Shipping in the Aegean (Modern Period)

1. Introduction

The Aegean Sea cannot be thought of as a uniform whole. It has been under various rulers and has been economically infiltrated by diverse powers. Common ground, however, can be detected mainly concerning the way business was conducted in shipping throughout the vast sea area contained within the following boundaries: Constantinople in the north, the Asia Minor coast and Cyprus in the east and south east respectively, Crete in the south and the islands of the Argosaronic gulf in the west.

Part of the Roman mare nostrum, the Aegean came to form the main core of the "Byzantine lake" and later of the Levante, the extensive geographic area throughout which Western naval powers extended their dominance. Sea routes of vital importance crossed its waters during Ottoman rule but also after the establishment of the Greek state. The Aegean island complex with its mainland dependants were always a central part of the "interspersed city", as the historian Spyros Asdrachas has described the inhabited sea area which surrounds mainland Greece and Western Asia Minor.

2. Byzantine Empire

During the years of Early Byzantine Period (4th - 7th century AD), when the Empire was dominant in the Mediterreanean, the Aegean islands formed part of the chain which consisted of Crete, Cyprus, Sicily, Malta and Sardinia and secured unity in its naval communications.

The theme of the Aegean, as an administrative region of the Byzantine state which, because of the extent of its coastline and its geographical position, supported the existence of an autonomous defensive fleet, included the Cyclades and the large islands of the Aegean Sea, the Hellespont and the Asian coast of Propontis until Prokonnesos.

All the Empire’s naval routes led to Constantinople and served its market. As Constantinople became the main trading centre, it was not only the routes which changed; it was also the types of ships. The boats, which transported grain to the capital, sailed from Alexandria to Constantinople via the Aegean islands and the Bosporus Straights. They thus needed to be smaller and more agile. These new requirements created the light, agile and fast freighter, the "dorkon", with a capacity of 130-140 tons and triangular sails ("latinia"), while the "dromon", which appeared in the 6th century AD and was used mainly for long distance trading, was essentially a war ship.

During the Byzantine period, the provincial ship-building workshops of Samos, Euboea, Rhodes, Crete and Limnos functioned efficiently, because of the natural wood resources these islands commanded. From the beginnings of the 8th century AD, within the framework of a more general organization of shipping, the "Law of Rhodian Sailors" was implemented; this was a collection of naval traditions current in the coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean with characteristic principle the introduction of average ("avaria"), an institution which continued almost unchanged until modern times.

From the 11th century AD, piracy began to constitute a threat for sea journeys in the Aegean but the decline of the Byzantine commercial fleet did not become apparent until the 12th century AD; this allowed for an increase in the role of other powers in commerce and shipping in the area.

3. Western naval democracies in the Levante

The privileges offered by Byzantine emperors to the western naval democracies in the Levante (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, etc), opened up its sea routes and prepared the ground for their dominance of the Aegean Sea courses. After the distribution of the territory (partitio imperii Romaniae) of the Byzantine Empire which followed the 4th Crusade (1204 AD), the Aegean islands came under the jurisdiction of either the Roman Emperor or the Crusaders. As the owners of these portions could not, however, realize their conquests, the right was granted to their dependents. Marco Sanudo, head of a fleet which conquered many Aegean islands, formed the Duchy of the Aegean (which was conquered in 1537 AD by the Ottoman Hayreddin Barbarossa), with Naxos as its centre, while his companions in the mission received other islands as feuds.

Although the weight of the trading network constructed by Venice in the East fell on the Ionian Islands, Crete and Cyprus, several Aegean islands were used as control points for the network and experienced Venetian rule. The Serenissima organized, from the first half of the 14th century AD, a network of commercial galleys ("galere de marcato"), which sailed with state protection and transported particular products in specific periods within an extensive marine zone which included the Aegean, and whose northern boundary – and terminus of the basic Venetian trade route which passed through Constantinople – was the Black Sea. Private rounded sailing boats ("navi tonde" or "disarmate"), such as the "kokka" and the "karaka" also travelled along these sea trade routes.

