‘Greatest accomplishment of modern Hellenism’

Shipping historian, collector and archivist George M. Foustanos talks about the ‘Greek miracle’ and his new book on shipbuilding

‘Greatest accomplishment of modern Hellenism’

The ship glides into port. Brightly lit against the night, it appears, from the window, to float in the dark sky. We are in the city of Ermoupoli on Syros, the heart of the Aegean, at the research center of maritime historian George M. Foustanos.

He smiles as I openly express my admiration for the striking spectacle of the incoming ferry and says, “That’s my view every day.” His love of ships is evident in the tone of his voice – and little surprise since his father, Mikes Foustanos, was co-owner of two legendary vessels, the Despina and the Pantelis, important chapters in the Cycladic islands’ history of passenger shipping in the 1950s and 60s. But it is not passenger shipping that has engaged his interest for the past half century, but ocean transport.

The creation of an “ark” – as he describes his extensive archive – stems from Greece’s enormous maritime heritage and the priceless discoveries made during its study. “We all hail from the sea. If you think about it, most of us are the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of seafarers,” he says.

Kathimerini met up with Foustanos to discuss his book, “Made in Japan – Seventy Years of Greek Shipbuilding Activity in the Land of the Rising Sun,” which was published recently by Argo in English. Apart from a study of the vessels built for Greek shipowners in Japanese shipyards, the book also demonstrates how the history of modern Greek shipping is, in a way, linked to the history of the world itself.

What drew you to the study of Greek shipping history?

Shipping runs in my DNA. Three of my four great-grandfathers were Ermoupoli steamship owners before the European war broke out. I studied shipbuilding and started out in the family shipping business, but inspiration came later, when I became more publicly involved in the sector and was elected to the board of the Union of Greek Shipowners (UGS). I met some incredible people there, like the Goulandrises, John C. Carras, John M. Lemos, George P. Livanos, Anthony J. Chandris and others who were responsible for the “Greek shipping miracle.” But I also learned that the UGS pre-war archive had been destroyed so it would not be found by the Germans. This, in combination with the admiration I felt for the accomplishments of people I was not lucky enough to be so closely connected with, steered me in a different direction. So I gave up shipping in 1990 to immerse myself in historical research, through the point of view of someone who knows how the shipping industry and ships work. I won’t hide that there were reactions from family and friends, but I had already become enamored with the process of research, collection, discovery and categorization.

What did the global and domestic shipping scene look like in the aftermath of World War II?

The global shipping industry had undergone a massive reshuffle. Having lost its colonies, Great Britain was no longer queen of the seas, while another two great naval powers – Germany and Japan – were left defeated and decimated. Oil was replacing coal as the chief energy source and Greeks dominated the tanker market. There were 500 ships built for Greeks in the first post-war decade alone, and half of those belonged to five groups – Onassis, Niarchos, Kulukundis, Goulandris and Stavros Livanos. I refer to them as bold migrants with a vision, who went to America, worked and prospered.

‘By becoming involved in maritime trade and transport, the Greeks have managed to peacefully unite with people across the length and breadth of the world’

What prompted Greek shipowners to leave for America and what did they accomplish there?

For starters, there was the civil war and political instability [in Greece]. Moreover, the center of international shipping moved to New York after the war and that’s where the opportunities were. But what matters is that the Greek presence significantly bolstered New York’s reputation as an international shipping center, because they founded and operated around 90 firms there.

What can you tell us about the affair of the 100 Liberty ships – built by the US during the war and then sold to private entrepreneurs – which are hailed as the cornerstone of Greek shipping?

Between 5,000 and 6,000 Greeks found employment on the 100 Liberty ships. Had they emigrated like so many others, we would have lost seamen who later went on to become important shipowners. Shipowners like John Angelicoussis, Nikos Tsakos, the four founders of Eletson and many others were seamen in the initial period after the war. What many people do not know is that apart from the 100 Liberties, by 1949 another 200 ships had come into Greek hands, flying the flags of the US, UK, Honduras and Panama. In other words, just five years after our aged pre-war fleet was decimated, Greeks were running 300 Liberty ships aged 4-6 years old. Now that is an achievement!

What kind of presence did Japan have at that time and what are you trying to communicate with your new book on Greek shipbuilding there?

In the last 70 years we have built 1,900 ships – that’s one every 13 days on average. These are incredible numbers, incredible investments. The amazing thing is that without them, it would have been almost impossible for Japan’s economy to grow as it did. Being cut off and an island, it was at risk of coming under the Eastern sphere of influence, under the Chinese or the Soviets. The Americans knew this, and they took an interest in helping Japan develop its shipbuilding industry after the war. But without the Greeks, who were the main customers in the initial stages, the geopolitical game would have played out much differently. The planet itself would be different. These are things we should know and advertise, especially nowadays.

To what, in your opinion, do we owe this success in shipping?

The sea has rewarded us for serving it so well for so long. But we are serving the interests of others – not of Greece. Ours is the only shipping industry that developed without relying on national cargo and which has never been subsidized by its state. There are 5,000 Greek oceangoing ships today serving international maritime transport; for our own needs a fleet of 100 ships would be enough. I also believe that we did well because we acted from the start without interventionism – or crutches – from the state and relied solely on our own strengths. And in proof of this, I ask you to look at the incredible evolution of oceangoing shipping against state-controlled passenger shipping, which has always been beset by problems.

What were you hoping to accomplish with this significant shipping archive, with your publications and with the online maritime museum, Greek Shipping Miracle?

The online museum is the most important fruit of my love for historical research, and it is our aim to continue developing it as a reliable source of knowledge on modern international shipping. We also ensure that the archive is kept in a suitable environment, is enriched, is kept up to date, functional and enduring, because I firmly believe that shipping is the greatest accomplishment of modern-day Hellenism. The sea unites. By becoming involved in maritime trade and transport, the Greeks have managed to peacefully unite with people across the length and breadth of the world. Our ships today are 5,000 seabound factories competitively transporting international cargoes and sailing to the world’s ports, generating new jobs every day, at no cost to the local economies.

Considering that 70% of Earth is sea and we control 20% of maritime transport, this means that we spend every day actively engaged – peacefully and creatively – across the world’s largest area. When others speak of “Blue homelands,” the Greeks have already conquered – peacefully – all the world’s seas. This is something that should fill us with pride and confidence in our national capabilities.

The Andros Thunder ore/oil carrier during its official launch in 1957. Its owners – the sons of Petros J. Goulandris – have had 78 ships built in Japan.
The historian and researcher George M. Foustanos is seen with exhibits from his shipping collection in Ermoupoli, Syros. [DIMITRIS KARAISKOS]

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