Quite close to the Hydra Museum and its Merchant Marine Academy, there are a series of commemorative plaques and statues. Waiting for the fast hydrofoil that would take me once again away from Hydra, after an all-too-short sojourn, I chanced on a plaque honoring a man from Hydra who gained fame as a naval hero in a war for independence, not, in this case, for Greece, but rather for Argentina.
The boat was coming, and the plaque only registered for a moment, as I took a last look out on Hydra’s magnificent harbor, more or less the same scene as it was in 1821 when the Greek War of Independence began, or 1810 when a young Hydriot named Nicholas Kolmaniatis left the place in a hurry.
I would not have thought much more about this until recently, when I have been involved in the Greek War of Independence Bicentennial Celebrations of my island, Hydra, and her role in the fight for freedom. In the ubiquitous online café of Facebook, I noticed a fellow with a combination of Spanish and Greek surnames commenting in Spanish, a fluent Spanish speaker myself, I responded, and I began an online correspondence with Cesar Augusto Villamayor Revythis.
Villamayor Revythis is an Argentinian of partial Greek descent and a veteran of the Argentine navy. For the past several years, Villamayor Revythis has been compiling the story of Kolmaniatis (known in Argentina as Nicholas Jorge) specifically and more generally inquiring into the story of the Greek maritime history in Latin America. His project, “Greek Fire: Research and Dissemination Project in South American Waters,” is labor to recreate a rich Greek maritime history in the area.
Beyond being a Hydriot, I have personal reasons to be interested in this story. I lived in Chile, and I got to know its small but diverse Greek community, which included a large number of sailors, and, interestingly, a large number of people from the Vatika region of the Peloponnesus, where my paternal grandfather is from. I also have third cousins from the Vatika in Uruguay. These relatives are all descendants of sailors.
Nicholas Kolmaniatis, who would be known most of his life as Nicholas Jorge, killed a man in Hydra during a duel, over an insult to his then-wife, and put to sea. Prior he had been serving in the Turkish navy. Hydriots, as the finest sailors in the Ottoman Empire, had to turn over a periodic levy of sailors for service in the Ottoman fleet, and though there was some resentment at having to serve the Sultan, this helped to secure Hydra’s complete internal autonomy, and it gave several generations of Hydriots vital military experience and knowledge of Ottoman tactics, which would be put to use to expel the Turk once and for all.
Kolmaniatis was in some ways typical of the Hydriot of the era—a skilled mariner, trained to arms, combative, and with a nose for commerce. Though trans-Atlantic voyages were less common for Hydriots and their ships, they nonetheless did make the journey, particularly trading Brazilian coffee and sugar to Europe. Kolmaniatis ventured a bit further south, to Argentina.
At the time, the Spanish possessions in America were in turmoil, with large sections of the population agitating for independence from Spain, which had grown corrupt and feeble. Spain was also at war with Napoleonic France. The American and French revolutions, further, provided inspiration for the Spanish American colonies to break from colonial rule.
Into this fray sailed a young Hydriot merchant with valuable naval experience. A fellow like this was bound to find his skillset of use. Himself from a place smarting under foreign rule, Kolmaniatis found that his sympathies lay with the Argentinian Revolutionaries. Under the name Nicholas Jorge, he fought the Spanish fleets, rising to the rank of Colonel of the Marines (Argentine ranks are different than in other militaries, and the Hydriots speak of Jorge as an Admiral). Kolmaniatis/Jorge’s service did not end there, but rather he continued to serve his adopted country, with a regional command, service against the Empire of Brazil, and in the Argentine Civil Wars between federalist and unitary forces. According to Villamayor Revythis, there were Greek sailors on all sides of these conflicts.
Kolmaniatis/Jorge had a family in Argentina, and some of his children followed him into the navy. The family was quickly absorbed into the multiethnic mosaic of Argentina, and the story largely forgotten both by Argentines and Greeks. Villamayor Revythis is determined to change that. “Argentine history emphasizes our land army heroes more than our naval ones,” he offers, and “the Greek community organizations in Argentina largely focus on the large wave of Greek immigrants to the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s [rather than] these first Greeks.” Villamayor Revythis also strongly believes that other Latin American countries have Greek naval histories, ones that he is working tirelessly to uncover through his “Greek Fire” project.
That does not mean that there have not been efforts, both in Argentina and in Greece, particularly Hydra, to commemorate the role of Kolmaniatis/Jorge. A recent Argentine ambassador to Greece coordinated with the Hydra Historical Archives and Museum director on a number of events, but the truth is the story of Greeks in Latin America is generally off the radar of Greeks, both in Greece and the Diaspora centers such as the US, Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe.
These “other” stories are part of our collective Greek identity, one based in seafaring, commercial, and cosmopolitan tradition. Far too often, the Greek Diaspora narrative focuses on the twentieth-century migrant, often from a hardscrabble village, making it in Chicago, Manhattan, or Melbourne. These are the majority of the stories and should be told, but there are stories of sailors, merchants, and adventurers from an earlier era, often highly skilled and technocratic, lost in some archive. These stories deserve to see the light of day, and for Greek sailors in South America, Cesar Villamayor Revythis is their champion.
These are stories worth knowing, and no doubt, Villamayor Revythis will provide us with them.