Trump, Greek Ship Owners and Cuba

Posted by on Aug 12, 2017 in Blogposts, Latest News, Opinions | No Comments

by Elias Kulukundis

In contrast to many commentators, Gillian Tett, the Financial Times’ banking and finance editor, makes a much needed attempt to see the controversial president’s world view from the inside. (“Who Says Donald Trump Is Not aMan of honour?” The Financial Times, Sunday August 6, 2017. )
Tett comments that Trump places great trust in family ties, insists on high levels of loyalty from subordinates and has no hesitation in taking revenge on those who in his perception have betrayed his trust. She quotes Matthew Engelke, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, who says that this “honour principle” places authority in the family unit, rather than in the state, and is governed by a sense of honour and the avoidance of shame, a dynamic which in the Mediterranean involves defending friends and family against enemies who would shame and belittle them, largely the way Trump does.

This ethos, I might add, has much in common with the culture of the Mafia and other similar “Honored Societies,” including one I happen to know something about—that of Greek ship owners.

After the First World War, many of the founders of modern Greek shipping emigrated to the newly established shipping center of London, coming directly from islands that until recently were a part of the Ottoman Empire (my ancestral island of Kasos did not became a part of the Greek nation until 1948). Many of these ship owners had been exposed only to Ottoman law, and had hardly time to adopt any intervening loyalty to the Greek nation state. The Ottoman rulers had allowed these island societies considerable autonomy, which these societies codified in pronouncements such as that “local custom is the law,” a dictum which means in effect that it was up to the islanders themselves to decide what was best for their community. That idea remained strong in the ship owners’ minds even after they had left their native islands and now peopled the drawing rooms of London and New York. In other words, wherever these ship owners found themselves, on their native island, in England or later in the U.S., the laws that governed the society they lived in were not the determining factor in these ship owners’ lives. The determining factor was still their internal Geiger counter that gave them their sense of honour and shame, just as it had in the Greek islands.

That may explain why ultimately Greek ship owners seem to feel little loyalty to the Greek state. They consider that the Greek state has not given them much, and they owe it little in return. These ship owners provided the nation a service that at one time—before the introduction of Far East crews—was a main source of employment for the Greek economy. Just after the Second World War, all able-bodied Greek men who could go to sea went to sea, and their industry and loyalty to their owners made the Greek merchant marine the largest in the world. But this expansion happened with little help—and it should be added—- with little interference from the Greek government. As the Greek economy developed in the post-war decades, dependence on the sea correspondingly diminished, but sea-faring remained a prestigious occupation. I still meet people on the island of Syros who tell me that a father or an uncle sailed on one or another of my family’s ships.

In the meantime, Greek governments viewed the ship owners with solicitous hostility.

“I don’t like them, but I need them,” Andreas Papandreou said when I asked him what he thought of Greek ship owners (that was during the era of the Junta when Papandreou was in exile in Sweden). And Greek ship owners heartily reciprocated the sentiment. They didn’t like Papandreou and didn’t feel they needed him, nor do they feel they need any other Greek prime minister for that matter. In their view the Greek government is a force which at best offers them no benefit, and conversely can do them harm, whether by malevolent intent or simply by its sheer incompetence in comparison to the way ship owners run their own businesses. When Greek ship owners want to express their patriotism and civic-mindedness, they make donations to churches or build roads or harbors on their native islands, but such actions do not necessarily indicate political loyalty to any particular Greek government. The government Greek ship owners like best is the one which no longer exists except in their minds—the regime of the Ottoman Sultan who couldn’t be bothered to rule his far-flung island subjects for good or for ill and left them alone to rule themselves. In this political vacuum, the ship owners’ principle loyalty was to their socio-economic group, ie. to themselves, and so it remains.
The challenge for the next generation was to develop stronger ties with the new societies where the ship owners settled, first in England and then the U.S. Often the younger people’s wish to do so might seem to be in conflict with their parents’ natural impulses. Greek ship owners retained their separateness in England and America with an accompanying sense of loyalty that at best could be considered negotiable. My father emigrated to New York in 1939. Over twenty years later when I was writing a paper on the education of immigrants for a sociology class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I asked my father when he first decided to stay in America.
“ When did I decide to stay?” he said, “Who says I’ve decided.”

In the meantime, even though my father’s business might in every respect be consistent with international law, by living in the U.S. my father was likely to come into conflict with the nation of his established residence. Such conflict would affect his family more than it affected him.

The Korean War- photo credits: Getty Images

I entered a New England boarding school in September 1952. At the time, under the auspices of the United Nations, the U.S. was at war with North Korea. McCarthyism was rampant in the land, and the junior senator from Wisconsin was calling out the Greek ship owners for trading with China—Communist China as it was then known. I had just unpacked my trunk at Exeter when a senior in my dorm came into my room to introduce himself and say he thought it was very unpatriotic of my family to be trading with Communist China when people like him who would be eighteen next year might be fighting the Chinese in Korea.
Could I argue that our family shipping company was based in London, that the British government not only was not at war with China but asserted its prerogative to trade freely with any nation that was not a belligerent. That argument would not have taken me far.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

I ended by murmuring that “it was a very complicated issue.” But just how complicated it was I couldn’t have begun to express, for the reason which would have been impossible to articulate, that I knew my father did not feel he owed the kind of political loyalty to my adopted country that my senior schoolmate seemed to expect him to feel. The senior was indignant that he could conceivably find himself fighting against an army that was being supported indirectly by my family’s ships, and therefore his feeling was reasonable enough. But it was also understandable that elders of my family should not want to restrict their business in a way that the even British government did not feel itself obliged to do, all for the sake of a fifteen year old immigrant American son of a Greek ship owner who might find himself challenged by his American schoolmates. Nevertheless my feelings were at least as real as the indignation of the bullying senior.


Ten years later, another, sharper conflict could have arisen during the Cuban Missile Crisis between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A ship owned by London and Overseas Freighters, a British company controlled by my family, was on charter to the Soviet Government. I was now a graduate student at Columbia, and in a nasty twist of fate that I was mercifully unaware of at the time, the chartered L.O.F. ship was one of the four Soviet ships steaming towards the American blockade of Cuba during the thirteen fateful days of October 1962. The blockade was Robert Kennedy’s plan to avert the crisis by rejecting the Joint Chief’s call for the invasion of Cuba, thus giving the Russians time and a way to back down by taking their ships off the collision course.

What would have happened to our ship if the Russians had not given in? And what would have happened to humanity? It was a good thing for me as well as for everyone else that Khrushchev blinked and the Soviet ships turned back. All this gives some idea of where the scope of the conflict between loyalty to family or loyalty to nation can eventually lead.