The Greek Maritime Spirit

By Costas N. Hadjipateras

At the time when Socrates was drinking hemlock in an Athens jail, one of his fervent disciples, Xenophon, the young Athenian country-gentleman, historian and officer, was leading the Ten Thousand back to their homes through the hostile valleys and mountains of Asia Minor. After sixteen months of perilous retreat the eagerly awaited moment arrived. A whirlwind of joyful cries and screams filled the air. Hearing these distant ululations Xenophon, then in the rear, rushed forward. His men were going berserk with joy:'look over there, look!'

Cazing ahead he saw through the drifting morning mist the sparkling waters of the Euxine Sea, that bpen gate to free- dom and dvilisation. It was then that a myriad voices fused into a single cry, which has been described by Bernard Levin as'one of the most moving moments in war or peace', a cry that lingered on:'Thalatta, thalatta -- the sea, the sea!'

The famous cry of the Ten Thousand who acclaimed the sea, has not ceased to echo deep in the heart and mincS of the Creeks. Greece's destiny has always been linked to the sea, its private domain but also an open window to the world. For the Creeks the sea represents their lance and their shield, a means both of peaceful conquest and the defence of their freedom.

To the many syndromes of modern times, one more may be added: the'Odysseus Syndrome'. Inside every creek there is another who governs him, drives him forward. The motivation of this alter ego is a powerful instinct that moves him towards adventure, imagination, self-revelation and freedom -- all part of the experience of the sea. The Creeks of all epochs have been determined to live their own odyssey, both in spirit and deed.

Greece has the longest littoral of all European countries: more than 13,000km in a straight line. Thus, the conquest of the sea was a vital necessity. From the dawn of history, Creeks were compelled to navigate, to break the liquid barrier, in search of their livelihood and fortune. Of all the battles that the Creeks had to fight for their survival, the one against Poseidon was the most implacable. And they emerged victorious.

Legends and Landfalls

The seafaring course of the Greek sailor goes back to prehisto- ry, to the Minoan era. Our imagination is now sailing along the coasts of Crete, the island which was called 'the true great grand-mother of Europe''. Legendary sea-king Mines was, according to Thucydides, the first monarch who created a fleet with which he controlled the largest part of the eastern Mediterranean. He ruled over most of the Cyclades and nomi- nated his sons their governors. Thus, he cleansed the sea of pirates and safeguarded his possessions. During that period, Knossos -- centre of an empire and of a unique civilisation -- was not a fortified city, which leads us to the thought that its rulers were actually the rulers of the sea.The splendour of Knossos lasted for a period comparable to the one that elapsed from the fall of pome to the present day. Around r440BC, Knossos was destroyed, ravaged by overseas invadeIs.

Mycenae, the city empire that became the new lord of the Aegean, gave its name to a whole historical period. Sheltered by its Cyclopean walls, Mycenae had an ideal location, domi- nating not only the plain of Argos but the sea-roads of the western Aegean. The kings of Mycenae reigned for centuries over a bold and adventurous people who took possession of the sea in their search for trade.

Troy, in a more favourable location than Mycenae between Europe and Asia, was -- thanks to the flourishing trade with the Mediterranean coasts -- the richest city of the Aegean. Agamemnon from Mycenae and Menelaos from Sparta, lead- ing a fleet of one thousand ships, attacked Troy. The Trojan war was fundamentally a clash for naval supremacy and dom- inance of the maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1100BC the iron invasion from the north of the Dorians ravaged and burned everything in its path, with the exception of Athens. It plunged Greece into a dark age of three centuries. The Lion Gate of Mycenae closed forever.

