FROM SAIL TO STEAM (1873-1900)

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The transition of the Greek merchant fleet from sail to steam was accomplished at a slow yet steady pace during the course of the final three decades of the 19th century.

 

Until the early 1870s, the Greeks had the means to build almost all of their sailing ships at home. A large number of shipbuilding sites throughout Greece were producing fine sailing vessels on a daily basis, allowing the seafarers of the time to establish a strong presence in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. 

 

Nonetheless, the ongoing rise of steamships in seaborne trade drastically changed the situation. Building steamships in Greece was not possible, while the prospects of establishing a competent shipbuilding industry either by the State or by individual entrepreneurs were practically non-existent, even after several years. The acquisition of steamships from abroad, especially the United Kingdom, was the only option. It is worth noting that at least during the initial years of steamship evolution there were no aged second-hand ships that could be acquired at low prices. The Greek seafarers had limited financial resources and in most cases they could not even afford the purchase of a slightly aged steamship, whose price was ten or even twenty times over the value of a sailing ship. One can therefore understand the problems encountered by seafarers in their efforts to replace sailing vessels with steamships at the time. 

 

The transition of Greek seafarers from the sail to the steam era was decisively facilitated by Greeks of the diaspora. Many of them, having achieved important entrepreneurial status, were able to invest in these high-priced new technology vessels. These men are essentially the first owners of Greek-flagged steamships. At the same time, a significant number of Greek-owned ships also sailed under the Russian, Turkish and British flags, demonstrating since those times the international character of Greek merchant shipping activity. A large number of captains of these ships, experienced master mariners and owners of sailing ships in previous years, eventually succeeded in becoming steamship owners with the financial support of their compatriots of the diaspora.

 

An important milestone in the transition of Greek shipping from sail to steam was recorded in 1873 when Romanian-based entrepreneurs, brothers John and Anthony Theophilatos from the island of Ithaca, had the first Greek-flagged steamship, the ITHACA, built to their order by R. Thompson, Jr. in Sunderland, UK.

 

From this point onwards, the Greek steamship fleet started to evolve at a steady albeit slow pace, which was not only due to Greek shipowners’ limited financial resources. A crucial factor which delayed their transition to the steam era was the complete lack of knowledge regarding the operation of engines installed on these newly-developed ships. The Greeks may have always been excellent sailors but, until then, knew nothing about the operation of engines. Despite the fact that steamships at the time were sailing in combination with sails, no such ship could sail without engineers. Thus, most of the Greek steamers acquired had to employ foreign engineers, who also served as instructors to their Greek colleagues.

 

The Neorion machinery plant in Hermoupolis, on the island of Syros, played an important educational role in engine operation. Established in 1861 in order to serve the needs of vessels belonging to the Hellenic Steamship Co. and employed in the Greek passenger and mail coastal service, it functioned as the first unofficial School of Engineering for the Greek merchant navy. These facilities were reinforced over the next decades by other engine shops and plants established in the country and especially in Piraeus. 

 

An additional reason for the slow development of Greek steamship activity until the end of the 19th century was the fact that the majority of those who acquired such vessels were not seafarers themselves. These entrepreneurs of the diaspora were mainly involved in activities in commerce and trading and felt no real need to rush into the steamship era. They had limited knowledge of the sector and in most cases they had no particular desire to pass on this kind of business to family scions in the way that true seafarers wished.

 

From among the names of important Greek businessmen of the diaspora who went on record as steamship owners until the end of the 19th century, only the Embiricos family managed to leave a mark in shipping that can be traced to the present day. Even the Vagliano family, headed by the great Panaghi Vagliano, who is acknowledged as the founder of Greek steamship activity due to his large investments in newbuildings from the early 1880s onwards, failed to remain active in shipping after his passing in 1902.

 

Throughout the last three decades of the 19th century, the Greek state failed to observe and facilitate the evolution of merchant shipping activity. There was a complete absence of any shipping policy, unlike in other maritime nations. The sector was placed under the auspices of the Ministry of the Marine, responsible in essence for the operation of the Navy. 

 

Despite the adverse environment, almost 200 steamers, 40% of them newbuildings, were acquired and operated by Greeks during that period. Their operation proved invaluable for the country which was facing bankruptcy at the time. Besides the thousands of jobs created without any state investment, revenues from shipping strengthened the country’s economy, decisively contributing towards its welfare. The islands, and especially those whose inhabitants were traditionally involved in shipping, greatly benefited from this development. 

 

However, towards the end of the 19th century, world shipping started showing signs of fatigue as a result of the oversupply of new tonnage. In such an ominous setting, Greek shipping, operating almost solely in order to serve the needs of international trade, found itself in an extremely difficult position.  An unexpected development, the Second Boer War in South Africa which broke out in 1899, changed the situation dramatically since a large part of the British merchant fleet was requisitioned for the transportation of troops and cargoes, creating new conditions in tonnage supply and demand. Following the invaluable contribution of the Greeks of the diaspora to establishing steamship activity, the outbreak of this war was, ironically, a lifeline to the sector, enabling it to embark on a new, dynamic course towards the new century.

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