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Ioannis Varvakis: a Pirate and Benefactor of the Greek Revolution

Monument of Ioannis Varvakis in Athens
He managed to achieve unprecedented wealth from a state of total poverty, contributed to the Greek Revolution and came under the protection of the Russian Empress Catherine II. Credit: Chabe01 / CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

A pirate and benefactor, Ioannis Varvakis had a bright life, supporting the Greek Revolution and becoming famous in both Greece and Russia.

He managed to embody several destinies into a single person. Varvakis was a successful shipowner, and many Turkish sultans promised a reward in return for his head. He achieved unprecedented wealth from a state of total poverty, contributed to the Greek Revolution, and came under the protection of Russian Empress Catherine II.

Varvakis’ Early Years

Psara Island
The rocky soils of Psara island were not conducive to agriculture, so its inhabitants were mainly engaged in seafaring. Credit: Macedon-40 / CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in his childhood, Varvakis’ destiny was connected to the sea, which fed his family and largely determined his future life. His actual name was Ioannis Leontidis, and he was born in 1745 on the island of Psara.

The rocky soils of this small, picturesque place in the Aegean Sea were not conducive to agriculture, so its inhabitants were mainly engaged in seafaring. The boy’s father, Andreas Leontis, was no exception. He owned a ship and, like many other locals, earned his family’s living by sailing from island to island.

There is a legend that his second name, Varvakis, comes from the name of certain birds, which the inhabitants of Psara called “varvakia.” With this nickname, Ioannis eventually went down in history.

Little Ioannis helped his father, working as a sailor on his ship and getting used to being at sea. Later, the father made his son the shareholder of this swimming facility. Despite the fact that Varvakis was largely self-taught, at the age of seventeen, he had already built his first lugger. At first, his main occupation was trade, but then he became increasingly involved in piracy.

Russo-Turkish War

Ivan Ayvazovsky, Battle of Cesme at Night,
Ivan Ayvazovsky, Battle of Cesme at Night, 1848. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Varvakis’ life took a rapid turn during the Russo-Turkish War, which lasted from 1768 to 1774. He became a volunteer and participated in various battles and naval operations as part of the army of the Russian Empress Catherine II.

Varvakis equipped his ships with cannons and crew, spending all his fortune on this. He met the commander of the Russian fleet, Alexei Orlov, who turned to him for help. Varvakis tracked down the Turkish ships and passed on the coordinates to the Russians. However, his main contribution in that war was in 1770 at Cesme Bay.

Varvakis devised a bold plan to ignite the Ottoman fleet and took a crucial role in its execution. He deliberately set his own ship ablaze and steered it towards the anchored Turkish vessels. This audacious maneuver resulted in the destruction of the enemy fleet, with Varvakis himself being rescued by Russian sailors. It was through this heroic act that Empress Catherine II, often referred to as Catherine the Great, became aware of him and ordered the acquisition of a new ship for Varvakis.

Following the conclusion of the war, Varvakis returned to Psara. He made numerous enemies among the Ottomans and found himself a wanted man. Undeterred, he ventured to Constantinople, where he was apprehended, and his assets were seized. With the intervention of the plenipotentiary ambassador of Russia to the Ottoman Empire, Varvakis was eventually released from prison. However, he emerged from this ordeal destitute, having lost all his possessions.

Russian Chapter in Varvakis’ Life

In the hope of improving his life, Varvakis went to Petersburg and left his wife and daughter in Psara. Upon arriving in the northern city with neither funds nor a concrete plan but armed with his remarkable tale, he managed to secure an audience with Catherine II, courtesy of one of her key confidants, Grigory Potemkin.

From the empress, he not only obtained financial assistance for his immediate necessities but, of even greater significance, a formal document granting him the privilege to fish in the Caspian Sea without incurring any official fees.

Portrait of the Russian empress Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov, 1763
Portrait of the Russian Empress Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov, 1763. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The privilege of fishing in the Caspian Sea in southern Russia without the burden of taxes proved to be a ticket to a fresh start for Varvakis, affording him a second opportunity to rebuild his wealth. Moreover, it granted him the chance to realize his entrepreneurial aspirations in his natural element, the sea.

The relatively small Caspian Sea couldn’t rival the vastness of the Aegean expanses. Varvakis, armed with a wealth of maritime knowledge from a young age, stood out significantly among Russian shipbuilders of the era. His proficiency in constructing large and modern ships gave him a distinct edge over local fishermen, propelling him rapidly towards riches and renown. Yet, one of his most significant discoveries was the region’s precious treasure—caviar, which continues to be a hallmark of the area to this day.

Caviar Legend

Varvakis became the pioneer of caviar to the world. There is a legend about how he learned of this delicacy. According to the tale, one day, while on the banks of the Volga River, Varvakis observed a man relishing a mysterious black substance. When he inquired about its origin, the stranger revealed it to be caviar and asked Varvakis to taste it.

Enchanted by the flavor, Varvakis was determined to share this newfound culinary treasure with the rest of the world. Collaborating with experts, he devised a preservation method suitable for transportation, establishing himself as a tycoon who transformed caviar into a global sensation.

As Varvakis’ renown continued to grow, he was granted Russian citizenship under the name Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi. In 1815, he relocated to the city of Taganrog, positioning himself in close proximity to Odessa, which served as the hub for the secret political and revolutionary organization Filiki Eteria, where Varvakis became a prominent figure and benefactor.

During this period, his philanthropic endeavors also intensified. He contributed substantial sums for the construction of hospitals, schools, bridges, and canals. In 1809, using his own funds, he initiated an ambitious project for its time—the construction of a canal in the southern city of Astrakhan, connecting two branches of the Volga River.

Varvakis’ Contribution to Greek Revolution

Varvakis helped the Greek communities in Russia and personally financed the costs of arming all who fought under the command of Alexander Ypsilantis, the leader of the Filiki Etaireia, a secret organization that coordinated the beginning of the Greek War of Independence.

First of all, during the struggle, Varvakis sent the inhabitants of his home island of Psara food and other necessary resources. Following the destruction of Psara in 1824, when the Turks killed and enslaved half of the island’s population, Varvakis relocated to Greece. Despite his advanced age, he sought to be at the center of events in order to provide direct support. Varvakis wanted to witness for himself the creation of a new Greek nation.

Nikolaos Gyzis, After the destruction of Psara, 1896-1898
Nikolaos Gyzis, After the destruction of Psara, 1896-1898. Credit: Macedon-40 / CC-BY-SA-4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

During his time in Nafplion, the headquarters of the provisional revolutionary government, Varvakis addressed the parliament in October, 1824, recognizing the critical juncture faced by the nation. His proposal aimed to fund the construction of a central school in Argos and provide money for covering expenses and permanent teacher salaries. It’s no coincidence that during this period, Varvakis was hailed as “the great benefactor of the nation.” In his will, he bequeathed most of his fortune to the Greek state for charitable purposes.

Thanks to his donations, The Varvakeio High School was established. Additionally, Varvakis’ financial support led to the construction of a covered market in Athens in 1886, which was also known as the Varvakios Agora.

Varvakis’ deep attachment to his homeland took a tragic turn. Just weeks after being celebrated as a “national benefactor,” he suddenly fell ill and was quarantined on the island of Zakynthos. He arrived there in December 1824 and passed away on January 10, 1825. His death prompted a period of national mourning.

Based on the incredible story of his life, the adventure film God Loves Caviar was produced in 2012 with the participation of Catherine Deneuve and Sebastian Koch.


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