From odysseys to oddities: a boxed set on Greek shipping
Lloyd's List, Book Review, 05-04-2002
Greek shipping's longevity tends to be expressed in round numbers and an ambitious new publication from Greece's T&T Publishing, 10,000 Years of Greek Shipping, goes for glory by opting for the upper end of the possible span.
There is not a great deal of evidence for choosing the 8th millennium BC as the dawn of mercantile marine activity in the Hellenic - or is that pre-Helladic? - world.
Until the 1960s latter day sons of the sea like Onassis and Niarchos were content to believe they hailed from a tradition just short of 5,000 years old.
However, the discovery in some Peloponnesian caves of obsidian, that apparently was quarried 150 km away on the island of Milos, raised the ante.
Its dating has provided a compelling argument for the idea that, thanks to nameless proto-Greeks, seaborne trade has been around longer than agriculture.
Either that or the obsidian was planted by Stanley Kubrick. Or UFOs exist.
Happily, the lack of other such discoveries helps the authors of the earliest chapters to avoid getting bogged down in masses of archeological detail pertaining to pre-history. Before long the reader is being introduced to theories that the accounts of sea journeys in epics and myths were often poetically embroidered records of actual voyages.
Some of these led Greek navigators to the Black Sea and the mapping of the British Isles. Other scholars have conjectured that Odysseus reached Europe's Atlantic coast and it was the Argo expedition that "discovered" the Americas.
Appropriately, this book is not the work of one author but of many hands. This has a number of advantages, although it means there is little internal consistency by which the book can be measured.
Furthermore, it is split into two volumes, both handsome softbacks, that fit snugly into a protective presentation box.
As noted by publisher Sergios Trampas in his introduction, the publishers have aimed for a "middle way", something that is not purely historical research and yet not a typical coffee table album either.
Volume 1 is the slimmer of the two and to my mind the better. In 236 well-illustrated pages it provides most of the essential history of Greek shipping from cavemen to the 20th century. It divides the subject mainly by period, apportioning the sections to a total of five historians who know their particular subjects well. Eleanna and George Vlachos gallop readably through the early millennia, outlining Greek navigation and trade in prehistoric times, Minoan sea power, Alexander the Great's expedition to India and overviews of the classical, Roman and Byzantine periods.
Thereafter, Gelina Harlaftis shoulders most of the burden in picking up the tale in the centuries of Ottoman rule and taking it on through the rise of Greek-owned shipping in 19th and 20th centuries.
She has also provided a very small piece indicating the important role privately owned brigs played in the war of independence against the Turks as well as a useful final essay on the state of the art in researching Greek maritime history, which includes a comprehensive bibliography.
However, this is not all. Nicos Vlassopulos contributes two excellent chapters on shipping activity originating from the Ionian islands between 1500 and 1900 and on Missolonghi as a prominent shipping town and port in the 18th century.
In addition to this, Demetrios Polemis is allowed to wave the flag expertly for his home island of Andros, which made a large contribution to the growth of modern Greek shipping - although this makes one wonder why particular chapters were not also dedicated to, say, Chios or Syros.
At almost 500 pages, Volume 2 is by far the bigger tome and it is to this that anyone interested in more modern shipping must turn. It is also a more uneven collection than the first part of the set, including contributions from plenty of well-known figures involved in the industry as well as some entries that are not credited at all.
As such, it includes a fair measure of propaganda and a number of oddities. The material veers from op-ed type pieces on globalisation, shipowners' liability and Piraeus' credentials as a maritime centre to histo- ries of various institutions that range from 10 pages devoted to each of the Union of Greek Shipowners and the Hellenic Seafarers' Federation to a mere 13 lines given the ministry of merchant marine.
But this is history in the making rather than an attempt to put things into coherent order, and if future readers conclude from this particular imbalance that the industry has been primarily the result of individual entrepreneurship and seagoing manpower rather than governance it will not have been misled.
There are also stabs at mini-biographies - Onassis, Niarchos, John Latsis and the Haji-Ioannou family, "issue-type" articles such as bulk carrier finance, the development of maritime communications and a fair amount on relations between Greek shipowners and the British insurance fraternity.
There are also items that are difficult to categorise, including a homage to terrorist victim Costis Peraticos and a homily to the shipbuilding prowess of Hellenic Shipyards. Volume 2 is as well-illustrated as Volume 1.
No one truly interested in Greek shipping should be without, for example, the photograph of prime minister Constantine Karamanlis sternly leading former shipowners' leader Menis Karageorgis by the arm, or that of Andreas Papandreou and John Latsis snapped in a moment of unlikely hilarity.
There are several delightful photos such as these - and, of course, plenty of ships. Altogether, 10,000 Years of Greek Shipping is not unduly expensive and it is difficult to think of anything comparable which includes so much interesting material in a format so convenient.
Though uneven as a history, it is never remotely boring, as so many big compendia are, and in this way it certainly reflects its subject.
It is especially recommended for anyone travelling to Greece for this year's Posidonia exhibition who fears his or her knowledge of Greek shipping is lacking. Even a couple of hours spent dipping into this will help you "talk the talk".