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standard-title The History of the Island

The History of the Island

Engraving with view of salt lakes and the castle of Santa Maura

Engraving with view of salt lakes and the castle of Santa Maura

Palaeolithic and the Neolithic Age

The island was already inhabited during the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic Age, as it is evident by the findings on many sites. The German archaeologist W. Dörpfeld, in excavations in Nydri, also discovered important findings that dated back to the Copper Age, while forming his theory that the island was the Homeric Ithaca.

The first town on the island is considered to be the prehistoric Nirikos, near Kaligoni, at the hill of “Koulmos”, where there are large scale findings of the town and its cemeteries.

Corinthian Colony (625 – 338 BC)

The island was colonised by Corinthians in the last quarter of the 7th century BC, when the town of “Lefkas” was founded at Koulmos Hill and the broader area to the East, down to the sea. The island took part in the Persian Wars, in the war between Corfu and Corinth and in the Peloponnesian War.

Hellenistic Period (338 – 197 BC)

In 338 BC Lefkada was occupied by Philip II of Macedon and after his death it followed Alexander the Great in his expeditions. After the turbulent years that post-dated Alexander’s death, Lefkada became subject to King Pyrrhus of Epirus. In 272 it acceded to the Acarnanian League and became its capital.

Roman Period (197 BC – 395 AD)

The Romans conquered the island in 197 BC. It became relatively autonomous as the Romans detached it from the Acarnanian League, because the island was of great strategic importance. After Octavian’s victory in Aktion, the founding of the town of Nikopolis and the resettlement of the surrounding population in order to inhabit it, the island of Lefkada entered a period of decadence.

During this period, the ancient wall of the town was rebuilt and a stone bridge was constructed at the site of “Perama”, connecting the island with the Acarnanian coast.

Byzantine Period (5th – 13th century AD)

Concerning the early Byzantine Period, there were reports of a great catastrophe in Lefkada due to earthquakes in the 6th century that meant the end of the ancient capital city and the building of a new one, at a higher point, with, however, no more evidences. After the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western, the island became a part of the eastern half with no more particular references about that, while, in the 13th century, it came under the rule of the Despotate of Epirus.

Western Rule (1294 – 1479 AD)

In 1294 Lefkada was granted as dowry to John I Orsini, who built the first core of the castle at the entrance of the island. In 1331 it fell under the rule of the Angevins, led by Walter Vryennius who named the town of the castle and the island “Santa Maura”, after the name of his birthplace in what is now France. Subsequently the island was ceded to the Venetian Graziano Zorzi. During his rule the peasants revolted (1357) probably due to the taxes that he imposed upon them. The famous poem “Foteinos” by Aristotelis Valaoritis was inspired by this rebellion. After the death of Zorzi, the family of the Tocci ruled the island until 1479.

Noteworthy of this period is the creation of the salt pans as well as the first mention of salt trade in 1415.

Ottoman Rule (1479 – 1684)

Lefkada was the only island of the Eptanisa that the Turks occupied for about 200 years. The Turks took over the most fertile lands, creating large estates, something that is evident in the hundreds of place names of Turkish origin that are still being used nowadays. The monasteries of the island were founded in this period and they played an important role in every aspect of the locals’ life.

We should also mention the great public work of that period, the aqueduct of Santa Maura, that transferred water through pipelines from the site of “Megali Vrysi” –south of the town of Lefkada- into the castle, via the small settlement of Amaxiki –where modern time Lefkada is situated- and through the lagoon.

The pipelines were supported by 360 arcs that also formed a rather narrow road to the castle. Today we can still notice its ruins in the western lagoon.

Venetian Rule (1684 – 1797)

This was a very important period for the island because, after two centuries, it became again a part of the Eptanesian culture. Although the feudal regime was reinstated and the land was given away to the hands of rich landholders, peaceful living was secured since there were no more troubles due to raids and population movement. The capital was moved from the castle to its current position with the name “Amaxiki”. Furthermore, for the first time there was a kind of social and political activity, especially in the town. Lefkada was governed by the “Constitutional Charter of Santa Maura” which stated that the highest administrative body would be a Civil Council of 70 members, who would elect the local authorities and the civil servants. The dominant class, the “nobles” or “lords”, the owners of large pieces of land were a small minority. They were they only ones that enjoyed civil rights. Initially, only 70 families belonged to this class, but later on others also acquired similar privileges. The second class consisted of bourgeois, i.e. merchants, doctors, lawyers, notaries, pharmacists who, in the beginning, do not have any civil rights, but enjoy some social stature. There was also the lower layer of the second class, namely the small land owners of Lefkada’s valley, the craftsmen and the professionals (carpenters, builders, tanners, butchers, tailors, cobblers, soapers etc). Finally, at the bottom of the social pyramid there were the fishermen, the heavers and the part-time workers.

