"Against her, the unmanly were ashamed and the brave stepped back."
Greek merchant, sea captain and independence fighter, b. Istanbul 1771-05-11, d. Spetses, 1825-05-25.
She was wealthy and influential. She was twice widowed and a mother of six. She stood to gain little from rocking the proverbial boat. And yet she
led a revolution. Laskarina Bouboulina was one of the more famous warlords of the Greek War of Independence and, by all accounts, the only woman in
history to have served as an admiral in the field.
Perhaps her participation was not surprising given her family's pedigree in resisting the Turkish occupation. She was born in prison while her
mother was visiting her father, captain Stavrianos Pinotsis of the island of Hydra, who had been imprisoned for his part in a revolt and died soon
after her birth. When she was four her mother moved to the neighbouring island of Spetses to remarry. There the girl with the dark complexion
displayed an unusual, for a girl of those times, love for the sea and its stories and was the undisputed boss of the childrens' games.
Laskarina was married to local captain Dimitris Yannouzas at the age of seventeen, and again to captain Dimitris Bouboulis at the age of thirty.
Both her husbands were killed by Barbary pirates. Her surname is based on that of her last husband who apparently was a man worthy of her, muchly
feared by pirates, and who died of a stray bullet to the head whilst sinking two pirate ships that had ambushed his trader.
From 1811 onwards Laskarina Bouboulina was in the unusual position of being a woman leading a shipping clan on an island with a tradition dating
back to ancient times. She showed her business mettle (given her character and having had six kids, one can expect that she knew how to take charge)
and within five years had increased her husband's fortune significantly. Mind you, she was probably running a profitable sideline as pirate queen, her men were after all fighting islanders.
In 1816 the Ottoman bureaucracy made an attempt to confiscate her wealth because of her late husband's involvement on the side of the Russians in
the Russo-Turkish war, for which he had obtained honorary Russian citizenship and the rank of captain in the Russian navy. Greek traders sailed
under the Russian flag in those days and were protected by treaty. She sailed to Istanbul to cash in a few favours with the Russian consul who whisked
her off for a Crimean holiday to protect her from arrest by the Turks.
At the time of her visit to Istanbul she was initiated into the Filiki Etaireia, the underground movement led by Greek intellectuals of the
diaspora in Austria and Russia. On the same visit she sought audience with the Sultan's mother and pleaded her case. Valide-Sultana intervened on
her behalf and convinced her son Mahmoud II to issue a decree sparing Bouboulina's fortune. Big mistake, and Bouboulina returned from the Crimea
and headed home.
Back in Spetses, she commissioned and paid 75000 spanish dollars out of pocket for the Agamemnon, a corvette armed with eighteen heavy
cannons. She broke every rule and regulation imposed on Greek shipowners by the Ottomans by building a full-blown man-o-war--the regulations were in
place to prevent precisely what she was doing. The Agamemnon was to become her flagship and the finest warship in the nascent Greek navy.
Three smaller ships were also constructed at her orders. On 1821-03-13 she embarked on the Agamemnon and was the first to hoist the banner of
the revolution in the port of Spetses. She assumed command of the flotilla with two of her sons and a son-in-law in charge of the other vessels.
"We shall win or cease to live, but shall do so with the comfort of knowing that we did not leave the Greeks behind us enslaved."
She sailed south-west, spent some time in the first blockade of Nauplion and eventually landed with her "brave lads" (palikária) at
Myloi in Argolis. They went on to take Argos, and there she covinced the assembled warlords to renew the siege of Nauplion, and then went on to
command the Spetsiot fleet in the siege. There was really no organised navy, but separate bands of Greek captains made their own plans and larger
groupings were created only by consensus. Nauplion in particular was a tough case and the town's impregnable fortress (you'll understand if you walk
up the thousand steps to the top) would not yield from sea and had to be attacked from land as well. She also led the blockade of Monemvasia with its mediaeval fortress until it fell and was involved in several smaller expeditions on land.
Captain Bouboulina led her palikária to victory at sea and on land next to other great names of the war. She was particularly close to
Theodore Kolokotronis and the two became in-laws. After the defeat of the Turks at Tripoli she was one of the first to enter the town on horseback
and restrained the rampaging men during the infamous sacking of the town. She personally arranged for the safe passage of Turkish women and children
to Istanbul, in accordance with a promise she'd given Valide-Sultana back in Constantinople.
The glory of death in battle eluded her. As an ally of Kolokotronis, she found herself on the losing side of the infighting that almost cost the
Greeks the war. With her fortune diminishing, one son fallen on the battlefield, and a newly-widowed daughter in tow, she sailed back to Spetses in
disgust after returning her house in Nauplion to the provisional government. She died at home of what may or may not have been a stray bullet, shot in
the head during a family feud while she was making preparations to face the Egyptian army of Ibrahim Pasha.
The most famous portrait of Bouboulina, also used on the last fifty-drachma bill, shows her standing next to a cannon on her ship, pointing her hand at the fortress of Nauplion, and that's how she's remembered by history and by the nation she served. Her house in Spetses has been restored and is open to the public.