When pondering why Greeks are so involved in shipping, the answer seems obvious. A country of peninsulas and an archipelago, it is hardly a surprise that men of the Aegean have plied the waters of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and beyond, for millennia.
Geography, they say, is destiny, and certainly, Greece’s position predetermined that shipping would be a major activity in the past and present.
However, there is more, much more, in fact, to this story. I always hesitate to add too much of separateness or uniqueness to Greeks, as our people often do, citing most often and obviously, the exploits of our ancient ancestors.
I see Greece as a Balkan and Mediterranean country with a culture on a continuum flowing from Italy in the West, to the Danube and the Black Sea to the North, and Eastward into Asia Minor and the Levantine littoral. We share a mix of commonalities with these places, and yet, something is different about us.
The difference, I believe, is our relationship with the sea. No Balkan country, for example, has a maritime legacy even close to that of Greece, notwithstanding cultural and civilizational affinities.
What about across the Ionian Sea in Italy? Certainly, the Venetian Republic, a child and eventual colonizer of Byzantium was built on maritime prowess. While Venice and Genoa were city-states that created shipping empires, their legacy only partially transferred to the modern Italian state, and often enough, their sailors and a portion of their captains were Aegean islanders. There is some evidence that Columbus himself might have had ancestry from Chios.
Britain, Spain, and the infant United States were all mighty shipping empires, but while these countries’ coastlines and geographies predestined large maritime sectors, these fleets were largely built on mercantilist economics and state power rather than that of individual shipping families.
Norway might be parallel to Greece. Like Greece, Norway is a small country with a huge, jagged coastline and a history of seafaring (see, for example, the Vikings). Norway remains a vital shipping country, and yet, the Norwegians too, are different. Norway is a very rich country with a much milder history (it is rather easier to be dominated by the Swedes and the Danes than by the Turks), and their institutions are far more civic and durable than those of Greece.
No, the Greeks’ relationship with shipping is different. Why? Because it is part of the Greek identity.
Greek shipping is older than the Greek state
Greek shipping, particularly the modern form, predates the Greek state. Geographic, cultural, and institutional conditions sent the Greeks to sea. Hailing from poor islands or rocky peninsulas with few resources, plying wits and skills at sea allowed generations of Greeks to have economic opportunities and agency simply unavailable at home.
Usually, Greek merchants would establish themselves in one of many foreign ports, and generally would do business with other Greeks, particularly kin, vertically integrating the entire shipping process while planting diaspora colonies with organic, constant links to the Greek motherland. All this was before the Greek state even existed. In fact, their financial and intellectual contribution to the Greek revolutionary cause was vital.
Beyond the lure of wealth, there were key cultural and political factors at play. Since the late Byzantine era, Greece was poorly governed, and after the fall of the Byzantine polity, Greeks were not masters in their own lands but rather lived for several centuries under corrupt, rather capricious and venal empires—the Ottoman and Venetian.
As Orthodox Christians under Muslim or Catholic regimes, they were essentially denied any institutional or political agency, and the economic agency was their only outlet.
The sea had the additional benefit of being harder to control than land (though the mountainous Greek interior proved ideal guerilla territory, allowing for a form of agency there). Perhaps Greeks took this “guerilla mentality,” this yearning to be free, to the sea, finding fortune and sometimes a foreign home while remaining connected to their homeland by regular maritime links.
As the empires and states competed for Greece’s territory, the Greeks played this to their advantage; the flag of convenience did not start with Onassis, as Greeks would fly the Russian, Venetian, Ottoman, or British/Ionian flags as needed whether for protection and (as ever) for tax considerations.
While the shipowners’ financial and naval assistance was vital to the success of Greece’s war of independence, the Greek flag became just another flag for these shipowners. Love of country notwithstanding Greek shipping had to do with Greeks as people with nautical skills, family ties, cultural unity, and diaspora links—not Greece as a state.
“Greek shipping has [had] nothing to do with Greece,” said Dimitris Sfakianakis, a former banking colleague and a highly experienced, Athens-based Greek shipping lender.
Greece as an independent nation from its birth was plagued with institutional and financial problems, and some of the same stifling, clientelist features of the Ottomans. It is only a partial exaggeration to say that the Turkish pashas were replaced with Greek ones, and as a result, the same thirst for economic and political agency drove the Greeks to the perennial solution—the sea.
While the mass immigration to the United States and later to Australia, Canada, and Northern Europe was different in size and scope to the smaller, shipping-connected Greek merchant communities of the past, there nonetheless continued to be a major maritime orientation to how and where Greeks settled.
New York City remains the largest Greek community in the United States, and it is also one of the country’s principal ports. Tens of thousands—if not more—diaspora Greeks are descendants of generations of Greek sailors who “jumped ship” and decided to stay abroad.
My father was one of those guys, as was my uncle. Other relatives moved to Australia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile in much the same way while others stayed in Greece, having the opportunity to earn better wages at sea than the norm in Greece. Working at sea, it seems, provided generations of Greeks with the benefits of emigration without the pain of expatriation. Suddenly, I think I understood.
The combination of nautical skills borne of geography, a close-knit, family-oriented merchant culture, and a legacy of bad government, whether imposed or domestic, drove Greeks to the sea, an outlet from time immemorial to the often-stifling realities of our beautiful Greek homeland.
The sea and its opportunities for freedom and fortune took us abroad and provided our way home. The sea is part of what makes us unique, and why shipping is more than simply an economic activity for Greeks—it is a mark of identity.