The Aegean under Ottoman Rule


From the 16th to the beginning of the 18th century AD, the “White Sea”, as the Aegean was named by the Ottomans, was a “turbulent archipelago”. Muslim and Christian pirates and corsairs were active in its waters. The latter were in the service of combative powers interested in damaging the enemy’s shipping and trade and were often supplied by this power with raid certificates (characteristic later example is that granted to Lambros Katsonis). By ambushing the trade routes of the East, corsairs with the crescent flag used the Greek islands to collect information regarding the movements of western commercial ships or Venetian galleys, or as supply points.

The port of Lesvos, engraving

The activities of both groups were aimed against passing boats – such adventures were difficult to record in a ship’s log or official archives – but also against local populations through forced purchase or surrender of grains or animals or in the shape of enforced labor, when pirates and corsairs needed crews. Islands such as Ios in 1528, Samos over many decades but also Skiathos, Skopelos and Kythira in 1570 became desolate as the result of such activity.

As supervision of the area from the mainland coastlines was difficult because of the numerous natural shelters, one had to gain dominance over the sea in order to control it. The Venetians, the Ottomans and the Western powers (the French and the English) tried their best to achieve this, with greater or lesser success. The Ottoman fleet limited itself to an annual spring venture from Constantinople to Alexandria for the transportation of goods and the collection of taxes. Thus, the Greek populations enjoyed a grade of autonomy, while on the other side they paid the consequences of the insufficient Ottoman policing in the Aegean and the lack of protection of its populations.

Ship owners and sailors began equipping their ships with canons. The Archipelago’s commercial islands shared the expenses of maintaining anti-pirate galeotas or “trates” (trawlers). Other islanders joined corsair crews, sold their nautical abilities or knowledge of languages; some participated in the economic networks brought about by piracy, became suppliers of food or equipment or traded, on the boundaries of smuggling, at the expense of the Ottoman purse. Islands such as Hydra, Psara, Skyros and Patmos were transit stops particularly in the smuggling of grain from the ports of Thessaly, Asia Minor and the Peloponnese. During the 18th century inhabitants from Milos, Hydra, Mykonos, Skopelos, Spetses, Tinos and Psara – among other islands – were in some way involved with piracy.

The participation of the Aegean islands in the economic life of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Chios by the Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis

Practices such as those mentioned above, allowed the Greek element to accumulate an initial capital and gain an important position in the commercial networks of the Mediterranean world. The general feeling of insecurity, however, which dominated the Aegean did not allow the development of naval and commercial activities and the boost of a trading social stratum which would adopt “normal” commercial practices. When piracy was contained, during the mid-18th century, the Aegean’s island society opened out to the sea and established commercial fleets.

Although the administrative regime was not uniform throughout the Aegean, an important number of islands formed, from the mid 17th century, an administrative unit under the jurisdiction of the vice admiral of the Turkish fleet (Kapudan paşa), and his immediate subordinate, the dragoman of the fleet who was usually a Phanariot. The islands were colonized in order to yield income from taxation to the Ottoman treasury, and also provided, depending on their population, craftsmen for the shipyards and crews for the fleet. In return, the Ottoman administration allowed them relative autonomy through a series of privileges. These, together with the so-called “Ottoman peace” (pax ottomana) constituted the necessary conditions for the islanders’ development of commercial naval activities and the participation of the Aegean in the economic life of the Empire.

Chios, Mytilini, Patmos and Samos were positioned on the Ottoman fleet’s route from Constantinople to Alexandria, and near the ports of Karaman and Smyrna, main export districts towards Western Europe. The Cyclades formed a junction in the trade Rhodes, the tower of St Nicholas and the palace of the Grand Masteri n 1480, 42 years before the seizure of the island by the Ottomansroutes which crossed the Aegean. Commanding only empirical naval knowledge, the Aegean traders and sailors worked on a family basis and in close collaboration with Greek communities and trading companies abroad as components of well-established networks based on kinship and common descent.

Consulates of western powers based on the islands strengthened their connections with international trade. Around 1740, French consuls in Smyrna were concerned by the appearance of local Aegean fleets, particularly boats with the Minorcan flag, many of which belonged to the Greek community which had been established there with British support. Sifnos, Tinos, Kea, Mykonos and Patmos had ships which traded with Senigallia in Italy since 1730, Trieste and the Black Sea after 1780. Milos and Kimolos were famous for their pilots. The Russian-Ottoman war of 1768-1774 created another favorable conjunction. The Black Sea was opened up for the islanders: they sold their local products to its ports and loaded grain destined for the Aegean, Ancona and Livorno. Around 1780, Hydra appears to have over one hundred boats large enough to attempt journeys to Livorno and Venice. Spetses and Psara follow regarding the size of their fleets.

By the end of the 18th century, according to calculations, the Aegean islands were populated by 200.000 inhabitants who were not restricted to cultivating the largely unfertile land they possessed. The most vigorous naval activity emerged, moreover, on the most barren amongst them.