The moving story of the African-American philhellene who fought in the Greek War of Independence

African-American philhellene James Jakob Williams

The Greek fever that the US experienced in the 1820s and the contribution of American philhellenism to the Greek Revolution have already been highlighted.

What is less known about the Greek struggle is that it was also supported by the African-American community.

More impressively, an African-American fought bravely on the side of the Greeks [against the Ottoman Empire].

What is also not known is that Greek slaves fighting in the Greek Revolution [against the Ottoman Empire] offered the symbols to promote the struggle for the abolition of slavery in the US.

James Jakob Williams, was an African-American philhellene from Baltimore, Maryland.

He served as a Marine in the US Navy.

In this capacity he participated in the 1815 war between the US and Algeria. He fought bravely and distinguished himself in these operations.

Williams served in Algeria under the command of US Admiral Stephen Decatur, who had recognised his value and bravery.

With the end of operations in Algeria, and after completing his term in the US Navy, Admiral Decatur suggested that he go to Greece, where slavery had been abolished.

Williams arrived in Greece in January 1827 and was appointed assistant to the British Philhellene Admiral Thomas Cochrane.

He followed Cochrane in all military operations, until the latter left Greece in December 1827.

Williams remained in Greece and took part in various battles.

In many cases, he had secretly infiltrated the ranks of the enemy to collect and convey to the Greeks valuable information, risking his life.

During operations to liberate Nafpaktos, Williams was seriously injured by a cannon.

His arm and leg were broken and he was taken to a hospital in Poros.

At a critical moment in the conflict, he led a group of Greek fighters and took control of the Greek ship Sotir, which was unmanned.

In fact, he commanded the ship himself, getting the attention of enemy fire. Through this act, he saved the ship from capture.

This brave African-American philhellene offered his life for the Greek struggle and died in Greece in 1829.

James Jakob Williams
The African-American Philhellene James Jakob Williams, (collection of EEF / Museum of Philhellenism)

The Society for Hellenism and Philhellenism (EEF) honours James Jakob Williams who lived the last years of his life as a free man in a free Greece.

But let’s see what the climate was like in the US, especially for African-Americans at the time.

The impact of the Greek Revolution can be seen in the articles published by the first newspaper of free African Americans in the US, Freedom’s Journal, which had been published in March 1827 in New York.

This newspaper, whose main focus was the abolition struggle, saw in the Greek Revolution a struggle of slaves against tyrants.

In the news from Greece, the paper gave weight to the news similarly from Haiti, Africa and the West Indies.

READ MORE: Haiti was the first country to recognise an independent Greece.

Among other things, Freedom’s Journal published with great enthusiasm on December 21, 1827, the news about the Battle of Navarino.

Interestingly, this newspaper also viewed the janissaries with sympathy, whom they (unjustifiably) considered slaves slaughtered by the “tyrant” Mahmut II (in 1826), as well as the women of the harems who they also considered slaves.

In fact, this newspaper also published philhellenic poems, such as “Greek Song” and “To Greece” and “Song of the Janissary”. These poems repeat the slogan “freedom or death” and project the image of chains, the typical symbol of slavery.

Some of the lyrics:

TO GREECE (F.J. 12/10/1827)

Hail! Land of Leonidas still,
Though Moslems encircle thy shore; […] Yet quail not, descendants of those,
The heroes of Marathon’s plain;
Better lay where you fathers repose,
Than wear the fierce Ottoman’s chain. […]

GREEK SONG (F.J. 7/9/1827)

Mount, soldier, mount, the gallant steed,
Seek, seek, the ranks of war.
‘Tis better there in death to bleed,
Than drag a tyrant’s cart.
Strike! Strike! Nor think the blow unseen
That frees the limbs where chains have been.

THE SONG OF THE JANISSARY (F.J., 4/5/1827)

For a time – for a time may the tyrant prevail,
But himself and his Pachas before us shall quail;
The fate that torn Selim in blood from the throne,
We have sworn haughty Mahmoud! Shall yet be thy own.

News excerpts from the philhellenic action of various “Greek Committees” in the USA. Top: A 12-year-old boy donates his watch to the Pittsburgh Philhellenic committee, requesting that the proceeds may be sent to the starving Greeks (Freedom’s Journal).

The sad fate of hundreds of thousands of Greek slaves, sold daily in the slave markets of Mediterranean ports, shocked the American society in the first half of the 19th century.

The American Philhellene volunteers who experienced this horror (Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, Jonathan Pecham Miller, etc.) became leading figures of the abolitionist movement against the slavery of African Americans in the US.

This struggle used a central symbol – the Greek slave.

The Greek slave was the famous sculpture created by the great American sculptor Hiram Powers in 1844.

It is the story of a young girl from Psara.

Garyfalia Mohalvi (1817 – 1830) was from Psara. Her parents were slaughtered during the Chios massacre and little Garyfallia was sold by the Turks as a slave.

She was discovered by the American Consul Joseph Langston in Smyrna by chance.

After much effort, he managed to liberate her and sent her to Boston in 1827.

The history of Garyfalia and her beauty, inspired the sculptor Hiram Powers to create in 1844 one of the 19th century’s greatest masterpieces, known internationally as “the Greek Slave”.

The Greek slave, a work of 1844 by the American sculptor Hiram Powers.

Today the original statue is in the Brooklyn Museum. A copy of the statute is in the Philhellenism Museum in Athens, Greece (www.phmus.org).

This statue of the Greek slave became the central emblem of the struggle and the campaigns for the abolition of slavery in the US.

This article first appeared in Greek on the Society for Hellenism and Philhellenism website.

READ MORE: The Magic of Philhellenism: In Conversation with Stephen Fry.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor