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30 March 2022

My family and the forgotten massacre of Chios

Eugène Delacroix’s great painting changed Western art and recorded an atrocity that still haunts the island today.

By Richard Calvocoressi

How many of the millions who each year visit the Louvre and file past Eugène Delacroix’s enormous painting Scenes from the Massacres of Chios have any idea that it depicts not an episode from mythology or literature but an actual incident, one of the bloodiest slaughters in modern history? The label, printed in French only, is of little help: Scènes des massacres de Scio. Few know that Scio was the Italian name for the Aegean island of Chios, less than four miles from the Turkish coast – in recent years the location of a grim refugee camp for asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East. Before falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1566 it had been Italian for more than two centuries. A Genoese merchant colony ruled by members of the prominent Giustiniani family, it boasted a cultured society and a highly developed economy that was allowed to continue and even flourish under Ottoman domination.

That society was annihilated by a catastrophe that struck its defenceless population 200 years ago this Easter, in April 1822. Delacroix’s note published in the catalogue of the 1824 Paris Salon, where the painting was first exhibited, is more explicit: “Greek families await death or slavery etc.” The atrocities – Delacroix’s coy “etc” is usually interpreted to mean mass rape – were reported in graphic detail in the French press. These accounts encouraged Philhellenes throughout western Europe, almost certainly including Lord Byron, to redouble their efforts to help free Greece from Ottoman rule.

For me, Delacroix’s painting has always had an emotional resonance. In 1824 it caused an outcry, with critics accusing the young artist of committing a “massacre in paint” and of ignoring the classical rules of composition and narrative for a “historical” subject. Some thought the picture, which included the image of a child trying to suckle its dead mother’s breast, illustrated an outbreak of the plague. Delacroix’s enemies were shocked not only by his “crude” handling of paint and “disgusting” colours but his use of living models. Each of the men, women and children sprawled in the foreground, bleeding or in agony, weeping, exhausted, and despairing, is a portrait of a real person; so, too, are the terrifying figure of the man on horseback and the naked woman he is dragging away to the slave market in the island’s capital, which is visible in the distance.

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This was far removed from the groups of idealised figures based on casts of Greco-Roman sculpture with which visitors to the Salon would have been familiar. What they were witnessing was the death of neoclassicism and the rise of a new school of French painting: romanticism. With the exception of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), Delacroix’s picture was unlike anything before in the history of Western art: a large-scale representation of contemporary acts of human brutality and suffering made soon after they were perpetrated.

The Chios massacre was not the first atrocity in the Greek War of Independence – a conflict marked by massacres on both sides – but it was one of the most tragic. The majority of Chians never wanted to take part in the national struggle for freedom because Chios had more to lose than any other part of occupied Greece. It was the richest and one of the largest islands in the Aegean and trade was mainly in Chiot hands. Chiot entrepreneurs were active all over Europe, founding merchant houses in France, England, Italy and the Netherlands. Closer to home, they settled in Smyrna, Constantinople and the Black Sea ports, such as Odessa. In the event of an uprising against the occupying forces on the island, Chiot business communities across the Ottoman empire would have been in great danger. The population was unarmed. A failed uprising would end the island’s special status and seriously undermine its prosperity.

Under Ottoman rule Chios enjoyed exceptional privileges. The Chians’ right to elect annually five elders – three Orthodox, two Catholic – from the principal merchant families ensured a level of political autonomy. Religious freedom extended to church-building and bell-ringing. Property rights were respected, taxation did not apply to housing, orchards or vineyards, and no duties were payable on products from Chios traded in Black Sea ports. There was to be no forcible conversion to Islam and the islanders were exempt from devshirme, the notorious Ottoman practice of conscripting Christian boys, who were sent to Constantinople and trained as janissaries, the Sultan’s elite guards. In addition to silk and citrus fruits, Chios’s most famous commodity was mastic, the sweet-smelling resin from the lentisk shrub, which is grown in very few other places in the Mediterranean. Popularly known as the “Tears of Chios”, mastic is harvested in droplets which harden into translucent, tear-shaped pellets. It was made into a variety of products including chewing gum and pastilles much prized by the women of Constantinople’s imperial harem.

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What went wrong? In April 1821 the leading Greeks on Chios rebuffed a naval squadron from Hydra urging them to support the struggle against Ottoman rule. A year later they were less successful in their attempts to remain neutral. A small number of Chians were forced to participate in an action led by insurgents from Samos, who attacked the Turkish garrison on the island and killed some of its soldiers. The consequences were devastating. Sultan Mahmud II, otherwise known as a reformer, ordered his Kapudan Pasha (Grand Admiral) to set sail for Chios with the entire Ottoman fleet, carrying 7,000 soldiers. They were reinforced by tens of thousands of fanatical militants who crossed the narrow straits separating mainland Turkey from Chios. In Constantinople, prominent Chians were rounded up and impaled or hanged.

The bloodbath – essentially a holy war – began on Easter Sunday 1822 and continued for several months. Churches were set on fire, their congregations butchered. At the monastery of Nea Moni, famous for its Byzantine mosaics, the skulls of the victims are preserved to this day. From the medieval hilltop village of Anavatos, the inhabitants died by mass suicide, throwing themselves on to the rocks hundreds of feet below rather than suffer what they feared would be a worse fate. Men, women and children were murdered, mutilated or enslaved, their property looted and destroyed. Whole villages were attacked and burned, although in the first wave of violence the mastic-growing villages were spared on the sultan’s orders.

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But one night in June Konstantine Kanaris (a future admiral in the Greek navy) from the nearby island of Psara blew up the huge Turkish flagship anchored in Chios harbour, while its sailors were celebrating the end of Ramadan. Two thousand men were killed, including the Kapudan Pasha, who, ironically, had tried to restrain some of the worst excesses. In retaliation, a second wave of savagery was unleashed on the hapless Chians; this time no one, not even the mastic growers, were spared. Estimates vary, but of the original population of some 100,000 to 120,000, at least 30,000 died by murder, execution, suicide or disease, and 45,000 were sold into slavery. For months afterwards the slave markets of the Levant were glutted with Chian boys, girls and young women, for sale at knock-down prices; and for many, slavery meant sexual slavery. Of the survivors on Chios, about 20,000 managed to flee to the safety of islands under Greek control, precipitating a diaspora which is part of my own family’s history.

Not a single family on Chios was unaffected by the massacre. My ancestors were no exception. During the first wave of killing, my three-times-great-grandfather, Ioannis Kalvokoresis (the modern spelling is a later anglicisation), had his fingers chopped off one by one for refusing to hand over gold to his captors and for resisting conversion to Islam. He was then decapitated and his corpse was thrown into a ravine. Shortly before, he and the rest of his family had been forced to watch while his 90-year-old mother, her arms outstretched in the form of a cross, was walled up alive for refusing to renounce her faith. His teenage son, my great-great-grandfather Matthaios, was sold into slavery by his father’s murderer, along with a younger sister and two younger brothers. Fortunately for me, Matthaios survived servitude in Anatolia and escaped, although his siblings were never heard of again. In old age he dictated a moving account of his experiences to his grandson, my great-uncle.

It would be another 90 years before Chios was finally liberated, in 1912. During the Second World War the islanders endured severe hunger under German occupation. But today, thanks to a new generation of ship-owning families, Chios shows signs of having recovered much of its former prosperity, while reluctantly finding itself on the front line of a global migrant crisis. Two centuries after the massacre, Chios’s fortunes are reversed. Then, Chians fled; now they watch others fleeing to their shores.

Richard Calvocoressi is a writer, senior curator at Gagosian Gallery and former director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Henry Moore Foundation

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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain