As a Hydriot, I had been raised on a pantheon of grizzled war heroes — Miaoulis, Koudouriotis, et al—with a focus on their virtues rather than their vices, but I was only vaguely aware that Hydra also exported naval heroes.
On my last trip to Hydra, at the pier waiting for the hydrofoil, I caught sight of a plaque to a Hydriot hero in Argentina’s war of independence. Who knew?
The boat was coming, and the plaque only registered for a moment, as I took a last look out on Hydra’s magnificent harbor, architecturally pretty much the same scene as it was in 1821, when the Greek War of Independence began, or in 1810, when a young Hydriot named Nicholas Kolmaniatis left the place in a hurry.
I didn’t think much more about this until recently, when I became involved in the Greek War of Independence Bicentennial Celebrations of my island, Hydra, and her role in the fight for freedom.
In the ubiquitous online café of Facebook, I noticed a fellow with a combination of Spanish and Greek surnames commenting in Spanish. A fluent Spanish speaker myself, I responded, and I began an online correspondence with Cesar Augusto Villamayor Revythis.
Greek maritime history in Latin America
Villamayor Revythis is an Argentinian of partial Greek descent who served in the Argentine Navy. For the past several years, he has been compiling the story of Kolmaniatis (known in Argentina as “Nicholas Jorge”), and more generally inquiring into the story of the Greek maritime history in Latin America.
His project, “Greek Fire: Research and Dissemination Project in South American Waters,” is a labor of love to discover the rich Greek maritime history in the area. Apparently, there are many such Greek maritime stories hidden in South America, just waiting to be discovered.
Beyond being a Hydriot, I have personal reasons to be interested in this story. I lived in Chile, and I got to know its small but diverse Greek community, which included a large number of sailors, and, interestingly, a large number of people from the Vatika region of the Peloponnesus, where my paternal grandfather is from.
I also have third cousins from the Vatika in Uruguay. These relatives are all descendants of sailors.
Kolmaniatis typical of the Hydriot
Nicholas Kolmaniatis, who would be known most of his life as Nicholas Jorge, killed a man in Hydra during a duel, over an insult to his then-wife, and subsequently went to sea. Prior to that incident, he had served in the Turkish Navy.
Hydriots, known as the finest sailors in the Ottoman Empire, were at that time obligated to turn over an annual levy of sailors for service in the Ottoman fleet.
Kolmaniatis was in some ways typical of the Hydriot of the era — a skilled mariner, trained to arms, naturally combative, and with a nose for commerce.
Although transatlantic voyages were less common for Hydriots and their ships, they nonetheless did make the perilous journey, engaging in the trade of bringing Brazilian coffee and sugar to Europe. Kolmaniatis himself ventured a bit further south, to Argentina.
At the time, the Spanish possessions in America were in turmoil, with large sections of the population agitating for independence from Spain, which had grown corrupt and feeble. Spain was also at war with Napoleonic France. The American and French revolutions provided further inspiration for the Spanish American colonies to break from colonial rule.
Into this fray sailed a young Hydriot merchant with valuable naval experience. A fellow like this was bound to find his skillset of use. Coming himself from a place that was smarting under foreign rule, Kolmaniatis found that his sympathies clearly lay with the Argentinian revolutionaries.
Fighting the Spanish fleets
Under the name Nicholas Jorge, he fought the Spanish fleets, rising to the rank of Colonel of the Marines (Argentinian ranks are different than in other militaries, and the Hydriots speak of Jorge as an Admiral).
Kolmaniatis/Jorge’s service did not end there; he continued to serve his adopted country, with a regional command, service against the Empire of Brazil, and in the Argentine Civil Wars between federalist and unitary forces. According to Villamayor Revythis, there were Greek sailors on all sides of these conflicts, and it is his mission to try to bring their stories to life.
Kolmaniatis/Jorge had a family in Argentina and some of his children followed him into the Navy. The family was quickly absorbed into the multiethnic mosaic of Argentina and his story largely forgotten by both Argentines and Greeks.
Latin American countries with Greek naval history
Villamayor Revythis is determined to change that. “Argentine history emphasizes our Army heroes more than our Naval ones,” he explains, and “the Greek community organizations in Argentina largely focus on the large wave of Greek immigrants to the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s (rather than) these first Greeks.”
Villamayor Revythis also strongly believes that other Latin American countries have Greek naval histories, ones that he is working tirelessly to uncover through his “Greek Fire” project.
People like Villamayor Revythis keep history and memories alive. They are vital to preserving stories, and their efforts need to be both applauded and supported.
That does not mean that there have not been efforts, both in Argentina and in Greece, particularly Hydra, to commemorate the role of Kolmaniatis/Jorge.
A recent Argentine ambassador to Greece coordinated with the Hydra Historical Archives and Museum director on several events, but the truth is the story of Greeks in Latin America is generally off the radar of Greeks, both in Greece and the Diaspora centers such as the US, Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe.
These “other” stories are part of our collective Greek identity, one based in a seafaring, commercial, and cosmopolitan tradition. Far too often, the Greek Diaspora narrative focuses on the twentieth-century migrant, often from a hardscrabble village, making it in Chicago, Manhattan, or Melbourne.
These are the majority of the stories, and should be told; but there are stories of sailors, merchants, and adventurers from an earlier era, often highly skilled and technocratic, that are lost in archives somewhere. These stories deserve to see the light of day, and for Greek sailors in South America, Cesar Villamayor Revythis is their champion.
These are stories worth knowing, and no doubt Villamayor Revythis will provide us with them.