Sunday, 15 July 2012

The rich of Greece

(The harbour of Piraeus)

Greece has two important sources of income: tourism and shipping. Tourism is the visible and newest part, shipping the older and more diffuse one, because however many ships you see crossing the great blue sea, you will seldom know whether the ship disappearing over the horizon belongs to a Greek shipping company.

Greek maritime history started long before Aristotle Onassis fled Smyrna and started to build his shipping empire in Greece. Centuries before Christ, Greeks travelled over the oceans to transport goods, to look for new countries or to fight their wars. Troy was besieged by 1186 ships, Agamemnon of Mycenae commanding 300 of them, and 80 were delivered by the Greek islands.

In Dorian Times, islands like Samos and Chios built their own fleets. Their ships went as far as Cyprus and Syria and to the Black Sea in Russia.

The Romans obviously didn’t have such good sea legs, because even though they conquered half the world, they left it to the Greeks in their boats to travel the seas. The Greeks transported goods but also soldiers, merchants and the first tourists, who travelled amongst other places to Lesvos to relax and see a new culture.

In 803 the first maritime bank was founded by the Byzantine emperor Nikiforos to lend money to shipowners. It did not bring fortune, because the Greeks were losing more and more commerce to Italian city states like Genoa and Venice, who eventually took over all sea commerce. This lasted until the 16th century when the Ottoman Empire spread like an inkblot over Europe. It was then that the fortune of the Greeks returned, because, like the Romans, the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire weren’t too keen on venturing out on the seas and left the shipping to the Greeks, who were by then known as the best seafaring people. The Greeks made huge profits and gained privileges, using the Ottoman protection to reinstall their power over the European seas. It is claimed that it was these free seafarers that encouraged the Greece people to get rid of their Ottoman occupiers, which they succeeded in doing in 1829 (Lesvos was only freed in 1912).

Now we come to modern Greek shipping history, best known because of Aristotle Onassis, not only because he became so wealthy, but also because of his affair with the opera singer Maria Callas and his marriage to Jacky, the widow of John F. Kennedy. His first marriage was to Athina Maria Livanos, daughter of the shipping magnate Stavros G. Livanos. Livanos’ other daughter, Eugenia, married Stavros Niarchos, a man who also built a large shipping empire like that of his father-in-law and of Onassis.

The Greek/American writer Nicholas Gage wrote the fictitious story The Bourlotos Fortune, based on the lives of these three shipping giants. In this novel you can read how they built up their wealth, lost it and built it up again into a huge empire; and you can also learn how they ruled over their businesses from London and America, fleeing wars and crisis in Europe, leaving their homeland Greece in distress.

Now Greece again is severely in crisis, even though the Greek shipping business is as rich as ever. Nowadays you do not hear much about shipping owners, as you did in the times of Onassis when he was always in the news; you will now only hear about them when they, for example, marry a famous model. And they not only build ships nowadays, but also museums, tourist resorts, hospitals and scientific research centres.

Inousses, a small archipelago next to Chios, is best known for its shipping families and whilst inhabited by about only 800 people, possesses a maritime academy, a boarding school for boys, a modern stadium and a maritime museum. Chios is the region reknowned for having delivered the most successful shippers, for example Stavros Livanos. There are even people who believe that the famous explorer Christoffel Columbus comes from Chios.

Lesvos is rarely mentioned in Greek maritime history. The only famous seamen she produced were the pirate brothers Barbarossa. For centuries piracy made the South European seas unsafe, and in the 16th century is was not uncommon for regular traders to cooperate with pirates. Islands like Mykonos and Milos even became wealthy thanks to piracy.

Maybe that’s what also happened in Lesvos and the reason why Lesvos has no significant place in Greek maritime history. It was only in 1972 that a shipping business was founded on Lesvos, and by the island itself: Nel Lines, now known for the ferries that go between the mainland and different islands.

Real shipping magnates live where they pay lowest tax rates, not unknown for international traders. If all the Greek shipping companies would come back to Greece and pay taxes, the country would not have been so deeply buried in debt.

I take it that Nel Lines are still somewhere in Greece. This summer they extended a hand to the Greek people by reducing prices for the fares to the islands (although they might be doing this because of a competitive fight with other shipping companies). Airline companies should look to this example. Last week the neighbouring island of Lemnos complained to the government that flights to the island were far too expensive (from Athens 300 – 500 euro): how can you encourage tourism when travelling in Greece is so expensive? And what about the inhabitants who are regularly forced by medical reasons to travel to the capital?

Rich Greeks like to build a little church when they are thankful for their good fortune. And they continue building them during the crisis. There are so many on Lesvos that there might be one little church for each inhabitant. Building a small church creates just a little employment: can’t they use their money for better purposes? If the Greek shipping magnates don’t help the Greek government to reduce their debts, they should at least help to lighten the lives of the Greek people and, for example, offer free fares to the islands where life, in comparison with the city, is easier, cooler and better.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2012

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