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Chios Liberated – Shipping Continues Upward

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Dr. Matheos D. Los

We received via The Chios Marine Club’s Secretariat, Dr. Matheos D. Los’ speech,  given in New York on the 13th of October at the recent international symposium of the Korais New York Society on the centenary of Chios Liberation from the Ottomans and coincided with Korais’ New York Society Centenary! In our view this speech serves as a reminder to the world about Chios and Greece, but motly should alert all those involved in politics and beyond in the Greek parliament and beyond (EU,  IMF etc); wake up!

Chios Liberated – Shipping Continues Upward

It’s a warm yet breezy summer day. A young man in his thirties starts off from his native island of Chios, still under Ottoman rule, to the New World. Unlike hundreds of other fellow islanders on board the same ship, he is no immigrant. The goal of his lonely adventure is to raise the necessary capital that will allow him and his brothers to purchase their first merchant steamship. Meanwhile, until that day comes, together they run a second generation family partnership, setting sail in the Mediterranean and Black Sea ports on board their old brig. A steamship will broaden their activity beyond those limited areas and hopefully enhance their profits. After a brief stay in New York, working on board the Manhattan to Staten Island ferries, our young fellow takes his chances accepting a risky yet highly rewarding job as a laborer in the building of the Panama Canal. To him, heat, hard work and, above all, the risk of contracting malaria are no obstacles. He works in the canal for two years and after narrowly escaping death from the disease, he heads back to Vrontados, his hometown, to fulfill his dream, generously rewarded by the opportunities offered him in the New World. This is a story that took place between 1905 and 1907. The purpose of mentioning it in the context of my presentation is to give you an example of how, in times when Chios was still enslaved, its inhabitants were allowed to dream of a future and could even leave the island if they so pleased. Chian commerce and shipping were already free, industrious and cosmopolitan. In fact, during the 19th century, Chian merchants were already established not only in the Near East centers of Constantinople and Smyrna, but also in other major centers of Europe, such as London, Marseille, Vienna and Odessa. After the massacre of Chios in 1822, the waves of Chians who fled the island created new centers for their activities in free Hellas. Initially as founders of Ermoupolis in Syros and later on as settlers of prime properties in the heart of Piraeus, then an unimportant port.

These were offered to them by the Greek government for development. Both towns soon became the most dynamic gateways for shipping and trade in the Eastern Mediterranean thanks to Chian entrepreneurship. So, when Chios was finally liberated in 1912, its shipping and trade were in a state of “business as usual”. Chian merchants and shipowners were already foreign market oriented and thus had not been adversely affected by Ottoman rule. As for Chians of the lower classes, there was always ample opportunity for them to be employed on board the ships of their compatriots, whether they resided in Chios or in free Hellas. Towards the last decade of the 19th century, the merchant fleet under Chian control already included 4 steamships and about 300 sailing ships. These were the critical years of transition from sail to steam, when the Chians were among the first Greeks to adopt the enormous technological advantages and commercial benefits of the industrial revolution in shipping. At their service for the important capital and the increased risks involved were financial institutions and insurance companies established decades before by fellow merchants, also from Chios, who had accumulated significant wealth since the Napoleonic Wars. Also available in Chios was a traditionally solid educational infrastructure for navigators, that was later enriched with engineering schools, first in Syros and later in Piraeus, the first of their kind in Hellas.

Their founders: Chian settlers of course! Finally, to support repairs and maintenance of steamships, the first refitting unit was already in place in Syros since 1861 and was gradually to become the primary shipyard in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Chians, like all other Greek shipowners, initially treated ships powered by steam with considerable mistrust. It was not before 1889 and while steamships were already carrying more than half the world sea trade, that pioneer shipowners ventured to buy steamships. They initially came from Vrontados and Chora of Chios, then from Kardamyla in 1898 and later on from Oinoussai in 1905. Only those of Langada refused to abandon the tradition of the wooden sailing ships, and by the time they did, in 1913, it was too late to renew their fleets. Victims of their passion for masted vessels, they followed the fate of their colleagues from Galaxidi and disappeared from shipping.

By the time Chios was freed, Chian shipowners had already turned massively towards the acquisition of steamers. Thirty steamships were under their control in 1912, which became fifty by the time World War I erupted. Old and second hand, they were bought exclusively in the London market, already the world center for sale and purchase of ships. They were small to medium sized freighters, ranging from 500 to 4, 000 gross tons, which took over the trades of their sailing predecessors carrying grain, coal, timber and other commodities in the familiar trade routes of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Continent. It was not too long before the Chians expanded their trades beyond these traditional geographical limits, to the Americas and the Far East, buying bigger and newer steamships. To understand the importance of London as a world shipping cluster, I point out that the bigger shipowners opened their own offices in the UK, 15 in all by the thirties, to represent themselves and other, smaller shipowners who remained in Chios and Piraeus. Like in the old sailing days, the family structure of the business was omnipresent. It was the norm that shipowners and male members of their families sailed and served on board their own ships.