in the darkness of that period a brilliant mind -- Homer's -- suddenly lightened the world. Homer was not only the divine poet who turned a war-- the Trojan War -- into an eter- nal song; with his Odyssey he also proved to be the first Creek who extolled the Hellenic maritime spirit and the skill and courage of the islanders (with due acknowledgement, also, to their cunning) with which they carried out their ambition to conquer the sea. Herodotus believed that it was poverty that made the Creeks turn to the sea, but Homer saw the reason elsewhere, attributing it to the Creeks' unquenchable thirst for adventure. Homer was not only a poet, but also a Professional seaman for much of his life. During that period, they say, he lost his sight, a misfortune which compelled him to abandon his travels but did not estrange him from the sea, the source of his inspiration. According to legend, sitting on a rock in Chios (known today as 'Homer's Stone') facing the sea, he sang the seafaring history of Greece. He wandered from town to town, filling creek souls with the passion of Odysseus in a sublime language of truth and lyridsm:'Phaiakians have no concern with the bow or the quiver, but it is all masts and the oars of ships and the balanced vessels, in which they delight in cross- ing over the grey sea'2. Homer became the herald of the buoy- ant age of Greek colonisation.

The Greek Sea

The Aegean sea, the watery bridge which united three conti- nents, was not enough for the Greek sea adventurer. His impetuous temperament was seeking the way to break the familiar boundaries of the Archipelago. Restless, impover- ished, frustrated by overpopulation, he expanded into further parts of the Mediterranean.

The Greeks of these times built strong boats and lived in a continuous sea fever, looking at the sea as more Profitable than the land. In spite of the distance which separated the metropo- tis from the colony, their bonds remained strong and close. Thanks to the sea, all emigrants, even the remotest ones, felt they were part of Greece, the motherland.

The metropolis was'fertile', its seafarers creating 'smalt Greeces'" which in turn became famous. Marseilles, key-city of both trade and intellectual prestige, was where Homer's works were first published. Other important colonies were at Nice and Malaga and in Sidly, where Corinth founded Syracuse and Sparta founded Messina; at Sybaris in southern italy and Cyrene in Libya. The latter, a trade and intellectual centre and native town of Caliimachus the poet, was also celebrated for its sailors, who accomplished the feat of transporting the Pendeli marbles from Athens.

Sea-routes multiplied and became great sea avenues, and with the growth of the shipping trade came a dramatic devel- opment. With the invention of the trireme, the Greekr; were able to free the Mediterranean from pirates and build a mag- nificent fighting fleet. At a critical moment in the war against Persia in 480BC Themistocles' triremes saved western civilisa- tion, presenting the'wooden walls', prophesied by the Delphic Oracle, which crushed the Persian fleet.

During Greece's Golden Age Pericles recogniscd the importance of a strong merchant marine as well as a powerful navy. Advising the landowners of Attica to abandon the soil and devote themselves to merchant adventure, he said:'You have a great city, and a great reputation. Be worthy of them. Half the world is yours: the sea'.

Another great maritime achievement arose from Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia and advance into India. After crossing the Indus in 3260C, his troops refused to continue fur- ther. He therefore decided to explore the possibility of a sea route from India back to Persia. Having constructed some 1000 ships, he sailed down the Indus to the sea. He ;ippointed Nearchus admiral with orders to chart the coast westwards, himself taking an overland route. With great difficulty Nearchus brought the fleet virtually intact to the Euphrates, having charted the coastline e,l routr, and was presented with a golden crown by Alexander himself.

During the entire Roman occupation, Greece remained the ruler of the seas. However, even after the decline of Roman naval power, due to the lack of strong adversaries, Creek sea- men continued to show their marine and commercial acumen in the development of their merchant fleet.

Greek ships, however, did not carry goods only. Their intellectual'cargo' gradually conquered the Roman people. The Creek language was pervasive and the propagation of classical philosophy and subsequently the principles of Christianity gave new life to the heart of an empire which was slowly being weakened by moral decadence and economic and intellectual sterility.

From the fusion of the two stars -- of ancient Greece and Rome -- emerged the radiance of Byzantium. Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the Bosphorus and gave it his name: Constantinople. A man of genius, he made the city his headquarters, not only because of its strategic location at the centte of three worlds -- Greek, Roman and Asian -- but also because of its supremacy as a naval base. He realised that it would only be as the ruler of the sea that his power would last. He gave Constantinople extremely strong walls so that, undisturbed, he could confront the sea 'face-to-face' and su bj u ga te it. Thanks to him, Constantinople became the most important market of the Mediterranean and amassed the treasures of the world. It deserved its glorious title:'The Reigning City'.

