Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter VI

Greek Mariners

I sailed from Smyrna in the Amphitrite, a Greek brigantine, which was confidently said to be bound for the coast of Syria; but I knew that this announcement was not to be relied upon with positive certainty, for the Greek mariners are practically free from the stringency of ship’s papers, and where they will, there they go. However, I had the whole of the cabin for myself and my attendant, Mysseri, subject only to the society of the captain at the hour of dinner. Being at ease in this respect, being furnished too with plenty of books, and finding an unfailing source of interest in the thorough Greekness of my captain and my crew, I felt less anxious than most people would have been about the probable length of the cruise. I knew enough of Greek navigation to be sure that our vessel would cling to earth like a child to its mother’s knee, and that I should touch at many an isle before I set foot upon the Syrian coast; but I had no invidious preference for Europe, Asia, or Africa, and I felt that I could defy the winds to blow me upon a coast that was blank and void of interest. My patience was extremely useful to me, for the cruise altogether endured some forty days, and that in the midst of winter.

According to me, the most interesting of all the Greeks (male Greeks) are the mariners, because their pursuits and their social condition are so nearly the same as those of their famous ancestors. You will say, that the occupation of commerce must have smoothed down the salience of their minds; and this would be so perhaps if their mercantile affairs were conducted according to the fixed businesslike routine of Europeans; but the ventures of the Greeks are surrounded by such a multitude of imagined dangers (and from the absence of regular marts, in which the true value of merchandise can be ascertained), are so entirely speculative, and besides, are conducted in a manner so wholly determined upon by the wayward fancies and wishes of the crew, that they belong to enterprise rather than to industry, and are very far indeed from tending to deaden any freshness of character.

The vessels in which war and piracy were carried on during the years of the Greek Revolution became merchantmen at the end of the war; but the tactics of the Greeks, as naval warriors, were so exceedingly cautious, and their habits as commercial mariners are so wild, that the change has been more slight than you might imagine. The first care of Greeks (Greek Rayahs) when they undertake a shipping enterprise is to procure for their vessel the protection of some European power. This is easily managed by a little intriguing with the dragoman of one of the embassies at Constantinople, and the craft soon glories in the ensign of Russia, or the dazzling Tricolor, or the Union Jack. Thus, to the great delight of her crew, she enters upon the ocean world with a flaring lie at her peak, but the appearance of the vessel does no discredit to the borrowed flag; she is frail indeed, but is gracefully built, and smartly rigged; she always carries guns, and in short, gives good promise of mischief and speed.

The privileges attached to the vessel and her crew by virtue of the borrowed flag are so great, as to imply a liberty wider even than that which is often enjoyed in our more strictly civilised countries, so that there is no pretence for saying that the development of the true character belonging to Greek mariners is prevented by the dominion of the Ottoman. These men are free, too, from the power of the great capitalist, whose sway is more withering than despotism itself to the enterprises of humble venturers. The capital employed is supplied by those whose labour is to render it productive. The crew receive no wages, but have all a share in the venture, and in general, I believe, they are the owners of the whole freight. They choose a captain, to whom they entrust just power enough to keep the vessel on her course in fine weather, but not quite enough for a gale of wind; they also elect a cook and a mate. The cook whom we had on board was particularly careful about the ship’s reckoning, and when under the influence of the keen sea-breezes we grew fondly expectant of an instant dinner, the great author of pilafs would be standing on deck with an ancient quadrant in his hands, calmly affecting to take an observation. But then to make up for this the captain would be exercising a controlling influence over the soup, so that all in the end went well. Our mate was a Hydriot, a native of that island rock which grows nothing but mariners and mariners’ wives. His character seemed to be exactly that which is generally attributed to the Hydriot race; he was fierce, and gloomy, and lonely in his ways. One of his principal duties seemed to be that of acting as counter-captain, or leader of the opposition, denouncing the first symptoms of tyranny, and protecting even the cabin-boy from oppression. Besides this, when things went smoothly he would begin to prognosticate evil, in order that his more light-hearted comrades might not be puffed up with the seeming good fortune of the moment.

It seemed to me that the personal freedom of these sailors, who own no superiors except those of their own choice, is as like as may be to that of their seafaring ancestors. And even in their mode of navigation they have admitted no such an entire change as you would suppose probable. It is true that they have so far availed themselves of modern discoveries as to look to the compass instead of the stars, and that they have superseded the immortal gods of their forefathers by St. Nicholas in his glass case, 11 but they are not yet so confident either in their needle, or their saint, as to love an open sea, and they still hug their shores as fondly as the Argonauts of old. Indeed, they have a most unsailor-like love for the land, and I really believe that in a gale of wind they would rather have a rock-bound coast on their lee than no coast at all. According to the notions of an English seaman, this kind of navigation would soon bring the vessel on which it might be practised to an evil end. The Greek, however, is unaccountably successful in escaping the consequences of being “jammed in,” as it is called, upon a lee-shore.

