Blog 16 08/08/2015 Bouboulina: Heroine of the Greek War of Independence.
Bouboulina: Heroine of the Greek War of Independence.
On May 11th 1777, a Greek woman, Skevo Pinotsis, entered Constantinople jail to visit her dying husband, Stavianos, incarcerated by the Turks for his participation in the failed revolution of 1769-70. Whilst there, she gave birth to a daughter, Laskarina. After such a humble start in life, Laskarina would grow up to be probably the most famous female figure in modern Greek history. Skevo and Stavianos were Hydriots and well connected among the Greek establishment at the time. When the revolution, which was later to be known as the Orlof Revolution, failed, the Turks took revenge on all those involved, both real and imagined. Whilst Hydra survived the reprisals, the island of Spetses was almost completely destroyed. Stavrianos never recovered from his ordeal at the hands of the Turks and died in jail. Skevo returned to Hydra and after four years remarried a Spetsiot captain, Dimitios Lazarou-Orlof, and she and Laskarina moved to Spetses. By all accounts, Laskarina was a strong and stubborn child, known for her courage and decisiveness. As a consequence she was regarded by her eight half-brothers and sisters as the unchallenged leader. Growing up among a sea-faring family at a time when political intrigues against the Turks were simmering to a head, she would have been well aware of their talk of freedom for the Greek nation which had been suffering under Turkish domination. Whilst the men plotted to rid the country of the Turks, as a Greek girl, Laskarina was expected to do her duty and marry and produce children. Dark in colouring and with a strong regal stature, she was not short of suitors. She was to marry twice. The first marriage was to a young sea captain, Dimitrios Yiannoutzas, when she was only seventeen. Yiannoutzas was killed during a sea battle with Algerian pirates who constantly raided the coast of Greece at the time. At the age of thirty, she married a second time to Dimitrios Bouboulis, also a sea captain and the man from whom she would eventually take her famous name – Bouboulina. Unfortunately, in 1811, Bouboulis met with the same fate as her first husband after he was ambushed by two Algerian pirate ships and which he and his crew simultaneously destroyed. For the second time in her life, Bouboulina found herself a widow., only now she had seven children.
Bouboulina may have lost two husbands but she was now a very rich woman having inherited land, cash and a fortune from her ships. She had inherited her mother’s tenacity and set about increasing her small fortune. Bouboulis had left her over 300,000 tallara – Spanish gold sovereigns which she increased through successful trading. Through her knowledge and love of the sea, she became a partner with other Spetsiot shipbuilders and built three ships of her own, the most famous being the Agamemnon. At a cost of 75,000 tallara, it was the largest Greek fighting ship of the 1821 Greek War of Independence. In 1816, the Turks tried to confiscate her fortune on the grounds that her husband, Boubulis, had taken part in the Turko-Russian Wars. This was indeed so and for his services the Russians granted him honorary Russian citizenship and awarded him with the title of captain of the Russian Navy. Using her illustrious connections, Bouboulina, followed in Skevo’s footsteps and sailed to Constantinople, a journey that one would not have taken lightly at the time. There she sought protection from the Russian Ambassador, Count Stroganov, a known Philhellene, presenting him with papers citing Bouboulis’s loyalty to Russia. In addition, her own ships were flying the Russian flag due to a treaty signed between Russia and Turkey.
She managed to gain an audience with the Sultan’s mother, the Valide Sultana, who was struck by her personality and who had sympathy for her plight. She promised to speak to her son but the situation became tense and to save her from arrest, Count Stroganov sent her to the Crimea where she was given an estate, courtesy of Tsar Alexander I. She was there for three months until the situation died down. In the meantime, the Valide Sultana had managed to persuade her son, Mahmud II, to issue her with a special dispensation allowing her to keep her freedom and her fortune.
When she returned to Spetses, the fearless Bouboulina, the only female to become a member of the Philiki Etairia, a secret organization whose aim was to raise money and arms and to fire up a spirit of defiance in readiness for the revolution intended to free the Greek people of Ottoman domination, immediately began preparing for war. She bought arms from overseas and hid them until the time was right. The Agamemnon was completed at the shipyard on Spetsas in 1920. The Turks had imposed restrictions on Greek ships and the Agamemnon, a corvette 33 mtres long, armed with 18 heavy cannons, drew the attention of the Turks once more. However, it is said that everyone has their price and she bribed the Turkish official who went to inspect it.