The English and Dutch, who exacted the privilege of loading cargo at the ports of the Ottoman East from the Sublime Porte, challenged Venice’s supremacy. Venice’s shift towards strengthening its navy, damages to its commercial fleet, the necessity to keep its warehouses full of vital goods, the increased taxation imposed on Venetian ships at Ottoman ports were among the conditions which allowed – from the 16th century AD – Greek shipowners to sail their "karamousalia" and "skiratza" (small and medium capacity ships) from the Aegean islands, mainly Patmos and Mytilini but also Lindos and Skyros, to Venice. During the same period, Cretan shipbuilding had evolved enough to be considered among the best in the Aegean.

4. Under Ottoman rule

4.1. Piracy

From the 16th to the beginning of the 18th century AD, the "White Sea", as the Aegean was named by the Ottomans, was a "turbulent archipelago". Muslim and Christian pirates and corsairs were active in its waters. The latter were in the service of combative powers interested in damaging the enemy’s shipping and trade and were often supplied by this power with raid certificates (characteristic later example is that granted to Lambros Katsonis). By ambushing the trade routes of the East, corsairs with the crescent flag used the Greek islands to collect information regarding the movements of western commercial ships or Venetian galleys, or as supply points.

The activities of both groups were aimed against passing boats – such adventures were difficult to record in a ship’s log or official archives – but also against local populations through forced purchase or surrender of grains or animals or in the shape of enforced labour, when pirates and corsairs needed crews. Islands such as Ios in 1528, Samos over many decades but also Skiathos, Skopelos and Kythira in 1570 became desolate as the result of such activity.

As supervision of the area from the mainland coastlines was difficult because of the numerous natural shelters, one had to gain dominance over the sea in order to control it. The Venetians, the Ottomans and the Western powers (the French and the English) tried their best to achieve this, with greater or lesser success. The Ottoman fleet limited itself to an annual spring venture from Constantinople to Alexandria for the transportation of goods and the collection of taxes. Thus, the Greek populations enjoyed a grade of autonomy, while on the other side they paid the consequences of the insufficient Ottoman policing in the Aegean and the lack of protection of its populations.

Shipowners and sailors began equipping their ships with canons. The Archipelago’s commercial islands shared the expenses of maintaining anti-pirate galeotas or "trates" (trawlers). Other islanders joined corsair crews, sold their nautical abilities or knowledge of languages; some participated in the economic networks brought about by piracy, became suppliers of food or equipment or traded, on the boundaries of smuggling, at the expense of the Ottoman purse. Islands such as Hydra, Psara, Skyros and Patmos were transit stops particularly in the smuggling of grain from the ports of Thessaly, Asia Minor and the Peloponnese. During the 18th century inhabitants from Milos, Hydra, Mykonos, Skopelos, Spetses, Tinos and Psara - among other islands - were in some way involved with piracy.

4.2. The participation of the Aegean islands in the economic life of the Ottoman Empire

Practices such as those mentioned above, allowed the Greek element to accumulate an initial capital and gain an important position in the commercial networks of the Mediterranean world. The general feeling of insecurity, however, which dominated the Aegean did not allow the development of naval and commercial activities and the boost of a trading social stratum which would adopt "normal" commercial practices. When piracy was contained, during the mid-18th century, the Aegean’s island society opened out to the sea and established commercial fleets.

Although the administrative regime was not uniform throughout the Aegean, an important number of islands formed, from the mid 17th century, an administrative unit under the jurisdiction of the vice admiral of the Turkish fleet (Kapudan paşa), and his immediate subordinate, the dragoman of the fleetö whı was usually a Phanariot. The islands were colonized in order to yield income from taxation to the Ottoman treasury, and also provided, depending on their population, craftsmen for the shipyards and crews for the fleet. In return, the Ottoman administration allowed them relative autonomy through a series of privileges. These, together with the so-called "Ottoman peace" (pax ottomana) constituted the necessary conditions for the islanders’ development of commercial naval activities and the participation of the Aegean in the economic life of the Empire.

Chios, Mytilini, Patmos and Samos were positioned on the Ottoman fleet’s route from Constantinople to Alexandria, and near the ports of Karaman and Smyrna, main export districts towards Western Europe. The Cyclades formed a junction in the trade routes which crossed the Aegean. Commanding only empirical naval knowledge, the Aegean traders and sailors worked on a family basis and in close collaboration with Greek communities and trading companies abroad as components of well-established networks based on kinship and common descent.

