STEAMSHIPS PREVAIL (1901-1911)

<< FROM SAIL TO STEAM (1873-1900) SHIPPING in WARTIME (1912-1918) >>

 

The Greeks’ effort to transition from sail to steam was well on the way at the beginning of the 20th century. The total carrying capacity of their steamship fleet was almost equal to that of their sailing vessels and it was clear that the predominance of steam would not be long in coming.

 

The pace at which steam shipping activity was developing enhanced the status and boosted the economy of many Greek islands, especially Syros, Cephalonia and Ithaca, as well as the – fast rising in that sector – island of Andros. Apart from the islands, Piraeus gained added prestige owing to its rapid evolution as Greece’s main industrial and commercial hub. The advancement of Piraeus and its key role in establishing sea routes to and from all destinations in Greece also gave impetus to the growth of Athens at a time when both its road and railway networks were still rudimentary.

 

The successful operation of steamships and the profits earned by their owners persuaded more Greeks to invest in this outward-looking sector. Syros, already a major commercial and industrial centre since the mid-19th century and the cradle of Greek steam shipping activity, became the focal point of investment. It was in Syros that pioneering coalitions, involving a large number of local investors from diverse business sectors, were established. 

 

A point of particular interest in such coalitions was the participation of a large number of master mariners, who in most cases went on to serve as masters on the steamships acquired. The result was positive for all concerned: investors enjoyed substantial profits which increased their personal fortunes and benefited their land operations, while the coalitions offered opportunities to many captains to eventually become major shipowners in their own right. 

 

As time went by, with ageing vessels being offered in the second-hand market at lower prices, more and more Greeks managed to acquire steamships. 

 

Presently however, Greek shipping began encountering difficulties, its rapid growth causing considerable concern among other shipping powers. Despite their magnitude and the fact that most of them were enjoying the support and protection of their governments, they did not like the presence of a dynamically evolving competitor. As a result, Greek shipping experienced intense pressure, especially in matters concerning insurance coverage and seafarers’ education.

 

The need to face issues concerning the Greek shipping activity was examined by the board of the Hermoupolis Commercial Association on the island of Syros, since a large number of its members had invested heavily in steamships. They submitted a memorandum in April 1901, requesting that the municipality hold a Shipping Conference in Hermoupolis. The local council adopted the proposal and decided to set up a conference, which finally took place in September 1902. 

 

Among the major issues raised at the conference was the establishment of schools for the training of masters and engineers in large steamship operation. Also discussed were the adoption and implementation of legislation on maritime mortgages, the establishment of a maritime bank in Greece, marine insurance matters, and the possibility of having steamships built in Greece with state aid.

 

Despite the importance of the items discussed, the conference failed to attract the attention of the government and consequently shipowners had to continue operating without any state support. By extending their business boundaries, the Greeks started transiting the Suez Canal and for the first time began sailing both the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

 

Within a decade, the Greeks managed to establish a powerful presence in global seaborne trade, having built 55 steamships and acquired about 250 second-hand vessels. By the end of 1911, the Greek-owned fleet comprised approximately 350 steamships.

 

Throughout this period, many traditional master mariners became steamship owners. One of them, Dimitrios Moraitis from the island of Andros, went a step further and placed an order with British shipyards for the building of the first Greek oceangoing passenger ship, the MORAITIS, delivered in 1907. A couple of years later, the sons of Andreas Embiricos were instrumental in the creation of a Greek transoceanic passenger service, which served the country’s interests and especially the then sensitive sector of immigration. 

 

The first decade of the century was marked by the presence of a renowned shipping personality, Epaminondas C. Embiricos, who also served as an MP and Minister of the Navy from 1908 to 1909. He anticipated the need for the adoption of legislation to cover maritime mortgages and had the Bill drafted during his ministerial tenure. It was enacted in 1910. Embiricos played a key role in Greece’s participation in the famous Maritime Exhibition of Bordeaux in 1907, specially organized to celebrate the achievements of all maritime nations since the introduction of steam. In 1893, long before the adoption of the maritime mortgage legislation, he co-founded the Bank of Athens which facilitated the acquisition of several Greek steamers. 

 

By the end of 1911, Greece was changing at a fast pace. The role of shipping was soon to emerge as both crucial and decisive. It was only then that the country’s political leaders started appreciating the value of shipping. Among them was a great statesman who was destined to change the course of the nation: Eleftherios Venizelos.

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