These seamen, like their forefathers, rely upon no winds unless they are right astern or on the quarter; they rarely go on a wind if it blows at all fresh, and if the adverse breeze approaches to a gale, they at once fumigate St. Nicholas, and put up the helm. The consequence of course is that under the ever-varying winds of the Aegean they are blown about in the most whimsical manner. I used to think that Ulysses with his ten years’ voyage had taken his time in making Ithaca, but my experience in Greek navigation soon made me understand that he had had, in point of fact, a pretty good “average passage.”

Such are now the mariners of the Aegean: free, equal amongst themselves, navigating the seas of their forefathers with the same heroic, and yet child-like, spirit of venture, the same half-trustful reliance upon heavenly aid, they are the liveliest images of true old Greeks that time and the new religions have spared to us.

With one exception, our crew were “a solemn company,” 12 and yet, sometimes, when all things went well, they would relax their austerity, and show a disposition to fun, or rather to quiet humour. When this happened, they invariably had recourse to one of their number, who went by the name of “Admiral Nicolou.” He was an amusing fellow, the poorest, I believe, and the least thoughtful of the crew, but full of rich humour. His oft-told story of the events by which he had gained the sobriquet of “Admiral” never failed to delight his hearers, and when he was desired to repeat it for my benefit, the rest of the crew crowded round with as much interest as if they were listening to the tale for the first time. A number of Greek brigs and brigantines were at anchor in the bay of Beyrout. A festival of some kind, particularly attractive to the sailors, was going on in the town, and whether with or without leave I know not, but the crews of all the craft, except that of Nicolou, had gone ashore. On board his vessel, however, which carried dollars, there was, it would seem, a more careful, or more influential captain, who was able to enforce his determination that one man, at least, should be left on board. Nicolou’s good nature was with him so powerful an impulse, that he could not resist the delight of volunteering to stay with the vessel whilst his comrades went ashore. His proposal was accepted, and the crew and captain soon left him alone on the deck of his vessel. The sailors, gathering together from their several ships, were amusing themselves in the town, when suddenly there came down from betwixt the mountains one of those sudden hurricanes which sometimes occur in southern climes. Nicolou’s vessel, together with four of the craft which had been left unmanned, broke from her moorings, and all five of the vessels were carried out seaward. The town is on a salient point at the southern side of the bay, so that “that Admiral” was close under the eyes of the inhabitants and the shore-gone sailors when he gallantly drifted out at the head of his little fleet. If Nicolou could not entirely control the manoeuvres of the squadron, there was at least no human power to divide his authority, and thus it was that he took rank as “Admiral.” Nicolou cut his cable, and thus for the time saved his vessel; for the rest of the fleet under his command were quickly wrecked, whilst “the Admiral” got away clear to the open sea. The violence of the squall soon passed off, but Nicolou felt that his chance of one day resigning his high duties as an admiral for the enjoyments of private life on the steadfast shore mainly depended upon his success in working the brig with his own hands, so after calling on his namesake, the saint (not for the first time, I take it), he got up some canvas, and took the helm: he became equal, he told us, to a score of Nicolous, and the vessel, as he said, was “manned with his terrors.” For two days, it seems, he cruised at large, but at last, either by his seamanship, or by the natural instinct of the Greek mariners for finding land, he brought his craft close to an unknown shore, that promised well for his purpose of running in the vessel; and he was preparing to give her a good berth on the beach, when he saw a gang of ferocious-looking fellows coming down to the point for which he was making. Poor Nicolou was a perfectly unlettered and untutored genius, and for that reason, perhaps, a keen listener to tales of terror. His mind had been impressed with some horrible legend of cannibalism, and he now did not doubt for a moment that the men awaiting him on the beach were the monsters at whom he had shuddered in the days of his childhood. The coast on which Nicolou was running his vessel was somewhere, I fancy, at the foot of the Anzairie Mountains, and the fellows who were preparing to give him a reception were probably very rough specimens of humanity. It is likely enough that they might have given themselves the trouble of putting “the Admiral” to death, for the purpose of simplifying their claim to the vessel and preventing litigation, but the notion of their cannibalism was of course utterly unfounded. Nicolou’s terror had, however, so graven the idea on his mind, that he could never afterwards dismiss it. Having once determined the character of his expectant hosts, the Admiral naturally thought that it would he better to keep their dinner waiting any length of time than to attend their feast in the character of a roasted Greek, so he put about his vessel, and tempted the deep once more. After a further cruise the lonely commander ran his vessel upon some rocks at another part of the coast, where she was lost with all her treasures, and Nicolou was but too glad to scramble ashore, though without one dollar in his girdle. These adventures seem flat enough as I repeat them, but the hero expressed his terrors by such odd terms of speech, and such strangely humorous gestures, that the story came from his lips with an unfailing zest, so that the crew, who had heard the tale so often, could still enjoy to their hearts’ content the rich fright of the Admiral, and still shuddered with unabated horror when he came to the loss of the dollars.

