Standing in the Colombo harbour, staring up at the looming bulk of the Turkish warship TCG GEDIZ, I wonder. Can a warship bring goodwill? I am reminded of that memorable scene from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King where the armies of Gondor watch a great fleet of ships with black sails approaching, hope dying in their breasts. As they prepare to make a last stand and die fighting, the great standard of the returning King unfurls upon the foremost ship, stirring their hopes afresh.
A warship can be the most potent symbol. It symbolizes power, intent, goodwill and solidarity. In 1889, exactly 125 years to this day, the Ottoman Empire dispatched to Imperial Japan such a symbol, a three-mast wooden ship called the Ertugrul. Built in Turkish shipyards, the ship was named after the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire At the time, the ruler of Japan was the Emperor Meiji, the pioneer of Japan’s industrialization and modernization. Japan was in the throes of emerging as a world power, and in 1887 Prince Komatsu Akihito had visited Constantinople and bestowed Japan’s highest decoration, the Order of the Chrysanthemum on the Sultan, Abdul Hamid II.
Ertugrul was sent as a gesture of solidarity from one non-western empire to another. Her mission was to convey to the Japanese Emperor, among other gifts, the highest decoration of the Ottoman Empire and to show flag on the Indian Ocean.
After 11 months of sailing, the Ertugrul reached Japan, successfully executed her commissions and set out on the return trip. After three days, she ran into a typhoon and floated helplessly towards destruction on rocks off the coast of Japan. 533 Ottoman sailors, including the ship’s captain and the majority of the officers, lost their lives in Japanese waters. It created a joint legacy of loss which drew the two nation closer together. TCG Gediz is a guided-missile frigate which used to be USS John A Moore before being decommissioned and transferred to the Turkish Navy. She is journeying from Turkey to Japan and back in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the fateful voyage of Ertugrul.
On her way to Japan, Ertugrul reached Colombo Port on November1, 1889, docked for five days, and was visited by tens of thousands of people. This time around in Colombo, Gediz doesn’t draw such crowds. It’s not that she is less spectacular, but in the 21st century she is less of a wonder. Besides, millions of people all over the world have seen the ship inside and out when, as USS John A Moore she featured in the popular American tele series JAG.
This morning, April 27, 2015 to be exact, a small, but select crowd of people visit TCG Gediz. These are officers of the Sri Lankan Navy for whose benefit the ship’s boarding team is conducting a training exercise in noncomplying boarding. As this dashing commando unit of the Turkish Navy swarms up the stairs with drawn guns, another officer with a megaphone explains the procedure. Meanwhile I get my own personal instructor in Lieutenant Ahmet Umit Caliskan who has drawn near me helpfully. He explains that there are two types of boarding; when the captain of the target vessel is complying and when he is not. Pirates and vessels carrying drugs and illegal cargo are usually reluctant to have the Navy on board and become non-complying. In this case the Navy will board by force either using approach boats or helicopters. The security team will first come on board and secure the vessel for the search tem by stationing themselves in strategic positions.
While the exercise is still going on, we leave it to explore the interior of the ship. Our photographer Chandana Wijesinghe is visibly excited by the combative glamour, and we have to almost drag him away. Ensign Ibrahim, our extremely helpful escort tells us that the ship has a crew of 230, including 35 officers and that of the ports they have visited so far, Djibouti, Karachi and Mumbai, they like Sri Lanka the best. It’s the people and the climate. Just as I am suggesting to him that perhaps he will like Japan better, Commander (XO) Levent Gun passes us and talks about building bridges. TCG Gediz is building a bridge between the Navies of Turkey and Sri Lanka. I too could help to build a bridge between the National media of the two countries.
We all march into the Commanding Officer’s room. What, I ask him, are the differences between the journeys of Ertugrul and Gediz? Commander Yusuf Kocaman explains that they are following the same routes and stopping at the same ports as the Ertugrul and have the same aims. TCG Gediz too wants to strengthen relationships and establish new friendships. In my mind a footnote goes up. Gediz visits at a time when the Indian Ocean has emerged as the very centre of the politics and economics of the 21st century. Sri Lanka is seen as the hub of the Indian Ocean and Turkey has just opened its embassy on the island.
