Freedom Fighters Who Changed the Course of History
By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Ever since I was a young girl, Greek Independence Day—March 25th—has been very important to me. Not only is it my Pappou’s birthday and my YiaYia’s name day, but it also marks the beginning of the near decade-long battle for Greek liberation from the Ottoman Empire. Greek history has been marked with strong warriors and fighters for millennia, but the Greek War of Independence produced some of the most noble and heroic men and women, like Nikitas “Turk-Eater” Stamatelopoulos, Odysseas Androutsos, and Laskarina “Bouboulina” Pinotsis. Bouboulina was a woman I have looked up to since I first heard her story in elementary school, and is still known today as one of the fiercest warriors of the revolution, even with her status as a woman. Before relaying the awesome and tragic story of Bouboulina, I will first explain some of the history of Greece’s subjugation to the Ottoman Empire and how the bloody war for freedom began.
The Ottoman Empire had an immense imperial presence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. It was known that they had the largest army, not only in the Middle East but in Europe as well, for a significant amount of time. In our modern age, when we think of powerful far-reaching empires, we may think of Great Britain, France, or Spain. However, that list excludes the Ottoman Empire, whose reign was almost unstoppable nearly four centuries before the European powers became relevant on a large-scale. The Ottomans were consistently trying to extend their boundaries, as empires do, and looked to the Mediterranean as a means of expansion. The Ottomans’ goal was to control as much territory as they could—up to the gates of Vienna if that was possible to achieve. Sandwiched between the Venetians and the Ottomans, the Greeks were forced to experience many battles on their own land due to the two large powers on either side constantly vying for more ground. In May of 1453, under Mehmed the II, the Ottomans broke Constantinople’s defenses. After 55 days of siege, the Byzantine Empire was finally brought to an end with the collapse of Constantinople, previously the Christian bulwark for Muslim invasion, allowing for the uninterrupted expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Eastern Europe.
The ensuing bloodshed and rampaging subsequent to the sacking of the city was telling for the reign of the Ottomans in Greece. Although the Ottomans did introduce new technologies, military prowess, medicine, and architecture to their annexed territories, their sovereignty was marred with genocides, slavery, and corruption. The Ottomans had become immensely and obscenely powerful, and they did not hesitate to let everyone in their path know.
For hundreds of years, Hellenism survived in the dark. Many Greeks fled to the mountains to escape the Ottomans, and because the higher altitudes were more difficult to reach they were able to live out their lives relatively unscathed. However, most Greeks were not as lucky. The Ottomans enforced excessive taxes upon the Greeks—not only monetarily, but through a blood tax. This tax, or child levy, known in Turkish as “devshirme,” was the Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting male children, aged eight to twenty, from Greek or Balkan Christian families to become soldiers. The children would be relocated to Constantinople in order to be trained in a division of the military that was loyal to the sultan. Often, the young soldiers would undergo a conversion to Islam, and were widely considered as slaves to the empire.
Additionally, Ottoman rule, resented by the Greeks, was peppered with instances of uprisings. There are several well-known revolutionary groups that came to fruition during Ottoman occupation. Famous in particular were the Souliotes, an Eastern Orthodox community located in Epirus, Greece. This group of people was quite instrumental in the fight leading up to the actual War of Independence. Records of the rebellious activity of the Souliotes exist from 1685. The Souliotes consistently fought the rule of a particular Ottoman lord, named Ali Pasha, who was intent on destroying them. For decades, the Souliotes fought valiantly against the Ottomans. Often, when faced with defeat or death, the Souliotes would not hesitate to choose the latter. One of the most infamous instances of this is known as the Dance of Zalongo—the mass suicide of women and children that occurred after the invasion by Ottoman troops in Zalongo, Epirus in 1803. About 60 women were trapped in their village and, instead of succumbing to the Ottomans—which would have resulted in slavery, rape, and forced conversion—they turned toward a high cliff, dancing and singing together, and jumped to their deaths. Ultimately, the Souliotes were forced to agree to an armistice and, abandoned their homeland, exiled to the Ionian Islands. However, with the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, the Souliotes were among the first people to take up arms against the Ottomans.
The Orlov Revolt was another famous uprising that took place before the Greek War of Independence. Instead of being an entirely Greek-driven rebellion, the Orlov Revolt had tremendous Russian support. At the time, Russia was threatened by the status and expansiveness of the Ottoman Empire, and sought to help Greece gain their freedom in order to limit Ottoman power over the region. This led to the “Greek Plan,” which envisioned the complete separation of the Ottoman Empire from the Habsburg Empire via the restoration of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose center would be in a liberated Constantinople. Subsequently, the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774) began. Alexey Orlov was the commander of the Imperial Russian Navy at the time, and played a huge part in the Orlov Revolt. His arrival in Greece inspired many cities to fight back against Ottoman Rule. However, the revolt was widely unsuccessful, and the Ottomans took many lives and prisoners. Among the prisoners was Stavrianos Pinotsis, father of Laskarina “Bouboulina” Pinotsis. Bouboulina was born in prison to Pinotsis and his wife Skevo. After Stavrianos’s death in prison, Bouboulina and Skevo moved to Spetses.
With the legacy of her father and the rising tensions between the Greeks and Ottomans, Bouboulina was set up to follow a very nontraditional path for a woman of her time. Yet, she has become one of the most renowned heroines and patriots of the Greek Revolution.
Bouboulina was married twice in her life, and due to those marriages she was able to amass a large fortune. Both of her husbands had been successful merchant captains, and she, too, had a passion for the sea. After the death of her second husband, Bouboulina used her fortune to create a merchant empire, becoming a partner in the operations of several trading vessels and building her own on ship, named Agamemnon. It is said that soon after that she joined the Filiki Eteria, a secret society trying to gain Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Filiki Eteria grew to have over 2,000 members across Greece, and became one of the forefront organizing forces of the War for Independence. Bouboulina was an active member of the society, and her large trading fleet provided enough cover for the Greeks to make warships that could be disguised as merchant vessels. She also recruited many fighters from her home of Spetses and tirelessly worked to smuggle in supplies and weapons for the war. She joined the rebellion in 1821, famously raising a Greek flag of her own design high on the mast of the Agamemnon. She was the leader of the first naval force to declare that Greece should have its independence, which was a tremendous achievement. She led her fleet to the town of Nafplio, which was one of the major strongholds in Greece, and blockaded the harbor there; the blockade held out for over a year and a half. Bouboulina remained a patriotic and “lion-hearted” asset to the revolution until her untimely death in 1825, when she was murdered in her home by an unnamed assassin.
On the 200th anniversary of Greek Independence Day, it is important for everyone to remember how this revolution contributed to the modern concept of freedom. I am proud to be Greek in this special year, and also to be a descendant of the Souliotes, who fought so valiantly for their country even before the war began. We must not forget those who lost their lives in the fight—from the women of Zalongo to the fierce warrior Bouboulina. May their example always keep the fire of freedom alive in our hearts.
Anastasia Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and is currently a Presidential Scholar at the College of the Holy Cross majoring in classics. She is a features editor for Holy Cross’s newspaper, The Spire, associate editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, author of Milkshake: A Very Special Pony, and recipient of the 2019 NYC Scholastic Writing Award. She has contributed to WestView News since 2018.