Consulates of western powers based on the islands strengthened their connections with international trade. Around 1740, French consuls in Smyrna were concerned by the appearance of local Aegean fleets, particularly boats with the Minorcan flag, many of which belonged to the Greek community which had been established there with British support. Sifnos, Tinos, Kea, Mykonos and Patmos had ships which traded with Senigallia in Italy since 1730, Trieste and the Black Sea after 1780. Milos and Kimolos were famous for their pilots. The Russian-Ottoman war of 1768-1774 created another favourable conjunction. The Black Sea was opened up for the islanders: they sold their local products to its ports and loaded grain destined for the Aegean, Ancona and Livorno. Around 1780, Hydra appears to have over one hundred boats large enough to attempt journeys to Livorno and Venice. Spetses and Psara follow regarding the size of their fleets.

By the end of the 18th century, according to calculations, the Aegean islands were populated by 200.000 inhabitants who were not restricted to cultivating the largely unfertile land they possessed. The most vigorous naval activity emerged, moreover, on the most barren amongst them.

Naval activities (intensive fishing, sponge fishing, coastal navigation, short distance but also overseas transit trading) contributed to the expansion and even the transformation of the islands’ economy. Of course, small-scale agriculture and stock-raising always coexisted with other activities until very recently. Shipping, however, proved to be a privileged field which allowed the islanders to transcend the imbalance between land ownership, agricultural production and available human resources. The landowners were replaced as the local elite by a rising class which consisted of merchants, middlemen and sailors / shipowners. Island settlements with urban characteristics were established. The islands’ main settlements (usually called "Chora") and the captains’ villages were enriched, at least as far as material culture is concerned, by influences from neighbouring coastal areas and the more distant destinations their ships travelled to.

4.3. Ships and journeys

At the beginning of the 18th century AD, the islanders of the Aegean still travelled with the Archipelago’s traditional boat, the "sachtouri", a small ship of 15-20 tons with crossings. A little later, a larger ship with a 40-50 tons capacity, the "latinadiko", emerged. At the end of the 18th century shipyards existed, apart from Spetses, Hydra and Psara, on Skiathos and Kasos. These workshops covered mainly local demand and their raw materials came from the coast of Asia Minor or the wooded areas of mainland Greece. They constructed "latinia" and "sakoleves" (small boats for the transportation of goods over short distances), while "brikia", "bratseres", "tartanes" and a long list of other boat types were destined for long-distance journeys.

The commercial ships of the era were, as a rule, co-owned by a number of investors ("partzineveloi"), in order to reduce, as much as possible, the financial risks involved in sea travel. The ships transported the cargo of their owners who functioned, in this way, as both merchants and shipowners and obtained all the profits which occurred from the trading activity. For the realization of a commercial journey, the capital, with which each contributor in the co-operative participated, constituted the so[called "sermagia". The sharing of the resulting profits amongst the partners was based on their percentage in the initial partnership fund. Occasionally, other investors, apart from the boat’s shareholders, were sought for the journey, while the supervisor of the entire operation was the ship’s captain, who also selected the ship’s crew, as a rule from his island of origin.

For short-distance journeys, such as those within the Aegean, each island could use its own flag. Beyond the Empire’s ports, however, such a flag did not protect the Sultan’s subjects; a ship had to use the Ottoman flag or the flag of a foreign state such as Malta. A secret commercial agreement attached to the treaty of Küçük Kaynarca signed in 1774 between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, gave Greek-owned ships the right to raise the Russian flag, creating in this way the prerequisites for the development of an important merchant fleet. During the conjuncture created by the Napoleonic wars, Greek grain-ships ("sitaradika") could break the British blockade of the French coasts and make considerable profits.

4.4. The long 19th century

In the 19th century, the Mediterranean was at the fore centre of international commerce. The ships travelled from the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the West carrying grain, wool, cotton, linseed and animal fat, and returned from there laden with coal and industrial products. The Black Sea was the granary of Europe during the 19th century and grain was the main cargo in the hulls of Greek-owned ships.

A significant fraction of this fleet, suitable equipped, confronted the Ottoman Navy during the Greek War of Independence and managed to cause serious damage. Many traditional shipowner families of the Aegean possess, among their heirlooms, certificates bearing the signature of the Greek Minister of Navy Konstantinos Kanaris for the assignment of ships for the requirements of the war at sea.

