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About Greek sailing ship flags of the 1821 era

April 29th, 2021

About Greek sailing ship flags of the 1821 era

A common question I'm asked is about the plethora of different flags carried by the Greek sailing ships depicted in many of my artworks.

Before and during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830) the Greeks with their merchant ships, mainly travel with the Rayadiki flag, as Ottoman subjects - which is red with a blue horizontal band in the middle, as seen in this post's image. There were also some minor variants of this.

They do also use the French and English flags where it serves their merchant endeavors, the Ottoman government encourages this since on its own it can not develop merchant shipping with as much success as the Greeks and besides it receives a large share in taxes from these activities.

After the Russian-Turkish War of 1769-1774, with the Treaty of Kyutsuk-Kainartzis, they get the right to carry the Russian flag as well which provides them with security in their travels in the ports of the Black Sea, from where they carry mostly grain to supply the ports of France and Spain when they were under blockade from the British fleet during the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815).

Also during the Revolution each of the three islands mainly comprising the Greek fleet (Hydra, Spetses & Psara) designed their own flags, incorporating various symbols aiming to inspire the fighters in their struggle for freedom.

As seen on the image above, the main symbol among them, as with most revolutionary flags of that era, is the cross symbolizing faith and Orthodoxy.
The flag to the right with, either the helmet of Themistocles, or the goddess Athena in some variations, reminds of the triumphant victories of ancient ancestors, while the anchor on the left symbolizes hope for the victory of their naval forces.
The snake coiled around the anchor symbolizes the power of the Greek nation, while the dove coming out of the mouth of the snake represents the freedom of the nation.
The eye of divine Providence at the top left represents hope for the victory of the Greeks and a fair end to the struggle.
All these standing on top of a white crescent (symbolizing the Ottoman yoke) - while the motto "Freedom or death" or the ancient Spartan saying “H TAN H EPI TAS” (which translates roughly to “Come back with your shield, or on it”**) is also incorporated most of the time to denote the determination for freedom.
The blue color of course wherever used in this context symbolizes the sea, while the red frame the passionate fighting & revolution.

** When a mother in ancient Sparta fare-welled her son who was leaving for war, she handed him his shield and told him this, meaning "Come back carrying your shield, or come back on it [dead]". It was considered a disgrace for an ancient Greek warrior and its relatives to leave his shield on the battlefield, while warriors killed in battle were carried back to their relatives on their shields.

I hope the above helps to clear the confusion that might be caused, especially for anyone unfamiliar with that era and circumstances.