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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

What did the 1850s Crimean War Have to do With a Beautiful Town in Finland?

Article by: Naima El Hawary

The Crimean War and Finland

As hard as it may be to believe today, Finland and Russia once found themselves fighting on the same front of a war. The Crimean War broke out in 1853, a time at which the Grand Duchy of Finland, predecessor of modern Finland, existed as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. The conflict was between the Russian Empire on one front, and France and Britain allied with the Ottoman Empire on the other.

Its origins are complex; Russia’s expansionism resulted in an invasion of Moldova, which France and Britain wanted to counter, causing them to ally with the Ottoman Empire. So, in some respects, it represented the continuous struggle for military supremacy and power between the British and the Russians. But on the other hand (in an interesting parallel to the wider modern-day conflict between the West and Russia), the Crimean War represented an ideological struggle between the democratic ideals of the West and absolutist ideals of the Russian Empire. The British aimed to counter Russian military expansionism and prevent Russia from toppling the balance of power. The war claimed a total of 500,000 lives.

The Åland War

One famous conflict of the lesser-known Finnish side to the Crimean War was the Åland War. The French and British launched attacks against Finland between 1854 and 1856, to disable ports on the Finnish coast and cut off Russian supply lines. In many ways, these attacks on the Finnish coast affected the locals far more than the supply lines they aimed to cut.

The Skirmish of Halkokari

On June 7, 1854, the British approached the coastal area of Halkokari in Kokkola to prevent the local tar supply from being used for war and to capture a screw steamer (an old term for a steam-powered boat) that had been sighted there. To avoid harming civilians, the British would usually come ashore and inform the locals before setting fire to their shops and resources. The inhabitants of Kokkola, however, refused to let this happen and decided to fight the attackers. They felt it was unfair that the British, their main trading partner, whose language they had learnt, were now planning to attack their port.

Local Heroes

Anders Donner, a local businessman, stood to lose much of his business if the British burned down the port and therefore organised much of the defence. With backup from the Russian army, 500 men from the 12th Finnish battalion and 40 local seal hunters prepared for battle; they built a fake wall between some of the buildings behind which they hid, aiming to confuse the British. One of the local seal hunters, Matts Kankkonen, would later receive a medal for his efforts from the Russian Tsar.

When the British did arrive, they addressed a small delegation of men, including the mayor of Kokkola. They proposed to leave the locals alone if they were allowed to burn down stores and ships, but the locals bravely refused. As the British retreated to their ships to attack, the Finns dropped their fake wall and started firing at the attackers from behind their wooden houses.

The "English Boat"

Because of the shallow waters and rocks at the coast, the English were unable to approach with their bigger ships HMS Odin and HMS Vulture and were forced to use their smaller boats. Around 200 British sailors, who aimed to plunder Kokkola and destroy military equipment, now faced the local Finnish population who had requested backup from the Russian authorities. The Finns had chosen their position well and their defence was clearly superior, as they were hidden behind houses, forcing the British to withdraw. The Finns had the clear military advantage; only one Finnish horse and four Russians were injured, while 56 British men were dead or wounded and 19 of them were kept prisoner.

While retreating, the British had to surrender one of HMS Vulture’s gunboats, which got stuck on the coast, as most of its crew was dead or wounded. This is the famed English Boat, captured and retained by the Finns in the skirmish of Halkokari.

Kokkola Today

The remnants of the conflict exist as a tourist attraction in Kokkola, now the biggest and busiest town in Finland’s Central Ostrobothnia region. Most notably, the English Boat remains in Finland on display at the English Park in the town. This gunboat is the only captured Royal Navy landing boat on display anywhere outside of Navy holdings. Though the boat is well looked after in Kokkola, the British government has unsuccessfully requested its return several times.

Those who died in the conflict are also commemorated in modern Kokkola. After the retreat of the British, they buried their dead in Halkokari (now a Kokkola residential suburb) and their wounded were treated at the local hospital before being sent back home via St. Petersburg. To this day, the British treasury pays a small sum to a local church within Kokkola to take care of those British graves. What’s more, a monument was built to remember the skirmish, and this can also be seen in modern Halkokari.

Finland’s Relations With Russia

Knowing that the Finns would be intimidated by the recurring attacks on their coastal towns, the Russians used this fear to control Finland. They spread propaganda of brutal British attacks on Finnish towns (especially those who manufactured weapons) and frequently emphasised the need for the Finns and Russians to stick together. This led to a demilitarisation of Finnish towns, which then further subjected them to Russian rule, as they were now unable to defend themselves.

Despite these negative developments for Finland, the Russians under the rule of Tsar Alexander II began to trust the Finns, as they were fighting their common enemy; the British. Some of the items captured by the Finns were displayed at the next parade of the Tsar. What’s more, Anders Donner and Matts Kankkonen received several medals for their wartime efforts from the Tsar.

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