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The World Wide Greek Commercial Web, circa 1815

By on December 8, 2019
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

WWW of course means something completely different in our digital internet-ubiquitous era. “Web” prior to our disruptive times could mean that of a spider, or some other set of connections. In this case, I refer to the latter, a set of connections among Greek Orthodox peoples involved in commerce, on land and sea, who played a significant though obscured role in the years that followed.

Greece and her Balkan brethren pretty much ceased to be agents of history after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Some escaped to the West, but most became restless, third class citizens of an empire that tolerated their religion and culture, yet at a humiliating sufferance. They had no sovereignty over themselves, or their ancestral lands. The quest for agency—for some semblance of control over their personal and national destinies—was denied to centuries of Balkan peoples. The only avenue for advancement, and one often taken despite national mythologies, was conversion to Islam and assimilation into the Ottoman ruling class.

However, the Balkan peoples never fully gave up this quest for agency, a form of resistance juxtaposed with a desire to improve their lot. Some took to the mountains, resisting the Ottomans by armed force or by elevation and isolation. Others chose a less confrontational, more profitable route. In a regime where few avenues were open, the more enterprising and bolder chose commerce by land or sea. The ruling Ottomans, like ruling classes in many regimes and eras, disdained commerce and trade, considering such activities as beneath their dignity. Ottoman religious minorities, Orthodox Christians (particularly Greeks and Serbs), Armenians, and Jews filled this niche.

There had always been small scale trade by such minorities in the Ottoman Empire, but events of the latter part of the seventeenth century accelerated the trend, and by virtue of geography and martial/maritime skill, propelled the Balkan Orthodox into a clear and distinct first place.

At the Siege of Vienna in 1683, the Ottomans were defeated and sent fleeing southward and eastward. Allied with the Austrians, the Venetians once again invaded Ottoman Greece from their Ionian Island enclaves. Both initiatives found ready, willing, and enthusiastic support from Orthodox Greeks and Serbs, who contributed significantly to the effort to oust the Ottomans. At the same time, an Orthodox power in the east, Russia, was stirring and eyeing the Black Sea coast, held by Ottomans for centuries.

The Catholic Venetian and Austrians were viewed with suspicion by the Orthodox Greeks and Serbs. The Catholics treated Orthodox as Christian heretics and often followed up their conquests with attempts to Catholicize the populations. The Russians, as Orthodox Christians, had the advantage of being coreligionists. In the end they too used the Greeks and Serbs for their own wars against the Ottomans, giving them no assistance in return for their national aims.

However, and crucially, both the Austrians and the Russians did provide opportunities for individual advancement by Greeks and Serbs. Key treaties with the Ottomans, most notably the Austro-Ottoman Treaty of Passarowitz in 1717 and the Russo-Ottoman Treaty of Kucuk Kanardji in 1774 provided key benefits to Ottoman subjects of the Orthodox faith. The borderlands between the two empires were devastated, and the Austrians and Russians invited Orthodox Balkan peoples to settle in the border areas both to defend the frontiers and to develop commerce. Both the Russians and the Austrians were particularly interested in fostering seaborne commerce, and here the maritime skills of the Greeks, hitherto well-honed but hindered by lack of opportunities, burst forth. Trieste was founded as a free port in 1719, and Greeks and Serbs quickly linked the port with the growing Greek fleet.

Poverty and opportunity spurred both new and traditional maritime centers in Greece to gear up for opportunities. The Ionian Islands and Chios had long traditions of mercantile and maritime activities, as did villages in Macedonia and Epirus, but now other locales, such as the islands of Hydra, Spetses, and Psara, rose quickly to the forefront. Long used to use and abuse by the Great Powers, the Greeks began to arbitrage these same powers, taking advantage of, for example, the ability to fly the Russian Flag (or other flags, as “convenient”), while seeking commercial opportunity. On the Black Sea coast in the 1790s, Odessa arose near the site of an ancient Greek colony, and quickly Greeks became the most important shipping element.

Trieste and Odessa were only the most important of a growing hub of ports and key merchant colonies which by 1815 included presence in London, Livorno, Marseilles, Amsterdam, Alexandria and soon enough India and the United States. New Orleans, site of the first Greek Orthodox community in the United States, is very much a spoke in this Greek mercantile hub centered vaguely in the Greek homeland.

Seaborne Greek adventurers had already made their mark as individuals around the world, including a Hydriot who would become the President of Argentina, and earlier Greeks who traveled with the Spanish Conquistadores, such as the Cretan Pedro de Candia, but the Greek commercial diaspora by 1815 was different. It consisted of skilled, adventurous, discreet family firms, with employees usually kin or from the same island or village. They were educated and worldly wise, with a clear sense of identity as Orthodox Greeks yet an ability to navigate “official” nationalities with the same skill as they piloted their ships. Denied political agency as citizens of an oppressive empire (or the corrupt post-independence Greece) they sought and found it on the sea or in an overland trade.

The Greeks were unique in that their firms were vertically integrated; they managed the purchase and shipping—by land and especially by sea. Other minorities played important commercial and financial roles, such as Jews and Armenians, and many nations, such as the Dutch and the Venetians, were highly successful merchant empires. The latter two, however, were backed by strong bureaucratic states, as opposed to the Greeks. Jews, Armenians, and Serbs (except the latter in Trieste) were landbound. Greeks were unique in that they managed to create strong yet discreet merchant colonies backed by maritime shipping in key political and commercial centers, setting the stage for a time, about 150 years later, when they would dominate world shipping. The stage was set by 1815, and the formulae of success they used then—close-knit loyalty and vertical integration—combined with a thirst for agency, remains in place today.

It is something to be proud of, and it shows what Greeks can do. Without this merchant and maritime diaspora, there would probably be no Greece. As diaspora Greeks in particular, their history is our heritage.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.