Viewpoint: Chios Merchant Shipping a Success Story
By Catherine Tsounis
“The sacrifice of the Greek maritime community in the 1821 Revolution should not be forgotten,” said Dr. Demetrios Kokkinos, whose roots are in Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece. “They lost their family fortunes and lives for the concept of freedom. Their sacrifice is just as significant as the war heroes.” The Aegean islands were devastated in 1821. They remained enslaved until nearly a hundred years later when the Northern Aegean islands were freed in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. Chios received her freedom, establishing a maritime industry that is still flourishing in 2013 Modern Greece.
Panchiaki Korais Society with the cooperation of the Chian Federation sponsored an exceptional Centennial on the occasion of its 100th Anniversary, 1912-2012. The topic was Milestones in History: United States and Greece. The symposium was held on Saturday, October 14th, all day at the Chian Federation, 44-01 Broadway, Astoria, New York.Speakers included unique Chians of this century. Dr. Mattheos D. Los, General Manager, Vrontados, S.A., Treasurer, Union of Greek Shipowners, came from Greece to present the topic “Chios Liberated- Shipping Continues Upward.” A shipping magnate fluent in English, Dr. Los gave a unique lecture. The following information is his lecture transcript, with some paragraphs omitted. His lecture should be a primary source in university studies.
“A young man in his thirties starts off from his native Chios, still under Ottoman rule, to the New World,” Dr. Los said. “The goal of his lonely adventure is to raise the necessary capital that will allow him and his brothers to purchase their first merchant steamship. They run a second generation family partnership, setting sail in the Mediterranean and Black sea ports on board their old brig. A steamship will broaden their activity beyond those limited areas.
After a brief stay in New York, working on board the Manhattan to Staten Island ferries, our young fellow takes his chances accepting a risky yet highly rewarding job as a laborer in the building of the Panama Canal. Heat, hard work and the risk of contracting malaria are no obstacles. He heads back to Vrontados, his hometown, to fulfill his dream, generously rewarded by the opportunities offered in the New World. This is a story that took place between 1905-07. In times when Chios was still enslaved, its inhabitants were allowed to dream of a future.
Chian commerce and shipping were already free. During the 19th century, Chian merchants were established in Constantinople, Smyrna, London, Marseille, Vienna and Odessa. After the massacre of Chios in 1822, waves of Chians who fled the island created new centers for their activities in free Hellas. Ermoupolis in Syros and prime properties in the heart of Piraeus were offered to them by the Greek government for development. Both towns became dynamic gateways for shipping and trade. When Chios was finally liberated in 1912, shipping and trade were in a state of ‘business as usual’. Chian merchants and ship-owners were already foreign market oriented. They had not been affected by Ottoman rule. The Chians of the lower classes had ample opportunity to be employed on board the ships of their compatriots, whether they resided in Chios or in free Hellas.” This fact is not explored adequately in the viewpoint of Western Historians.
Towards the last decade of the 19th century, the merchant fleet under Chian control included four steamships and about three hundred sailing ships. The Chians were among the first Greeks to adopt technological advantages (sail to steam). Capital was furnished by financial institutions and insurance companies established decades before by fellow Chian merchants, who accumulated wealth since the Napoleonic Wars. A traditional, solid education infrastructure for navigators was available in Chios. Chian settlers established engineering schools in Syros and Piraeus. Since 1861, a repair and maintenance unit was in place in Syros. It became the primary shipyard in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In 1889, pioneer ship-owners from Vrontados, Chora, Kardamyla (1898) and Oinoussai (1905) bought steamships. Those who refused, such as Langada and Galaxidi, disappeared from shipping. Steamships old and second hand, were bought exclusively in the London market. London was the world center for sale and purchase of ships. They were small to medium sized freighter, ranging from 500 to 4,000 gross tons. They carried grain, coal, timber and other commodities. The traditional geographical limits (Mediterranean, Black Sea and the Continent) were expanded to the Americas and Far East. The bigger ship-owners, who numbered fifteen in the thirties, opened in the world shipping London center.
The family structure of the business was omnipresent, it was the norm that ship-owners and male members of their families sailed and served on board their own ships, Special ties were developed among the owners and their crews who often came from the same hometown. This led to a successful working relationship. It is the nature of this relationship that explains how seamanship acts as a springboard to ownership.
