive naval victory against the Ottomans off the island of Chios. This helped the Russians win the war they were conducting at the time with the Sultan, but did nothing to help either of the Greek uprisings they had started, and both the Maniots and the Sfakiots were soon crushed. When Daskaloyánnis surrendered, the Pasha of Crete had him publicly skinned alive in Candia. Legend insists that the hero bore this ordeal in dignified silence, but that his brother, whom the Turks forced to watch, was driven insane by the experience.
Daskaloyiánnis statue at Anópoli
Daskaloyiánnis is remembered in folk songs and poems, and many Cretan towns have streets or squares named after him. Réthymno is an apparent exception, but it’s the only town we visited that has a ‘Street of the Muscovites’ (Όδος Μοσχοβίτου), named for Daskaloyiánnis’ faithless allies. (Greek nationalists never put their trust in Russia again.) The picture shows a statue of Daskaloyiánnis in his home village, Anópoli, which has a longstanding reputation for fierce patriotism.

From this point on, the opposing parties in Crete were clearly defined: Orthodox Christian and Greek on one side, Muslim and “Turkish” (though most likely genetically Greek) on the other.
Mehmet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, 1769–1849
In 1821, half a century after Daskaloyiánnis’ uprising, the Greek War of Independence broke out on the mainland. Sultan Mahmud II, his military resources stretched, had to solicit help from Mehmet Ali Pasha, a former officer of the Ottoman Empire who had made himself the independent ruler of Egypt. In payment for this assistance the sultan promised to make Mehmet Ali’s son Ibrahim (who led the force sent to Greece) the Pasha of the Peloponnesus and Mehmet Ali himself the Pasha of Crete. An Egyptian army was sent to take control of the island. The Cretans rose against it, but were violently put down during 1823–24 by the Egyptians, commanded by Mustafa Naili Pasha, who like Mehmet Ali himself was actually a Muslim Albanian. In all probability, many of the soldiers from Egypt were also Albanian—when Mehmet Ali took control of that country in the decade after 1800, he had done so in command of an ethnically Albanian army. Crete’s Muslims seem not to have objected to their presence, and showed no reluctance to help them fight Christian rebels.
Although the official achievement of independence for mainland Greece did not come until 1832, the rebellious Greeks had the military situation pretty much under their control after 1825, and a force of Cretans who had been with them returned home to stir the embers of local rebellion. They managed to capture the Venetian-built fortress of Gramvoúsa on a tiny, but very steep, island off the northwest tip of Crete, but the Egyptians and local Turks set up a siege that kept the rebels from carrying the struggle elsewhere for more than two years.

At least their harbor was open, and they could get out to sea. The would-be liberators found they had to take to piracy to survive, and apparently did so with considerable enthusiasm. The church they built on the island they named Panayía i Kléftrina—‘Our Lady the Pirate’ (or, if you prefer, ‘Our Lady the Thief’). The pirates’ depredations caused Egypt and Istanbul some grief, but did nothing to warm the hearts of Europe’s great powers toward the notion of Greek independence. Needing the powers’ support, the provisional Greek government on the mainland eventually sent an expedition that sank the pirates’ ships and placed the little island under British governance.