The 25th of March marks the beginning of the Greek War of Liberation, and I want to honour Laskarina Bouboulina, 1771 – 1825. This woman was a Greek Admiral and the first in the ‘modern world’.
Bouboulina laid siege to Ottoman Turkish occupied Greek island of Spetses and raised the first Greek Flag of Independence. The Greek War of Independence of 1821 was the fist war of national determination in Europe.
In 1986 as a young waiter in a bar on Spetes my greatest concerns were how to stop the constant repetition of West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys, how to ply the Brits with expensive cocktails, sell them hash and see how quickly I could fall in love with someone from every new invasion of tourists.
Bouboulina’s statue was an unavoidable feature of the island. She gazed out onto the sea and the large pistol strapped on her waist impressed me.
Bouboulina was born in a Turkish prison, made a fortune as a property investor and purchased her own fleet. She even commanded a Russian fleet. She was shot to death in a battle between feuding families she tended to deal with patriarchy by shooting it. Turks and Greek war leaders respected and feared her.
She battled a great colonial power, yet unlike European colonial powers, this empire has no space in ‘postcolonial’ narratives.
The Ottomans had the largest army in Europe and the Middle East and its navy reigned over the shipping lanes of the eastern Mediterranean. Istanbul was five times the size of Paris. Its resources limitless and its capacity to invade or sweep aside opponents gave Ottomans an awesome imperial presence. From 1520 to 1565 its momentum was unstoppable and Christians in Western Europe did ‘quake for fear’.
The Byzantium, a Greek settlement dating 700BCE, was selected by Constantine the Great as the new capital of the Holy Roman Eastern Catholic Empire in 324AD, thus Constantinople. It was the ‘city of the world’s desire’, the New York or Shanghai of its time.
The Turks on the afternoon of 29 May 1453 under the sharp leadership of Mehmed the II achieved the impossible and broke Constantinople’s impregnable defenses with new cannons adapted from the Chinese. Philip Mansel in Constantinople, City of the World’s Desire, writes an observer from Venice reported that blood flowed through the streets like rainwater after a sudden storm, “corpses floated out to the sea like melons.”
The Sultan rode in on his white stallion to the church of Agia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, built by Emperor Justinian and topped by the largest dome in Europe 900 years earlier. He stopped his soldiers from hacking the statue’s marble saying, “Be satisfied with the booty and the captives; the buildings belong to me.”
Agia Sophia was converted into a Mosque, Ay Sofia, and now stands as a museum.
In one day, the Ottomans put an end to 2000 years of Roman Empire. Ottoman Emperors soon began to see themselves as the continuation of the Greco Roman Empire. They were the new guardians of civilization both Islamic and multicultural. Just as the Greco-Roman, Persian, Han, Moguls, and British empires saw themselves as civilizers.
Massacres, genocide, slavery, patriarchy, corruption were all part of the Ottoman system, as were, military prowess, great administrative structures, new medicine, surgery, astronomy, engineering, poetry, music, high-cuisine, architecture and a judicial system based on religious identification.
The Ottomans, like the British Raj, Roman Empire, or Pax Americana wiped out many subjects, and then offered them space in the empire. Sporadically they, like all empires, offered steel to those who questioned Istanbul’s authority and salve to those who worked within it. One the one hand they may have wiped out Serbs at Kosovo and with the other accepted the Jewish Sephardic refuges kicked out of Spain’s rising new Catholic Empire.
The Ottoman Empire, like all great empires, was multicultural, equitable and largely peaceful at its height.
It was at least four centuries, before other empires like the Spanish, British and French began to rise.
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese was far more complicit in keeping Greeks down under the Ottomans than the Ottomans themselves.
Bureaucrats, military leaders, bankers could be Christian or Jews, Greeks, Slavs, Egyptians, Vlachs, Armenians, Persians or Assyrians.
This empire that looms large in Greek and Turkish minds also bonds us for eternity. It drew both my grandfathers into the Balkan War of 1912-13. One grandfather, a royalist, relished the bloodshed and till his dying day accused the British for not “allowing Greeks to exterminate them, to take back Constantinople.” The other, a republican, advised me never to go to war, “What Turks, what Greeks? Just people with mothers,” he’d say.
At the start of the War if Independence, the Greek combatants massacred 25,000 Turks, or Muslim Greeks and Greek Jews, men women and children in Tripolitsa in 1821. The bloodshed continued for 100 years.
Between 1912 and 1922 three million Armenians were slaughtered, and 250,000 Pontians, (Greek Turks), fell on death marches led by new Turkish Nationalists. Greece’s neo-imperial fantasy of taking back Constantinople in 1921, the Great Idea, (Megali Ithea) morphed into the Great Catastrophe, (Mgali Katastrophi) resulting in the final expulsion of two-million Greeks from Constantinople, or Istanbul, and the burning of Smyrna, Izmir.
What was once a multicultural space was broken up into new nations of Greeks and Turks both attempting to wash off the Orient with the blood of their people.
Ian Morris in War! What is it Good For?, analyses the history of warfare, from bows and arrows to missiles, sketching in the parallel development of social forms, from hunter-gatherer groups to the EU.
Hawaii, for example, showed similar colonial and centralizing energies, as did those in the west and east. Ma’ilikukahi a great warrior killed his rivals, centralized power in his own hands, build temples, irrigation canals and initiated the beginnings of a new Hawaiian pacific colonial enterprise. Over a century many other impressive kings led wars of unification across the pacific.
Postcolonial apostles when talking of the horror of the Atlantic Slave trade, and it was a horror equal to the Holocaust, omit the fourteen centuries of African slavery by the Arab Islamic Caliphates. It was they who introduced African slavery to European colonizers.
The late Christopher Hitchens points out how transatlantic slavery was blessed by the Christian church and “Mediterranean and North African slavery was explicitly endorsed by, and carried out in the name of Islam.”
Worse they never raise the fact that it was abolitionists in England who fought against the slave trade in the West, seeing it as deeply antithetical to the essence of liberal democracy.
Anti-slavery and anti-colonial struggles were born of western ideals. Escaped slave, Fredrick Douglass demanded the Unites States “live up” to the “universalist promises in its Declaration and Constitution.”
In the end let’s all own our empires and be vigilant to all human rights abuses. So with this I celebrate the first great modern anti-colonial war the Greek National War of Independence, against the impressive and awesome Ottoman Empire.