Saturday, March 27, 2021



During the Greek Revolution, Greek dress was all the rage among the fashion-conscious women of Paris. Wearing “robes de dame à la Bobeline” or assuming a costume that the couturiers of the capital assumed was being worn by doughty female freedom fighters other than Bouboulina, was not only a way of expressing solidarity with the beleaguered Greek people, but also a revolutionary act signifying the liberal ideals of equality and democracy, as well as a modish way to express the fact that one was abreast of the times. To this effect, women sported Grecian headscarves, and in a fundraising concert held by the Parisian Philhellenic Committee, in which the great Rossini was conductor, gentlemen wore armbands in the Greek colours, while musicians decorated their instruments with blue and white ribbons.  




In salons and in the stately homes, of Europe, removed from the hubbub of the crowd, entitled, privileged and powerful women who sympathised with the cause of Greek Independence did valuable charitable and propaganda work, raising money for the Greek insurgents and influencing male diplomats and politicians. As “Athens Insider” has recently pointed out, their stories are multi-faceted, complex and diverse. 


Élisabeth Santi-Lomaca for example, of Greek origin, urged her husband, the Parisian diplomat Louis Chénier to assume direction of the “L’ Hôtel Hellenophone,” a secret organization established in Paris in 1814 by founder of the Philike Etaireia Athanasios Tsakaloff, whose purpose was to educate the Greeks and prepare the revolutionary struggle. That organisation would go on to organise a shipment of 40,000 weapons to insurgent Greeks in the Peloponnese, Epirus and Macedonia. 



Many of the European Philhellenic women came from even higher echelons of society. Princess Sophia Albertina of Sweden, the sister of the Swedish king led appeals for the Greek revolutionaries in that country. Turning the palace into the headquarters of the Swedish Philhellenic Society, her patronage and prestige inspired a multitude of well to do women to donate generously to the Greek war effort.  


To the west, in France, the daughter of the French king and future queen of Belgium Louise of Orléans also organised fundraisers for the relief of Greek refugees. Apart from the widespread sympathy felt by members of the restored Bourbon family for the Greek revolutionaries, Louise also had another motive. Her prospective husband was considered a likely candidate to assume the throne of a Greek monarchy. He eventually assumed the throne of the newly created country of Belgium instead, but in the meantime, Louise had donated 3,000 francs out of her own funds, to the Greeks. 


Hapless and scorned wife of King George IV of Great Britain, Caroline of Brunswick, whence the Melbourne suburb with a historic Greek community gets its name was also a great philhellene. Although she died in the August of 1821, she was a firm supporter of Greek Independence and various British support organisations such as the London Philomous Society. Caroline was one of the few members of the European aristocracy to visit the country, visiting it after her estrangement from her husband in 1816, where in Athens she conducted archaeological excavations, also visiting the isle of Melos and Corinth. 


Barbara von Krudener, a Baltic German religious mystic and theologian who exercised a great deal of influence over the spiritual yearnings of Russian Tsar Alexander I, also petitioned him continuously to intervene in favour of the Greeks, something the Tsar was reluctant to do. When Alexandros Ypsilantis crossed over into the Danubian Principalities, she wrote to him proclaiming the divine mission of the Tsar to take up arms in defence of the Greeks on behalf of Christendom. He did not do so, and von Krudener settled in the Crimea, founded a Swiss colony and organised appeals to aid the Greek revolutionaries. 


Von Krudener’s introduction to the Tsar was occasioned by expatriate Phanariote, Roxandra Sturdza, master of ceremonies at the court of the Tsar and wife of the German count of Edling. A close associate of Ioannis Kapodistrias, Metropolitan of Hungary Ignatios and scholar Anthimos Gazis, with whom she founded the pro-Greek Independence Philomous Society in Vienna, in the face of Austrian hostility, she not was not only abreast of and actively involved in the considerable amount of work being conducted in Russia by the Philike Etaireia in preparation for the Revolution but after its outbreak, enlisted the support of the Tsarina Elizabeth in organising relief appeals and ministering to the thousands of Greek refugees arriving in Odessa from the Ottoman Empire on a daily basis. 


Other benefactresses such as French socialite Juliette Récamier, capitalised on societal fame , specifically as an icon of neoclassicism, to promote the cause of Greek liberation. In order to maintain public interest in the Revolution, she published letters of French philhellenes with whom she corresponded, describing the condition and customs of Greece as well as providing glamourised accounts of battles. Her popularity and influence also enabled her to raise significant amounts for the Greeks through public appeals, to which she contributed substantial sums of her own. 



The contribution of European Philhellenic women was also significant in the intellectual sphere. A multitude of female influential thinkers, authors and poets wrote enthusiastically and passionately about the Greek renascence, their words reaching the hearts of the reading public. 


Most prominent among them was Mary Shelley, companion of profound philhellene Percy Shelley. Befriending revolutionaries Alexandros Mavrocordatos and Metropolitan of Hungary Ignatios, she managed to learn Modern Greek, planning to move to Greece upon its liberation. Shelley managed to imbue her sympathies for the Greeks in Lord Byron, whose original interest was in liberal reform in the Italian peninsula. Eerily, her ultimate work, “The Last Man,” an apocalyptic dystopian science fiction novel, envisages the ultimate aim of the Revolution: the conquest of Constantinople. Soon after, a pandemic sweeps the world, leaving just one survivor. 



In Germany, Baroness Julie von Richthofen wrote the pro-Greek work, ‘Helas und Helianor,’ referring to the Philike Etaireia and the Greek people’s aspirations for independence, while member of the member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, Amalia von Helvig, a student of poetic titans Goethe and Schiller continuously published poems advocating the liberation of Greece, culminating in the release of a collection specifically dedicated to Greek independence in 1826. 



For some of the European women philhellenes, the Greek struggle for Independence served as a metaphor for their own national yearnings. Polish patriot Emilia Sczaniecka found hope in the insurgent Greeks, for the liberation of her own homeland from Russian rule. Founding a committee to aid Greek orphans and victims of Ottoman depredations during the Revolution, she went on to play an active humanitarian role in the Polish uprising of 1830. 


In some cases, support for Greece endured beyond the close of the Revolution, transforming into a commitment towards the welfare of the beleaguered Greek State that emerged and in particular, its female inhabitants. The Franco-American Duchess of Plaisance is noteworthy in this respect. Having financially contributed to the Greek war effort, she then went on to identify the education of young Greek women as a priority, overseeing and financing the education of the daughters of Greek freedom fighters. In similar fashion, American missionary Frances Maria Mulligan Hill travelled to Greece in 1839 and established schools for young Greek women, considering education as a primary tool in the process of their emancipation. 


At the time of the declaration of Greek Independence, the Great Powers, which had reconstituted the European political order after the downfall of the French Emperor Napoleon, prized stability and sought to ignore or stifle national and liberal impulses on the continent. Jealously seeking to maintain the status quo and prevent each other from obtaining undue influence in the Balkans, it is arguable that the extremely subtle and nuanced role played by the many female philhellenes of Europe in generating and maintaining sympathy for the Greek freedom fighters and the plight of Greece in general was instrumental in sustaining a climate of empathy for the Revolution that made it impossible for those in positions of power to completely ignore the Greek people’s national aspirations, in the same manner as they did with Poland for example, thus making it socially unacceptable in the fashionable salons of the European capitals, for the Greek enterprise to fail. It is in no small part to these passionate and formidable ladies, that the Greek people owe their liberty and expectations for future progress today. 

In the words of Mary Shelley: “Let us live for each other and for happiness; let us seek peace in our dear home, near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies. Let us leave 'life,' that we may live.” 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 March 2021