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Concise History

Kefalonia: Concise maritime and political history

(Sources: a) Gelina Harlaftis, Helen Beneki and Manos Haritatos, Ploto, Greek shipowners from the late 18th century to the eve of WWII, ELIA/Niarchos Foundation, 2003 (in Greek and English) b) Panayiotis S. Kapetanakis, ‘The deep-sea going merchant fleet of the Seven Islands during the time of British conquest and protection and the Cephalonian prominence (1809/15-1864). Fleet and ports, cargoes and sea-routes, maritime centres and seamen, entrepreneurship and networks, society and shipowning elites,’ Ph.D. thesis, Dpt of History, Ionian University, typescript.)

The Kefalonian mariners, until the 16th century, were mostly orientated towards the coastal sea trade of the Ionian Sea. However, since the 17th century they started sailing towards the ports of the western and eastern Mediterranean Sea. During the 18th century their strong maritime experience has enabled them, along with the mariners of Ithaca, Messolonghi and Etoliko, to develop the course of modern Greek-owned shipping.
The electronic databases “Amphitrite” and “Odysseus” have shown that the Kefalonians have managed to create a significant deep-sea going merchant fleet, and by the mid-18th until the 20th century have achieved a sustainable path of prosperity. According to the newest research, in the early 19th century the Septinsular or Ionian fleet (the fleet belonging to the seven most important islands of the Ionian Sea: Corfu, Zante, Kefalonia, Santa Maura-Lefkada, Ithaca, Paxos, and Cerigo) counted more than 300 sea-going vessels, with the lion's share belonging to shipowners and masters from the island of Kefalonia. However, the most significant development for the Ionian merchant shipping, in the early 19th century, was its orientation to the ports of the Russian Black Sea and its gradual transformation into a local but important transit carrier of the Russian wheat towards the main ports of central and western Mediterranean. This transit character of the Ionian merchant shipping, which in its essence was and remained a Kefalonian shipping, would be fully crystallized during the period of the British protection over the Ionian Islands (1815-1864). This is a period during which the deep-sea going merchant fleet of the British protected United States of the Ionian Islands was able to work and function flexibly, dynamically and effectively in the competitive business environment of the Mediterranean basin. Furthermore, the Ionian fleet and to be more precise, the Kefalonian and Ithacan fleets have succeeded in becoming one of the most remarkable, Mediterranean sea-transport providers to third countries, being specialized in the transit of grain from the Black Sea and the Danube towards the Central and West European markets.
The maritime and commercial development of Kefalonia and Ithaca, which is inextricably tied to the grain trade of the Danube River and of the Azov Sea, will be intensified during the last third of the 19th century. About one hundred and forty families of big Greek merchants and shipowners, half of which coming from the Ionian Sea and its islands, have managed to control the maritime trade of bulk cargoes from the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean to the West. The merchants and shipowners from the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Ithaca were settled in the major ports of the Black Sea and the Danube River, as well as in the major ports and markets of Western Europe.
Most of these families were concentrated in the ports of the Danube: Braila, Galatz and Sulina, where their members had set up at least seventy-five shipping and trade companies, as well as shipping agencies. Apart from the ports of the Danube, the Kefalonian and Ithacan presence was strong in the port-cities of southern Russia, especially in the Azov Sea. Thirty families of big merchants and shipowners from Kefalonia and Ithaca, in addition to many more scattered in all cities of the Black Sea, were settled in the ports of Taganrog, Rostov on Don, Berdiansk, Yeysk and Kerch. Ten families of merchants and shipowners were settled in Nikolayev and Odessa, whereas six families of big Kefalonian and Ithacan merchants and shipowners were settled in the ports of Caucasus, mainly in Batumi and Novorossiysk. The third area of concentration of families from the Ionian Islands was Istanbul, the largest financial center in the eastern Mediterranean, whereas the rising port of Piraeus, which served as a refueling and supply hub, began to attract an increasing number of Ionian merchants and shipowners, by the end of the 19th century. In Western Europe, the branches of twenty-seven family businesses from Cephalonian and Ithacan merchants and shipowners were concentrated in Marseille and thirty six in London.
The Kefalonians and Ithacans, who have settled in the Danubian principalities, after being adapted to the prevailing conditions there, have managed to create the so called Ionian network. The latter was a closed maritime and commecial network, built mainly by Ionians, lasting from the 1870s to the beginning of the 1900s, and covering the transitional period not only from sail to steam but also from a combined profession to specialization. By the beginning of the 20th century the final exodus from commercial activities and a specialization in shipping activities was evident. The most successful shipowning families of the 20th century were directly linked with the Ionian network.