Decline and Revival

So it remained for a thousand years, until the ravages of cru- saders, corsairs and Ottoman Turks reduced the cities and bor- ders of the empire. With the growth of Venice as a maritime power the importance of the imperial fleet began to decline. When in March 1449 the last Byzantine emperor and martyr Constantine XI Paleologos had to go from the Morea to Constantinople, he was obliged to charter galleys for himself and his suite from the Catalans in order to make the journey towards an 'embittered and melancholy city' -- as expressed by Sir Steven Runciman.

After the fall of Byzantium, during the long centuries of slavery, the sea kept silent. But it was not asleep, and gave the Greeks their first impulse towards liberation. As had happened in the past with Rome, it was now the turn of the Ottoman Turks to exploit Greek seafaring knowledge. The Ottoman Empire -- dreaded by Europe -- might have had a great army but needed Greek seamen for its navy.

As the long occupation wore on, the creek islanders began to raise their heads and listen to the voices of freedom. Small, hun~ble islands offered shelter to friendly ships: Hydra, Spetses, Chios, Psara and others became the pre-revolutionary centres of Creek naval activity. The Turkish governor appeared peculiarly tolerant towards the Hydriots, whom he believed to be the best sailors of the Otroman Empire. Dcsides, the Creeks proved to be amazing shipbuilders. They might have had no knowledge of mathematics -- actually most of them were illit- erate -- but they were considered by Venice the greatest ship- builders of that period. Their sailing boats appeared to be more speedy than those of the British. During the Napoleonic Wars their resourceful and fearless masters, such as.the young Andreas Miaoulis, managed profitably to break both France's blockade and Britain's counter-blockade in the Mediterranean and return to their bases safely. Napoleon advised lunot:'Use the C~reeks in every difficult operation, they are indomitable.' And when, one day, the Prefect of Marseilles complained about the disobedience of some Creek sailors, Napoleon replied with- out hesitation:'Do not take any measures against them, they are our saviours'.

These were our brave ancestors who, with their merchant caiques turned secretly into warships and with their heroic crews, made possible that ardent desire of so many genera- tions, the liberation of their motherland.

Together with the banner of Revolution raised in Aghia Lavra on 25 March 1821, a forest of masts in Hydra, Spetses and Psara gave the signal for the struggle for freedom. Those three islands -- which the Sultan in a blaze of anger had erased with his fingernail from the map of Greece -- became with many others totally transformed. Their sailors became fireship men and their humble masters admirals of genius. Bouboulina, widow of a wealthy shipowner of Spetses, an intrepid and imposing figure, financed the building of the celebrated vessel Agnmemnon which she put at the disposal of the liberation fighters together with three smaller ships. lointly with her two sons she personally led several successful naval and land oper- ations. Innocent sailing boats built to carry wheat became the fireships that were to spread panic among the Turco-Egyptian fleets. Constantine Kanaris, the Psariot hero, set fire to the Turkish flagship as she lay at anchor in Chios in June 1822; the captain, Pasha Kara-Ali, was killed. The massacre of Chios of the previous April which had inspired Victor Hugo and Delacroix was avenged. In 1826 Andreas MiaouIis, with many victories over the Turks to his credit, was named admiral of the naval forces of revolutionary Greece.

The Greek revolution inspired universal respect and enthu- sia sm. A new word was born: Philhellenism. To be a Philhellene meant to be a free man. Champions of the Creeks from all over the world, most notably Lord Byron, took pride in being called their friends. International political interests did not undermine the aims of the Creeks' superhuman struggle. Finally at Navarino, in Odober 1827, the Allied fleets of Britain, France and Russia defeated the Turco-Egyptian arma- da. Once again, the sea played an essential role in the cause of Creek freedom.

The Merchant Masters

The Creek independence signed in 1830 liberated the national conscience and gave new impetus to the people's nautical flair. Private initiative, slowly awakening after four centuries of Turkish domination, undertook the task of reviving the ship- ping industry, reaching a peak in the mid-19th century of 12,000 sailing ships with a capacity of 200,000 tonnes.