After the end of the war and the establishment of the Greek state, the commercial fleet was renewed with boats built in Galaxidi, Hydra and Spetses, but also on Andros, Kasos and Samos. Very quickly the largest number of boats gathered on Syros, where many refugees from Chios, Psara, and Kasos were to be found, while important ports such as those on Kasos, Chios, Mytilini and Limnos remained for a long period outside the boundaries of the Greek nation-state.

Information regarding the registration of ships shows that the Aegean fleet increased dramatically between 1840 and 1845 and, since then, followed a rising course. During the period 1830-1939, the Cyclades appear to possess 32% of registered ships, the islands of the south-western Aegean – the traditional shipping areas of 1821 – 10%, while the Sporades and Euboea – which received many refugees from Psara – formed a part of the "Thessalian shipping", which represented 5% of the total number of registered ships. A similar percentage is recorded for the islands of the north-eastern Aegean and the Dodecanese, while Crete, during the 19th century, possessed very few sailing boats.

The Aegean islands functioned entirely as island groups, such as the Cyclades, or as groups encompassing their mainland dependants, such as Chios or Lesvos with the neighbouring coastlines of Asia Minor, the Sporades with northern Euboea and the Pelion peninsula. In the Eastern Aegean the island capitals always faced their neighbouring coastline. The islands of the north-eastern Aegean developed in immediate dependence with the coast of Asia Minor, Smyrna and Constantinople. The Sporades formed a link in the chain connecting the seas of the north-western Aegean, from the Thermaikos gulf to the northern Euboean gulf. The shipping centres of the area served the needs of the mainland, as well as of the Macedonian and Thessaly plains. In the south-western Aegean, Hydra and Spetses, whose naval commercial activities were much advanced, did not manage to convert their sailing power to steam-power, and were thus among the traditional naval powers who offered mainly able captains to the new era of shipping.

4.5. Syros, shipping centre of the Aegean and the south-eastern Mediterranean

The resources of the islands that faced significant or total destruction during the 1821 War of Independence was not lost. More than the contribution of migration and refugee movements, it was mainly the know-how that was transmitted in islands where political and economical conditions were more favourable for shipping and trade.

A number of such conditions were met by Syros and it was here that the weight of shipping activity in the Aegean was concentrated for many decades. Ermoupolis became a particularly important junction for the transit trade of Black Sea grain but also of commodities imported via Syros to Greece and the Ottoman Empire. From 1827 to 1834 more than 260 ships were built on Syros and it is calculated that over the next fifty years around 5.500 ships were registered on the island. In 1835, Ioannis A. Rallis, a merchant from Chios who had settled on Syros, chartered the ship “Alexandros” from Psara; it set sail from the port of Syros laden with wine, oil and Corinthian raisins and arrived, several weeks later, in Boston, where it was registered as the first ship bearing the Greek flag to reach America after the establishment of the Greek state.

"Greek Shipping Line" was the first Greek company offering scheduled routes between the islands and the coastal cities of Greece. It was established by the Greek state in 1856 and was based in Ermoupolis on Syros, while the first steamliner maintenance unit was established in 1861.

Syros became the financial capital of the Aegean but also of the entire newly established Greek state during the 19th century. At the same time it formed the main junction of the sea routes which connected the Black Sea to the western Mediterranean via the Aegean. The capital amassed from shipping and commerce was invested in industry. When, however, steam became the moving power for ships, the latter became capable of longer journeys. At the same time, the telegraph allowed for more immediate communication between charterers and shipowners. Thus, the need for intermediary stopovers came to an end. These conditions, combined with the construction of the Corinth Canal, brought about the end of the important role of Syros not only in the Aegean, but throughout the south-eastern Mediterranean. The business centre of Greek shipping within the national borders moved to Piraeus.

Greek shipping as a whole faced the challenge of shifting from sail to steam with relative success and followed international developments in shipping: new types of ships, new methods of navigation, but also the establishment of companies or their subsidiaries throughout the emerging shipping centres of the world. In shipping’s contemporary reality, technology and shipping routes no longer place the Aegean at the centre of developments for Greek-owned shipping. Tradition has supported the shipping and shipowning activities of Aegean islanders – local networks of partnership are still active – but the decision-making centres are located, for many decades now outside the Aegean islands.