The long 19th century
In the 19th century, the Mediterranean was at the fore center of international commerce. The ships traveled from the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea to the West carrying grain, wool, cotton, linseed and animal fat, and returned from there laden with coal and industrial products. The Black Sea was the granary of Europe during the 19th century and grain was the main cargo in the hulls of Greek-owned ships.
A significant fraction of this fleet, suitable equipped, confronted the Ottoman Navy during the Greek War of Independence and managed to cause serious damage. Many traditional ship owner families of the Aegean possess, among their heirlooms, certificates bearing the signature of the Greek Minister of Navy Konstantinos Kanaris for the assignment of ships for the requirements of the war at sea.
After the end of the war and the establishment of the Greek state, the commercial fleet was renewed with boats built in Galaxidi, Hydra and Spetses, but also on Andros, Kasos and Samos. Very quickly the largest number of boats gathered on Syros, where many refugees from Chios, Psara, and Kasos were to be found, while important ports such as those on Kasos, Chios, Mytilini and Limnos remained for a long period outside the boundaries of the Greek nation-state.
Information regarding the registration of ships shows that the Aegean fleet increased dramatically between 1840 and 1845 and, since then, followed a rising course. During the period 1830-1939, the Cyclades appear to possess 32% of registered ships, the islands of the south-western Aegean – the traditional shipping areas of 1821 – 10%, while the Sporades and Euboea – which received many refugees from Psara – formed a part of the “Thessalian shipping”, which represented 5% of the total number of registered ships. A similar percentage is recorded for the islands of the north-eastern Aegean and the Dodecanese, while Crete, during the 19th century, possessed very few sailing boats.
The Aegean islands functioned entirely as island groups, such as the Cyclades, or as groups encompassing their mainland dependants, such as Chios or Lesvos with the neighboring coastlines of Asia Minor, the Sporades with northern Euboea and the Pelion peninsula. In the Eastern Aegean the island capitals always faced their neighboring coastline. The islands of the north-eastern Aegean developed in immediate dependence with the coast of Asia Minor, Smyrna and Constantinople. The Sporades formed a link in the chain connecting the seas of the north-western Aegean, from the Thermaikos gulf to the northern Euboean gulf. The shipping centers of the area served the needs of the mainland, as well as of the Macedonian and Thessaly plains. In the south-western Aegean, Hydra and Spetses, whose naval commercial activities were much advanced, did not manage to convert their sailing power to steam-power, and were thus among the traditional naval powers who offered mainly able captains to the new era of shipping.
Syros, shipping center of the Aegean and the south-eastern Mediterranean
The resources of the islands that faced significant or total destruction during the 1821 War of Independence was not lost. More than the contribution of migration and refugee movements, it was mainly the know-how that was transmitted in islands where political and economical conditions were more favorable for shipping and trade.
A number of such conditions were met by Syros and it was here that the weight of shipping activity in the Aegean was concentrated for many decades. Ermoupolis became a particularly important junction for the transit trade of Black Sea grain but also of commodities imported via Syros to Greece and the Ottoman Empire. From 1827 to 1834 more than 260 ships were built on Syros and it is calculated that over the next fifty years around 5.500 ships were registered on the island. In 1835, Ioannis A. Rallis, a merchant from Chios who had settled on Syros, chartered the ship “Alexandros” from Psara; it set sail from the port of Syros laden with wine, oil and Corinthian raisins and arrived, several weeks later, in Boston, where it was registered as the first ship bearing the Greek flag to reach America after the establishment of the Greek state.
“Greek Shipping Line” was the first Greek company offering scheduled routes between the islands and the coastal cities of Greece. It was established by the Greek state in 1856 and was based in Ermoupolis on Syros, while the first steam liner maintenance unit was established in 1861.
Syros became the financial capital of the Aegean but also of the entire newly established Greek state during the 19th century. At the same time it formed the main junction of the sea routes which connected the Black Sea to the western Mediterranean via the Aegean. The capital amassed from shipping and commerce was invested in industry. When, however, steam became the moving power for ships, the latter became capable of longer journeys. At the same time, the telegraph allowed for more immediate communication between charterers and ship owners. Thus, the need for intermediary stopovers came to an end. These conditions, combined with the construction of the Corinth Canal, brought about the end of the important role of Syros not only in the Aegean, but throughout the south-eastern Mediterranean. The business center of Greek shipping within the national borders moved to Piraeus.
Greek shipping as a whole faced the challenge of shifting from sail to steam with relative success and followed international developments in shipping: new types of ships, new methods of navigation, but also the establishment of companies or their subsidiaries throughout the emerging shipping centers of the world. In shipping’s contemporary reality, technology and shipping routes no longer place the Aegean at the center of developments for Greek-owned shipping. Tradition has supported the shipping and ship owning activities of Aegean islanders – local networks of partnership are still active – but the decision-making centers are located, for many decades now outside the Aegean islands.