The power of listening to long stories (for which, by-the-bye, I am giving you large credit) is common, I fancy, to most sailors, and the Greeks have it to a high degree, for they can be perfectly patient under a narrative of two or three hours’ duration. These long stories are mostly founded upon Oriental topics, and in one of them I recognised with some alteration an old friend of the “Arabian Nights.” I inquired as to the source from which the story had been derived, and the crew all agreed that it had been handed down unwritten from Greek to Greek. Their account of the matter does not, perhaps, go very far towards showing the real origin of the tale; but when I afterwards took up the “Arabian Nights,” I became strongly impressed with a notion that they must have sprung from the brain of a Greek. It seems to me that these stories, whilst they disclose a complete and habitual KNOWLEDGE of things Asiatic, have about them so much of freshness and life, so much of the stirring and volatile European character, that they cannot have owed their conception to a mere Oriental, who for creative purposes is a thing dead and dry — a mental mummy, that may have been a live king just after the Flood, but has since lain balmed in spice. At the time of the Caliphat the Greek race was familiar enough to Baghdad: they were the merchants, the pedlars, the barbers, and intriguers-general of south-western Asia, and therefore the Oriental materials with which the Arabian tales were wrought must have been completely at the command of the inventive people to whom I would attribute their origin.

We were nearing the isle of Cyprus when there arose half a gale of wind, with a heavy chopping sea. My Greek seamen considered that the weather amounted not to a half, but to an integral gale of wind at the very least, so they put up the helm, and scudded for twenty hours. When we neared the mainland of Anadoli the gale ceased, and a favourable breeze sprung up, which brought us off Cyprus once more. Afterwards the wind changed again, but we were still able to lay our course by sailing close-hauled.

We were at length in such a position, that by holding on our course for about half-an-hour we should get under the lee of the island and find ourselves in smooth water, but the wind had been gradually freshening; it now blew hard, and there was a heavy sea running.

As the grounds for alarm arose, the crew gathered together in one close group; they stood pale and grim under their hooded capotes like monks awaiting a massacre, anxiously looking by turns along the pathway of the storm and then upon each other, and then upon the eye of the captain who stood by the helmsman. Presently the Hydriot came aft, more moody than ever, the bearer of fierce remonstrance against the continuing of the struggle; he received a resolute answer, and still we held our course. Soon there came a heavy sea, that caught the bow of the brigantine as she lay jammed in betwixt the waves; she bowed her head low under the waters, and shuddered through all her timbers, then gallantly stood up again over the striving sea, with bowsprit entire. But where were the crew? It was a crew no longer, but rather a gathering of Greek citizens; the shout of the seamen was changed for the murmuring of the people — the spirit of the old Demos was alive. The men came aft in a body, and loudly asked that the vessel should be put about, and that the storm be no longer tempted. Now, then, for speeches. The captain, his eyes flashing fire, his frame all quivering with emotion — wielding his every limb, like another and a louder voice, pours forth the eloquent torrent of his threats and his reasons, his commands and his prayers; he promises, he vows, he swears that there is safety in holding on — safety, IF GREEKS WILL BE BRAVE! The men hear and are moved; but the gale rouses itself once more, and again the raging sea comes trampling over the timbers that are the life of all. The fierce Hydriot advances one step nearer to the captain, and the angry growl of the people goes floating down the wind, but they listen; they waver once more, and once more resolve, then waver again, thus doubtfully hanging between the terrors of the storm and the persuasion of glorious speech, as though it were the Athenian that talked, and Philip of Macedon that thundered on the weather-bow.

Brave thoughts winged on Grecian words gained their natural mastery over terror; the brigantine held on her course, and reached smooth water at last. I landed at Limasol, the westernmost port of Cyprus, leaving the vessel to sail for Larnaka, where she was to remain for some days.

11 St. Nicholas is the great patron of Greek sailors. A small picture of him enclosed in a glass case is hung up like a barometer at one end of the cabin.

12 Hanmer.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44