“The transformations of a “maritime island”: Hydra’s relationship with the sea during the 19th century (1821-1870)”, by Minas Antypas

Minas Antypas is a PhD Candidate of University OF Crete, Department of History & Archaeology

The island ofHydra is located in the north-eastern edge of the Peloponnese, by which is separated by a narrow strip of water[1]. This small, rocky island of about 31 square kilometers had, on the eve of the Greek Revolution, the largest fleet among the Aegean Sea islands, constituting perhaps the 15 to 20% of the whole Greek-owned fleet owned by Greek Ottoman and Venetian subjects in the Aegean and Ionian Sea, in terms of ship numbers.

Map of islands and islets in the Saronic Gulf. Hydra is in the middle with the name Sidra
Francesco Piacenza, L’ Egeo redivivo, o’sia chorographia dell’Arcipelago, e dello stato primiero, & atuale di quellisole, regni, cittaà, popolationi, dominij, costumi, sito, & imprese…, Modena, Soliani, 1688.

However, while other Greek islands which were “maritime communities”[2] thrived the years after the establishment of the Greek state because of the shipping’s growth, Greek historiography has so far argued that in the case of Hydra the contrary happened. Merchant fleet diminished and the island, successfully integrated into the wider regional and international networks of Mediterranean trade until the years of the Revolution, became “closed” to itself.

So, my big question is what happened after the Revolution. If and why did the Hydriots choose to withdraw from the Mediterranean trade? And secondly if the decline of the ‘great’ Mediterranean trade meant that the island’s relationship with the sea was completely disrupted.

To answer these questions, I focus on the commercial strategies shaped by the ship-owning and merchant families in order to respond to the challenges posed by 1) the transition from a multinational empire to a nation-state, in the formation of which they had been at the forefront, and 2) the integration of the Mediterranean into the global economy. I also try to answer the question which were the factors that made Hydra – every island -“open”, “semi-open” or “closed island”.

Personally, I argue that If we want to trace the characteristics of Aegean and Ionian insularity during the 19th century, we need to pay more attention to the transformations of their sea-trade and the way each island was integrated into the regional and international networks of Mediterranean trade and shipping.

Ιt is beyond question that the growth of the island’s shipping industry begin during the years of Ottoman rule, especially after 1750. At first, it relied, to a great extent, on the support provided by the Ottoman state administration. In particular, Hydriot captains became increasingly involved in the transport of iştira, grain cargoes purchased grain by the Ottoman Administration, in order to ensure the food supplies of Istanbul and the other major Ottoman cities. The engagement of the Hydriots in the transport of iştira brought them to the ports of the Black Sea but also opened the island to the wider Mediterranean trade networks (Laiou & Harlaftis, 2008:24-26). The plains of Thessaly, Serres, Karamania (in southern Minor Asia) and the coasts of the Danube and southern Russia became “hinterlands” for the Hydriots, and the ports of Volos, Thessaloniki, Kavala, Tarsus and Antalya, Odessa, Kerch and Taganrog respectively became the main ports of call for island captains who specialized in transporting grain cargoes to western Mediterranean ports (Harlaftis & Papakonstantinou, 2013: 283-351).

At the same time the shipping growth contributed to the rise of certain families who operated simultaneously as ship-owners, both ship-owners and captains, merchants, financiers and usurers. They distributed their capital in ship shares, purchasing commodities and shipping loans, thus becoming the crucial intermediaries between the grain-producing regions of southern Russia and the big merchant firms in the ports of Italy and the western Mediterranean (Asdrachas, 1986:236-61∙ 1988:237-244, Harlaftis & Papakonstantinou, 2013:222-282, 353-443, Galani – Papadopoulou, 2022:76-104).

The wealthy families of the island became also part of the Ottoman provincial system of power. They constituted the ruling elite of the island controlling the local administrative body, the Koino of the island. In that basis they negotiated with the Sublime Porte representing the community mainly as a fiscal unit. They thus benefited from the mechanisms of tax-farming, especially the extension of the maktû and malikâne systems (Kolovos 2007:49-122∙ 2017, Yaycioglu, 2016:117-156, Vatin, 2004:76-87, Zei, 2017∙ 2018:40-43).

