Nothing reminds me more of attempting to give a coherent account of even the recent the history of the Balkans than the Monty Python gameshow “Summarise the Works of Proust in 15 seconds” (Prrrowst). It’s Mission Impossible. However, one can isolate little incidents that give the flavour of the complexities. My focus is Greece, or rather the northern area known as Macedonia – though it’s still a name to conjure with: more of that later.
Many of you may be aware of the headline acts of the Greek War of Independence which kicked off in 1821 – Byron, Ottomans, Greek Orthodox priests waving the new Greek flag, but unless you have delved into it you cannot comprehend the utter shambles and inglorious nature of many of the episodes, which lasted until 1828. All the usual Greek ingredients were there: colourful, moustachioed bandits, courage, betrayal, desertion, massacres, endless squabbling and accusations of besmirching of honour, jockeying for supreme command, the disappearance of large sums of other people’s money, a complete unwillingness to obey orders. How did they manage to win? Well, they did manage, by the skin of their teeth, because they possessed enough sound men to prevail, and because of philhellenes like Frank Hastings, an Englishman who fought at Trafalgar at the age of eleven, and who was cashiered from the Navy for challenging a captain to a duel. Hastings funded his own warship, a completely innovative steamship (SS Karteria) that burned the Turkish ships down to the water with his own specification of hollow red-hot shot. Even so, the game was almost up with the Greeks at the hands of the Egyptian Ottoman troops when Admiral Codrington’s fleet destroyed the Ottoman navy at Navarino, a battle that took place with both sides at anchor, and by accident: it wasn’t meant to happen. Unsupplied, the Ottoman soldiery faded away and Greece was free.
Byron has become the legend of the struggle, and to be fair he did his best and did not lack courage. Unfortunately his rapturous welcome was rather more for his fancied wealth than for his military prowess. He achieved very little, but he answered the call at the very beginning and did “raise awareness” as we say today. And, when all said and done, he died for the cause. He deserves the many streets in his name all over Greece.
The Treaty of Constantinople (1832) drew a map of Greece that we would not recognise today. Great chunks of northern territory were missing, including Macedonia. The Greek speakers of that area had joined the 1821 uprising but discovered what many had learned before: the Ottomans were very good at the brutal suppression of uprisings. Nevertheless, the Greeks, Bulgarians and to an extent Serbs began to contest Ottoman rule, and, of course, antagonise each other. The Greeks refer to it as “The struggle for Macedonia” while the Bulgarians call it “Greek armed propaganda in Macedonia.” Over the coming decades there were many engagements and skirmishes with the Ottomans as the Greek fought in the way that suits them best: armed guerrillas or andartes. This is where we introduce Captain Bear. Born in 1856 in Samarina, Grevena, Georgios Lepidatos was the son of a father who had participated in the 1854 uprising in Epirus as the Greeks sought to take advantage of Ottoman distractions in The Crimea. The outcome was the usual bloody repression. Born into the struggle, Georgios became a guerrilla chieftain known as Captain Bear because of his size and, er, hairiness. He went on to fight in endless engagements including the uprisings of 1878 and 1896. He even fought in the little-known and disastrous Greek-Ottoman war of 1897 which was nominally a Cretan revolt. As ever, Johnny Turk proved a tough nut to crack, even in a crumbling empire. Captain Bear would pretty well go anywhere to have a bash at them, and he wasn’t without success.
In 1905 the Captain fetched up in Athens to drum up support for the Macedonian struggle. He addressed student meetings and impressed Queen Olga, a Romanov who married into the job, and who obviously liked the big, hairy type. She asked him why he always wore black, and he replied that he was in mourning for his enslaved Samarina. Returning to Macedonia he continued the attack against Bulgarians and Ottomans, and still found time to participate in a battle alongside Cretan forces. He became embroiled in so many engagements that his own band of men was whittled down to a handful by 1906. He was ordered to Epirus in the northern part of Greece that now borders Albania, to clamp down on lawlessness. In July 1906 he and eight men arrived in the Zagori area of Epirus, known these days for its rugged mountains and bottled water. It is not clear how the little band of survivors was to conduct any operations. Later on, romantic stories were woven that the Captain had a female interest to look up. The truth is, though, that his band of weary men were exhausted. One of them, John Anastadiatis, actually did have an interest in the nearby village – namely his wife and family. Captain Bear and his band flopped into a deserted mill while their comrade went off to visit his family. What they did not realise was that a prominent landowner had recently been kidnapped for ransom not far away, and the place was crawling with Ottoman troops.
When Anastadiatis failed to re-appear at the appointed time Captain Bear decided to go and fetch him. He went into the village and left a note for the missing man to report to the mill. Unfortunately it fell into the hands of the local gendarme, Lambros Spyros, who thought it referred to the kidnappers. He went up to the mill, and seeing strangers, opened fire. Captain Bear and his men returned fire, but this alerted a hornets nest of soldiery. The little band were now in big trouble. They made a dash for it but the Captain’s adopted son was quickly hit. Carrying him on his back the Bear headed towards a nearby stone bridge, where his son soon expired. They divided into two: one group ran upstream and got away, but Captain Bear went downstream and was fatally shot in the head. His men were later mopped up and arrested. The two fatalities were buried with full Orthodox rites in a churchyard in the provincial capital Ioaninna. Had they been able to survive it is likely that they would have been released from prison, as were his comrades, in an amnesty occasioned by the Young Turks Revolution in 1908, which more or less granted autonomy to Macedonia.The Greek part of Macedonia was finally ceded to Greece in 1913 after the Balkan League ganged up on the Turks in 1912. The following year Bulgaria decided it deserved more of the spoils but came off second against its allies of the previous year. Of course, with the two world wars the turbulence was far from over, and Greece did not achieve its current shape until 1947, when the Italians were obliged to cede the Dodecanese Islands (which include Rhodes) against the fierce objections of – well, well, – Turkey.
And that, surely, is where the story of Macedonia comes to a peaceful conclusion? Well, not quite. For the past twenty-odd years Greece has been at loggerheads with the Slavic FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, over what its final name should be. The Greeks don’t really want the young country to have Macedonia in its name at all, as they regard their province of Macedonia as the real deal. The Americans have been trying to mediate all this time, but that Balkan cussedness and sense of honour just won’t allow any conclusions. The Greek press regularly publishes articles headed “End of name dispute in sight.” Never happens.
If you are ever in Zagoria do visit the stone bridge now named after Captain Bear. His death was mourned throughout Greece, and his name immortalised in those hallmarks of real champions – folk songs. He spent his life in harm’s way for his beloved cause. He really is not forgotten and a monument was placed near the bridge in 2009. I have visited it several times, and the site has that haunting peacefulness that seems to descend on places of violent action. The debate carries on – was he betrayed by his supposed comrade who went into the village? It should be noted that the local gendarme bragged for many years afterwards that he had fired the fatal shot. Not necessarily a popular boast, I should have thought.
Anyway, that’s just one man’s story. He was involved in so many episodes of Greek and Macedonian history but his efforts and sacrifice do not qualify him for inclusion into the list of important figures mentioned in Wiki. Summarise Proust? Dead easy.
© Bassman 2018