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The American Slave Who Fought in the Greek War of Independence

Williams American slave greek war of independence
The USS Constitution under sail, with sailors atop her yardarms. The ship hosted three Greek War of Independence heroes, as well as American philhellenes, off the coast of Greece during its Revolutionary War in 1827. Credit: Facebook/ USS Constitution

Former slave and American philhellene James Williams alongside fellow American philhellene George Jarvis fought in the Greek War of Independence for the freedom of Greece and its people who lived half a world away from his birthplace.

After leaving America and giving their lives for the freedom of the Greek people in their struggle against the Ottomans, Williams and Jarvis were laid to rest far from home. But they were where they were meant to be, after fulfilling their mission to help Greece in its greatest hour of need.

Williams American slave Greek war of Independence
James Williams. Credit: Philhellenism Museum

Jarvis and Williams are believed to be buried in Argos, alongside other philhellenes who fought and died during the Hellenic Revolution of 1821 so that, as Lord Byron wrote in his famous poem The Isles of Greece “…Greece might still be free.” Their memorial stones are in the churchyard as a permanent reminder of the sacrifices they made for human freedom.

James Williams led an incredible life, starting with almost unimaginable deprivation as a slave in the antebellum American south. After somehow managing to escape the sugar cane plantation he worked on, south of his birthplace of Baltimore, he made his way as a stowaway onto a ship that was bound for Northern Africa’s Barbary Coast.

American Philhellenes and the Greek War of Independence

The famous admiral Stephen Decatur decided to put the young man to work on his ship, where he labored in the galley as he crossed the Atlantic.

After fighting as a US Marine against the Barbary Coast pirates who had long been harassing American ships, Williams later fought as a member of Lord Cochran’s Hellenic Navy fleet, participating in action at Nafpaktos and other areas as part of the Greek War of Independence.

His incredible life was recreated in the novel “The Fantastic Voyage of James Williams: To Breathe, to Believe,” by Dr. Kostas Rethymniotakis.

As the author says about the life of Williams, “It is said that heroes are made — not born. In the case of James Williams, the events swirling around his life, his dreams and his suffering – even God Himself – all conspire to transform a human being, born a slave, into becoming a transcendent hero for the ages.”

After surviving a hellish existence on a sugarcane plantation and his subsequent escape from bondage, Williams encounters a different environment from the plantation while working as a cook’s helper aboard ship, “which at times is a life that is even harder than the one on the sugar plantation,” Rethymniotakis says.

Former slave, philhellene becomes Marine, spy, survives shipwreck, then is rescued by monks

However, Williams eventually becomes an excellent US Marine, fighting against the cruel Barbary pirates — who themselves were known to have taken a good many American merchant mariners as slaves after attacking their ships.

He goes on to distinguish himself in battle and even as a spy as well. In further adventures, he next works on a rug merchant’s boat before it is suddenly shipwrecked off Greece.

He then finds himself washed up on a beach near Athens, marking the next seminal turning point in his life, one that would allow him to help free an entire people — while his fellow men were still in bondage in the American South.

Providentially, Williams was rescued by monks and taken to Abbot Symeon, who provided him shelter as he recuperated. “Having already learned Greek on board the merchant ship, Williams begins to realize that he has landed in the midst of an uprising – the uprising that quickly becomes the War of Independence for Greeks seeking liberation from the 400 year tyranny under the Ottoman Turks,” Rethymniotakis relates.

Along the way, Williams meets, works with, and fights alongside such great Philhellenes as Lord George Byron, George Jarvis, and others. He participates in naval battles and the famous Siege of Missolonghi. He may have taken part in the Liberation of Athens as well as the Battle of Petta in Epirus as part of a battalion of other Philhellenes.

The former slave becomes philhellene, helps give freedom to Greek people

“But this fictionalized historical novel is not just about one man’s adventures, heroic as they might be,” Rethymniotakis states.

“It is about an Odyssey of man born a slave who reaches the pinnacle of heroism in a land far away from his roots. And yet his adventures, while approaching a mythical status, pale in comparison to the emotional growth Williams undergoes slave to sailor to spy to battle hardened hero, to shipwrecked victim, to lover, to seeker of truth.

“His voice is the voice of all slaves of the world,” Rethymniotakis adds.

“The Fantastic Voyage of James Williams” is a fictionalized account based on the true story of the escaped slave whose amazing life has been painstakingly researched by the author, using information from the archives of George Jarvis, another American philhellene who he fought alongside.

Jarvis’ account places Williams with Lord Byron, the famous British philhellene aristocrat who fought at the Battle of Missolonghi before passing away soon afterward.

Williams is the only American slave ever known to have escaped bondage who then chose to fight for the freedom of another subjugated nation. His life and adventures are truly an Odyssey for the ages. Not only did he find freedom for himself, but he helped people half a world away win their own freedom against the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire.

After the Third Siege of Missolonghi and the exodus of survivors from that city, Williams appears again with the fleet of Admiral Andreas Miaoulis at the island of Hydra; he is believed to have fought in many subsequent naval battles.

The final events of his life are thought to have taken place during the Battle of Navarino, where he served on the Greek sloop-of-war Kartería (Greek for “Perseverance”). Wounded in the battle, he reportedly ended up on the island of Poros in a hospital which was constructed as a gift of the renowned Howe family of philhellenes from Boston.

Williams’ and Jarvis’ memorial stones can be found in the cemetery of the town of Argos, near the city of Nafplion. At present, it is unknown if their stones in Argos are over their actual tombs or if the great philhellene heroes may have been interred 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.

Congressman Sarbanes Commemorates Williams in Speech Recorded in Congressional Record

In March of 2013, Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Maryland), who is from Williams’ home city of Baltimore, read the story of his life and that of other American philhellenes into the Congressional Record on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence.

His speech is as follows:


“Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commemorate the 192nd
anniversary of Greek Independence Day.

“Greece and America are history’s most storied democracies. Our Founding Fathers borrowed heavily from Greek antiquity to build American democracy.

“Our relationship with Greece, however, is more than one just of philosophical kinship. America, Greece, and Greek Americans have stood in solidarity since the founding of the United States.

“In this year, when we also celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the 100th anniversary of both Harriet Tubman’s death and Rosa Parks’ birth, it is especially fitting to recall how Hellenes and African Americans have reached out to one another to provide mutual

“When Hellenes acted to liberate themselves in 1821, James Williams, an African American sailor from my hometown of Baltimore, joined the Greek revolutionary navy and fought at the Battle of Navarino. In turn, John Zachos and Photius Fisk, orphans of the Greek War of Independence, became passionate abolitionists in America. Zachos was a member of the
Educational Commission of Boston and New York. Fisk, a U.S. Navy chaplain, helped slaves find freedom by supporting the Underground Railroad.”

Sarbanes’ speech, alongside his commemoration on his memorial stone in Greece, serves as proof that despite the many difficulties and trials he faced in his remarkable life, the story of James Williams and his fellow philhellenes will never be forgotten.

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