Additionally, special ties were developed among the owners and their crews, who more often than not came from the same hometown. This usually led to a successful working relationship among all those on board. It is the nature of this relationship that explains how seamanship has always acted as a springboard to ownership. Not only in Chios but in all traditional seafaring areas in Greece. During the Balkan Wars, the merchant fleet of the Chians participated in the war effort as supply and troop ships for the Hellenic armed forces. Later on, the merchant fleet was commandeered by the government, when Greece joined the Entente forces in 1916. The end of the Great War found Chios having paid its toll in ships and human lives, like all other coastal regions of Greece. Out of a Greek merchant fleet of 474 steamships in 1914, 147 were lost, reducing by half its pre-war cargo carrying capacity. Statistics do not clearly show how many Chians were among the 148 Greek seamen who perished during the war.

Let us also mention another 114 steamships totaling a capacity of a quarter of a million gross tons sold to foreign interests during the same period. Adding insult to injury in those difficult times, the Greek government passed in 1917 a special law for shipping, exempting wartime profits from huge taxes, but only for those shipowners who decided to replace immediately their wartime losses with new ships. Many rushed to buy ships in a booming market, only to see their assets losing 9/10ths of their value when the short lived post war reconstruction activity was over. This led to the loss of control of even more ships as many Chian shipping companies went bankrupt. All in all, the beginning of the twenties found the fleet of Chios decimated and its owners and crews in full disarray. 1922: Our young man from Chios is now a mature shipowner in his 50’s. His family business survived the War but he now hears of a new national disaster taking place. One which is very near to his home and to his heart. He decides along with other Chians to rush their steamships into Krini (Çesme) and the Gulf of Smyrna to collect the fleeing Greek population, trying to save themselves from massacre.

The ships were among those waiting for orders off the islands of Chios and Oinoussai during those times of a grim shipping market. This was indeed a spell of good luck for the unfortunate fugitives from the other side of the Chios Straits. It is common knowledge in shipping circles that market depression leads to fleet renewal and Chian entrepreneurship could not be the exception to this rule. Between the two wars, the free shipping world was under continuous pressure, instigated by government protectionism over free shipping markets. During this period, the Chians, like other Greek shipowners, acquired 189 medium-sized, mostly overaged freighters at very low prices. Some even ventured into newbuildings for the first time ever. The cargo capacity now ranged between 2, 500 and 10, 000 gross tons per ship. A true revival, which even after sales, resulted in a fleet of 109 Chian steamers just before the eruption of the Second World War.

World War II. With more than 600 steamships totaling 1.8 million gross tons, the Greeks marshaled an important part of the “fourth arm” in the allied forces. Once again the toll in lives and ships was high for Greece including Chios. More than 2, 000 seamen and 450 steamers were lost through enemy action. Among those ships, 91 were under Chian ownership. Among the crews lost, 327 were from Chios, namely 117 from Kardamyla, 106 from Vrontados, 53 from Oinoussai, 23 from Chora of Chios, 19 from Langada and 9 from other parts of the island. The dark shadow of occupation is once again over Chios. Our young friend has reached his seventies and is stranded in his hometown. He was left without ships since the early days of the War. His only ship, a 32 year old steamer, was torpedoed in the North Atlantic loaded with grain. The ship was too old and too slow, unable to make the eight knots essential to follow the convoy. She was left behind alone, having no chance to survive from the lurking German U-boats.

Thankfully, no member of the crew was lost. The next significant historical turning point for Chian shipping starts right here in New York, again beyond familiar island ground. Immediately after the war, Greek shipowners struck an agreement with the U.S. government to buy 100 cargo ships of a 7, 500 gross tons standard design. These were known as Liberties and were mass produced during the war. They became the workhorses for U.S. supplies to the Allies. From those ships, 41 were taken over by shipowners from Chios plus another three out of 7 tankers also included in the same deal. These are the “blessed Liberties”, which, together with another 800 of their type purchased later on in the free market, laid the foundation of the post-war miracle of Greek shipping. Hotel Pierre, 10th January 1947. Our friend has returned to the city of his early adventures, this time as a respected shipowner. Dressed in his finest attire and accompanied by his sons, he is attending a banquet hosted by the New York Committee of Greek Shipowners in honor of the Greek Minister of Mercantile Marine, Nicholas Avraam. The latter had guaranteed the deal of the Liberties on behalf of the Greek government. Our friend, with his sons, is now one of the proud owners of the 100 “blessed ones”.

New York was but the starting point of Greek post war shipowning and seamanship. Evolving in an already established international shipping cluster, second only to London since the pre-war days, its Chian element flourished and excelled in all fields serving the industry after the war: from branch offices of Chian shipowners, to chartering and sale and purchase brokerage firms, legal, financial and insurance services, ship supplies, repairs and so on. Thus, New York Chians, together with the diaspora of other traditional shipping grounds of Greece, created their own shipping miracle, which remains luminescent to this day. The era of economies of scale achieved through the ever increasing size of ships had begun since the fifties.

During the sixties it was in full swing and the Chians could not but be part of it. The name of the game now was newbuildings and Japan had already superseded the U.S. and the U.K. as the world’s major shipbuilder. South Korea would emerge later as a leader in the shipbuilding scene, followed by China in today’s market. Renewing their fleets was a major concern for the Chians and manning was equally important. Fortunately, crews were still abundant. Thriving private and public merchant marine academies pumped scores of new officers into the bloodstream of shipping, some of whom later became shipowners. During this period and until the wave of emigration from Greece ebbed in the 70’s, we also witnessed a parallel flow of manpower from Chios and other seafaring islands, mainly towards the United States and, secondly, Australia. These were the socalled deserters, those who jumped ship. Thousands of them through the decades, who would sign employment contracts as ratings on board Greek ships and then jump ship as illegal immigrants once they arrived at the first US or Australian port. Unless these people were apprehended by the immigration authorities, they would eventually make their way into the New Worlds. The purpose of my mentioning this important trend is purely historical. However, since history is still alive here, it is a good opportunity to tell those of you deserters who may be present in this audience, I am glad you made it !

Our man from Chios passes away peacefully at the age of 92. Before his death, he is told by his younger peers of a new ship design coming out of the Far East: the bulk carrier. He is in high spirits as he sees the third generation taking on yet another novel challenge. From the seventies until the present day Chian shipping has continued its upward path. Steadily controlling more than 40% of Greek shipping and sailing from peak to trough to peak in the shipping market cycles, finally to achieve prominence in today’s Greek merchant fleet. A fleet that has been gradually assuming greater importance in the Greek economy. This should mainly be credited to the nostalgia of Greek shipowners and secondly to the rare displays of sound shipping policy by Greek governments. Important laws passed in 1953 and 1967 created a stable legislative framework that not only helped the growth of the Greek flag fleet, but also transformed Piraeus into a major shipping center.

However, as in the old days, Greek shipping policy has often been encumbered by mistrust. Private maritime education was slowly strangled until it was finally abolished during the 80’s. Public education on the other hand is in a constant state of disarray and decline. And while today shipping is the only industry standing firm in Greece’s troubled times, its Merchant Marine Ministry was abolished three years ago, only to be reinstated by the present government: a policy blend of ill feeling, compounded by gross ignorance and indifference to the self evident facts and figures of all that shipping is for Greece.

Greek owned shipping stands today in first position worldwide with 3, 323 ships, 777 of them under the Greek flag, representing in total almost 15 percent of the world fleet cargo carrying capacity. The average age of the fleet is 10.5 years, almost two and a half years younger than the world fleet’s age profile. 40, 000 Greek seamen are serving on board Greek owned ships, as well as 150, 000 Greek employees in 718 ship management offices and another 2, 000 businesses supplementing shipping in Greece. Add to that, 160 billion plus euro of foreign currency which have been imported to Greece since the turn of the millennium.

Chian shipowners have their fair share in all these figures. Not to mention non-shipping investments of theirs in Greece funded by shipping income. Most important of all, the ever increasing string of donations and charity to their native island and to their country, some known others unknown to the public. Last but not least, it is worth mentioning the traditional participation of Chians, both in national and international shipping bodies, driven by their innate desire to promote common interests with fellow shipowners. The man from Chios is of course not among us today. He hasn’t been for some time now, his family business now being in its fifth generation. Nevertheless, the spirit and the wisdom of our young friend and his generation remain omnipresent, distilling the basic and enduring principles of Chian shipowning: To be wary and respectful of the market. To be mindful of the upward cycles and patient when the going gets tough. To be as close as possible to the ship and her crew. To be open and constantly alert to technical innovation. To communicate and to cooperate with fellow shipowners. All these virtues have made Chian shipowners successful and avant-garde throughout the century our island has enjoyed her freedom we are so lucky to be celebrating soon. I have no doubt that it is the life and times of those people, our ancestors, that manifests how Chios is to preserve its long seafaring tradition and “rule the waves” for generations to come.

Viewers can open the PDF herebelow and read the programme/leaflet of the speakers and the event: FYLLADIO KORAIS NY SPEECH (1)


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