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Argentina’s Hydriot “Admiral,” and Hidden Stories of Greek Sailors in South American Waters

Greece 2040
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As a Hydriot, I was raised on a pantheon of grizzled war heroes—Miaoulis, Koudouriotis, et al.—focusing on their virtues rather than their vices. Still, I was only vaguely aware that Hydra also exported naval heroes. On my last trip to Hydra, at the pier waiting for the hydrofoil, I caught sight of a Hydriot hero’s plaque in Argentina’s war of independence. Who knew?

The boat was coming, and the plaque only registered for a moment, as I took a last look out on Hydra’s magnificent harbor, architecturally pretty much the same scene as it was in 1821, when the Greek War of Independence began, or in 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 who served in 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 a labor to discover a rich Greek maritime history in the area. Apparently, there are plenty of Greek maritime stories hidden in South America, waiting to be discovered.

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 was put to sea. Before that, he had been serving in the Turkish Navy. Hydriots, as the finest sailors in the Ottoman Empire, had to turn over an annual levy of sailors for service in the Ottoman fleet.

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 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. Further, the American and French revolutions inspired the Spanish American colonies to break from colonial rule.

Kolmaniotis Plaque in Buenos Aires
Revythis, left, and Argentine history professor in period uniform, next to a plaque of Kolmaniotis in Buenos Aires Naval Museum.

Into this fray sailed a young Hydriot merchant with valuable naval experience. A fellow like this was bound to find his skill put to good 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 from 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. He is trying to bring their stories to life.

Kolmaniatis/Jorge had a family in Argentina and some of his children followed him into the navy. The family was quickly absorbed into Argentina’s multiethnic mosaic 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.”

Plaque of Kolmaniotis, in Hydra
Plaque in Hydra harbor honoring Kolmaniotis, photo by Spilios Spiliotis

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. People like Villamayor Revythis keep history and memories alive. They are vital to preserving stories, and their efforts need to be both applauded and supported.

That does not mean that there have not been efforts, both in Argentina and Greece, particularly Hydra, to commemorate KolmaniatisJorge’s role. A recent Argentine ambassador to Greece coordinated with the Hydra Historical Archives and Museum director on several 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, based on 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.

The post Argentina’s Hydriot “Admiral,” and Hidden Stories of Greek Sailors in South American Waters first appeared on Latest News from Greece.

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