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Greece’s historic role as a shipping nation

Greece is a country with a population of nearly 11 million, which is 0.15% of the world’s total population and ranks 51st in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) being responsible for only 0.35% of the global GDP. Nevertheless, Greece has managed to reach and maintain a leading position in the global shipping industry. In particular, Greek shipping companies own almost 21% of the world’s merchant fleet, being the leader in Deadweight Tonnage with about 53.03% of the European fleet. The role that the Greek shipping industry carries out for the European Union is extremely significant and here is why: it transfers 87% of EU’s crude oil imports, 70% of EU’s natural gas imports, 40% of EU’s solid fossil fuels imports and it is responsible for transferring a big portion of EU’s exports, of which, 75.5% relies on shipping.

In order to understand why Greece has become such a key player in the world of shipping we need to take a look on the history of Greek shipping. Already from the Early Aegean Civilization around 1500 BC several Greek cities engaged in shipping for commerce and piracy. Many claim that the Trojan war was one of the largest shipping operations of its period. During the Greek Expansion and Colonization period, from 1050-776 BC, the Greeks were dominating the Aegean, the Black and the Mediterranean seas, reaching as far as Spain and Syria for the purpose of colonization and access to new sources of trade such as lumber from Caucasus and grain from Syracuse.

Later on, around 500 BC, the Athenian state enhanced seamanship by making service on warships mandatory for all citizens. In addition to that, the Athenians pioneered as they were the first in history to pass shipping laws and regulations. These regulations were of financial and political character aiming to grow their maritime power and to further enhance trade. Another remarkable fact about the Greek shipping industry at the time is how merchants financed their ship acquisitions provided they often didn’t have the capital to buy them. The financing would often come from bankers or wealthy individuals through a written loan contract. The contract would include a collateral such as a mortgage on the ship, the cargo or even the seamen, in case they were slaves. The collateral would often include private property that the shipowner had ashore. Taking into account the period for which we are talking about, such practices were unprecedented and visionary.

Another period of advancement of Greek shipping occurred under Alexander the Great (336–323 BC). By expanding the Macedonian Empire all the way to Egypt and India, he opened new trade routes and trade took off. As a result, ships got bigger and the center of shipping shifted from Piraeus to Alexandria. Another novelty of the time was the first ever lighthouse which was built in Alexandria and made its cosmopolitan port a leader in innovation for shipping. Along with Alexandria many other Greek controlled ports thrived during that period, such as the port of Rhode’s.

During the Roman period that followed, Greek shipping declined due to strict customs, but it kept alive as its services were eventually needed by the Roman Empire. Greek shipping experienced one of its last advancements for many years to come during the Byzantine era (667-1453 A.D.). The most prosperous port of that era was Constantinople’s, mainly due to its strategic position, both in terms of trade and in terms of military importance. It is worth noting that in 803 A.D. in Constantinople, the first ever marine bank was founded by Emperor Nikiforos. In addition to that, one of the first P & I (Protection and Indemnity) clubs were established. During the Ottoman Empire (1453-1821 A.D.), Greek shipping didn’t have a leading role, but it kept alive along with its unique seamanship.

From independence onwards, when the Greek fleet was severely damaged, Greek shipping went through several troughs: steam-driven ships were introduced and it was difficult to raise funds. With some help from the Greek government, a lot of hard work and exceptional seamanship Greek shipping managed to become once again a key player by the start of the 20th century. Although the first World War destroyed more than half of the Greek fleet, the industry recovered using insurance payments and loans from foreign banks, which showed trust in the Greek industry. The damages of the Second World War were covered by the government.

Mr. Spyros M. Polemis, former President of the International Shipping Federation, said: “(Greeks) enjoyed the feeling of independence, and the optimistic outlook it gave them. They enjoyed its freedom and the freedom of the spirit… a love affair between the Greeks and the sea, an inseparable couple, two inseparable elements of life.” which proves why Greek shipping never collapsed through tough times and eventually thrived.


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