José de Ribas, the admiral of Catherine the Great

A nobleman of Spanish origin, José de Ribas, played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire towards Eastern Europe and the Black Sea at the end of the 18th century.

José de Ribas, the admiral of Catherine the Great
José de Ribas.

In the port city of Odesa, on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast, the name of its main street, Deribasovskaya Ulitsa, is striking. Which translates as "the street of De Ribas", and is dedicated to the founder of the city, IósipMijáilovichDeribas, who was called Josep de Ribas.

This is not a mistake. He is one of the protagonists of Russian history in the second half of the 18th century, a man who participated in the expansion of the Russian Empire towards southeastern Europe and the Black Sea.

The man who would become part of Russian history was a sailor with a spirit of adventure, born in Naples to an Irish mother and a Catalan father. The young man, born in 1749 and of noble origin, joined the Neapolitan Army at the age of 16, saw his life change when he met, four years later, the Russian Count Alexei Orlov, commander of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean Sea and brother of one of Empress Catherine the Great's lovers.

During the Russian-Turkish war of 1768-1774, the young polyglot of Spanish origin enters the scene, accepting Orlov's proposal to join the Russian service and move to St. Petersburg.

On his way to the imperial capital, the Neapolitan took part as a volunteer in the naval battle of Chesme, in 1770. In it, the Russian fleet destroyed the Ottoman fleet and thus the infantry was able to cross the Danube. This victory made it possible to accelerate the Russian policy aimed at dismembering the Ottoman Empire, seizing Azov, the coast between the Dnieper and Bug rivers, and later Crimea.

De Ribas, who arrived, under Orlov's protection, in St. Petersburg in 1772, enlisted in the Land Cadet Corps. From a personal point of view, the career of the Spanish descendant was also marked by his relationship with Anastasia Sokolova, Catherine II's valet.

Ribas Avenue in Odesa
Ribas Avenue in Odesa

The Neapolitan and the Russian Sokolova were married in 1776 in the church of the imperial palace of Tsarskoye-Selo, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, in a ceremony attended by Catherine II herself, who became godmother to the couple's two daughters.

In St. Petersburg, De Ribas was promoted to colonel and in 1783 he entered the service of the Tsarina's new favorite, Prince Grigory Potemkin, with whom he traveled to southern Ukraine. Together they entrenched Russian rule over the Crimean peninsula, where they created the port of Sevastopol, the base of Russia's Black Sea fleet.

But De Ribas' most outstanding military successes were yet to come. The military man performed brilliantly in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1792. He won his medals for the naval battle of the Dnieper estuary, for his participation in the siege of the fortress of Ochákov, and for the capture of the island of Berezán, the town of Khadjibei (where Odessa would later be built) and the fortress of Ismaíl, a site on the Danube considered impregnable and key for the Ottomans.

In 1792, De Ribas was one of Potemkim's three plenipotentiaries who signed the Treaty of Jassy, which established peace with the Ottoman Empire and in which the entire northern shore of the Black Sea was ceded to Russia.

Statue of De Ribas in Odessa
Statue of De Ribas in Odessa

In 1794, Catherine II entrusted him with the foundation of the city of Odessa, destined to become the main maritime gateway to southern Russia. Two years later, he was appointed governor of the city.

However, despite his participation in the creation of the Ukrainian city, the last years of DeRibas' life were spent in St. Petersburg, where Paul I was already reigning. There he was promoted to the rank of admiral.

It is said that the military man of Spanish origin could not keep out of court intrigues and that he took part in a conspiracy against the tsar. However, the emperor and the admiral had a very good relationship, and it is possible that this put the rest of the conspirators on their guard.

Shortly thereafter, De Ribas unexpectedly fell seriously ill. There is a hypothesis that he was poisoned, although Russian historians point out that there is no evidence to prove his participation in the conspiracy or that he was killed.

The Spaniard died on December 2, 1800 and was buried in the Smolensk Cemetery in St. Petersburg. "He took an impregnable fortress and built a magnificent city," reads the epitaph on his tombstone. Another reference to the founder of the Ukrainian city is found on the monument in honor of Empress Catherine II in Odesa. There, on one of the figures adorning the pedestal, there is a name with distinctly Spanish connotations, despite being written in Cyrillic: Vice-Admiral I.M. De-Ribas.

Author: Gaston Churruca, Source: Inclusion