I noticed recently a small cri de coeur from Gumblina, one of our elite Laydeez Battalion, who made a request for the occasional, well, girlie feature in GP. I felt it my duty to respond. How to remedy this lacuna? A name floated into my mind, not too dissimilar from Gumblina. The article, it should be said, also incorporates plenty of the fighting stuff we require.
Laskarina Bouboulina is another of those larger-than-life characters from the Greek War of Independence, and if you’ve ever read a history of that shambolic episode you will accept that the Greeks needed all the characters they could get. One of just two recognised heroines from the struggle, Bouboulina is established in the minds of modern Greeks, and was featured on a drachma coin till Greece took the German euro. She entered this world as Laskarina Pinotsis in an unorthodox manner in 1771 when she was born inside Constantinople prison. Her mother was visiting her husband who had been imprisoned for taking part in the Orlov uprising in the Peloponnese against the Ottoman occupiers. It was Russian-backed, but success at sea was not mirrored by under-funded land forces, and the Ottomans came out on top. Damn difficult to rid yourself of unwanted oppressors. Bouboulina’s father soon died and she and her mother returned to Hydra, thence to Spetses. Her mother and father were both from shipping families, and at the age of 17 Bouboulina married a sea captain by whom she had three children. Her husband was putting in hard yards against the Ottomans as well, but he was killed by Algerian pirates. She went on to marry another sea captain, Bouboulis, by whom she had another three children. Rather tiresomely, he was also killed by Algerian pirates. I had always harboured the hope that Bouboulina’s name was somehow a reference to her often-illustrated “busty substances” as Pete and Dud used to say. The word has a nice, “jubbly” sound to it. But no – it’s “wife of Bouboulis.” The Greek language is inventive, but disappointed on this occasion. Bouboulis’s death was particularly poignant, as he did a Nelson:
“… he fell at the last moment of victory, when, looking over his ship’s gunwale at the destroyed enemy, a bullet hit him on the forehead and left him dead. The fallen hero’s command is taken immediately by a fighting relative, who, having kept secret the captain’s death from the rest of the crew, resumed even more intensely the bombardment against the enemy, spreading death amongst them.”
Her husband left her an estate of 300,000 tallira, Spanish gold sovereigns, and she turned this again with shipbuilding, trading and shareholdings. Of course, our Ottoman friends couldn’t leave her alone and sought to punish her for her late husband’s involvement in Turko-Russian wars. Bouboulina was resourceful and engaged the sympathies of the Russian ambassador in Constantinople, and also the mother of Sultan Mahmud II. Judiciously using some small print in her husband’s shipping contracts with the Russians she eventually won her case and was a given a dispensation. The Ottomans later paid for this apparent act of mercy. While in Constantinople she became involved with the famous Φιλική Εταιρία, The Society of Friends, a secret society whose purpose was to overthrow the Ottoman rule of Greece and establish an independent Greek state. It is disputed whether or not she was formally a member, as women were not otherwise enrolled. Probably vetoed by those misogynistic Greek Orthodox priests. Bouboulina returned to Spetses and set about building the Agamemnon, an 18-gun corvette which set her back 25,000 tallira. It was the largest ship to take part in the revolution. Of course, it wouldn’t be Greek without some treachery involved, and Bouboulina’s shipbuilding activities were reported by jealous islanders. Bouboulina resorted to another essential ingredient of the struggle and bribed the Ottoman inspectors. The grasses were booted off the island just to set things straight. The ship was built and was an important player in the game about the unfold.
When the balloon went up in 1821 Bouboulina threw herself and her fortune into building up the Greek forces, and as captain of the Agamemnon, now the Greek flagship, she led blockades on various Ottoman-occupied ports. One of her sons was killed in action. When Tripolis fell Bouboulina rode into the city on a white horse and personally saved the Pasha’s harem. Local legends apart, there is no doubt that she played a substantial, active, courageous and daring part in the success of the venture. One author described her as “warlike as an Amazon.” The gratitude she was owed by the fledgling nation was short-lived. Again, this is very Greek. The motley collection of individuals and warlords who participated soon fell out and began some serious squabbling. One of Bouboulina’s daughters was married to a son of Dimitrios Kolokotronis, possibly the most successful warlord in the whole struggle. A civil war broke out (shades of World War 2) and Kolokotronis was imprisoned. I’ve visited the cell where he was kept – not nice, and definitely not for claustrophobes. I’ve always had a soft spot for the old boy, and possess a tourist mug with his face on it. He is wearing his trademark fireman’s helmet. I think he thought it was part of the Hussar’s uniform. Needless to say, Bouboulina’s family connection dragged her into the argument and the new government confiscated the house and land in the nation’s first capital Naufplion, which she had been granted in recognition of her contribution. She was threatened with arrest and expelled from the city. They also killed her son-in-law.
Broke and bitterly disillusioned, Bouboulina returned to her husband’s house on Spetses to nurse her all-too-justified grievances. Nevertheless, the internal feuding of the warlords had allowed an army of Egyptians (there’s always a Muslim army around when you want one) sent by the Sultan re-conquer most of the Peloponnese. Old Kolokotronis was released for further service in the field. Bouboulina geared herself up to answer the call, but fate just couldn’t leave her alone and in 1825 one of her sons eloped with the sister-in-law of Bouboulina’s stepbrother. Hot heads prevailed, and the woman’s family stormed round to Bouboulina’s house mob-handed to retrieve her. It had become the dreaded matter of honour, which no Greek will ignore, even now. Bouboulina, of course, had faced far worse in her time and would not back down. While she was arguing from the balcony she was shot in the forehead (echo of her second husband’s death). It was never established whether the shot was deliberate or accidental, and the Greek weapons of the day were so inaccurate and potentially dangerous that the shooter often used to face away from the gun when firing.
A sad ending to a genuine, paid-up heroine. She was nicknamed “The Captain” in her day, but was later promoted posthumously to Admiral by the Russians, an unprecedented honour. We visited her house on Spetses a few years back and it it is well worth a look. What else? Well, the Agamemnon itself suffered an inglorious end when burned in port in yet another internecine struggle. Wily old Kolokotronis was made commander-in-chief and managed to wear down the Egyptians with guerrilla tactics, which is what the Greeks really prefer. His later political activities earned him a death sentence for treason, but he managed to avoid that and eventually died of old age – quite a feat. The other Greek heroine? Manto Mavrogennou was another brave woman who depleted her wealth at her country’s service, equipping forces to fight the dreaded Algerian pirates from her Mykonos base. She had been granted the rank of Lieutenant General and led these forces herself. Much good it did her – she too was expelled from Naufplion and ended up living in poverty with relatives on Paros, where the only “doctor”, an Italian who had been a pharmacist’s assistant, watched her succumb to typhoid aged 52. Fortune often plays havoc with these risk-takers.
© Bassman 2018