In a lonely corner of a sleepy beach on a small Cycladic island stands an austere monument to the memory of four miners: Michalis Zoilis, Themistocles Kouzoupis, Michalis Mitrofanis and Yiannis Protopappas. At her feet, some plastic flowers faded by the sun. Cats nap under trees planted to provide some shade for bathers on Megalo Livadi, once the mining hub on the Greek island of Serifós. There are a couple of restaurants, an old mansion in ruins and little else. On one side of the bay, the rusty ironwork of an old cargo bridge. This was the scenario in which, on August 21, 1916, the Greeks won the first battle for the application of the eight-hour working day. And the two Michalis, Themistokles and Yiannis were their martyrs.
In Greek mythology, Serifós is the island where the beautiful Danae and her little son Perseus arrive after their father, King Acrisius – who had been warned by an oracle that his own grandson would kill him – left them to death. drifts into a wooden chest. And this is where the hero Perseus sets off in search of Medusa, deceived by the king of Serifos, Polydectes, who intends to take advantage of his absence and her probable death to marry Danae. A ruse that she will pay with her life, when Perseus returns with the gorgon’s head and turns him into stone.
The strikers and their families took control of the island after killing three gendarmes and called for its annexation to France.
It could be said that Konstantinos Speras was a kind of modern Perseus for the inhabitants of the island. Tired of the abuses of their bosses, the German Gromman family, and of being ignored in Athens, the miners decided to go looking for the young anarchist, born on the island but raised in Egypt, where he was linked to trade unionism during his time as a tobacco worker.
Speras returns to his home island and gets down to business. In July 1916, he founded the Mining Association and demanded the implementation of the eight-hour day (approved on paper since 1911…), salary increases and improvements in security. There is no response and on August 7 about 400 miners refuse to load the iron onto the ship manousi who had orders to set sail immediately for northern Europe.
Faced with the rebellion of the workers and their refusal to accept the minutiae that the company offers them, certain local authorities decide to send a telegram to Athens warning of the violent attitude of the strikers.
30 gendarmes commanded by Lieutenant Chrisanthou arrive in Serifós. On the morning of August 21, this man with a reputation for being irrational, summoned Speras and other strikers to the Megalo Livadi gendarmerie with the excuse of inquiring about the situation. But once there, he stops them and threatens the strikers: If they don’t start loading the ship in five minutes, he will open fire.
Not following through on his ultimatum, the lieutenant shoots Themistocles dead and orders his men to fire. The other three miners fall and chaos takes over the place. Miners, women and children rushed against the gendarmes, stoned Chrisanthou to death and threw him into the sea. Two other agents are killed and almost all of them are wounded and unarmed.
The miners take control of the island, and then something amazing happens: They raise the French flag and send a telegram to the French navy (stationed on the island of Milos) requesting entry to the land of Freedom, Equality. and the Fraternity. This movement cannot be understood without taking into account that Greece was in full political chaos in the middle of World War I, with French soldiers from the Triple Entente defending the government and the Triple Alliance supporting the king. Of course, Paris said that “Thanks but no.” And after two weeks of self-management, the Greek army put an end to the French dream.
Speras and his family spent years in prison, but the Serifós miners managed to make the eight-hour day effective for the first time in the country. Live the revolution!
The mines were closed in the 1960s and today Serifós is a discreet tourist destination with beautiful uncrowded beaches and plonky rosé wine. Souvenir shops sell T-shirts of Medusa and the Cyclops Polyphemus (locals argue that this was the island described by Ulysses), but few remember the deeds of their grandparents. On Megalo Livadi beach one of the restaurants is called 1916. Whoever wants to understand, understand.