Apr 10 2013

Bouboulina and the courtesan.

In Nikos Kazantzakis’ book Zorba the Greek, Zorba make the acquaintance of an elderly French courtesan, Madame Hortense. She describes to Zorba, and the narrator of the novel, how she had at one time been the lover of four of the European Admirals, distinguishing between in the dark them by the scents they wore: ”England smelled of eau-de Cologne, France of violets, Russia of musk and Italy, ah, Italy doted on patchouli. My God, what beards, what beards!” [1]She then describes how she persuaded the Italian Admiral Canavaro, in overall charge of the European ships, not to open fire on the Cretan rebels – by tugging on his beard. On hearing this, Zorba describes Madame Hortense as ‘My Bouboulina!’ While there is not, as far as I am aware, any historical record of which if any perfume the admirals wore, they did undoubtedly have beards.

The European Admirals. "Black and White" 10 April 1897


The ‘Bouboulina’ that Zorba refers to was also a genuine historical character; Laskarina Bouboulina. Born in Constantinople on 11 May 1771, where her father was imprisoned for his part in the failed Orlov Revolt, she was brought up on the island of Spetses. She married twice; each time to a wealthy ship owner, the second time to Dimitris Bouboulis from where she got her name, and lost both husbands to pirates. In 1816, by now a widow for the second time and with seven children, she fell foul of the Ottoman authorities who sought to confiscate her considerable fortune on the grounds that her late husband had used his ships fighting with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire in the recent war. Her appeal to the Russian ambassador in Constantinople for Russian protection on the grounds that her husband’s ships had, quite legally, been sailing under the Russian flag at the time of the war, was successful but she nevertheless thought it prudent to spend time in the Crimea and out of reach of the Ottoman authorities.

It appears to be during her time in Russia that she came into contact with the Filiki Etairia(Friendly Society) the secret organisation planning rebellion against the Ottomans. Whether or not she was ever a member of the society is still a matter of some debate but irrespective of her formal links with them, she was actively engaged in securing arms and ammunition for them on her island home Spetses. She also used a considerable part of her fortune to have constructed the Agamemnon, a 33 metre long corvette armed with 18 large cannon. On 13 March 1821, 12 days before the ‘official’ start of the Greek War of Independence she hoisted her flag on the Agamemnon and on 3 April, the island of Spetses declared itself for the revolution.

The Flag of Laskarina Bouboulina. Based on a Byzantine standard.

Bouboulina commanded a force of eight ships, five of them her own, and lead them to Nafplion where she blockaded the town. She made several attempts to storm the town, on at least on occasion leading a seaborne assault herself but all were unsuccessful and Bouboulina eventually joined with the land forces besieging the town until its capture on 30 November 1822.

Laskarina Bouboulina

As well as taking part in the actions in and around Nafplion, Bouboulina also fought with her ships elsewhere along the Peloponnesian coast, using them to blockade various towns and to run supplies to the Greek rebels. During this period while attending the siege of Tripolis, she made contact with the General Kolokotronis, one of the leaders of the nascent Greek army, a relationship that was cemented when one of his sons married her daughter. In spite of her sex, she was acknowledged by the Greek rebels as one of their leaders and took part in various councils of war.  On the 11th September 1821 Tripoli was captured by the Greeks; the town’s fall being the signal for the massacre of its defenders and the Muslim population within the walls. Bouboulina was present during these events and at some risk to herself, took steps to save the wives and children of the Ottoman ruler, Hoursit Pasha; in doing so she was allegedly keeping a promise she is supposed to have made to the Sultans mother, the Valide-Sultana who, when Bouboulina had been in Constantinople in 1816, had befriended her and asked her to protect Turkish women in need.

At the end of the War of Independence, Boubhoulina was living in Nafplion in a house granted to her by a grateful Greek government. However, during the subsequent Civil War, her son in law Panos Kolokotronis was assassinated and his father, General Kolokotronis was imprisoned. Bouboulina’s relationship[ with the Kolokotronis family and her complains about the General’s arrest lead to her being arrested and imprisoned twice, before eventually being expelled from Nafpoli and exiled back to Spetses.

Shortly after her return to Spetses Bouboulina was again involved in raising arms and men; this time to assist in the attempt to repel of the invading Ottoman forces of Ibraham Pasha. However on 22 May 1825, before she had the opportunity to get involved in the fighting, she was shot dead at her home; the result of a family feud centring around one of her son’s elopement with a young woman against her family’s wishes.[2]



[1] Kazantzakis N. (1961) Zorba the Greek Faber and Faber. London pp.41-42

[2] http://www.bouboulinamuseum-spetses.gr/English/Museum_Bouboulina.htm


1 comment

  1. brigitte kohlmann

    Nice and interesting article Mick. As far as Madame Hortense is concerned, the main heroine in the novel about Alexis Zorbas, in reality her name was Adeline Guitar born 1874 in Toulon (south of France). She died in 1938 in Ierapetra (Crete). Her Cretan friends called her Madame Hortense, because she resembled the same flower hydrangea.

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