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Laskarina Bouboulina: an 1821 heroine

Elizabeth Bellhouse gives a fictionalised poetic account of Greek heroine Laskarina Bouboulina

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Oil painting of Bouboulina, The National Historical Museum, Athens.

25 March 2015

It was on an island in the Aegean that Bouboulina was born, an island made wealthy by its shipping with many grand houses enclosed by high walls with gardens planted with flowers, herbs and exotic plants, porticoes, arches, Corinthian columns, marble staircases, Italian frescoes with trimmings of gold, Minoan urns and spouting fountains modelled on those of Rome.

Bouboulina woke, first light, time to be out. Now she stumbled over herself in the rush to the front door, heart beating wildly she eased its great bulk, just room to slip through, out onto the balustrade. Quickly she moved from the corner of its eaves into an early morning sun hurrying to ascend, down the flight of stairs, lightly and rapidly in red patent shoes, through the courtyard, round the fountain of the Nereids gushing forth water from protruding mouths. She rushed past, through the courtyard gate and onto the square with its statue of Frederick Ludwig Bouboulina of whom she, Laskarina Bouboulina, was the descendant and with whom knew troubled times.

Bouboulina took the laneways to the sea. The cream folds of her satin summer dress wrapped round her knees and swept back and billowed like sails beneath its cocoa sash as the echo of her rapid, nimble steps drifted on the air of her passing. Once there, the folds swayed, caught between rapid movement and the abruptness of her halt, and then settled gently.

Bouboulina had been born when Greece was under Turkish occupation on 11 May 1771 at the prison of Constantinople. Her mother had been visiting Captain Stavrianos Pinotsis, her dying husband and Bouboulina's father. Captain Pinotsis had been imprisoned for his part in the Orlov Revolution when the Greeks of the Peleponnese had risen against Ottoman rule. Her father had told her then: "One day my little Bouboulina, unlike me, you will know what it is to be free." After her father's death Bouboulina and her mother returned to Hydra, their island home, and then moved to Spetses when her mother married the Spetsiot captain Dimitrios Lazourou Orlof. Captain Orlof was the father of Bouboulina's seven brothers and sisters.

It was on clear nights she felt closest to him. To Bouboulina the stars were the souls of those that had passed and the brightest one, the first one in the night sky, her father.

It was Sunday, about three. Most had finished lunch and were preparing to lie down and hope for sleep to take them from the long hours ahead until the sun would begin its descent and loosen its grip. Then doors would open and the islanders would emerge to sit on chairs flat against walls, stroll the narrow laneways to the sea or gather in the long shadows of open spaces where the children would run yelling to play with mothers calling and chairs scraping as the men positioned themselves at the café to talk, play cards, watch or stare vacantly. This was a crescendo of noise and then falling and throughout the incessant murmur of adult talk. Some would not emerge; with doors ajar they would remain within walls and minds that mitigated light.

Bouboulina's mother had been busy putting the youngest to sleep, wails of resistance at first, then the soft murmurings of compliance. Panos lay motionless, the eyes on his small face filling the room. He was listening for her, he knew she would not stay and he longed to be with her.

She headed to the sea in flight, heart beating wildly till free of the confines of Spetses town; out of earshot and of voices to which she would have to respond. Now she could slow, now she was at ease; the path ahead baked hard and flat, the sea to the right. It lay as a blanket. Bouboulina shot glances that bounced back. She took the fork that led to a small beach and moll that some retired seamen had built. Here they kept small boats they could take to sea without having to negotiate the main harbour. Here also was a shack where in the mornings and late afternoons these men would gather along with others who would walk around from Spetses town. In summer they would sit under the old sails that acted as awnings and sip thick coffee and play cards and in winter inside at the scattering of tables with the wood fire smouldering in the gloom. It was summer now, three in the afternoon, the shack closed up and the seats under the sails empty. Some butts in the stub-stained ashtrays and the coffee's mud in the cups firm and dry now from the morning.

Now, past the inner harbour and out on the boulders roughly piled that formed a breakwater, Bouboulina looked to the open sea and then moved swiftly on the sloping and jagged surface to its end.

From here Bouboulina would dive and swim out into the open sea or back towards the inner harbour where she would dive deep and then upright with eyes wide slowly ascend. She would watch her hair float in thick, shiny strands like kelp among the fish and boats' underbellies. Then she would dive again and breaststroke deep among the shades of blue trying to hold in her sight fish that would too quickly disappear. At times she would move to the boats' sides; the view from just inside their prow or bow she liked best; its sweep of boards curving to its belly. She would place her palm on its solid wood, feeling its easy buoyancy.

At the harbour and looking to the boats, one in particular she noted, its bow so close, not the breadth of a step away.
It was just as she had imagined it would be; the gentle sway, the quay just a step away but at sea now, a ship now, creaking, an ocean swell and she at its helm. Bouboulina knew then that one day she would have a boat and it would be a very big boat, its masts would reach to the sky and from each mast three sails would billow.