During the Balkan Wars (1912), the Chian merchant fleet participated in the war effort as supply and troop ships for the Hellenic armed forces. When Greece entered the Entente forces (WWI) in 1916, the merchant fleet was commandeered by the government. The end of the Great War found Chios having paid its toll in ships and human lives. Out of a Greek merchant fleet of 474 steamships in 1914, 147 were lost, reducing by half its pre-war cargo carrying capacity. Statistics do not clearly show how many Chians were among the 148 Greek seamen who perished during the war……many Chian shipping companies went bankrupt. The beginning of the twenties found the fleet of Chios decimated and its owners and crews in full disarray.”
Dr. Los continues the story of the young man who came to America in 1905 by describing his role in the national disaster of 1922. “Our young man from Chios is now a mature ship-owner in his 50’s,” he said. “His family business survived the War. Now he hears of a new national disaster near his home and heart. He decides along with other Chians to rush their steamships into Krini (Cesme) and the Gulf of Smyrna to collect the fleeing Greek population trying to save themselves from the massacre. The ships were at Chios and Oinoussai waiting for orders during a grim shipping market. This was good luck for the unfortunate fugitives from the other side of the Chios straits.
It is common knowledge in shipping circles that market depression leads to fleet renewal. Between the two wars….Chians like other Greek ship owners, acquired 189 medium sized, mostly overage freighter at very low prices….A true revival resulted in the fleet of 109 Chian steamers just before the eruption of the Second World War.
The Greeks were an important fourth arm in the WWII allied forces, with more than 600 steamships totaling 8 million gross tons. Once again the toll in lives and ships was high for Greece… The dark shadow of occupation is once again over Chios. Our young friend has reached his seventies, stranded in his hometown. He was left without ships since the early days of the War. His only ship, a 32 year old steamer, loaded with grain, was torpedoed in the North Atlantic …No member of the crew was lost.” My uncle and family koumbaro, Steve Skellas, was the son of a Chian priest, who was shipwrecked about twice. He watched his crew members, his friends, eaten by sharks. He was spared miraculously. Mr. Skellas immigrated to New York through Ellis Island. Every family has oral, historical stories.
The next historical turning point for Chian shipping starts in New York…with the purchase of the Liberties, mass produced during the war. The ‘blessed Liberties’(WWII ships) laid the foundation of the post-war miracle of Greek shipping….January 1947, our friend returns to New York City as a ship-owner with his sons…becoming with his sons a proud owner of the 100 ‘blessed ones’….their own shipping miracle remains luminescent to this day.” The Liberties aided Aristotle Onassis in his rise to fame.
Dr. Los explained that “the ever increasing size of ships had begun since the fifties. During the sixties…the name of the game was new buildings. Japan superseded the U.S. and the U.K. as the world’s major shipbuilder. South Korea would emerge as leader in the shipbuilding scene, followed by China in today’ market…..Our man from Chios passes away peacefully at the age of 92. He is in high spirits as he sees the third generation taking on another challenge, the bulk carrier.
From the seventies until the present day, Chian shipping has continued its upward path…controlling more than 40% of Greek shipping….Greek owned shipping stands today in first position worldwide….. The man from Chios family is in its fifth generation. The spirit remains: be wary and respectful of the market; be mindful of the upward cycles and patient when the going gets tough; be close to the ship and crew; communicate with fellow ship-owners.”
Dr. Los honored all present with his analytical, factually based lecture.
Greece is a maritime nation by tradition, as shipping is arguably the oldest form of occupation of the Greeks and a key element of Greek economic activity since the ancient times, Nowadays, Greece has the largest merchant fleet in the world, which is the second largest contributor to the national economy after tourism and forms the backbone of world shipping. The Greek fleet flies a variety of flags, however some Greek ship-owners gradually return to Greece following the changes to the legislative framework governing their operations and the improvement of infrastructure, according tohttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Merchant_Navy
Greek firms have managed to greatly capture the immense expansion of Asia, particularly China. It is mostly the dry bulk shipping firms that have benefited from the development, since iron ore and coal are the two major resources that are required for a country’s infrastructure to be taken to the next level.
Ever since the beginning of the new millennium, China has provided very lucrative contracts both on the spot, and time charter market for dry bulk ship-owners. As a result, many new shipping tycoons were created.Most Greek shipping has been run as a family business, with family members located in key ports or in key positions, and with marriages cementing relationships between commercial dynasties. These close-knit families have allowed financially sensitive information to be kept within the local community, with many transactions kept within trusted family networks.The twentieth century saw more Greek shipping families established.
Photo-Dr. Los (4th from left) at The Panchiaki Korais Society, Inc.