Konstantinos Kanaris: Hero of the Greek War of Independence

Konstantinos Kanaris

Konstantinos Kanaris also anglicised as Constantine Kanaris or Canaris (Greek: Κωνσταντίνος Κανάρης; c. 1790– 2 September 1877, was a Greek admiral, Prime Minister, and a hero of the Greek War of Independence.

Konstantinos Kanaris during the Greek War of Independence. Lithography by Karl Krazeisen, 1831.

Konstantinos Kanaris was born and grew up on the island of Psara, close to Chios in the Aegean.

The exact year of his birth is unknown. Official records of the Hellenic Navy indicate 1795. However, modern Greek historians consider 1790 or 1793 to be more probable.

He was left as an orphan at a young age. Having to support himself, he chose to become a seaman like most family members since the beginning of the 18th century. He was subsequently hired as a boy on the brig of his uncle Dimitris Bourekas.

Kanaris gained fame during the Greek War of Independence (1821–1829). Unlike most other prominent figures of the War, he had never been initiated into the Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends), which played a significant role in the uprising against the Ottoman Empire, primarily by secret recruitment of supporters against Turkish rule.

By early 1821, the movement had gained enough support to launch a revolution. This seems to have inspired Kanaris, who was in Odessa then. He returned to the island of Psara in haste and was present when it joined the uprising on 10 April 1821.

The island formed its own fleet, and the famed seamen of Psara, already known for their well-equipped ships and successful combats against sea pirates, proved to be highly effective in naval warfare. Kanaris soon distinguished himself as a fire ship captain.

At Chios, on the moonless night of 6–7 June 1822, forces under his command destroyed the flagship of the Ottoman admiral Nasuhzade Ali Pasha in revenge for the Chios massacre.

The admiral held a Bayram celebration, allowing Kanaris and his men to position their fire ship without being noticed. When the flagship's powder store caught fire, all men aboard were instantly killed.

The Turkish casualties comprised 2,300 men, naval officers and common sailors, and Nasuhzade Ali Pasha himself.

Kanaris led another successful attack against the Ottoman fleet at Tenedos in November 1822.

He was famously said to have encouraged himself by murmuring, "Konstantí, you are going to die" every time he approached a Turkish warship on the fire boat he was about to detonate.

The Ottoman fleet captured Psara on 21 June 1824. Some of the population, including Konstantinos Kanaris, managed to flee the island, but those who didn't were sold into slavery or slaughtered.

After destroying his home island, he led attacks against Turkish forces. In August 1824, he engaged in naval combat in the Dodecanese.

The following year, Kanaris led the Greek raid on Alexandria, a daring attempt to destroy the Egyptian fleet with fire ships that might have been successful if the wind had not failed just after the Greek ships entered Alexandria harbour.

After the end of the War and the independence of Greece, Kanaris became an officer of the new Greek Navy, reached the rank of admiral, and became a prominent politician.

Konstantinos Kanaris was one of the few with the personal confidence of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first Head of State of independent Greece. After the assassination of Kapodistrias on 9 October 1831, he retired to the island of Syros.

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During the reign of King Otto I, Kanaris served as Minister in various governments and then as Prime Minister in the provisional government (16 February – 30 March 1844).

He served a second term (15 October 1848 – 12 December 1849), and as Navy Minister in Alexandros Mavrokordatos' 1854 cabinet.

In 1862, he was among the rare War of Independence veterans who took part in the bloodless insurrection that deposed the increasingly unpopular King Otto I and led to the election of Prince William of Denmark as King George I of Greece.

During his reign, Kanaris served as a Prime Minister for a third term (6 March – 16 April 1864), a fourth term (26 July 1864 – 26 February 1865) and a fifth and last term (7 June – 2 September 1877).

Kanaris died on 2 September 1877 whilst still serving in office as Prime Minister. Following his death, his government remained in power until 14 September 1877 without agreeing on a replacement for its head.

He was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, where most Greek prime ministers and celebrated figures are also buried. After his death, he was honoured as a national hero.

A silver urn contains Konstantinos Kanaris's heart at the National Historical Museum, Athens.

In 1817, Konstantinos Kanaris married Despoina Maniatis, from a historical family of Psara. They had seven children: Nikolaos Kanaris, Themistoklis Kanaris, Thrasyvoulos Kanaris, Miltiadis Kanaris, Lykourgos Kanaris, Maria Kanaris, and Aristeidis Kanaris.

Greek one drachma coin featuring the portrait of Konstantinos Kanaris.

A German Admiral, Wilhelm Canaris speculated that he might descend from Konstantinos Kanaris.

An official genealogical family history that was researched in 1938 showed that he was of Italian descent and not related to the Kanaris family from Greece.

READ MORE: Nikolaos Kasomoulis: Hero of the Greek War of Independence.

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