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Greek Bicentennial Commemorated Aboard USS Constitution

Greek revolution
The USS Constitution fires off cannon in celebration of America’s Independence Day in 2014. The ship hosted a gala commemoration of the Greek Revolution last week. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Matthew R. Fairchild, 140704-N-OG138-866

The American warship USS Constitution, which hosted Greek war heroes during the War of Independence in 1821, was the setting for a gala commemoration of the Bicentennial of the Greek Revolution last Thursday.

US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt, along with the Haitian Consul General to Boston Hans Charles, and other officials, spoke at the gathering held aboard the hallowed decks of the three-masted wooden warship, which was launched in 1797.

The commemoration was organized by the Hellenes and Philhellenes steering committee in collaboration with the Pontian Society “Panagia Soumela” of Boston, which was formed in 1981. The steering committee includes attorney Demetrios Kafkas and Georgios Gialtouridis of the Boston area.

USS Constitution
The 1797 American warship the USS Constitution was the setting for a gala commemoration of the Greek Bicentennial year in Boston. Credit: Panagia Soumela Society of Boston.

Welcoming the assembly to the event, titled “USS Constitution — 200 Years of the Greek Revolution,” was USN Commander John Benda, who addressed the distinguished guests from all over the world.

He explained that the beloved ship, which served in the War of 1812 and other conflicts, had been designated “America’s Ship of State” in 1979.

Its mission at the outset, he said, had been to ensure “Free trade, sailors’ rights and for American to be treated like the sovereign nation it was. This ship is sacred ground where many men lost their lives to keep their independence.”

The USS Constitution went on, he related, to serve in the “Mediterranean Squadron” in the 1820’s.

Ship helped ensure delivery of aid to Greece during Revolution

The commander was wearing a replica of the resplendent ceremonial uniform which was in use during the year 1821 — when the Greek boy George Sirian was rescued from Psara after his family had been massacred by the Turks.

It was, moreover, the uniform worn by the commander at that time who hosted the Great Greek war hero General Kolokotronis on his visit to the ship in 1827.

Another of the many ties that bind Greece and the United States is that the American hero George Washington, who fought so gallantly during its Revolution and served as its first President, is even mentioned in the Greek national anthem, the Hymn to Liberty:

Written by Dionysios Solomos in 1823, Stanza 22 of the Hymn honors the Philhellenic movement in America at the time of Greece’s War of Independence with the touching words:

“Γκαρδιακὰ χαροποιήθη

καὶ τοῦ Βάσιγκτον ἡ γῆ

καὶ τὰ σίδερα ἐνθυμήθη

ποῦ τὴν ἔδεναν κι αὐτή.”

“Wholeheartedly joyful

Was also Washington’s land

And the shackles that bound her

She remembered firsthand.”

In his remarks to the assembled guests aboard the Constitution, Metropolitan Methodios of Boston recalled that “American philhellenes believed they had a civic duty to help Greece reclaim its birthright, democracy. Samuel Gridley Howe, James Williams, George Jarvis and many others left their homes to fight alongside their Greek comrades in arms and provide humanitarian support.

“Meanwhile,” he related, “American citizens established philhellenic societies throughout our country, raising money to help the course and lobbying their elected officials recognize Greek independence. Help was sent throughout the United States from thousands of philhellenes who supported the Revolution.

“The role of the USS Constitution as part of the Mediterranean Squadron was to keep the sea lanes open to merchant shipping. History informs us that Kolokotronis an Kanaris were among the many Greek dignitaries who boarded the USS Constitution during the Revolution.

But another vital mission of the ship, he said, was to escort the merchant ships which were carrying desperately-needed aid and supplies to the suffering Greek nation during those years.

“Here, on this historic ship, Old Ironsides, we pay tribute to its sailors, past and present, but in particular George Sirian, a young Greek boy who was saved from certain death by sailors who sailed on the USS Constitution. This young man who later enlisted as the youngest sailor in the US Navy, went on to serve many years aboard this battleship. Zito y Ellas!”

“Flame of revolution gave birth to the modern Greek state”

The Consul General of Greece in Boston, Stratos Efthymiou, remarked to the assembled guests “The flame of revolution went on to give birth to the modern Greek state and set into motion a new era for Europe and for the wider region — an era of nation-states.

“The 200-year anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the past,” he stated, “to assess the present and help save the future.

He characterized the Greek Revolution as “a fight for freedom from Ottoman tyranny, and a fight for dignity social justice and equality.”

Efthymiou noted that the first country to recognize the existence of an independent Greek state was Haiti, which had earlier fought its own Revolution from France, and whose leaders saw in Greeks their own struggle for freedom.

He added that Greece “often navigated through turbulent waters. But the journey of the Greek state during these two centuries is remarkable. Greece is a nation that fought for its right to be independent, side by side with the United States.

Greece has never shied away from the international struggles for freedom, including in both world wars.

Greece has been a sturdy pillar of democracy in the Balkans and  a state promoting peace and stability in the Mediterranean region.”

Greek Revolution, American Revolution “Uniquely intertwined”

US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt spoke by video link from Athens, saying to the assembled guests the United States “joined with others all around the world to celebrate the birth of the modern Greek state and the 200-year long friendship between the two countries.

“The Greek and American Revolutions are uniquely intertwined,” he noted, “inspired by our deeply-ingrained belief in the system of government the ancient Athenians called ‘demokratia,’ because the power of the right to rule flows from the people.

“No one knows this better than the people of Boston, who famously threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 to protest unfair taxation without representation,” he noted.

“As the inheritors of ancient Athenian principles, early American philhellenes felt a smilier duty to Greeks to help them reclaim their birthright of democracy. Boston was home to some of the most well-known American philhellenes, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who served as a volunteer soldier and Surgeon General of Greece, and Edward Everett, a founder of the Greek committee of Boston, which provided humanitarian assistance to the Greek people and lobbied American political figures to recognize Greek independence.”

It was especially fitting,” Ambassador Pyatt said, that the commemoration of the Greek bicentennial should take place “aboard the USS Constitution, a symbol of the honor, courage and commitment of American sailors, and which was never defeated in battle.”

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