Manto Mavrogenous dedicated her life and her fortune two centuries ago to Greece so the nation could be free and independent today.
On March 25th, Greece celebrates its 201 anniversary of the rebellion against the Ottoman empire and the world celebrates Women’s History Month. Manto Mavrogenous’ tale highlights both her strength as a woman of the 19th century and her profound patriotism for Greece.
At 25, she was the educated aristocrat who became a passionate rebel. In war, she fought like a man. In love, she was betrayed as any ordinary woman. Even her country deserted her after she used her entire fortune to bankroll the revolution that established an independent nation.
The memory of this “SHERO” is celebrated in the arts over the past 60 years. Most recently in 2021, for the 200 year anniversary of Greek independence, in a film to celebrate the Mykonian heroine entitled “Manto,” produced by the Mykonos Municipal Cultural Foundation and directed by internationally awarded director Andonis Theocharis Kioukas.
Another artistic tribute to Mavrogenous premiered in 2021; the stage play “Manto: La Bella Greca” directed by Lefteris Giovanidis, the artistic director of the Municipal Theater of Piraeus. The play is being performed this month at the Athens Megaron Hall and toured across Greece last summer. In 1983, a 12- episode television series honored Mavrogenous, which aired on the national television station starring Katia Danoulaki. In 1971, Jenny Karezi starred in the Greek feature film “Manto Mavrogenous.”
So who was Manto and why was she so special? What made this woman worthy of films, sculptures and public areas across Greece baring her name?
Manto Mavrogenous Greek Heroine
Manto Mavrogenous, was a Greek national, born in Trieste, today’s Italy, in 1796. Baptized Magdalene but known as Manto, she had beauty and an aristocratic lineage. She was known in Treiste as “La Bella Greca.”
Her roots trace to the Greek islands but she was also a descendant from the Fanari family of Mavrogenides. Fanari is the center of Greek Orthodoxy in today’s Constantinople. Her father, Nikos Mavrogennos, was an established merchant, from Paros. Her mother, Zacharati Hadjis Bati came from Mykonos, was multilingual and kept records of her husband’s commercial activities.
The family moved to Italy. Mavrogenous was educated and influenced by the western teachings of enlightenment; she was fluent in Italian, French and Turkish. The family returned to Paros in 1809 and became actively involved in the insurrection through the “Filliki Etairia.”
According to the French philhellene and writer Maxime Rebo, Manto spoke French and Italian. She was gifted with a sweet character, but Rebo stated that “when she talks about the freedom of her homeland, she is passionate. The conversation comes alive and her words flow with a natural eloquence.”
A wealthy and well-educated woman, Mavrogenous was able to convince her well-off European friends to donate large amounts of money for buying ships, armaments, and ammunition for the Greek side. The Greek independence leader even traveled as far away as Paris to appeal to wealthy women to side with the Greeks in their desperate bid for freedom.
At the outbreak of the revolution in 1821, Mavrogenous first traveled to Mykonos with the purpose of inviting local leaders there to join in the revolution. She outfitted two of her own ships and financed another four Mykonian vessels. Her fleet was the naval force of the Aegean warding off pirates and plunder. With a handful of men, she staved off an invasion from more than 200 Turks on the island.
In 1823 she moved to Nafplio to fight at the very center of the War of Independence, later assembling other fleets of ships that fought in the battle of Karystos. She financed a corps of more than 800 men and personally joined the battle on the mainland.
Parliament recognized her service and awarded Mavrogenous the rank of lieutenant general. In May 1825, Manto offered the government bonds of 30,000 groschen and asked for them to be allocated to take part in operations against the Turkish-Egyptians, with all the soldiers it would have at its disposal.
Mavrogenous’ financial support of the revolution and her actions in general, such as her letters to the philhellenes of France and England, made her name legendary in European circles and her portrait was printed and circulated throughout Europe.
In 1825 Mavrogenous lived in Nafplio in a half-ruined house. Her resources were exhausted and she was forced to sell her family’s property in the Cyclades islands.
As the “Cause” fought on, she met Dimitris Ypsilantis, a main strategist and political force for the revolution. Eventually, they shared not only their passion for the liberation of Greece but for each other as well. They did not hide their relationship and when they were in camp during battles, she shared Ypsilanti’s tent. Her love for General Ypsilantis provoked gossip in Nafplio. However, Ypsilantis promised her marriage but later reneged on the betrothal.
As Greece celebrated victory and independence, Ypsilantis broke off his betrothal to Mavrogenous. Some accounts say that it was his men that actually issued an ultimatum that he be rid of this woman. Other accounts say that Ioannis Coletti, a leader in Nafplio, tied her to Edward Blackier, the Englishman who bought the first installment of the Greek debt. Coletti allegedly feared the political strength of the union of Mavrogenous and Ypsilantis.
The failed promise of marriage from Ypsilantis, the poverty in which she had fallen and her violent removal from Nafplio in 1826 by order of Ioannis Colleti, were brutal for the heroine. The female icon of the Greek independence movement was eventually granted the rank of Lieutenant General by the first governor of Greece, Ioannis Kapodistrias and as a result, Mavrogenous received a small stipend. However, she complained that the “benefit” was in the category of a war widow or injured disabled soldier.
Mavrogenous is remembered today as one of the few females in the world who have openly fought in military conflicts in modern times. She not only made it possible for Greek forces to continue fighting by raising the necessary funds for them, she also served as a galvanizing figure who could personally lead the troops in the most crucial battles of the war.
After Kapodistrias’ assassination, Mavrogenous eventually went to live on the island of Paros. She tragically spent her last years in a state of destitution. Mavrogenous wrote her memoirs and lived quietly. At 44, she died penniless. Greece’s brave female fighter in the great struggle for independence succumbed to typhoid fever in July of 1840, having spent her entire fortune in the fight to create a new Greek nation. She was buried in the churchyard of Paros’ renowned Ekatontapyliani, just a few steps from the little house she last lived.
Eventually an independent self-governing Greece recognized her tremendous contribution and personal sacrifice that led to the success of the revolution. There are many statues of Manto in Greece, most notably a bust that sits at the south end of the Pedion tou Areos in central Athens as well as on her native Mykonos. She is honored with a bust on the island’s central square, that bears her name and faces the waterfront.
Her home on Mykonos, positioned on the waterfront-was known as Kazarma (Casa de Arma—house of weapons). Today the building hosts a Kafenion with the same name. Mavrogenous was depicted on the copper two drachma coin issued in 2000. Several streets and town squares in Greece carry her name. And one of the favorite venues of locals and tourists alike is “Cine Manto Mykonos,” an open-air Cinema and restaurant, in the center of town, that carries her name.
Although she was a member of the “Filiki Eteria” and used her personal fortune to bring Greece to liberty it is interesting to point out that she would not have been eligible to vote in modern Greece until 1952, when women were granted the right to vote.
In Mykonos Mavrogenous is affectionately remembered as “Capetanissa” (a female ship’s captain). Carrying her own sword and plunging into the front lines– battle after battle, either on land or at sea, Mavrogenous was a true symbol of freedom. It is hard to imagine today that anyone, man or woman, would be such a passionate patriot for their homeland.