I am a Greek-American, and in my (rather distant) youth, I was a Civil War buff. To me, the word “cotton” always conjures images of the South, of the Civil War, and of the cruelty of the plantation economy based on slavery. A Southern politician confidently predicted that the American South’s near-monopoly of global cotton production would force the industrial nations of Europe to intervene in the South’s struggle for independence. “No sane nation would make war on cotton. Cotton is King.”
Many years later, I find myself living in South Carolina, in an area whose red hills were once filled with cotton plants. I am working as an instructor at Clemson University, as well as taking classes toward a master’s degree in history. I am also, a Greek, a Hydriot, and acutely aware of Greek history, or so I thought. My thesis is on the Greek Merchant Marine and Commercial Diaspora, another passion of mine given my family background in the Greek merchant marine and my own living and work experience in Greece.
I did not expect the events that have followed, the clear “Greek Connection” to the cotton story, though I should have, perhaps.
I took a class in Middle Eastern History, and my professor, an Israeli, suggested that I do an overview on the Greek Community of Egypt, one of the most important Diasporas now largely repatriated to Greece or scattered to the four winds. As it happens, Dr. Alexander Kitroeff’s new book, The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt, had recently been published, making my job far easier. His brilliant work covers all aspects of Greek life in Egypt, but the parts devoted to the Greeks’ dominant role in the Egyptian cotton boom created by the American Civil War gave me pause. I had also read Dr. Gelina Harlaftis’ seminal work A History of Greek-owned Shipping, which also highlighted the Greeks’ virtual control of Egyptian cotton. I was also aware that the first Greek Orthodox community was established in New Orleans in 1864, and that Greek cotton traders had been active there. I got to thinking.
We have had the great pleasure of meeting many wonderful Greek Americans from our new parish in Greenville, South Carolina, among them the Stathakis family; Diann Pelias Stathakis is from New Orleans. She put me in touch with the Archives Committee of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. Maggie Spiros Maag, the Director, has done a brilliant job in compiling the full story of the oldest Greek community in the US. She and her husband Richard are wonderful, learned, and knowledgeable hosts.
I had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans a few weeks ago and gave a lecture on the larger Greek Merchant Diaspora of the 1800s, of which New Orleans formed an important part. While there, Maggie provided a glimpse into the archives, which included books, artifacts, and documents chronicling a Greek, American, and commercial story, and one very much related to cotton.
One document, a newspaper article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1872, talks about the key role played by the pre-Civil War Greek merchant community, citing their “large capital, their harmony of action, and their close connection with strong Greek firms in the leading commercial cities of the world … made them respected by the boldest operators.” The journalist also commented on their “secrecy and [their] air of mystery…” combined with “a coolness of nerve, a boldness and a sagacity that astonished the ordinary business world.”
Aside from these general traits, the article then refers to cotton specifically, citing an exodus of New Orleans Greeks to Alexandria, the great commercial city with a large Greek commercial colony. The New Orleans Greeks moved there as a result of American Civil War blockades, which created a boom for alternative sources to Southern cotton. The Greeks had the expertise in cotton from New Orleans, the ability to pilot by river and open sea, and they brought this to bear on cotton production in the Nile Delta. The first cotton gins in Egypt were brought by Greeks.
Greek involvement in the cotton trade went well beyond distribution. The same Times-Picayune article reprinted, almost in whole, a report of the New York Commercial and Financial Chronicle, vol. 28, which talks about “The Influence of the Greeks at New York and Liverpool in the markets for cotton, grain, and other produce is … constant.” The article then goes on to consider why the Greeks were so successful, and cites the high level of “commercial standing by Greek ‘houses’ at most of the larger Mediterranean ports,” and compares the Greeks skill in battle against the Turks to their skill in the marketplace. They cite particularly the competence and daring of the Greek sailor as a key competitive advantage, as well as the presence of Greek houses in every port with which to contract business.
One item that immediately struck me is the article’s contention that the Greeks “are not jealous of each other[!]” and that they operate in a vertically integrated manner, “without commission” because of Greeks on all parts of the transaction. The writer offers that this kind of operation is “all the more imperative, as the telegraph destroys the legitimate commission business.” It seems that the Greeks were a telegraph before the telegraph and that the vertically integrated, discreet business network, combined with nautical skills, was a winning combination.
The article concludes with cotton, saying that “It is through them [the Greeks] that a very large portion of our shipments are made, and hence their importance to that trade. They are frequently better and more promptly informed than many others, by reason of the free and full intercommunication among each other.” A recipe for success that we would do well to study, and to emulate.
This is Greek history, hidden, as it were, in plain sight. Perhaps the sober Greeks of that generation wanted it that way, but for me, it is yet an example of a struggling people—my own people—harnessing the winds to their sails to find an agency denied to them by power politics. This past may, in fact, be prologue. It is good to read these histories as a source of pride, but more importantly, as a source of inspiration to apply to the present day.