Bouboulina’s descendant and Director of the Bouboulina Museum in Spetses, Pavlos Demertzis-Bouboulis, recounts to Greek Reporter what makes his ancestor’s legacy timeless beyond her decisive involvement in the Greek War of Independence.
Laskarina Bouboulina, the legendary “Captainess” from Spetses island, was certainly neither the only heroine of the Greek War of Independence, nor the only woman who may have offered her fortune to it; lost a son on the battlefield; thrown herself to the fight; or suffered the consequences of the armed conflict in any way.
She is the one, however, who has survived in the collective memory as an insuperable icon for female empowerment in her own right, being today more relevant than ever. And for good reason.
Bouboulina: A pioneer ahead of her time
The 1771-born pioneering Greek became living proof of every outstanding achievement that a woman is capable of -in fact, a hundred years before the issue of female vote would even come up, and 200 years before the latest global feminist movement that is currently taking the world by storm.
A woman who led a life of service, lived it to the fullest, and fulfilled her every role to its utmost zenith, naturally.
The continuing fascination with Bouboulina across the generations as a timeless symbol for feminism can be easily justified through the descriptions of historians of her era and a glimpse at her few surviving heirlooms.
“Laskarina Bouboulina, the “Kapetanissa”, naval commander and heroine of the 1821 Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire. This is the punchline of her story, that almost every Greek around the world knows.
“However, if you look closely, she is so much more than that”, Pavlos Demertzis-Bouboulis, director of The Bouboulina Museum in Spetses and her descendant, tells Greek Reporter.
Traveler, businesswoman, wife, mother and combatant
Although there is not a lot of material about Bouboulina, family histories tell that, growing up, she was the undisputed leader of her 8 half-siblings and that she had a passionate love for the sea. She travelled with her stepfather and later with both her husbands.
“She was a woman, twice widowed by the age of 40. A mother of 10 children in total – 7 of her own, plus 3 more from her second husband’s first marriage. An accomplished businesswoman, an entrepreneur who managed her own wealth and shipping enterprises.
“A born leader, who commanded her own fleet and her own private army during the revolution and, until recently, was the first and only woman in world naval history to hold the title of Admiral. The fact that she managed all of this in early 19th century Greece, a land dominated by men and patriarchal tradition is astounding”, Demertzis-Bouboulis explains.
“To me she was a phenomenon in her own right, a pioneer of her time, whose story inspired writers, poets and artists throughout Europe.
“Furthermore, if you are willing to move past the Greek Revolution and also consider modern day civil and equal rights movements and the struggle for the emancipation of women throughout the world, I believe her story could not be more relevant today”, he notes.
Accounts of a “lionhearted” nature
According to the Director of The Bouboulina Museum, most of the information about the heroine was written during the revolution and pieces of her story were later added over the years also.
Her daring naval attacks on Nafplio are related in an eyewitness account by historian Anargyros Hatzi-Anargyrou:
«… indeed the very rare event in the history of nations of a woman to take up arms, a very rich woman who decided to offer her ships, her money and her sons as a sacrifice to the altar of her country. This woman was Laskarina Bouboulina, whom the nations saluted as a heroine.
“She was indeed lionhearted. As I recall, on her own vessel, she alone gave the orders for the boats to attack the fort. They immediately attack but a rain of Bullets and cannon fire from the coastal fortifications make her brave lads fall back for a moment.
“Like an angry Amazon watching the battle from the side of her boat she then shouts… Are you women then and not men? Forward!’’
During the battle of Argos, Bouboulina’s eldest son was heroically killed in battle. After the fall of the city to the Greek forces, she sent word back to Spetses where she reportedly stated: “…my son is dead, but Argos is ours.”
There are also accounts by some philhellenes who met Bouboulina during their travels in Greece.
Olivier Voutier states that she laughed wholeheartedly when she was told how beautiful they imagined her in Paris.
Another, Taitbout de Marigny, said he met her in her house on Spetses, a few months before she was killed. She was apparently baking her own cookies – paximadia – out of fear of being poisoned.
Militancy and femininity
Despite the fact that not many of her personal effects remain, those few on display at her Museum can be indicative of Bouboulina’s balance between grace and fierceness.
Among her heirlooms, Demertzis-Bouboulis says he would definitely single out her sword, which was a gift from Tsar Alexander I.
“It is of North-West African origin, called a Manding sword, and the tip of the sheath was always filled with a potent liquid poison, meaning the blade of the sword was constantly immersed in it.
Therefore, if Bouboulina did not manage to kill her enemy in battle, he or she was doomed to die anyway of the poisoned wound… a most deadly weapon!”, the museum director details.
On the other hand, her beautiful head-scarf is worth noting; made entirely of silk, with real gold and silver thread, it is a beautiful example of 19th century Spetses embroidery.
The valued collection of personal items, weapons, documents and letters of the Greek War of Independence, paint as lively a picture as possible of the powerful personality that this most inspiring woman was, and the reasons why her legend lives on.