CO Kocaman continues with a smile. Of the ports they have visited so far, Sri Lanka is the best. As for differences, he has an idea that Sri Lanka is more beautiful than she was 125 years ago. As for her hospitality, he’d say it has remained the same.
We go back on the upper deck to find the boarding exercise over and the officers of the two Navies filing into the XO cabin. In there, Ensign Ibrahim explains, they are going to coordinate the joint passenger exercise scheduled for tomorrow. After that they will be lunching in style with the Captain. I stand inside the XO’s cabin beside Officer Ibrahim observing members of the Turkish Navy mingling with the Sri Lankan Navy as they watch a presentation about the Turkish Navy.
Another difference between Ertugrul and Gediz then occurs to me. The Ertugrul would have found the Colombo Port and indeed all the ports of the Indian Ocean held by the Royal Navy of the British Empire, the largest and the most powerful naval force in the world at that time. Today, TCG Gediz interacts with the Sri Lankan Navy, not the largest nor the most powerful but recognised as a potent and innovative force after defeating the Tigers. Sri Lanka was then a part of the British Empire, today, she is ready to be a player in her own right in the great game of the Indian Ocean.
During the late 19th century, the European powers had described the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe. Now past the first decade of the 21st century, the republic of Turkey, the successor state of that sick man is the fastest growing economy in Europe, and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Evidently time is right for her to take an active part in the extremely dynamic Indian Oceanic stakes.
Ertugrul took eleven months to sail from Constantinople to Japan. TCG Gediz plans to cover the entire journey, 20,315 nautical miles, 18 port stops in 14 countries from Turkey to Japan and back in just three months. The Ertugrul carried in addition to the usual guns, two torpedoes, one torpedo launcher and a rocket launcher. TCG Gediz carries anti-ship missiles and a helicopter.
At night, I am once more on board Gediz, attending a reception hosted by the officers and captain together with the Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey. Ambassador David Daly, head of the European Union Delegation to Sri Lanka has drifted into our group and asks Lieutenant Suleyman Ozarslan, the electronic warfare officer of TCG Gediz about the whereabouts of the helicopter the ship is supposed to be carrying. Lieutenant Suleyman immediately proposes a helicopter hunt as a party game. My boarding exercise instructor from the morning Lieutenant Ahmet Umit Caliskan is also part of our group. He introduces me, apparently an imperial princess of Sri Lanka, to Lieutenant Suleyman, also apparently of imperial extraction with close connections to Suleyman the Magnificent. Lieutenant Magnificent tells me that they are always thinking of fun 24 /7. They had attended a cultural show the previous day and seen traditional dances of Sri Lanka for the first time. Showing me photographs on his mobile, Lieutenant Suleyman asks me if I can dance like that. Meanwhile Ambassador Daly and his wife have begun to name Turkish celebrities while challenging the Lieutenants to name Irish celebrities. Lieutenant Suleyman wants to know if there will be more people at the clubs tonight.
I suggest to Commander (XO) Levent Gun that he too should accompany his Lieutenants on their club visits. He tells me that as the second in command of the ship, he stands in the stead of mother to the crew and therefore is far too busy for night revelries. I manage to catch a few words with HE Iskender Okyay, the Ambassador for Turkey who has an interesting take on the whole India-Sri Lanka-China scenario. “Of course, China has a big role to play in the economy of Sri Lanka”, he says suggesting that Turkey too has much to offer. “We understand your problems, because we have many of the same issues.”
“We look forward to representing Turkey with honourable pride during this valuable event”, declares the press booklet of TCG Gediz. In my opinion they have done just that. More than a century after the Ertugrul, Gediz has come heralding the return of Turkey to the waters of the Indian Ocean.
So, yes. A warship can be the most potent symbol. It can symbolize power, intent, goodwill and solidarity. It can also signify the future.
The Sri Lankan and Turkish Navies co-ordinating a training exercise
Yusuf Kocaman, Commanding Officer
TCG Gediz, guided missile frigate
Ottoman frigate Ertugrul- (1863-1890)
Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II | Japanese Emperor Meiji
Medallions of Gediz . (Pics by Chandana Wijesinghe)
Boarding team of TCG Gediz
Introducing non-complying boarding
TCG Gediz Armaments