View of Hydra. The Monastery of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is visible in the background
Griechenland, Oder Sitten Bräuche Trachten und Denkmäler der Griechen nach den neuesten und beste Quellen bearbeitet, Mit Kupfern, Schweidnitz [Świdnica], ca. 1825.

The great leap forward for the rise of the fleet of islands such as Spetses, Psara and especially Hydra was given during the international conjuncture of the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental Blockade. The years 1790-1812, the Greek-owned fleet reached its apogee. Among them, the most successful was Hydriot ship-owners and captains. It is estimated that in the last pre-revolutionary decade the island’s fleet constituted the 12% of the Greek-owned fleet, a percentage that might have been higher [Table 1].

Table 1. The island of Hydra’s fleet compared to the whole Greek-owned fleet (Ottoman and Venetian subjects) in terms of number, 1700-1819

Greek-owned Fleet (Ottoman and Venetian subjects)188402656475804945
Hydriot Fleet  32787798112
Amphitrite Database, Research project “Greek Maritime History, 1700-1821”, Ionian University (Corfu), Department of History and Archaeology

The end of the Napoleonic Wars and the return of the European merchant fleets to the Mediterranean led the islands’ shipping to a sharp decline. The post-1815 peace also saw a progressive fall in freight rates. Hydriot ship-owners could no longer successfully reinvest their capital in shipping activities and the rate of profit achieved by their ships journeys dropped drastically. The island was plunged into a severe economic recession (Kremmydas, 2002: 71-84).

The decline of island’s shipping activities and a general economic uncertainty characterized the years up until the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. Hydriot ship-owners and captains played a leading role in events of the Revolution. Hydriot merchant ships were converted into warships, thus forming the core of the revolutionary navy (near 40% of the whole feet). The island’s ship-owners essentially “rented” their ships to the Greek revolutionary government hoping that they would be compensated when Greece gained its independence. They themselves became the main financiers of the war effort at sea by spending large sums from their properties (Harlaftis & Galani, 2021).

However, at the end of the revolutionary years the island entered a period of economic depression. Financing the naval struggle proved to be a costly task for the island’s ship-owners and merchants. Thus, at the same time when the island’s ship-owners struggled to return in the Mediterranean transport systems and trade networks, other Greek islands and coastal towns such as Spetses and Galaxidi, prosperous maritime communities before the outburst of the revolution, managed to reengage successfully in Mediterranean shipping (Harlaftis & Kostelenos, 2012: 1403-1427).[3]

We can observe the course of Hydra’s decline as a “maritime island” if we look at the Table 2. Here we see the changes – in terms of tonnage – for ten Aegean islands and ports, all within the boundaries of the Greek state, for a period of about 35 years. Hydra from being the first maritime community by far in the Aegean Sea in 1821 in terms of ship’s capacity, in 1865 fell to fourth place and by 1870 even Piraeus surpassed it. Syros, in the middle of the Aegean Sea, and especially its capital Hermoupolis, became the leading port in terms of ship capacity and numbers.

Table 2. Number of ships registered in Greek ports, 1821-1855 (capacity)

Mykonos2200Le Piree18331
Pandora, 5 (1854-1855), p. 10-11∙ 7 (1856-1857), p. 163-165
Konstantinos Papathanasopoulos, Greek Merchant Shipping (1833-1856), Athens, 1983

If we compare the percentage of Hydra’s fleet capacity in relation to the overall capacity of the Greek-owned fleet, we will find that while the Hydriot fleet constituted about 12-20% of the whole Greek-owned fleet capacity in 1821 in 1834 was about 16% and eventually in 1865 it had fallen to 7% [Table 3].

Table 3. Evolution of the Greek-owned and Hydriot fleet (capacity).

Greek-owned fleet Hydriot fleetPercentage

The decline of the island’s shipping industry was accompanied by a process of population decline with many people emigrating to Syros and especially to Piraeus, where a distinct settlement was created for them.[4]

So, the big question is why did the Hydriots choose to withdraw from the Mediterranean Sea-trade? And secondly that meant that the island’s relationship with the sea was completely disrupted?