Meanwhile a formidable adversary -- steam -- revolu- tionised all sea transport and proved a mortal blow for the sail- ing fleets. For the Creeks this moment of transition was critical. Their very existence as a maritime nation was threatened. Luckily, the majority of the islands realised the inevitable supremacy of steam and survived. The first creek steamer entering a Greek port in 1865 was welcomed as a victor by an armada ofsmall sailing boats decorated with laurels.

Progress was steady. The First World War found the Greek merchant marine with 475 steamers. Despite devastating loss- es in that war, the creek fleet of the '30s ranked ninth in world tonnage. The Second World War, however, inflicted an almost fa tal blow on the Creek mercantile marine. It su ffered the hcav- lest penalty among the Allies with the loss of 72% of its fleet, leaving Greece with only 154 merchant ships in a lamentable condition. 2015 Greek seamen lost their lives in the I\llied cause and another 2500 were seriously injured or disabled.

As for the Creek Navy, during the Creek epic 1940-41, when Greece victoriously defied Fascist italy until the Nazi invasion of April 1941, the fleet defended the motherland, suc- cessfully attacking the military sea transports of the italians. However, from then on, and just before the Axis occupation started, Grtrece's fleet of 16 warships and a few submarines moved to naval bases in Egypt, Malta and the MiddJe East. Their single objective, the liberation of their enslavtld country, was achieved in October 1944.

Let us now go forward to the years 1946-47. Years of free- dom won, but also of homes and hopes lost, of a crippled econ- omy. Emerging like a phoenix from the ashes and the shadows of despair, the creek shipowner stood up against all odds with resolution and tenacity to revive his rundown fleet In a Europe plunged into famine, ruin and death, the creeks turned to the only financial citadel still intact: New York. It was from the 'Wonder City' that the Creek shipowner reconquered the sea.

This was a field of enterprise that the Americans at that time regarded with distrust and even contempt:'Real estate is safe, not the can we ever trust a floating mortgage?' Despite this scepticism the Creek shipowner, wisely using insurance funds (though insufficient to cover the enormous war claims), but mainly relying on his confidence and faith in all matters of the sea, brought to the post-war world a new force, a breathtaking impetus which in ten years completely transformed the theories of marine transport and commerce and re-established his shipping reputation.

The Creek Shipowner

For someone who had the privilege of personally living through the decisive decade 1947-57 in America, the echo of the Greeks' triumph still resounds in my memory. As is well known the 100 Liberty-type ships that the American govern- ment generously sold to the Greeks with favourable loan terms, guaranteed by the Greek government to assist them in replac- ing their shipping losses, constituted the initial step towards the renaissance of the Creek merchant marine. From then on, progress proved irresistible. Like the small Creek army which in 1940-41 captured the world's imagination with the first Allied victories, the few Creeks of New York became after the war the centre of international attention. America was discov- ering the Creeks, who became synonymous with shipowners. To appreciate the attributes of these modern-day argonauts, driven by the natural spur of their nautical instincts and strong business acumen, we must study the men themselves -- the men of the sea.

Let us remember the late Stavros Livanos. In him lies our image of the great Creek shipowner. He is omnipresent; his headquarters are mobile; they move everywhere he goes, to his office, his home, on board ship, in the engine-room, at the ship- yard. He is the perfect representative, the ideal incarnation of the traditional Creek shipowner who ascended the shipping hierarc~y step by step as a seaman, an officer, a master, and at times an engineer, and finally as an owner. He knows each man individually. There is no affectation in his dealings; he talks with the same simplicity to the shipboy as to the Wall Street financier or banker. They saw Captain Stavros kiss a new ship before the launching; to him it was like the christening of a new-born baby. Every ship had her own individuality, her own luck and destiny. Livanos knew her from bow to stern, he cherished both her happy moments and her perils. He used to say:'l have no money, I have ships'.

