24 April 2022

Easter 1822 and memories of the
Massacre of Chios 200 years ago

‘Scenes from the Massacres at Chios’, Eugène Delacroix (1824), in the Louvre in Paris … the massacre began 200 years ago on Easter Day 1822

Patrick Comerford

I visited the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford a few times this weekend to see the Orthodox celebrations of Good Friday (22 April 2022), and the celebrations of Easter last night (23 April).

Today is Easter Day in the Greek calendar in the calendar of all Orthodox churches.

But it is difficult today not to be reminded that Easter Day in Greece 200 years ago was marked by the Massacre of Chios in April 1822.

The Massacre of Chios is one of the many horrific events during the Greek War of Independence. The details of this massacre continue to shock and to horrify people as they learn about it.

The island of Chios is an Aegean island that is often counted as one of the Dodecanese islands, and it is just 8 km off the main Anatolian coast of Turkey.

The Chians or Chiots -- the islanders of Chios – never joined in the Greek War of Independence, and enjoyed many privileges under Ottoman rule, including a degree of autonomy, religious freedom, property rights, and exemptions from many taxes on houses, vineyards, orchards and trade.

The islanders had avoided threats of forced conversion to Islam experienced on so many Greek islands, and they were exempt from the devshirme, in which the fittest and strongest boys in families were captured or conscripted and sent to Constantinople, where they were trained as janissaries, an elite and brutal corps.

The island was known for the production of mastic, silk and citrus fruits, and for its sea trade. Many merchant families from Chios dealt in banking, insurance and shipping and founded merchant houses in England, Italy and the Netherlands. Traders from Chios settled in Smyrna, Constantinople, Odessa and other Black Sea ports.

It is easy to understand why the people of Chios rebutted an appeal to support a naval assault on the Ottoman Empire in April 1821. But, a year later, in April 1822, a small number of people from Chios joined a small band from the neighbouring island of Samos who attacked the small Turkish garrison on Chios.

A small number of soldiers were killed. But the response was swift, brutal and merciless.

The bloodbath began on Easter Day 1822 and continued for several months. In a revenge attack in June 1822, Greek insurgents from the neighbouring island of Psara attacked a flagship of the Ottoman navy anchored in the harbour of Chios while its sailors were marking the end of Ramadan. In all, 2,000 men were killed in one assault.

A second wave of savagery was unleashed against the people of Chios.

The original population of the island was 100,000 to 120,000. At least 30,000 were murdered or executed or died by suicide or disease, and another 45,000 people were sold into slavery. Whole villages were wiped out. Of the survivors, about 20,000 people managed to flee to safety on islands under Greek rule.

Richard Calvocoressi, a descendant of one such family from Chios, wrote recently in the New Statesman: ‘For months afterwards the slave markets of the Levant were glutted with Chian boys, girls and young women, for sale at knock-down prices; and for many, slavery meant sexual slavery.’

The massacre inspired Eugène Delacroix’s Scenes from the Massacres at Chios or Scènes des massacres de Scio, completed in 1824. It is an enormous painting in the Louvre seen by millions of visitors each year.

The massacre caused an outcry throughout Europe. Reports of the massacre, Delacroix’s painting and Byron’s writings encouraged Philhellenes to redouble their efforts in support of Greek independence from Ottoman oppression. But Ottoman continued for another 90 years, and Chios did not become part of the modern Greek state until 1912.

Although the composer Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) is popularly identified with Crete and was buried there when he died last year, he was born on the island of Chios.

Today, Chios is the fifth largest of the Greek islands, and is one of the Aegean islands that have become a centre for asylum seekers and refugees seeking to arrive in Europe.

Two hundred years after the Massacre of Chios, it is hard not to think of those merchants in Odessa and the brutality in Ukraine today; it is hard not to think of the refugees and slaves created by the massacre and not to think of the refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in Chios and other Greek islands in the hope of finding freedom today.

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