Hydra: “The Rock of Liberty” tells its story

No narrative of the Greek War of Independence is complete without a central place given to Hydra. This tiny island, basically a granite megalith rising sheerly out of the Saronic Gulf, has very little water despite its name and no arable land. In a land as ancient as Greece, Hydra is basically absent from history during the Classical and Byzantine eras except as a barren rock without anchorage or habitation. Hydra is hardly a place that seemed destined for greatness.
Yet this tiny island, basically uninhabited two centuries before the War of Independence in 1821, rose, within less than a century, to become the premier shipping center of the Eastern Mediterranean, with the largest fleet, incredible riches, stately mansions, and a cosmopolitan trade network stretching to the Americas. The original Hydriots were refugees from the nearby Peloponnesus, the island of Evia, and even Asia Minor, and the majority spoke a dialect of Tosk Albanian known as Arvantika. Their first ships were hardly seaworthy but they were quick studies, leveraging the great skills of their fellow islanders and the Venetians, and by the time of the Greek Revolution they were trading everywhere, often under various flags—Russian, Ottoman, Ionian—as “convenience” dictated. They ran blockades during the Napoleonic Wars, and made fortunes, they honed their martial skills fighting the Barbary Pirates and by impressed of sailors into the Turkish Navy. In exchange for their skilled services, the Turks basically left the island autonomous.

This story alone is worthy of study as a tale of grit and agency, yet when the country called, the Hydriots—particularly their middle classes—answered the call. Once committed, the Hydriot magnates went all in, committing their ships, their fortunes, and their lives. Together with Hydra’s neighbouring island Spetses, and the even more diminutive Psara, in the Eastern Aegean, they turned the Aegean Sea into a Greek lake, and played a vital role in the success of the Greek Revolution. Without Hydra, it is a strong possibility we would not be celebrating 1821.

The price was dear and by the end of the Revolution, far too many ships and sailors paid for Greece’s freedom with a watery grave, and the island never recovered its shipping fortunes, which shifted to other Greek islands. Hydra retained its beloved flag, its honor and glory, and its sons added further fame as naval heroes in the Balkan Wars. In the post-World War Two era, the port town, with a preserved beauty from another era, became the haunt of poets and painters, along with a wave of tourists in their wake.

Hydriots never forgot their past glory, stories drilled into every Hydriot—at home or in the Diaspora—from the cradle and etched in the stones of the island’s graceful yet decaying mansions. Hydra’s amphitheatrical harbor and its exquisite beauty were protected from one of the greatest enemies of modern Greece—crass concrete development. The town’s architecture must conform to norms of the 1800s, so that the modern port looks and feels pretty much the same as it did around the time of the War of Independence; one can easily substitute the haute couture of the well-heeled tourist or native with the vrakes and waistcoats of the Revolutionary Era. The setting, the memories, the excellent museum and the history are all there, waiting for the chance to tell their story. It has arrived.
For the next year, in the countdown to the bicentennial, Hydra will host a series of events, lectures, and projects, designed to celebrate the island’s premier role in Hellenism’s fight for freedom. This effort is the result of a combination of municipal, civic, and cultural organisations, backed by sponsors and academics, and fuelled by a spirit of volunteerism.

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Andreas Vokos, nicknamed Miaoulis was a Greek admiral and politician who commanded Greek naval forces during the Greek War of Independence. Photo: Supplied

Hydra’s mayor, George Koukoudakis, an assistant professor at the Greek Military College, has been at the forefront of these efforts. The program had its debut at the Old Parliament Building in Athens, where the mayor outlined the goals of the initiative. These include making more widely known, both in Greece and abroad, the great contributions of the island, to make the younger generations aware of this unique history, and to look at Hydra in the context of the future. In this effort, Hydra is blessed to have an excellent museum which is a treasure trove of documents and artifacts, which speak to an island literally at the center of the Greek world at the time, a place of commerce and growing culture and literacy. The well-appointed museum alone is worth a visit to the island and having read and studied the items in the museum the island itself is a living museum, a time capsule preserved from the era of Hydriot glory.

Mayor Koukoudakis has fostered a partnership with the other two “nautical islands,” Spetses and Psara, to highlight the magnificent and heroic legacy of these three tiny islands in a collaborative partnership, just as they did in 1821. Beyond this, “Hydra Rock of Liberty 1821-2021” is in the process of teaming up with other key revolutionary venues, both inside and outside Greece. The Diaspora played a significant role in the Revolution, and the Hydriots, as intrepid seafarers and cosmopolitan merchants, were in constant contact with key ports nearby such as Trieste, Odessa, and Marsailles, and as far away as the Americas. Hydriots were among the first Greek Americans, and, as sources from the Hydra Museum indicate, among the first Greek Australians as well. As such, the Diaspora is very much a part of the “Hydra Rock of Liberty 1821-2021” story.

The Greek War of Independence resonated far beyond the borders of the small state which emerged. The idea of an ancient state reborn, a resurrection of a martyred Byzantium, combined with the Enlightenment ideas of freedom and citizenship—the two standards of the American and French Revolution—stirred the hearts of the Greek Revolutionaries as well. It is no accident that thousands of Americans and Western Europeans sailed to Greece to give their lives and fortunes to this cause. In all of this, the Hydriots were front and center. Hydra is known to people around the world for its exquisite beauty from another time, now Hydra has a chance to talk about that “other time,” the Glory Days of 1821, at a time when Hydriots led from the front. They are doing it again in 2021.

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* Alexander Billinis is an instructor and graduate student at Clemson University. His thesis concerns the history of the Greek merchant marine. His book, ‘Hidden Mosaics: an Aegean tale’, is available on Amazon.