As I was walking around Amvrosies, high on a mountain on the island of Andros, all my senses were awakened. The sound of flowing water from streams and waterfalls was pervasive. The lush green of the over towering plane trees against the back drop of a piercing and luminous blue sky was electric. Such soul nurturing beauty is atypical of a Cycladic island, for the place is blessed with rich sources of water enabling flora to thrive. Olive trees flourish in its arid parts, forming deserted terraces of groves throughout the island. The presence of such terraces are remnants of the agricultural wealth that the island experienced during the nineteenth century. Mulberry and lemon trees grew in abundance, allowing the island to export their produce. Andriot ships went to Syros carrying silk to be sold at the distant ports of Constantinople, Odessa and Marseilles. The evolution of this trading network was the birth of the Andriots shipping industry.
This period ended fairly abruptly as a deadly bacteria infected the lemon and mulberry trees which were quickly destroyed. With no other major source of income, the Andriots concentrated on trade and transport. This was the era dominated by the Moraitis and Embiricos families. They were ingenious, financiers who were involved in an array of industries, notably passenger Ships, bulk commodities and banks. Most importantly, they were the first to take the risk and go into steam powered engines, giving them a competitive edge over their shipping rivals. The speculation proved lucrative and motivated fellow islanders to enter the industry. The Embiricos family became great patrons on the island. As bankers and ship managers, they facilitated the entry of other families into shipping by selling them shareholdings in their ships and by promoting employment on their vessels.
The mentality at this time was frugal. Inhabitants were self-sufficient, living off their land and capital was accumulated which in turn was reinvested in shipping. Income derived from seafaring also empowered Andriots to buy shares in ships. A weekly newspaper was published on the island which reported charter rates, purchases of vessels and shareholdings. These investments paid off handsomely with the arrival of the First World War. The Goulandris and Polemis families became illustrious during this period.
Andros Shipping also became prominent on the international scene. Offices like S.J. Embiricos and after them Goulandris Brothers were opened not just in Piraeus but in the United Kingdom. The island mentality persisted abroad as these offices encouraged clients to become owners and shareholders. The result was that ship owning became more accessible and became the main source of employment for the island.
Between the World Wars, two divergent trends started and continued for almost fifty years. The first was the insular character of the island. This is illustrated by an anecdote that, when Stamati Embiricos visited one of his ships, he did not recognize an officer. When he questioned him, he was told that he was from a neighboring island. Stamatis Embiricos replaced him instantly with an Andriot, reprimanding his crew manager for having employed a “foreigner”.
This blinkered attitude and suspicion of foreigners prevailed until recently. The main reason seems to be that most males were working at sea leaving their wives alone for long periods of time. This sparked a belief that strangers may provide an unwelcome temptation that would be succumbed to by the lonely ladies of the island.
This closed society was matriarchal in character. Savings were sent to grandmothers and wives who together with their children would take care of the farms.
Trade exposed the island to international influences, as exemplified by the high school or gymnasio, founded by Stamatis Embiricos. Children could now be educated on the island without having to go to Syros past elementary level. This high school taught the prescribed curriculum as well as English.
It was in the mid-twenties that an opposite trend occurred. From where the islanders were parochial, socializing among themselves, a migration of shipowners started to the main land. This trend accelerated and the residents of the island gradually decreased from 40.000 to 6.000 at present. As people moved to the main land, the business hub moved with them. The aforementioned weekly newspaper ceased to exist. The Andriots during the First World War and the Great Depression gravitated to Piraeus as well as London. Goulandris Brothers and S.J. Embiricos gave great assistance to their clients, by financing relatives and friends who wished to enter the industry. Crews found employment, especially on Goulandris Passenger ships, which was a source of the diaspora, as crew tended to jump ship especially in the Americas.
The renowned success of the Andriots lay in the balanced combination of measured risk taking and entrepreneurial spirit. This was particularly pronounced after the Second World War. There was a shift to New York where high leverage finance was more readily available. They took advantage of this to acquire Liberty Ships and, most importantly, to enter the tanker market. They saw the advantage in the economies of large vessels as the world trade boomed. In addition, they were among the first to build tankers in Japan in 1954, which at the time was considered venturesome. Again they displayed their gambling temperament and determination.
Success and prosperity also planted the seeds for another transition. Seafarers, who now lived primarily on the main land did not want their children to follow their vocational footsteps. Instead they invested in their education and in the accession and development of land on the main land. This trend was exacerbated by the fact that Andros shipowners no longer wished to have clients or shareholders in their corporate structures.
We may now be in another period of metamorphoses on the island since shipping is not the mainstay of its economy. One should not romanticize about the “old” times when seafarers would congregate in the coffee houses exchanging anecdotes, gossip and ideas. Rather one should look to the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that sustained the island and continue to have faith in the future.