Hydra’s history is long and rich.
Prehistory through the Middle Ages
In ancient times, Hydra’s population was very small, and the historical record is sparse. Archaeological excavation has discovered evidence (mainly pottery sherds) of the first settlements in Episkope (today a small, inland village) between 3000 and 2500 BCE. After 2500 BCE, according to Herodotus, the island was populated by Dryopes from the Greek mainland, who subsisted through stockbreeding, agriculture, and fishing.
The Dorian invasion of Greece in the twelfth century BCE probably resulted in a population decline, until farmers and herders, probably from Ermioni, came to Hydra in the eighth century BCE. These denizens tended to dwell inland and in the mountains due to frequent, destructive pirate raids.
It is thought that ownership of the island changed hands between Ermioni, Samos, and Tizina during the mid-first millennium BCE. Vases and coins discovered around Episkopi reveal that Hydra was populated during the Byzantine era (from about 300 BCE), but pirate raiding again drove inhabitants away during the thirteenth century.
Between 1204 and 1566 CE Hydra belonged to Venice. During the fifteenth century, Greek and Albanian refugees, persecuted by the Ottomans during that empire’s war with the Venetians (1463–1479), began to take shelter and settle on Hydra. Sharing the Orthodox Christian religion, newcomers and older residents intermarried. The island’s resources soon became too limited to feed this growing population, so residents turned to the sea for their livelihoods. During this period, Hydriots built the original town in Kiaffa, high up on the hill at the back of the harbor.
From 1566 to 1821 (nominally 1829), Hydra became part of the Ottoman Empire. Due to wars and rebellions on mainland Greece during this period, new settlers arrived to settle on the island. During much of the period of Ottoman rule, Hydra played a relatively minor role. Although naval and commercial development got underway in the 1600s, the conflict between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire limited the island’s maritime advances until 1718 and the Treaty of Passarowitz. From that point forward, Hydra’s trading strength blossomed, and the island gained greater and greater significance.
Having previously restricted themselves to trading in smaller boats around the Aegean as far as Constantinople, the Hydriots began after the 1750s to construct much larger ships, enabling the island to become an important commercial port. However, Ottoman tariffs and taxes constrained Hydra’s economic success and development. Further, the Ottomans permitted only Ottoman vessels to navigate the Dardenelles and Bosphorus, thus to access to the ports of the Black Sea, thereby limiting Hydriots’ ability to trade freely.
The 1774 Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca granted Russia the right to protect Orthodox Christians living within the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Hydriot vessels started to sail under the Russian flag, taking advantage of the free passage between the Aegean and Black seas provided by the treaty. Thus began the era of Hydra’s commercial development, with ships transporting goods between southern Russia in the east and the Italian ports of Ancona and Livorno in the west.
In 1792 plague killed a large proportion of the population, and many fled the island, almost abandoning the town entirely. By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, Hydra had regained its prosperity, trading as far away as France, Spain, and even the Americas.
The Hydriots had also developed a battle-ready fleet. Georgios Demas Voulgaris had been appointed Ottoman governor (bey) of the island and supervisor of the islands of Poros and Spetses. Through good governance and good relations with Ottoman administrators, Voulgaris achieved and maintained peace on Hydra and appeased the Ottoman rulers. With the goal of suppressing the scourge of piracy in the Aegean, Hydra vessels during the Voulgaris administration began to transport arms, and Hydriot citizens soon achieved affluence and had established an experienced naval fleet. A number of naval heroes of the era were Hydriots: Miaoulis, Economou, Sahtouris, Tombazis, Voulagis, Kriezis, Kountouriotis, Pipinos, and others.
Greek War of Independence
By the time of the 1821 Greek Revolution, Hydra boasted some 27,000 residents who made their livings primarily from the sea; the island also owned more than 150 warships, armed with 2.500 canons, crewed by 6.000 battle-hardened seamen. The sea captains’ mansions that surround Hydra’s harbor testify to the prosperity that shipping brought to the island.
During the Revolution, the fleets of Hydra and the other two naval islands of Psara and Spetses wrested control of the eastern Aegean from the Ottomans. Greek admiral Andreas Miaoulis, himself an Hydriot, used the island’s fire ships to inflict heavy losses on the Ottoman fleet, an event commemorated with fireworks and festivities on Hydra every June.
With the establishment of the Greek state after the revolution, the island’s fleet lost the privileges provided by the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca and the protection of the Russian flag. The island’s important ship-owning families also failed to jump on the bandwagon of the steamship revolution, which significantly reduced the amount of crew needed and reliance on their sailing expertise, putting Hydriot shipowners at a distinct disadvantage to the new shipping companies of the mainland. All of this further rendered illegal activities like piracy impossible.
Thus, Hydra gradually lost its prominence as a maritime strength in the eastern Mediterranean, which initiated an economic crisis and lean times. Once again many inhabitants abandoned Hydra, leaving their mansions and homes to fall into ruin. The island’s economy turned to sponge fishing, which brought renewed prosperity until the 1930s, when Egypt forbade fishing along its coast. By World War II Hydriots again began leaving the island.
A slight revival followed the war, when a number of Greek and foreign artists discovered and either moved to or began to spend time on the island, starting in the 1950s. Well-known Greek authors and painters (Seferis, Gkikas, Engonopoulos, Tetsis) and foreigners (American author Arthur Miller, Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen) became Hydra residents and brought cinema producers, who filmed many movies here (Boy on a Dolphin with Sophia Loren, Phaedra with Melina Mercouri). This exposure of the island’s beauty generated a bustling tourism, which today remains the mainstay of Hydra’s economy.
Hydra has continued in importance to the Greek state. Over the years, the island has given Greece one president, five prime ministers, and numerous cabinet ministers.