a brief history of hydra

Prehistory through the Middle Ages

In ancient times, the island was called Hydrea, a word derived from the Greek for “water”), due to the natural springs then present on the island. Hydra’s population was very small, and the historical record is sparse. Alexander Bellinis in “The Importance of Being Hydra,” writes, “While the surrounding basin has been densely inhabited and part of history for well over five millennia, Hydra bears virtually no archeological trace from the Mycenean, Classical, and Roman eras.” Archaeological excavation has discovered evidence (mainly pottery sherds) of the first settlements in Episkopi (today a small, mostly unpopulated, mountain village and, according to Bellinis, “the one somewhat arable patch on the island”) between 3000 and 2500 BCE. After 2500 BCE, according to Herodotus, the island was populated by Dryopes (an aboriginal tribe of ancient Greece) from the Greek mainland, who subsisted through stockbreeding, agriculture, and fishing. At around this time, the island may also have served as a maritime base for Greek kingdoms on the Peloponnese.
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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 either fled or 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 13th century CE.

From the 13th through the 15th centuries, Albanians, known as Arvanites, came to Greece at the invitation of local rulers. They were initially in demand as farmers as well as mercenaries, and over the years of migration, Albanian tribes settled in their own villages across the country, including on the Peloponnese in the regions of Corinth and Argolis (area across the gulf from Hydra) and on many islands of the Saronic. Some fled the Ottoman advance into the Balkans in the late 15th century.

Between 1204 and 1566 CE Hydra belonged to Venice. During the 15th through 18th centuries, as successive wars broke out between the Venetians and the Ottomans, Albanian refugees from the nearby Peloponnesus, the island of Evia, and even Asia Minor, who had fought for the Venetians against the Turks and were thus fleeing Ottoman persecution, began to take shelter and settle on Hydra as farmers. During the 16th century, more Albanians and Greeks fleeing these conflicts, also took refuge on Hydra. The largest wave came on the heels of the failed Orloff revolt, “a major precursor to the Greek War of Independence (which erupted in 1821),” by Peloponnesian Greeks against the Turks in 1770.

Sharing the Orthodox Christian religion, newcomers and older residents intermarried. During this period, Hydriots built Hydra’s main port and the original settlement in Kiafa, high up on the hill at the back of the harbor. A number of Hydriot place-names also derive from the Arvanite Albanian dialect, and Bellinis writes in “Connecting to Hydra” that “the street language of the island remained Arvanitika until the early 20th century.”

A number of the most prominent Hydriots in Greek history were of Arvanite descent:

Over time, these waves of immigration taxed the island’s agricultural resources, which soon became too limited to feed the growing population. As a result, residents turned to the sea for their livelihoods. Interestingly, during the period of Ottoman domination, which began in 1566, due to Hydra’s poor soil and paucity of water resources, the Turks took little interest in the island, not bothering even to levy taxes, and mostly left its inhabitants, as Nicholas Gage writes in his history Hellas, “to manage their affairs like a small independent republic.”

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Emergence as a Maritime Power

Hydriots’ relationship to the sea got its start initially when islanders became fishermen, seeking a more productive means of subsistence than agriculture and husbandry, given the island’s arid soil and lack of pastureland. The islanders’ foray into shipbuilding reputedly began in the mid-1600s after a number of Hydriots were taken prisoner by Algerian pirates and put to hard labor in their shipyards, where they learned the rudiments of the craft. Ransomed and returned to Hydra, they began constructing the island’s first ships, known as trechantiria, small craft with oars and three sails common to the Mediterranean then. These ships were used to barter food and wine with neighboring Aegean islands.

The first Hydriot ship, reputedly built in 1657, was, according to Alexander Billinis, “an ungainly vessel, … its lines and halyards … fashioned of plaited vines.” Drawing on the “greater skills of other Aegean islanders and the still-ubiquitous Venetians,” however, the Hydriots learned quickly, and “a century later they were building two-masted brigs with 250 tons’ displacement and taking the commerce of the Eastern Mediterranean with them.” Along the way, some of the islanders became wealthy shipowners.

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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. With the decline of Venice’s sea power following that city-state’s surrender to the Turks, Hydra’s commerce expanded, and larger ships extended the fleet’s range to Asia Minor, Smyrna, Constantinople and Crete, and finally Venice itself. The arrival of the island’s first compasses and maps in the 1750s enabled Hydra’s ships to reach every port in the Mediterranean, and ultimately to travel as far as Gibraltar and even the Americas. However, for the time being, 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.

It is for this reason that Bellinis, in “The Importance of Being Hydra,” links Hydra’s rise with the Russo-Turkish wars, as a result of which Russian power entered into the Black Sea and Russian interest increased in the plight of the Orthodox Greeks under Ottoman rule. At the Russians’ invitation tens of thousands Orthodox Ottoman subjects founded or bolstered Greek communities along newly liberated Black Sea coast; they would work and supply the growing Greek merchant fleet.