Greek historiography has argued that members of ship-owning families were exclusively involved in politics or followed a career in the Greek Navy because of their role as captains of the war fleet during the Revolution. However, their abstract reception as politicians – despite the autonomy of the political sphere and ideology – may lead us to underestimate the materialistic foundations of their power, the real prerequisites that allowed their inclusion in the ruling elites of the new state after the Revolution.

I personally argue that the island relationship with the sea did not cease altogether but underwent a slow transformation during these decades. The sea continued to shape and reshape the island’s system of socio-economic relations and its character of primarily a maritime community. As for the members of the wealthy Hydriot families they tried to find ways to establish new commercial strategies in order to become re-engaged in shipping and sea-trade.

We can perhaps argue that, in the case of Hydra, the transition from the Ottoman imperial framework to the nation-state may have contributed to the island’s marginalization and isolation. Although the island’s ship-owning families played a leading role in the Revolution, considering that the Sublime Porte was unable to protect their shipping businesses, the formation of the new Greek state caused a major reversal. In the decades after the establishment of the state, the prosperity of the island, favored par excellence by the Ottoman administration, came into question.

An examination of the island’s ship registry shows a large increase in the number of small ships and a relative stagnation in the number and tonnage of big ships. In essence, we are talking about a stagnation of the island’s Mediterranean merchant shipping, which, however, is not disappearing as fast as historical research has so far believed [Tables 4 &5].[5]

Table 4                                                                               

Hydriot fleet – 1st Class (under 30 tons) – Number Hydriot fleet – 2nd Class (above 30 tons) – Number

Table 5

Hydriot fleet – 1st Class (under 30 tons) – TonnageHydriot fleet – 2nd Class (above 30 tons) – Tonnage

Some of the island’s big pre-revolutionary ship-owning families continued steadily to act as grain carriers in the eastern Mediterranean until the early 1860s. This was the case, for example, of the Tsamados family. In the eve of the Greek Revolution members of the family had share ownership on 12 ships (3.4% of Hydras’ fleet tonnage). In 1834 members of the family had share ownership in 3 ships, an example of its great financial losses during the revolutionary period as the family was among the main contributors in financing the war at sea. Over the course of the next three decades, members of the Tsamados family owned four other ships. With them they continued to be active in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea trade, carrying mainly grain cargoes to the major ports of the central Mediterranean as we see from this sample of journeys conducted by the family’s ships from the year 1835 to 1860 [Table 6].

Table 6

1835Hydra – Smyrna – Trieste – Alexandria
1836Hydra – Algiers
1839Hydra – Livourne
1841Hydra – Yevpatoria – Odessa – Marseilles
1843southern Russia – Livourne
1844Hydra – Algiers
1846southern Russia – Corfu – Trieste – Venice – Malta
1847southern Russia – Trieste
1848Feodosia – Istanbul – Zante – Corfu
1848Syros – Antalya – Marseilles
1850Alexandria – Hydra
1854southern Russia – Livourne
1855Alexandria – Smyrna – Istanbul
1857Brăila – Marseilles
1858Enez – Istanbul, Galatz – Marseilles
1858Brăila – Marseilles
1859southern Russia – Livourne – Genoa – Marseilles
1860Brăila – Zante – Corfu – Trieste
Source: National Historical Museum of Greece, Tsamados family Archive, sample of journeys made by the family’s ships (1835-1860)

Hydriot ship-owner Pantelis Tzortzos charters his ship Virgin Mary to Tripoli merchants Hadji Ali Ramadan & Amora Mohammed to carry grain and other commodities from Hydra to Tripoli.
Source : Hydra’s notarial archives (1835-1860), notary Pantelis Protoppapas, deed no. 2475

However, we can speak of a gradual – but not sudden – retreat of Hydriots from the “big” Mediterranean trade. However, in order to trace the island’s new relationship with the sea, we need to shift our perspective from the wider Mediterranean to the Greek state and the area of coastal shipping and trade that means the exchanges conducted through the now divided Aegean Islands, we will be able to identify the new economic roles the island of Hydra played within the economic structures of the new state. This does not mean that we need not to forget the wider Mediterranean transport systems and trade networks. It is just necessary when approaching the issue of a Greek island’s shipping to bear in mind the interconnections and interaction between the ‘nation’ and the broader division of labour in the Mediterranean. As Gelina Harlaftis has shown that Greek-owned shipping and trade companies and entrepreneurial networks during the 19th century were supported by two pillars: 1) the Greek trading houses in the diaspora, in the port cities of the Black Sea, the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, and 2) the islands of the Ionian and Aegean seas. In fact, Greek-owned vessels formed the link between Greeks “outside” the small Greek kingdom and those “inside” it (Harlaftis, 1996, 2022:28-37).