Like Stavros Livanos, a few likeminded men became the masters of the oceans, forerunners and inspirers of the art of maritime commerce. Aristotle Onassis, while strolling along Park Avenue in New York, confided to a friend the idea that a tanker could easily double or triple her loading capacity with almost the same crew and general expenses: the super-tanker was born. C.M. Lemos diversified his shipping empire in more than one field; the Goulandris group successfully linked ship- ping and finance. Stavros Niardhos, the most finance-conscious of shipowners, excelled at securing 'floating loans'; his tankers were chartered by first-class charterers, financed by various institutions and guaranteed even before they were built with minimum cash funds and risks.

It was Niarchos who built the then world's largest tanker, of 108,590 tonnes deadweight capadty, the Manhattnn. I will never forget the day in 1960 when she triumphantly entered New York harbour. It was a day of celebration and we were all watching from our office window as she glided along the Hudson River beneath the Statue of Liberty, surrounded by a flotilla of tugs and other boats flying a multitude of coloured flags and sounding their sirens. For a Creek that fantastic sight was a moment of great joy and pride.

In praising the shipowners, we must not forget the army of workers of the sea, nor their everyday labour on board the ships, those who, in Seferis' verses,'as the trees and the waves, accept the wind, the rain, the night and the sun, unshakeable in their changing course'. Without these valiant Greek seamen, Greece would not have been able to reach its golden age of shipping. The continuity of the merchant marine spirit is based on the tight collaboration of shipowners and seamen.

The 'resurrection' of the Creek mercantile marine has been followed during the last three decades by a spectacular leap forward in terms of size, technical modemisation and efficien- cy. Today the Creek and Creek-owned (under various flags) merchant fleet amounts to more than 3000 vessels with a total cargo capacity of 126,128,362 deadweight tonnes. The Creek shipowning community today controls the world's largest dry cargo and tanker fleet and has enhanced its quality by adapt- ing rapidly to new trends in seaborne transportation, ship- building, ship finance, insurance and other related services.

As said by Dr N. Mikelis, a former Lloyd's Register execu- tive,'the maritime instinct, the astuteness and the direct involvement Creek owners have with their ships, have given them an advantage in efficiency by providing an inexpensive transport service. Thus, the economies of exporting and importing nations, as well as individual traders, charterers and suppliers of services are all benefitting by the presence of the independent Creek shipowner'.

A Lasting Tradition

I have tried to outline the story of the Greek mariner through the centuries. Today at the peak of his achievement; he is the target of the media with talk about palaces, yachts and the high life. And yet, although his vision is the five oceans and his hori- zon the world, his thoughts come often to rest on that humble island of his forefathers where it all started.

It was indeed from those insignificant, remote and mostly arid islands that simple yet wise men of the sea had com- menced their lifelong ventures. Father and sons, as master and crew, had embarked on the famil~s sailing boats and later steamers to seek a future the hard way. The vessels were aau- ally a 'floating home'.

There were also those who did not travel, but instead man- aged the family wealth from fi na ncia I centres such as Piraeus, Constantinople or London. Syros, Chios, Andros, Kasos, the Ionian Islands, Oinoussai and many others were the starting points from whence the Clreek merchant marine was destined to make at first modest and then giant steps.

Our long voyage through the perilous but glittering pages of creek seafaring history comes to its end. Out imaginary ship is dropping anchor in its Port of rest. In the serenity of the sun- set, we hear the rhythmic creaking of the caiques and, further away, the regular heartbeat of the fishermen's boats as they make their way to their fishing grounds. In the fading light of the day, we discern above the harbour a small windswept cemetery. Here are the graves of the sea-masters, the captains and the seamen, some impressive, others simple and unadorned.

Here the Greek men of the sea lie at rest for eternity, over- looking the blue waves, facing 'that great sweet mother, mother and lover of men, the sea' 4

Quotes 1 Rene Grousset, L'Homme et Son Histoire 2 From the Odyssey, translated by Richard Lattimore 3 Rene Grousset, L'Homme et Son Histoire 4 Swinburne, The Triumph of Time.

Costas N. Hadjipateras, PhD, author and shipbroker, was the first President of the London Hellenic Society.