On March 13 1821, 12 days before the official start of the War of Independence, Bouboulina was the first to raise the revolutionary flag. Employing her own armed troops, she used her fleet of eight ships to join the blockade of Nafplion. Psara and Hydra joined forces with the Spetsiots. Their main aim was to capture the Turkish fortresses in the Peloponnese. After taking, Monemvasia, Ood and new Navarino, , Corinth and Nafplion, plus Athens in the following year, the Turks were confined to Methoni and Koroni in the south and in the north Patras with the nearby castles on either side of the Gulf of Cornth. Amidst terrible scenes of slaughter, Tripolis fell to the Greeks in October 1821. The Greeks used fire-ships with devastating effects. Kolokotronis was by now, the overall leader of the Greek forces and an outpouring of sympathy was coming from everywhere from Europe to America but in 1824, civil war erupted between two rival factions, Kolokotronis was arrested and Bouboulina, now bereft of her fortune which had been spent during the first two years of the war, found herself on the wrong side. She was arrested and expelled back to Spetses and died the following year, May 1825, not in a sea-battle as one might expect, but from a bullet to the head during a blood feud with a local family. The daughter of a Koustsis family and Bouboulina’s son, Goergos, Yiannouzes, had eloped. Seeking revenge, the girl’s father, Christodoulos Koutsis, went to Bouboulina’s house with armed members of his family. The actual perpetrator who fired the fatal shot was never named which, given her famous exploits, was probably a wise decision. After all, who would want to go down in history as the murderer of Laskarina Bouboualina. After her death, Emperor Alexander I granted her the honorary title of Admiral of the Russian Navy, making her the only woman in naval history to bear that title until just recently.
Her descendants sold the Agamemnon to the Greek state but it was burned by Admiral Miaoulis along with the frigate Hellas, and the corvette Hydra, during the next civil war in 1831.
Bouboulina was almost fifty when she led her armed forces against the Turks. It should also be noted that she was also a fierce defender of Turkish female prisoners at a time when women accounted for very little. Films have been made about her, books written, her image stamped on the last drachma coin and streets named after her. Almost two hundred years later, her name is synonymous with patriotism and bravery.
During the Nazi occupation of Greece 1941-44, an Athenian woman, Lela Karagianni, followed in Bouboulina’s heroic footsteps. She established a successful underground network recruiting hundreds of individuals who helped feed, hide and transport Allied soldiers to safety. She was recruited by SOE in 1941 and her network expanded to include espionage and sabotage. Unfortunately Lela ‘s transmitter broke down and she was forced to transmit a message through another network which was ultimately picked up by the Gestapo. On 11 July, 1944, she was arrested and despite considerable torture, did not break down and was able to save most of her family and associates. She was executed bt firing squad on 7th September 1944 along with sixty-five men and five women. Her network was called Bouboulina.
The heroism of Bouboulina and Lela Karagianni, who was from the suburb of Kypseli where I lived during my years in Athens, were inspirations for my protagonists in my novel The Embroiderer.
Athens, Summer 1944
It was a sunny July morning when Nina left Athens for Delphi. As predicted, she received no prior warning. During her meeting with Thymios the week before, he assured her that Athos had everything under control; she was being watched day and night. They would know exactly when she left and there would be several signs along the way. They fixed the place where the assassination was to take place. She was to carry no weapons but just in case, a gun would be hidden at the Turkish fountain about three miles south of Delphi. She was to make a quick stop on the way there to check it, but so as not to attract suspicion, she was not to attempt to retrieve the gun. That was to be done on the way back. That was when the ambush would take place.
Knowing that the assignment would take place at any time, Nina told her mother that she was going to Delphi for a few days on fieldwork. She also tried to make radio contact with Cairo from the workroom but for some reason she couldn’t get the radio to work. When she did succeed, a high-pitched sound almost deafened her. It was not a good sign and she prayed that the frequency hadn’t been jammed by the Germans. That evening, she told her mother about the problem.
‘Use the one in the attic,’ said Sophia. ‘Chrysoula has gone to bed. You’ll be quite safe, and just to be on the safe side we’ll get Thymios to have a look at it tomorrow.’
At first, Nina was hesitant. It was too dangerous. Over the past six months, several other networks had been blown due in part to the transmitter being picked up. So far she had been lucky.
Sophia was insistent.
‘It’s your decision,’ she told her, ‘but if you don’t radio in, Cairo will wonder what happened. By the way,’ she said, before retiring to bed, ‘there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. Do you remember the leather satchel your great-grandmother gave me?’
‘Until you mentioned it, I’d completely forgotten about it.’
‘Well, I finally read it while you were away.’
‘What did she have to say, Mama? I can’t wait to hear.’