The analysis of the notarial archival material revealed the importance of the so characteristic feature in the Mediterranean world cabotage, the small, everyday exchanges made between the coast, the deserted bays and the islands of the Aegean Sea far – though complementary – to the wider regional and international systems of trade and transport in the Mediterranean (Vatin-Veinstein, 2004:16-17, Marzagalli, 2016:309-331).

Coastal trade and inter-island connections and transport systems were of vital importance for the Greek state during the first decades of its existence with trade and transport of commodities to be mainly carried out by sea (Synarellis, 1989:129-130).

However, it seems that the Hydriots were involved in the Aegean cabotage more than all the other Aegean islanders. This is apparent if we examine the numbers and the tonnage of the island’s ‘small’ ships (under 30 tons). During the decades 1830s to 1850s we will see an increase in the number of 1st class ships of the island so big that in 1855 Hydra became the first port of registration of such ships in the Greek state with 560 registered 1st Class ships.

This fleet constituted mainly by ships like tserniki, the bracera and especially the trechantiri, perhaps the most widespread Greek type pf vessel during the 19th-20th centuries. With them Hydriot captains undertook the task of transporting and distributing commodities in the central and southern Aegean, between the islands, with Syros, Piraeus as the port of the capital (Athens) and the neighboring to Hydra port of Nafplio, functioned as main entrepôts for the Hydriot ships.

The Hydra captains carried mixed commodities and did not specialize in just a few, lowest value cargoes. We see, for example, Hydriot captains to undertake short journeys from the coasts of the Peloponnese or Syros with cargoes of wine, vegetables, olive oil or acorns. Or the captain Demas Calcounis with a cargo of “whatever kind of things he wanted” to carry a journey from Gythion, in southern Peloponnese to the Aegean islands in 1833 with his trechantiri Mermaid.[6] On the other hand, these ships could even transfer grain cargoes between the Greek islands and fast-growing cities like Syros and Piraeus, since the problem of the grain self-sufficiency was not guaranteed until the late 19th century. This happened in 1834 with the captain Ioannis Monohartzis who managed to carry a cargo of 1000 kilos of grain from Thessaly to Hermoupolis with his trechantiri Miltiades on behalf of the Hydriot merchant Ioannis Lalechos.[7]

It would therefore be a mistake to unambiguously associate certain types of ships with certain cargoes or certain areas of activity. A trechantiri, for example, could have a capacity of 4-6 to 30-35 tons. It could therefore be active in the trade between the Aegean islands and coasts. But it could also, especially those of larger capacity, carry agricultural produce to the always important ports of Crete, as happened in 1830 when the Hydriot captain Antonios Boutzefiolis chartered his trechantiri Clotho to the merchant Georgios Pavlakis from the Cretan region of Sfakia to carry fava beans to Rethymno and Chania.[8] These trechantiri could go even further, carrying oil or cheese up to Istanbul and other ports of the Ottoman Empire. However, Hydriot captains specialized also in carrying specific goods such as the well-known lemons of the island of Poros which were much in demand in the ports of the eastern Mediterranean.

Greek trechantiri

Notarial deeds also reveal that members of some of the island’s big ship-owning families were involved in the ownership and management of these small ships. From the data provided by the port of Hydra’s Ship Registry of 1834 and the Boudouris family archive, we can see that members of the Boudouris family had ownership of both the “big” ships of the island and the smaller ones, which was also a common practice with other families (Table 7).

Table 7. Ships owned by members of the Boudouris family (1834).

