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Hydra until the independence of Greece

Archaeological evidence has been found on Hydra that farmers and shepherds lived there from ca. 2500 B.C. Volcanic glass (obsidian) has also been found from the South Aegean island of Melos (Milos), which was supplied during the heyday of the Minoan civilisation (ca. 3500 - ca. 1375 B.C.), particularly to Crete, but also to other Greek islands. During the Helladic period (ca. 1375 - 1100 B.C.) Hydra probably served as a maritime base for the kingdoms on the Greek mainland. Fragments of vases, tools and the head of an idol are among the finds that point to this. The largest discovery, however, was a shipwreck dating from around 2200 BC near the islet of Dokos, which allowed archaeologists to gather valuable information about the early Helladic period. The large-scale Dorian invasion of Greece and the Greek islands around the 12th century BC seems to have led to a depopulation of the island.

Hydra was repopulated by farmers and shepherds from the mainland port of Ermioni in the 8th century B.C. The famous historian Herodotus (c. 484 - c. 425 B.C.) even reported in his writings that Hydra was owned by Ermioni in the 6th century B.C. Ermioni then sold Hydra to Samos, which in turn gave it to the Pelopponese and the city of Troezen, situated on the Saronic Gulf.

Furthermore, Hydra remained on the margins of history during this period. Few people lived on Hydra, and with the exception of some brief mentions in writings by Herodotus and geographer and writer Pausanias (c. 115 - 180 AD), the island received little attention.

During the Byzantine era Hydra became more populated, vases and coins from that period have been found near Episkopi. But this increase in population came to an end during the Latin Empire (1204-1261) of Constantinople, when Hydra was often attacked by pirates and the inhabitants fled. Between 1204-1566 Hydra belonged to Venice, from 1566-1821 the island was part of the Ottoman Empire.

In the 16th century the island was populated again by refugees from southern Albania as a result of the war between the Ottoman and Venetian Empires. These Arvanites migrated between about 1300 and 1600 first to Attica and then to the Peloponnese and islands like Hydra. The reasons for this migration are not entirely clear, but often these people were invited by Byzantine and Latin rulers to settle in depopulated areas, perhaps even to counter the Islamisation during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Surveys showed that by the mid-20th century the population of Hydra was mostly made up of descendants of the Arvanites.

Hydra as a sea and trade power

Hydra was relatively unimportant during much of the Ottoman rule. The development of Hydra as a maritime and trading power began in the 17th century, and the first school for sailors was founded as early as 1645. The first ship built on Hydra was launched in 1657. However, the conflict between the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire limited the island's maritime development until 1718 and the Treaty of Passarowitz. After this, Hydra's merchant fleet became bigger and more important for the economic development of the island.

During the first half of the 18th century, ships were built on Hydra similar to those on the other Aegean islands. These were the Sachtouri of 15 to 20 tons and the Latinadiko of 40 to 50 tons. The Hydriots were therefore content with the trade in the Aegean, and never sailed beyond Constantinople. The big change came in 1757 with the construction of a 250-ton ship. These large boats made Hydra increasingly important as a port and for the shipbuilding industry. In 1771, 50 ships sailed the Greek waters and ten years later there were over 100.

However, the Ottoman Empire limited Hydra's economic success by imposing heavy tariffs and taxes and restricting free trade. Only Ottoman ships were allowed to pass through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, and thus had the opportunity to trade (grain) through ports on the Black Sea and with the hinterland of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774, which ended the Russo-Turkish War from 1768 to 1774, would completely change this situation. The negotiator on the Ottoman side was Ahmed Resmi Efendi.

Russia was granted by the Ottomans the right to protect the Orthodox Christians and this religious protection had an important economic consequence for Hydra: the Hydriots were allowed to sail under the Russian flag and therefore had access to the Black Sea. Hydra was now entering a very lucrative time, as Hydrian ships could trade from southern Russia in the east to the Italian ports of Ancona and Livorno in the west. From 1785 onwards the Hydriot skippers not only focused on the actual transport, but also became increasingly important financially. Each vessel became its own small commercial enterprise and trade with the Levant was almost entirely in the hands of the Hydriot ships, although competition from the islands of Spetses and Psara was quite strong.

Unfortunately for Hydra, an outbreak of plague in 1792 threw a spanner in the works, many Hydriots died and others left the island for fear of being infected. However, by the end of the 18th century Hydra's economy had recovered and Hydrian ships were reaching French, Spanish and even South American ports. Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, gave Hydra a large silver chandelier for its cathedral as a gesture of gratitude for the role of the Hydrian ships in bypassing a British blockade and bringing food to France and Europe.

Hydra from the 19th century onwards

By the 19th century, Hydra was home to some 125 ships and 10,000 sailors. The mansions of the captains that still surround the horseshoe-shaped harbour today are a testament to the prosperity that shipping brought to the island. At the time of the Greek Revolution (1821-1832), when Hydra had a population of approximately 16,000, the fleets of Hydra and the two other 'naval' islands of Spetses and Psara managed to break free from the hegemony of the Ottoman fleet in the Eastern Aegean.

When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, the contribution of 186 small and 124 large Hydriot ships in the battles against the Turks was crucial. Greek admiral Andreas Miaoulis, himself a settler on Hydra, inflicted heavy losses on the Ottoman fleet using so-called burners, warships designed to set enemy ships on fire.

After the end of the Revolution and the establishment of the Greek state, Hydra gradually lost its strong position as a maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean. And this, of course, caused an economic crisis that led to a period of hardship and unemployment. The main reason for the economic crisis was that with the creation of the Greek state, the Hydrian fleet lost its privileges, granted by the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, and the use of the Russian flag was no longer possible. Another reason was that the traditional families who owned most of the fleet did not see the benefits of the rise of the steamship fast enough. The costs were significantly reduced, no longer dependent on wind, and less crew were needed, to the advantage of the new and more modern shipping companies of Piraeus, Patras and Syros. And again, many of Hydra's inhabitants left the island, leaving behind their large villas and beautiful homes that had fallen into ruin. The mainstay of the island's economy now became sponge fishing, which indeed brought prosperity again, but only until 1932, when Egypt forbade Hydrian fishermen to fish for sponges off the Egyptian coast.

In 1924, the former regent and Hydra-born Pavlos Koundouriotis became Head of State of Greece and President of the Second Republic from 1925 to 1926. In March 1926, Koundouriotis was deposed by General Theodoros Pangalos, but already in August of the same year, General Georgios Kondylis staged a coup and reinstated Koundouriotis as President. In 1929, Koundouriotis resigned and died in 1935.

By the time World War II broke out, Hydra had again been abandoned by many of its inhabitants, most of whom emigrated to other countries. Between 1941 and 1943, during the occupation of Greece, there was famine on Hydra, and it is estimated that about eight percent of the population died of starvation.

After World War II, Hydra became the place to be for artists such as Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and writers such as Arthur Miller from the United States and Axel Jensen from Norway.

Hydra in the 21th century

Hydra was hit by a huge fire in 2007 that destroyed about two-thirds of the island's forests. Hydra-town, the whole road to Episkopi and the beaches to the south were threatened but could be saved. To date, Hydra town has never been directly affected, although fires over time have already cost a number of firefighters their lives.

On 24 May 2014, another major fire broke out on Hydra, this time affecting an area of 2500 hectares of grasses and low vegetation. Lucky thing was that just since February 2014 Hydra has its own fire unit with a small fire engine. But because Hydra does not have many roads, the fire still had to be extinguished largely with the help of small planes and helicopters. See also the history page of Greece.



CIA - World Factbook

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Last updated December 2022
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