This blog aims to look into the past to interpret the present and bridge better the necessity of history with today’s reality and the possibility of tomorrow. It’s about culture, anthropology, history, and geography, and also about continuity, discontinuity, conflict, and reconciliation in our human affairs.
As I have been exploring my family’s history in recent years, one thing has been clear to me – my roots are in the sea. Half of my ancestors lived by the Greek mainland coast and frequently went out to sea, while the other half were Greek islanders who spent a good part of their lives traversing the seas.
Among those islanders, there is a 19th-century figure who has captured my interest – Manto Mavrogenous.
Manto is a relative of my great-grandmother’s who lived during the years of the Greek war of independence. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, Greeks spent almost four centuries under the Ottoman Turks. After many attempts to gain their freedom, the Greeks finally mounted a more promising effort in 1821. The tiny nation of rebels was not a match for the Ottoman empire, so the revolutionaries needed all the help they could get.
Enter Manto Mavrogenous – a young, rich, beautiful, and clever Greek who grew up free in France (1). Manto took a great interest in the war of independence. She liquidated all of her fortune, came to the Greek islands, and spent her money outfitting a small flotilla of merchant and fishing boats with guns and cannons. She led in numerous attacks against the mighty Ottoman navy.
Her efforts were successful, and she earned many victories against the mighty adversary with her bravery and wits. The sea gave birth to ancient Greece, and the sea rebirthed it as an independent nation in the 19th century. I’m very thankful that Manto’s efforts were documented in history (1) because her escapades gave me the chance to understand my roots vividly. And two centuries later, those roots fuel my modern-day interest in the sea.
The seas today are more peaceful than they were in the 19th century. However, the sea continues to have great intrigue and be the source of interest and inspiration. However, today, it’s not about fighting any empire’s fleet but about learning the secrets of the sea and understanding the huge role it plays in shaping and supporting our lives.
Over the last two years, I’ve followed the news about how pollution and waste threaten the seas. Being interested in all of this, one can read many articles and watch a lot of documentaries, but, as it is with the well-documented life of Manto Mavrogenous, there is nothing like having a vivid narrative to guide your knowledge. An example of that is when I had the chance in 2018 to visit the Great Barrier Reef, where I learned how extreme temperature shifts and over-fishing are endangering the Earth’s hydrosphere. That visit left a lasting impression on me.
And most recently, another vivid narrative that supports the new branches of my interest in the sea came about from connecting with a local research and advocacy organization called MARE.
‘Mare’ is the Latin word for ‘sea’ and is an acronym for the Marin Applied Research and Exploration. This California-based non-profit organization does fantastic work mapping the West coast waters and unveiling the dynamic of that unique ecosystem (2). MARE has been doing that for nearly three decades with the help of a fleet of robotic submersibles that have traveled up and down the coast. This year, I hope to get to know MARE more closely, which will bring my current interests to my family’s sea roots.