Sophia smiled. ‘I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow. For now you must get some sleep.’
That night, Nina had one of her recurring nightmares. Again, she found herself being thrown into the sea, arms flailing about frantically trying to cling onto the flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat. Around her, she could just make out the faces from her past: Leonidas with his wooden parrot, her great-grandmamma hanging colored threads over the branches of the Judas tree. Like a mirage the faces faded away and she woke in a sweat, unable to breathe.
The next morning, she found herself alone in the house. Her dream had left her with a deep sense of unease and she decided to take Sophia’s advice and radio Cairo. The message was brief.
Operation Icarus almost complete. Dimitra.
She was in the process of lowering herself out of the attic when the doorbell rang. Hastily she climbed down, pushed the bed back into place, and hid the ladder behind the cupboard. Tidying her dressing gown, she went downstairs to answer the door. It was the Viennese lieutenant. She glanced over his shoulder and saw Reinhardt in the back seat of his limousine.
‘Good morning, Frau Stephenson. I believe that today we are going on a long journey.’
‘I can’t go like this!’ Nina exclaimed, looking down at her dressing gown. ‘Please allow me the courtesy of dressing appropriately.’
His eyes traced the shape of her body under the flimsy fabric. He smiled with approval. ‘Hurry,’ he said, ‘we can’t keep Herr Reinhardt waiting.’
Nina ran upstairs and quickly changed into her trousers and walking shoes and pulled a cardigan out of the drawer.
‘Hurry,’ shouted the lieutenant. ‘We want to get an early start.’
Reinhardt’s Mercedes with its Reich flag fluttering in the wind headed north towards Thebes. From there it turned west and at the town of Levadia they were joined by two other cars belonging to the Reich. After passing through numerous German-patrolled road blocks, the three cars began to make their way up into the mountains.
An hour later the road narrowed, hugging the wild mountains on the one side and falling away into the valley below on the other. Except for the occasional shepherd tending his flock, they saw no one. The car came to a halt outside a plateia in the mountain village of Arachova. Reinhardt got out and went to speak to the patrol officers in a nearby building. Two elderly Greeks sat outside a taverna playing backgammon. When they spotted Nina in the back of the car, one of them called to his wife to offer her something to eat. The woman came over to the car carrying a small chunk of bread and a slice of salty goat cheese.
‘The Turkish fountain is two miles further on; it’s halfway between here and Delphi,’ she whispered.
Nina thanked her. Several minutes later Reinhardt returned and they resumed their journey. Nina thought him unusually preoccupied. In fact he had not been his usual self all morning. When she spotted the fountain at the side of the road she asked to stop and get a drink, saying that the salty cheese had made her thirsty.
The car pulled over and Nina walked over to the fountain. An old man stood next to it, attaching two panniers of grass to his donkey. She cupped her hands together, scooping the water splashing into the marble trough, and caught the man’s eye. At the back of the trough was a decorative wall in the shape of a mihrab bordered with ornate scrollwork and an inscription in Turkish giving the name and date of the person who commissioned it.
‘It’s behind there,’ the villager whispered, ‘covered with fresh wildflowers.’
She took another drink and returned to the car, commenting on the freshness of the water.
Five minutes later the road curved around the mountainside and there in front of them, clinging to the terraced slopes of Mount Parnassus, stood the ancient site of Delphi.
The three cars stopped outside the entrance and amidst the spectacular landscape of resin-scented pines and the occasional tall cypress, Reinhardt and Nina began their tour. First he wanted to see the Athenian Treasury, built after the battle of Marathon. From there they covered the Sanctuary of Apollo, ending at the Sybil rock, a pulpit-like outcrop of rock along the sacred way, thought to be the place of the Oracle.
‘It was here that the god Apollo spoke to the worshippers through a priestess,’ said Nina. ‘Would you like to ask her a question? After all, you’d be following in the footsteps of many a hero before you.’
Reinhardt laughed. ‘There’s nothing here.’
It was the first time she’d seen him smile all morning. ‘Then use your imagination,’ Nina replied.
She sat down on the remains of a marble column, fanning her face with her hand and watching him as he wandered around, sensitively running his fingers over the marble fragments and breathing in the beauty of the place. At this moment he was no longer the ruthless, cold-blooded killer. This was a side of him that few had seen. She thought of her sister. She, too, must have once seen this side.
Nina looked at the mountains around them; mountains that were alive, with the Resistance watching their every move. In less than an hour he would be dead. She felt no remorse.
Buy The Embroiderer
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
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