Vernacular shipbuilding in Cyprus

Historical background

The maritime cultural heritage of Cyprus is well-attested in both material culture and written sources, since antiquity. Its geographical importance is highlighted particularly in the Middle Ages, when the island becomes a diplomatic and military base in the 12th century, and pilgrims would use it as a stop en-route to the Holy Lands. Portolans and nautical guides of the 13th and 14th century provide indirect information on the commercial mobility of Cypriot harbours and notary documents reveal the associations between merchants and the maritime community. The integration of Cyprus in the Stato da Mar in 1489 consolidated its role both as a nautical base of the Venetian fleet and as a Venetian trade centre in eastern Mediterranean. However, the information on the Cypriot maritime community remains rather scarce.

The island’s shipbuilding tradition takes firmer form in the Ottoman Period. Cyprus was among the regions were the Ottomans maintained the existing byzantine shipyards, although these operated on the island only after the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718. The favourable conditions stemming from the treaty allowed shipbuilding to flourish in the Aegean: more vessel types are created (e.g. the trehandiri in Hydra in 1657), and shipbuilding design techniques evolve alongside the increased production. The constant flow of knowledge, skills, and expertise has been noted throughout the Aegean from the 16th century onwards.

Despite the absence of detailed information, it is possible to trace vernacular shipbuilding at Limassol as early as the 17th century. At that time, the Ottomans had there a fortified shipyard similar to that of Constantinople. Evidently, shipbuilding continued into the British Colonial Rule (1878-1959), although Cyprus had a profound lack of harbours at the time of this transition. There were only three safe anchorages at Limassol, Larnaca and Famagusta; Limassol in particular, had wooden docks along the coastline and ships had to unload their cargo by using lighters. This situation hindered seaborne trade, thus the British commenced a series of harbour works using funds from the colony.

Cypriot anchorages were just equipped with wooden piers until the late 19th century, and the majority of vessels docking there were fishing boats. The British Consular Agent Brunoni wrote in his report to the new Consul at Larnaca, in 1843, that the only, somewhat operational harbour, was situated at Famagusta and there were 36 silted anchorages across the island. These conditions just permitted the use of wooden vessels, a fact later attested in the Cyprus Blue Books. In 1887-88, ten years into the British Colonial Rule, the Blue Book records 327 Cypriot sailing vessels to have been engaged in such activities, with 9027 tons total capacity and a mean average of 4 crew members per vessel. Fifteen boats were employed at Limassol district for fishing that year, which were apparently locally built. The data available in the Blue Books (1887-1938), consistently show that Cypriots were solely operating wooden vessels and were often renting them to the British. There is a small gap in the available data during the World War II (1939-1945), but the 1946 Blue Book issue notes for the first time, four steam vessels under Cypriot flag while they continued operating sailing vessels. The historical data indicates that, as Cypriots had to fulfil all seaborne transports, trading and fishing via wooden vessels, it is reasonable to suggest that shipbuilders had certainly been active from the early 19th century.

Selected references

1. Arbel, B. 1995. Η Κύπρος υπό ενετική κυριαρχία, in Th. Papadopoullos (ed.), Ιστορία της Κύπρου. Μεσαιωνικόν Βασίλειον – Ενετοκρατία Ι: 445-536. Nicosia: Ίδρυμα Αρχιεπισκόπου Μακαρίου Γ΄- Γραφείον Κυπριακής Ιστορίας.
2. Baker, S. 1879. Cyprus as I saw it in 1879. London: Macmillan.
3. Bekiaroglou-Exadaktylou, E. 1994. Οθωμανικά Ναυπηγεία στον Παραδοσιακό Ελληνικό Χώρο. Athens: Πολιτιστικό Τεχνολογικό Ίδρυμα ΕΤΒΑ.
4. Colonial Office. 1888. Cyprus Blue Book for the Year 1887-1888. Nicosia: Government Printing Office.
5. Colonial Office. 1948. The Cyprus Blue Book 1946. Nicosia: Government Printing Office.
6. de Lusignan, E. [1580] 2004. Description de toute l’isle de Cypre (Paris, 1580; repr. Nicosia: Πολιτιστικό Ίδρυμα Τραπέζης Κύπρου, 2004).
7. Jacoby, D. 1995. Το εμπόριο κι η οικονομία της Κύπρου (1191-1489), in Th. Papadopoullos (ed.), Ιστορία της Κύπρου. Μεσαιωνικόν Βασίλειον – Ενετοκρατία Ι: 387-454. Nicosia: Ίδρυμα Αρχιεπισκόπου Μακαρίου Γ΄- Γραφείον Κυπριακής Ιστορίας.
8. Luke, H. C. 1921. Cyprus Under the Turks, 1571-1878: A Record Based on the Archives of the English Consulate in Cyprus under the Levant Company and after. London: Oxford University Press.
9. Maier, F. G. and V. Karageorghis (eds). 1984. Paphos History and Archaeology. Nicosia: A. G. Leventis Foundation.
10. Panayiotou, M., 2013. Harbours, harbour works and commerce in Cyprus, 1878-1910, in M. Tsianikas, N. Maadad, G. Couvalis and M. Palaktsoglou (eds.), Greek Research in Australia: Proceedings of the Biennial International Conference of Greek Studies, Flinders University June 2011: 94–106. Adelaide: Flinders University.
11. Panayiotou, M., 2016. Λιμάνια, Λιμενικά Έργα και Εξωτερικό Εμπόριο στην Κύπρο,1878-1927. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Cyprus.
12. Panayiotou, M., 2017. «Πορτ ιν Λίμασσολ άι χαβ νοτ. Γιού μαστ γκο ττου Πισκοπή»: Οι λιμενικές υπηρεσίες της Λεμεσού το 1908 και το αντίστοιχο ποίημα του Βασίλη Μιχαηλίδη, Η Δέλτος 1: 33-38.
13. Sathas, K. 1962. Τουρκοκρατούμενη Ελλάς (1453-1821). Athens: Κ. Καμαρινόπουλος – Θ. Γυφτάκης.

Author: Maria Ktori

Image: courtesy of Pattichion Historical Archive and Municipal Museum Limassol