The port and city of Mytilene, from the north.
CHOISEUL-GOUFFIER, Gabriel Florent Auguste de. Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce.

Map of Naousa, Paros.
CHOISEUL-GOUFFIER, Gabriel Florent Auguste de. Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce.

View of Patmos.

CHOISEUL-GOUFFIER, Gabriel Florent Auguste de. Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce.

The best known Greek pirate ship with canons at the prow from the island of Psara, a variation of the medieval galley and a descendant of the ancient trireme.

Piracy in the Aegean

Text: Nikos Belavilas, professor NTU | Illustration: Laskaridis Foundation

Myths & truths

In Naoussa, Paros, a re-enactment event called “Koursaroi” (pirates) is held every year on the occasion of the ninth day of the afterfeast of the Dormition of the Mother of God on the 23rd of August. Young men, dressed as pirates, as old-time seafarers, that is – or should we picture them as one-eyed and peg-legged? – step aboard boats and all kinds of vessels, then storm the port of Naoussa and abduct women. Next, the people of Naoussa counterattack and take their women back, saving them and their honour from the much-hated, barbarous pirates!

So, who exactly were these notorious pirates? Where did they come from? What nationality were they? What were their actual relations with the island communities? When did piracy in the Aegean come to an end? What was the role of Andreas Miaoulis? These and other questions are answered in the article written for the current issue of Parola by Nikos Belavilas, professor at the National Technical University of Athens, and author of “Ports and Settlements in the Archipelago of Piracy”.

Piracy in the Aegean region is as old as the civilization of its sea and islands; an endemic phenomenon like banditry in the mountains. Who pirated our seas? Probably everyone. Roles changed along with shifts in geopolitical conditions, borders and sovereignty.

Arabs invaded the Byzantine islands in the 9th c., and Turks from the coasts of Asia Minor ravaged Latin-ruled islands in the 15th c. When Constantinople fell, the roles got reversed –Westerners looted villages and raided ships travelling to and from the Queen of Cities. Piracy flourished in turbulent times, early on from the Crusades until the Fall of Constantinople, and, later, in the 17th century, during the Venetian-Turkish wars. But also in times of stability, under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, in the 16th century, the Order of St. John, based on the Dodecanese, practised privateering until the knights were expelled and forced to settle in mid-Mediterranean, on the island of Malta, whence they continued their sorties.

So, from the Middle Ages through to the 19th c., first Arabs and Turks, then Venetians, Neapolitans, Maltese, Spaniards, and later English, French, and finally Greeks, took turns sailing across the archipelago from the first mild days of spring well into late autumn before the storms set in. They set ambushes in the busy naval passages, at Cape Malia and Cape Tainaron, at Tselevinia islands off Poros and at Sounion’s Cape of Columns, at Cavo D’Oro, and off Gyaros, Deles, Fourni, and in the straits of Samos and the Sporades islands. They raided ships, looted farms and, at times, whole settlements and towns. They kept sheltered shipyards where they repaired their vessels and stored water and supplies, and had island communities helping them. When the weather changed, they would return to the Adriatic and Malta, or winter on Milos and Kimolos, on Mykonos, Naoussa and Parikia, or on Samos, Astypalea, Kasos, and Gramvousa.

During the first centuries, the islanders were slaves in galleys, crew members or navigators in every fleet. After the middle of the 18th c., they became merchant captains, pirates and smugglers during naval blockades, ending up with 1,000 ships in their possession, and numbering nearly twenty thousand sailors. As the Revolution waged on, Greek captains under various flags are reported to have been pirating even against fellow believers, and, like the brigands and the irregular soldiers (klephts and armatoloi) of the Balkans, swinging from one camp to another. One hundred Greek pirates were held captive by the British in Malta circa 1827, and Admiral Andreas Miaoulis himself had arrest warrants issued against him for similar activity.

The Paros-Naxos straits and the hospitable bay of Naoussa were continuously one of the top corsair anchorages in the Aegean. It is first mentioned as a pirates’ port in a manuscript written in 1420 by the Florentine monk and cartographer Cristoforo Buodelmonti. It seems that it was used by both Venetian and Turkish pirates as a refuge as well as a shipyard for repairs. The original fortified settlement of Naoussa with its sea-tower typifies the West’s advanced outpost in the troubled archipelago.

The boundaries between piracy and privateering were often fuzzy, as in the case of Barbarossa. He was one of the most famous seafarers of the Mediterranean, and a pirate. However, in 1537, when he swept the Aegean and, along with it, Paros, enslaving thousands, he was the Sultan’s Kapudan Pasha, entrusted with the liberation of the Cyclades from the Venetians, effectively bringing down the Frankish Duchy of the Aegean.

Half a century later, after the naval battle of Nafpaktos, the westerners came back. Throughout the 17th and 18th c., they ruled the sea. Naoussa flourished in this context. Catholic pirates came and went, repaired their ships, traded, and offered donations to Capuchin monks for their monastery. Famous names, Johannite De Temericourt, Creviller and Angelos Maria Vidalis were frequent visitors or occasionally settled on the island in the 17th c., along with Lambros Katsonis and the Russians in the 18th c. The Turks would sail in come summer, anchor at Drio, collect taxes, impose punishments and leave. In 1677, the Ottomans landed in Naoussa with 25 galleys, arrested inhabitants, and went as far as digging graves open in search of hidden pirates, who returned after the formers’ departure. The shipyard never ceased to operate. In 1759, a Greek pirate, Loukas Valsamakis, furnished with an English privateering license, ran aground on Delos. People from Mykonos helped him bring his boat to Naoussa for repairs. At that time, Paros was a corsairs’ bazaar, along with Syros and Mykonos.

The last major rekindling of Naoussa was marked by the establishment of the Russian fleet in 1770-1775. The old Venetian port was transformed into a full-fledged naval base, sporting a command post, storehouses, a gunpowder depot and fortifications on the islets, bastions with artillery batteries, and an observation post set up at the entrance to the bay. Supplies from across the Cyclades rushed it to feed the crews.

Piracy on the islands came to an end with the culmination of the Greek War of Independence. Then, the old pirate Andreas Miaoulis, admiral of the Greek fleet, by order of Ioannis Kapodistrias, cleared the last pockets of piracy still active in the eastern Aegean. The old lairs sheltering the pirates of the archipelago faded into obscurity.