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George Jarvis Commemorated for Role in Greek War of Independence

Greek War of Independence philhellenes
The Battle of Messolonghi, in which the great philhellene George Jarvis participated. By zographos Makryannis. Credit: Panagiotis Zographos /Public Domain

A churchyard in Argos, Mycenae was the site where the life of one of the most notable philhellenes of them all, George Jarvis, was commemorated on July 27.

Along with fellow American James Williams, Jarvis has a memorial stone dedicated there which tells of his exploits in the Greek War of Independence, in which he gave his life for the cause of freedom for the Greek people.

He fought so that, as the famed philhellene Lord Byron wrote in his famous poem The Isles of Greece “…Greece might still be free.” Jarvis has the distinction of being the very first American to join Greece’s fight for freedom.

Jarvis adopts Greek identity, devotes life to Greek freedom

Donning an iconic Greek costume including the foustanella, the native of Germany whose father was an American diplomat there learned the Greek language and quickly adopted the nom de guerre of “Captain Zervas/Zervos, the American.”

Jarvis even reached the rank of Lieutenant General during the war. James Williams, an African-American from Baltimore who had previously been enslaved before he stowed away on an American ship bound for the Barbary Coast. After fighting in the Barbary Wars as a US Navy Marine, he later joined up with Jarvis, and he features prominently in Jarvis’ diaries.

George Jarvis was born in 1797 in the German city of Altona in Hamburg (which was then under the rule of the King of Denmark). His father, Benjamin Jarvis, had been a merchant from New York before being appointed to the diplomatic corps.

Accompanied by German philhellenes, who were on fire for the freedom of a country they adored from their readings of ancient history, the young university student set out for Greece at the end of 1821 with Frank Abney Hastings, a Royal Navy officer. Their ship arrived on the island of Hydra on April 3, 1822.

Jarvis served as an officer in the Greek Navy from 1822 to 1824 with Manolis Tobazis, a captain and ship owner from Hydra.

They then went to the seat of government in Corinth where Jarvis stayed for a time. Giakoumakis Tombazis introduced him to Captain Antonis Raphael of the ship “Themistoklis,” in order that they could determine the combat capability of the fleet.

The ship “Themistoklis” arrived on Chios as the barbaric destruction of the island was unfolding and Jarvis disembarked in order to save some of the fugitives. The philhellene also took part in the conflicts between the Greeks and the Turks in the Argolic plain during the Summer of 1822.

Later, he served on one of the Hydraean ships navigating with the Turkish fleet in the strait between Spetses and the Peloponnesian coast at the end of September 1822.

At the end of December of the same year, after Lord Byron’s arrival in Greece, Jarvis rushed to the town of Messolonghi, in western Central Greece; he ended up serving as Lord Byron’s adjutant until the great British philhellene’s death on April 18, 1824.

Under the guidance of Greek engineer M. Kokkinis, Jarvis also helped fortify both Missolonghi (doing so using much of his own funds, for which he was never reimbursed) and the island of Aitoliko. After Byron’s death, Jarvis was assigned to command the artillery in Messolonghi.

The noted Philhellene then participated in the second siege of Messolonghi, diligently performing the duties assigned to him: on top of that, he paid the salaries of Byron’s men out of his own pocket and remained faithfully devoted to Alexandros Mavrokordatos.

In August 1824 under Mavrokordatos’ leadership, Jarvis took part in the expedition to the northern Turkish strongholds of Kravassaras (Amfilochia) and Makrynoros, in the province of Epirus. He at one time was imprisoned in Kravasaras along with 50 of his men.

He fought in Messinia against Ibrahim and was in the Navarino guard which was forced to surrender. Ibrahim suggested that he change camp; naturally, he refused and, when he returned to the Greek lines, he continued to serve the struggle. He acted not only as an advisor to Kolokotronis, but also as the person responsible for the vital correspondence with the various American Philhellenic Committees.

In his letters he emerges as a great advocate of the Greeks to his compatriots, aptly explaining what was not easy for them to understand about the harsh reality in Greece. He continued to fight with Kolokotronis in the Peloponnese and with Karaiskakis in Roumeli and was wounded.

During the invasion of the Morea by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, he assumed the expenses for the 45 soldiers sent to Methoni. From 1827 until his death on August 11, 1828, Jarvis, along with Samuel Gridley Howe and Jonathan Peckham Miller, as members of the Philhellenic Committee of America, continued to contribute by distributing much needed medication, clothing and food to Greek population who had suffered during this time.

In the last year of his life, he acted as a representative of the Boston Philhellenic Committee. Exhausted by hardship and deprivation, George Jarvis died of a fever on August 11, 1828 in Argos.  His second homeland of Argos buried him with the honors of a lieutenant general.

Some believe that the stones in the Argos churchyard commemorating the lives of Jarvis and his fellow philhellene James Williams are only memorial stones and their real resting places are elsewhere.

The municipality of Argos, in Mycenae, will assist the ongoing effort of some expatriates, including members of AHEPA, to locate the bones of the American philhellenes.

Wherever their final resting places may be, Jarvis, Williams and all the other philhellenes who helped Greece win her independence will be remembered forever in Argos and elsewhere for giving their lives for the freedom of the Greek people.

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