A Story in a Telegram 

A Story in a Telegram 

The sponge divers of Hydra

The telegram collection of the OTE Group Telecommunications Museum consists of 8,000 documents that span the years from 1859 to 1992. The collection’s chronological breadth makes it an ideal primary source for studying the history of telegraphy – as well as private and economic life – in Greece. A mode of communication that is now obsolete, the telegram – brief and terse by nature – preserves the immediacy and power of the moment and of the historical period of which it was a product.

In the case in point, we have a telegram from the early 20th century (1903) that has to do with the world of work and the sea. It refers to sponge-fishing operations. The telegram was sent from Tripoli in Libya to a Hydra businessman and sponge-fishing financer. Sponge fishing was the main source of livelihood for the residents of Hydra in the early 20th century. Especially after the lifting of the Ottoman ban on sponge fishing, Hydra’s sponge-fishing fleets found opportunities to operate off the shores of North Africa, and mainly off the coast of Libya, which had sponges of exceptional quality. The telegram conveys information on the progress of the sponge-fishing operation:

“Daskalakis Kritikos arrived. Took four divers by force. Awaiting instructions. Left engines in Benghazi.”

The recipient of the telegram was Verveniotis, one of the prominent Hydran sponge-fishing ship magnates. In a 1908 article in the newspaper “Empros,” Verveniotis is described as “very clever, awesome and unbeatable when advocating or on the attack.” The shipowners were accused of saddling ship captains with heavy loans at an interest of up to 30%. In general, it was a profitable, if dangerous, profession. Fatal accidents were common, and the living conditions were miserable. As is clear from the telegram – as well as from allegations made by divers – there was a slavery ring that provided manpower for the Hydra sponge-fishing fleet.

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