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Bouboulina, Laskarina (1771–1825)

Bouboulina, Laskarina (1771–1825)

Greek freedom fighter and naval commander whose heroic exploits became the subject of countless folk songs, ballads and plays. Name variations: Lascarina Bobolina or Boubalina; (nickname) Capitanissa. Born on the island of Spétsai (Spetses) in 1771 (some sources cite 1783); killed in 1825; daughter of a sea captain from the island of Spétsai; twice married, twice widowed; children: six.

Widowed for the second time soon after the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence (1821), enthusiastically supported the struggle against the Ottoman occupiers of her homeland; paid for the outfitting of four ships as well as an army unit, and personally participated in the naval blockades of Monemvasia and Nauplia; her death (1825) was the result of involvement in a family feud.

Laskarina Bouboulina had to wait until she was an older woman to enter the pages of both Greek and women's history. Born in 1771 on the island of Spétsai, she had been twice married, twice widowed, and the mother of six, by the time the Greeks rose up against their Turkish overlords in April 1821. From the start of the Greek revolt, it was clear that control of the sea would determine the outcome of the war. With virtually all the maritime communities of the Greek archipelago rising up against the Ottoman Empire, the rebels had a fair chance of success. Accustomed for thousands of years to the risks of seafaring, Greek mariners had a tradition as warriors as well as sailors. For centuries, they honed their martial skills by fighting against Barbary pirates and occasional brigands from their own communities. Nearly all Greek captains and sailors volunteered for the war of independence which was a serious blow to the Turks, because the bulk of the sailors in the Turkish sultan's navy were of Greek origin. Not only was this source of recruiting now cut off for the Turkish naval command, but their crews were now largely composed of involuntarily recruited dock workers and peasants, men lacking in both skills and belief in a cause. Although quantitatively overwhelmed by the vessels of the Turkish fleet, the Greek sailors—superbly experienced men of the sea, willing to die for their cause—actually held the upper hand in the epic struggle for Hellenic freedom.

Bouboulina's father was an experienced sea captain and merchant. Like many Greeks, she absorbed from childhood the myriad details of maritime life, and by the time she married had become quite knowledgeable in seafaring matters. Although she was the mother of six children, she had a reputation for being able to drink the most masculine of men under the table. Some of the stories that circulated during her lifetime suggested that she was so physically unattractive that she had to seduce her lovers at pistol point. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate fact from fiction in such Bouboulina tales that found their way into songs, ballads, and popular plays.

When the war against Turkish rule began in April 1821, Bouboulina's husband owned a fleet of four small vessels. He died soon after the start of the uprising, and she had little time for mourning. Bouboulina actively took over command of her vessels, which now became part of the revolutionary naval forces.

From the start of her command, she displayed tremendous powers of leadership. Assisted by her sons and brothers, she commanded a small fleet that distinguished itself on many occasions, including the naval blockades of Monemvasia and Nauplia, during which many Greek towns were relieved from sieges by the Turks. Brave and also reckless, she sailed her ships to wherever they were most needed. This was true during the siege of Tripolis, to which Bouboulina brought her ships to assist the besieged Greek insurgents. After the fierce battle ended, she was the first of the liberating forces to enter the relieved town, doing so in dramatic fashion on horseback. Indeed, it was not uncommon for her enthusiasm and courage to motivate her to temporarily abandon her flagship and venture ashore on horseback at bloody and decisive land battles. Fortunately, her lieutenants were able to maintain discipline and follow her orders to the letter in her absence. Whether on sea or land, she was universally respected both by her own crews and by Greek soldiers of the liberated territories as their Capitanissa, the brave, resolute woman naval commander of the Free Hellenes.

Bouboulina's compassion was as noteworthy as her courage, and, after the town of Tripolis was captured by the Greeks, she determined to save as many lives as possible through political compromise. A skilled diplomatic negotiator, she worked out a deal with the Turkish military commander, Elkas Aga, whereby Greek ecclesiastical leaders were exchanged for the harem of the Turkish vizier and governor of the Peloponnesus, Hourshid Pasha. Given the fanatical, virtually genocidal nature of the Greek-Turkish conflict, Bouboulina's diplomatic approach did not appeal to a large number of Greek and Albanian soldiers who thought that the only good Turk was a dead Turk. Determined to deal with their anger and opposition, she asked that the soldiers assemble to hear her side of the issue. Speaking to them not as a revered Capitanissa but as a middle-aged widow and mother, Bouboulina addressed them as "my children" so as to share her personal grief with those assembled. She mentioned that it had been "barely eight days since my son John was killed by the Turks," while remaining vehement that they must seek no revenge and that no harm should come to the Turkish harem women. Allowing the soldiers to take the jewels and coins of the women, Bouboulina forbade them to injure or molest the women in any way, insisting: "Whoever attempts to do so will have first to pass over my dead body." Most of the soldiers obeyed her commands, but a few irreconcilables set fire to the fortress in which the Turkish women were imprisoned. Bouboulina was able to contact the local Greek commanders in time, joining them with sword in hand to protect the harem women, who were soon sent to safety in a chartered vessel to the shores of Asia Minor.

Though the Greek War of Independence was idealized in contemporary writings by Philhellenic poets like Lord Byron, it was in reality characterized by countless instances of savagery on both sides. Most often, however, the terrors of the war were ignored in favor of a poesy of heroic deeds. In their search for heroes, the Philhellenes in Europe and the New World saw virtually every incident as comparable in heroic virtue to the great heroes of classical Greece. The Mainote brigand-rebels became the Modern Spartans, and the Albanian Suliote leader Marco Botsaris was seen by the journalists and poets of the 1820s as the Modern Leonidas. Laskarina Bouboulina became one of the most popular of the heroes to emerge during the first phase of the Greek War of Independence; quickly, she was dubbed the Greek Joan of Arc , or even the Modern Artemisia .

Despite her remarkable exploits, Laskarina Bouboulina had rivals and enemies as well as admirers within the Greek independence movement. In a society that was often passionately self-destructive in its clan loyalties, even within her own family this strong-willed woman often engendered deep personal animosities. In 1825, during a violent argument with a family member over an unresolved vendetta, she was killed by a bullet that may or may not have been intentionally aimed at her. With her death, her legend only grew stronger and more myth-laden. Additional entertainments were written to add to the already large body of hero-worship produced during her lifetime. More than a century after her death, visitors to her house at Spétsai were still able to see traces of her blood on the wall where she had been fatally wounded. In 1930, her portrait appeared on one of the series of commemorative postage stamps issued by Greece to celebrate the centenary of the War of Independence.

sources:

Finlay, George. History of the Greek Revolution. 2 vols. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1861.

Howarth, David. The Greek Adventure: Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Independence. NY: Atheneum, 1976.

St. Clair, William Linn. That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tsigakou, Fani-Maria. The Rediscovery of Greece: Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, 1981.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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