Ship NameShip TypeCapacity
Holy Trinitygabarra322
Fortune (Tychi)goletta47

 Source: General State Archives (G.A.K.), Archives of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs (King Otto’s Period), d. 987 (Ships registered in the port of Hydra, 1834) ∙ Hydra’s notarial archives (1835-1860)

There were also sectors that served both the national economy as being part of the state’s exports and, at the same time, enabled the establishment of new connections between the island and the major Mediterranean ports. That was the case of the sponge fishing that began to grow on the island immediately after the end of the Revolution. Notarial deeds of the 1830s show that some of the big pre-revolutionary ship-owners of the island as well as some ‘smaller’ merchants and ship-owners economically active in Hydra and the neighboring areas invested their money in sponge fishing. Specifically, they financed sponge-fishing partnerships on the northern African coast. We know, for example, that the Hydra ship-owner Dimitrios Theodorakis maintained a small fleet of privately owned trechantiri. He also held ownership, in 1838, of a large warehouse in North Africa for sponge storage. The sponges fished by the captains he financed were directed to Syros, Malta and Trieste.

Agreement between the ship-owner Dimitrios Theodorakis and 15 fishermen from the town of Kranidi (Ermionida) to conduct a sponge fishing journey on the northern African coast
Source: Hydra’s notarial archives (1835-1860), notary Pantelis Protoppapas, deed no. 2366 (2.11.1836)

In the years that followed, especially after 1870, the island’s relationship with the sea rotated mainly around sponge fishing. Hydra became the most important sponge fishing center of the Greek State and perhaps the third in productivity in the Aegean Sea until the interwar period, behind Kalymnos and Symi in the Ottoman-ruled Dodecanese.

During the decades that followed the establishment of the new state, the island of Hydra experienced a slow economic transformation. The island’s relationship with the sea became associated more and more with cabotage and the sponge-fishing, without, however, being completely “closed” to the Mediterranean transport routes.

View of the island of Hydra’s port (1907)

Personally, I argue that the relationship with the sea continued to be instrumental for the island’s progress during the 19th century. Merchant shipping and sea-trade proved to be decisive factors in shaping the relations of power as well as the socio-economic differentiations within the island.

This situation came to a definitive dead-end in the inter-war period and after the WWII end with the demise of sponge-diving industry. But still the island found its way to survive: Hydriots turned to tourism. Today especially Hydra is preferred by either high income visitors or by people from Athens for short weekend trips.

Minas Antypas, PhD Candidate, University OF Crete, Department of History & Archaeology

[1] This working paper is largely based on the presentation given at the PhD workshop held on 14-17 February 2023 at the École française de Rome. I would like to express my warmest gratitude to the organizers for the quality of the workshop and to all the participants for the fruitful exchange of views.

[2] Βy this term I mean specific islands of the Aegean and Ionian Seas as well as certain coastal communities of the Greek mainland whose populations depended to a great extent on the sea and the economic activities associated with it (sea-trade, shipping, fishing, sponge fishing, etc.)

[3] «[…] the unfortunate inhabitants of Hydra were dispersed to all parts of the world, dying of hunger. Many died abroad or got married and became residents of Turkey […]», Athena (July 7, 1835)

[4] «The decrease in the number of ships registered in the port of the island can be explained by the fact that many Hydriotes emigrated to Piraeus, in its port, many of them now registering their ships [….] », «Greek Merchant Shpping», Pandora, v. 104 (1854)

[5] It is necessary to point out that the tonnage of hydriot ships was calculated at least until 1835 on the basis of the Builders Old Measurement (B.O.M.) System, of which the island’s shipowners and captains were aware, and not the later internationally established Moorsom System.

[6] Local Archives of Hydra, Notarial Code 19, deed no. 28 (9.12.1833)

[7] Local Archives of Hydra, Notarial Code 22, deed no. 476 (20.9.1834)

[8] Local Archives of Hydra, Notarial Code 17, deed no. 44 (19.11.1830)

Citer ce billet
Hugo Vermeren (2023, 30 août). “The transformations of a “maritime island”: Hydra’s relationship with the sea during the 19th century (1821-1870)”, by Minas Antypas. Gouverner les îles. Consulté le 25 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/p3wt

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  1. 02/10/2023

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