Manto’s great-grandfather, Ioannis Mavrogenis, lived in the village of Marmara in Paros, and was father to Nikolaos Mavrogenis, Ruler of Moldovlachia (who built the three marble fountains along the main street of Parikia), and Dimitrios Mavrogenis, father of Nikolaos, who was Manto’s own father.
To honor their heroine, Parians named the island’s central square after her, where her bust now stands. Near the square is the house where she spent her last years.
Text: Maro Voulgari | Illustration: Dimitra Katsaouni
The heroine who enchanted Europe
She was called Magdalene and was born in Trieste in 1796. Her virtues, fame and beauty, coupled with her refined manners and European style, and, more importantly, her fearless soul inspired the sensitive youth of Enlightened Europe. A fascinating, romantic, selfless woman, a feminist before the emergence of feminism, a real Greek woman who made history and who gave away profuse love only to receive betrayal in every possible way.
La Bella Greca
She was the fifth child of Nikolaos and Zacharati Mavrogenous, a prominent family whose lineage was traced to Paros and Mykonos. Having fled Moldovlachia before the Greek Revolution of 1821, they lived in the Greek expatriate community of Trieste. As the daughter of a merchant and Sword-bearer (Spatharios) to the Ruler of Moldovlachia who was brought up in comfort and European taste, Manto received a high education, was a polyglot speaker of French, Italian and Turkish, and got imbued with Enlightenment principles from an early age. Her father was a member of the Friendly Society (Philiki Etaireia – a Greek revolutionary secret society founded in 1814 to overthrow the Ottoman rule of Greece), and a financial contributor to Lambros Katsonis’s revolutionary cause. Thus, she grew up in the bosom of Ottoman-scarred Greece to become a delicate revolutionary.
Everything for the homeland
In 1818, in the aftermath of her father’s death, Manto Mavrogenous relocated to Tinos under the protection of her priest uncle, Papa-Mavros, also a Friendly Society member. The tidings of the Greek uprising reached her there and sent her to Mykonos where she led the insurgency of the islanders. With the money from her dowry, she fitted out and manned two ships to sail headlong against naval threats to Greece. In 1821 four more vessels were equipped at her own expense and added to Admiral Tombazis’s fleet. She spent 700,000,000 groschen for the Cause, the then equivalent of 1 million gold francs. It is to this end that she deployed the sum of her vast real-estate fortune. She even offered her most prized valuable possessions and jewellery.
In 1822, as commander of the fleet, she warded off an Algerian attack and went on to set up an infantry corps –consisting of six battalions of 50 men each– in order to improve the odds against enemy forces in land battles, which she escorted to Euboea, Pelion, Livadia and Fthiotida. So, how come no Greek historian, except Nikolaos Dragoumis, mentions anywhere this one-of-a-kind, selfless and courageous figure, and her incalculable contribution to the liberation cause?
A feminist before feminism
Manto Mavrogenous, the ‘beautiful daughter of Mykonos’, as Puckeville dubbed her, was an endearing, beautiful young woman, tall and slender, proud and brave, nurtured in patriotism and piety by her priest uncle, Mavros. At the assembly of the elders of Mykonos, in a strictly male-dominated environment, she stands up to fervently declare and promise: “I come to offer my property for the Nation’s cause. Let us spare no time. March on and set our ships to sea. Let us not be the last to declare our independence!” This led to a rift with her family. Her mother refused to see her emptying the family coffers with a view to rigging warships. But Manto had only one answer to give: “My homeland must be freed, no matter what becomes of me.”
Τhe Philhellenic movement
For the Philhellenes, Manto was a romantic icon. The European youth saw in her the ideals of the Enlightenment: liberty, equality, fraternity. She thus wrote, in one of her letters to the Parisian ladies of high society, seeking financial assistance: “My love for my country, my devotion to my faith, my thirst for just revenge has filled my soul with a raving urge and warring passion. I yearn for a day of battle just as you eagerly await a dance. There is nothing in common between us, but for the natural gifts bestowed upon us by Heaven. We even differ in the way we use them. You use them against what they were meant for, being no more than mere passive creatures. But I, more felicitous, got the natural gifts to serve a useful purpose in the service of glory and for the people’s great benefit.” In 1825, the French philhellene Ginouvier published a novel in French about Manto, which was immediately sold out. Europe viewed her as a symbol of courage and self-sacrifice. The same year, however, finds her in Nafplio, where she resides in a dilapidated house, selling out the remnants of her once immense fortune to sustain herself. The next year she sold her jewellery to raise money for the care of the Greeks who survived the exodus of Messolonghi: ornate gold rings, emerald earrings, gold crosses set with red rubies, her gold watch, a pearl necklace and other family heirloom items.
Her acquaintance with Demetrius Ypsilantis led to a much-talked about romantic affair. Her house was looted twice as a punishment for the “libertine” manner in which Manto engaged with him. There was a marriage promise between them; Ypsilantis even went to such lengths as to draw up a contract in which he promised to marry her when the revolution was over. However, he was vilified by Kolettis, who was looking askance at the bright, pro-Russian couple. He, therefore, spread the rumor that Manto was cheating on Ypsilantis with British officer Edward Blaquiere, who had been dispatched to Greece entrusted with delivering the second instalment of the British loan made to the Greeks. These rumors resulted in the couple growing disaffected to each other and, eventually, separating. Ypsilantis broke their agreement and Manto Mavrogenous, the most sought-after bride of her time, was left jilted and exposed, an easy prey to idle whisperings, and, soon, to destitution and depression. Her angry letters to the government, and to Ypsilantis, reflect the rage and desperation, the desolation and the sense of injustice that this great woman was experiencing. To make matters worse, the anti-Russian circles orchestrated her abduction recruiting security officers attached to Ypsilantis himself, who forcefully returned her to her island, forbidding her to go back to Nafplio to meet him.
Kapodistrias the Just
It was only Ioannis Kapodistrias who tangibly acknowledged the heroine’s sacrifices by awarding her an honorary pension and temporary accommodation. But he also did something much more important – he assigned Manto the supervision of the orphanage he had founded. What is more, he conferred on her the rank of Lieutenant General and she, who had always been a giver, reciprocated the honor by giving him a sword, a century-old family heirloom, which bore the inscription “Judge, oh Lord, those who wrong me; fight against those who fight against me; rule over the Kings.” Sadly, following the assassination of the Governor, all of Manto’s benefits were negated. She was now a pauper – a woman all on her own who, in her desolation, also had to confront the death of Ypsilantis. Her anger turned to mourning. She followed the funeral procession like his real widow and left Nafplio for good, seeking refuge in Paros.
Manto in Paros
Manto came to Paros to stay at her uncle’s home and wrote a letter to King Otto asking for a basic pension benefit as virtually all of her assets had been sold or looted. There was no reply. She wrote a second letter. Once more, no answer. In July 1840, the once glamorous and beautiful noblewoman was just 44 years old. At the last crossroads of her life, a typhoid fever was awaiting her, of which she eventually died, making Paros her last home. The bells of Panaghia Ekatontapiliani Church tolled mournfully. Manto Mavrogenous had died of typhus, destitute and desolate… “The heroine’s coffin is lined with gold-woven fabric … the heroine in her coffin was dressed in the lieutenant general’s uniform” (Papyrus Press, Illustrated History, March, 1999). The marble slab of her tomb lay in the courtyard of the church until 1961. Afterwards, following the restoration of the courtyard, the slab was moved and the traces of the grave were lost, depriving the islanders of a sacred place of worship –the last residence of their beloved heroine; their very own islander saint.