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.

The Hydriots shrewdly secured maritime and fiscal benefits from both the Turks and the Russians that enhanced their power and their wealth. “The Turks appreciated the Hydriots’ wealth and naval prowess and gave the island virtual autonomy in exchange for a periodic levy of Hydriot sailors for the Turkish fleet. The Russians secured, in the Treaty of Kucuk Kainardji, the right for Hydriot and other Ottoman Christian ships to fly the Russian flag … [which] provided a protection for the Hydriot ships against the Turks and others, as well as tax and tariff benefits” (Bellinis, “Importance”).

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By the turn of the 19th century, Hydra was trading as far away as France, Spain, and even across the Atlantic, often under various flags. Its ships ran British blockades of Spanish, French, and Italian ports during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), bringing their denizens much needed Russian grain and garnering even greater fortunes for their captains.

Bellinis writes how during one blockage-running mission, “one wily captain,” a certain Andreas Miaoulis, upon his capture by the British, was brought to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British hero of Trafalgar, who asked him, “What would you do to you if you were in my shoes?” Miaoulis shot back without hesitation, “I would hang you.” Impressed by this “pirate” captain’s audacious response, Nelson replied, “If I ever see you again, that’s what will happen.” Miaoulis went on to later fame as one of Hydra’s principal admirals in the struggle for liberation from the Ottomans shortly thereafter.

“By 1820,” Bellinis writes, in “Hydra: ‘The Rock of Liberty’ Tells Its Story,” “the island was by far the largest merchant naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean, its 20,000 inhabitants among the wealthiest anywhere.” Over the century following the Greek Revolution, Hydra Island became “the premier shipping center of the Eastern Mediterranean, with the largest fleet, incredible riches, stately mansions, and a cosmopolitan trade network stretching to the Americas.”

During this period in which Hydra built its commercial fleet, it also became the preeminent sea power among the Greek islands. Fighting off Barbary pirates of the coast of northern Africa and contributing sailors to the Turkish navy, the Hydriots had honed their martial skills. The leader of the Greek sailors serving in the Ottoman navy was always an Hydriot.

Hydra Town as we know it today—including most of the stately mansions lining the port—was built between 1715 and 1815 by the island’s prosperous seafarers, who poured their riches into their ships and their homes. The town of Hydra had expanded down from the original settlement in Kiafa and spread out ampitheatrically around the harbor. The port became the center of Hydriot administrative, economic and social life. The ship captains’ manors, lining the harbor and constructed of local stone, had plain exteriors; their interiors, however, boasted luxurious comforts, elegant furnishings and decorative objects, and foreign craftsmanship brought home from ports east and west.By the turn of the 19th century, Hydra was trading as far away as France, Spain, and even across the Atlantic, often under various flags. Its ships ran British blockades of Spanish, French, and Italian ports during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), bringing their denizens much needed Russian grain and garnering even greater fortunes for their captains.

Bellinis writes how during one blockage-running mission, “one wily captain,” a certain Andreas Miaoulis, upon his capture by the British, was brought to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British hero of Trafalgar, who asked him, “What would you do to you if you were in my shoes?” Miaoulis shot back without hesitation, “I would hang you.” Impressed by this “pirate” captain’s audacious response, Nelson replied, “If I ever see you again, that’s what will happen.” Miaoulis went on to later fame as one of Hydra’s principal admirals in the struggle for liberation from the Ottomans shortly thereafter.

“By 1820,” Bellinis writes, in “Hydra: ‘The Rock of Liberty’ Tells Its Story,” “the island was by far the largest merchant naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean, its 20,000 inhabitants among the wealthiest anywhere.” Over the century following the Greek Revolution, Hydra Island became “the premier shipping center of the Eastern Mediterranean, with the largest fleet, incredible riches, stately mansions, and a cosmopolitan trade network stretching to the Americas.”

During this period in which Hydra built its commercial fleet, it also became the preeminent sea power among the Greek islands. Fighting off Barbary pirates of the coast of northern Africa and contributing sailors to the Turkish navy, the Hydriots had honed their martial skills. The leader of the Greek sailors serving in the Ottoman navy was always an Hydriot.

Hydra Town as we know it today—including most of the stately mansions lining the port—was built between 1715 and 1815 by the island’s prosperous seafarers, who poured their riches into their ships and their homes. The town of Hydra had expanded down from the original settlement in Kiafa and spread out ampitheatrically around the harbor. The port became the center of Hydriot administrative, economic and social life. The ship captains’ manors, lining the harbor and constructed of local stone, had plain exteriors; their interiors, however, boasted luxurious comforts, elegant furnishings and decorative objects, and foreign craftsmanship brought home from ports east and west.

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.

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Aftermath of the Greek Revolution

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.

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Contemporary Hydra

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.