Bouboulina and Panos took the path that led up from the back of Spetses town into the hills and followed their contours before it dropped steeply to the sea on the other side. Then it was just a short clamber over the rocks to the jumping platform. There was a flat expanse of chocolate brown rock fifteen feet above the sea that dropped vertically into deep water and then it was just a short swim to where the rocks were in gradations easily climbed and a path worn in the rock back to the platform.

Bouboulina and Panos ran and yelled and jumped to the horizon where the vastness of sea and sky met and exploded into the tepid and limp sea of early September. Then under the warming sun they sat and Panos knew that this would be the best day of his life.

As a young woman Bouboulina was small of stature and straight. Her face was round and early on had not taken on the gravity it would in later years. Her prominent forehead was framed by ringlets above thick and sculptured eyebrows, below were eyes resolute. Her small, delicate mouth was set high and close to a nose long, slender and slightly hooked at the end. Bouboulina was handsome and regal. Men were drawn to her, sought after her, yet her uncompromising strength could be unnerving.

In 1816 Bouboulina journeyed to Constantinople. Turkish interference in island affairs had been on the rise and in 1816 the Turkish authorities attempted to confiscate Bouboulina's fortune, claiming her second husband had used his vessels alongside the Russian fleet in the Turko-Russian wars. Bouboulina had made arrangements to meet the Russian ambassador Count Strogonoff and so began three months of negotiations. The count advised a meeting with the sultan's mother, Valide Sultana. Valide was eager to meet this formidable woman, Laskarina Bouboulina from Spetses. Valide would convince her son Mahmud II to save Bouboulina's fortune and protect her from arrest.

The lone colonnade of Aegina revealed as the clouds parted and for a fraction of time the full moon lit the white marble and island and sea in electrifying light. At night passing Sifnos she could smell the night blooming flowers, at Iura the wild goats silhouetted in the early evening sky. Here where there were few inhabitants they kept surveillance and then the heady fragrance of orange blossoms drifting on the wind near to Chios. The holy mountain; its coolness and solace, its monasteries on peaks soaring to the skies and floating in passing clouds, clinging cliffside cloisters of silence.

Bouboulina arrived back on Spetses in strong winds and stormy seas. That night she lay in bed listening to the roar of the sea and the boats straining at their moorings at the quay. Soon the building of the Agamemnon would begin and the palpitations of expectancy thumped within.

Bouboulina was preoccupied. She had stopped going to her ship. It had been loaded with all but the perishables. She had overseen this. Activity had ceased, it lay in wait yearning to be at sea.

It was towards the end of March that news came. "Like the fires that sweep the land, it has taken off and it spreads quickly." Straight to her ship now, and with glee stepped aboard. Inside the cabin she carefully placed her things and then hurried to the deck with its open sky. The next days were spent loading. The port was full of activity, supplies arriving from all over the island. It took two days and on the night of the second they left the harbour and headed south, the sails billowed and flapped as the ship sliced the chop and made for Nafplio, Nafplio considered impregnable with its high and thick walls and three fortresses on its hills.

Bouboulina in command of her fleet attacked the town of Nafplio from the sea and then landed to join its siege. After this she sailed south to Monemvassia, the big rock. Connected to the mainland and astride a plateau of land, its massive vertical sides thrust into the air as an eagle's lair. At its peak its fortresses and below wrapped round its pinnacle and cascading the town. Bouboulina was there for the capture of Monemvassia and Pylos on the south-west side of the Peloponnese and brought supplies to the coastal town of Galaxidi in the Corinthian Gulf.

It was a few days before the fall of Tripoli that Bouboulina met Theodoros Kolokotronis. She arrived with other warriors outside its city gates mounted on a white horse.

It was in Panos's last flashing thoughts as he lay bloody, mangled and metamorphosed on the plains of Argos; drifting, weightless, airborne and ecstatic in white light and flashes of the best day of his life. Not far from Monemvassia at night with black sea Bouboulina took the news.

"Greatness is never pure; it hovers on the brink, is a sharp sword, opportunistic. You my baby brother were pure."

In February 1825 Kolokotronis gives himself over to the government and is shipped to Hydra and imprisoned in the monastery of the Prophet Elijah on the heights above the harbour. Civil strife had characterised the year of 1824 and Kolokotronis had been at the head of the opposition to the government. The Greek government has Bouboulina arrested because of the family connection to Kolokotronis (her son had married Kolokotronis' daughter). She is exiled back to Spetses, her money spent on the war.

In 1824 Kolokotronis is released. Bouboulina prepares to fight again. It was late in the evening on May 22 that Bouboulina, as was her habit before going to bed, went to the window of her bedroom to breathe the night air as it lay at the window. She smelt the damp sweetness of the earth below in the courtyard garden, its flowers now closed and its insects labouring now it had cooled, heard the sea sigh on the shore.

A flash below, Bouboulina was shot dead.

There had been a dispute with members of the Koutsis family.

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