The most populous social group consisted of peasants and farmers of the rural area. They had a very harsh and poor life under the tough exploitation of the “nobles” and the Venetians. A much smaller group was the one of the serfs who cultivated the farms of the rich landowners. In total, the countryside held 80% of the population.

Republican French – Russians and Turks – Septinsular republic – Imperial French (1797 – 1809)

The island was occupied by troops of the French Republic in 1797, but they quickly caused disarray because of the taxation that they imposed on the people. Therefore, the French were forced off the island one year later. They were replaced by Russians and Turks who occupied the Seven Islands and decided the founding of the autonomous Septinsular Republic with Corfu as its seat, which was the first “independent state” in the Greek region after tens of centuries. Public health measures were issued in Lefkada, street lighting was taken cared for and the roads towards the villages were repaired. On the other side, Ali Pasha of Ioannina was ready to attack the island where members of the Society of Friends and Greek military leaders met (Ioannis Kapodistrias, Antonis Katsantonis, Boukouvalas, Kitsos Botsaris and others) to organise the defence, at the site of “Magemenos” in Nikiana. Nevertheless, after the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807, Lefkada, along with the rest of the Ionian Islands, fell under the rule of the Imperial French.

The English Rule (1810 – 1864)

The English arrived at the island in 1810. In the 5th of November 1815 the Treaty of Paris was signed that founded the “State of the United Ionian Islands” under the English protection. The Constitution of 1817 was characterised as a “despotic and horrible institution” and the English cruelty and authoritarianism had as a result the peasants’ rebellion in 1819 that was triggered by the rise of taxation for the widening of the channel between Lefkada and Acarnania.

Before and during the years of the Greek Revolution, the island played an important and pluralistic role, with many active members in the Society of Friends (a secret organisation whose purpose was the independence of Greece). The head of the Society in the island was a district attorney, Ioannis Zampelios. There were also many locals involved in the battles of the Greek War of Independence, while many military leaders and fighters of the mainland found refuge in the island, along with their families, to avoid the retaliations of the Ottomans. The poet Kostis Palamas wrote: “Hail to you, Roumeli, you neighbour, oh Lefkada, nest of the Armatoloi (Greek irregular soldiers)” The island was hit by many catastrophic earthquakes until 1825. Some of the characteristic features of that period were a few public works, some efforts of organising the system of public education and some “democratic” reforms with no actual success.

The protectorate lasted up to 1864 and at the end the English submitted to the will of the Eptanesian people to join Greece, but, in return, they kept interfering with Greece’s domestic and foreign affairs, according to their interests. With the treaty of the 13th of July 1863 (among England, France, Austria and Denmark) George Glücksburg was named king of Greece and the Ionian Islands were ceded to Greece. The protocol of cession was signed on the 1st of August, with the condition that the 13th Assembly of the Parliament of the Ionian Islands would consent. The Assembly was elected for this particular purpose. During the celebratory session on the 5th of October 1863, the enthusiastic resolution, that had been written by the MP of Lefkada, Aristotelis Valaoritis, was read. With the treaties of the 14th of November 1863 and 17th of May 1864 the ceding of the Seven Islands to Greece became official. On the 21st of May 1864 the Lord High Commissioner, Sir Henry Knight Storks, surrendered the Ionian Islands to the special delegate of the Greek government, Thrasyvoulos Zaimis. In Lefkada, the keys of the castle were handed over to Bishop Gregorios and the Prefect Tsarlampas, in the presence of a large crowd, early in the morning, while the English guard was saluting the Greek flag that unfurled on the castle.

1864-1981

In the 1870s the French vineyards were destroyed by the grape phylloxera. As a result, the wine of Lefkada took off and the cultivating activity of the local farmers changed radically for years. This lasted until 1900 when the grapevines of the island were destroyed and there was large scale immigration towards Canada and the US. The Fund for the Defence of the Winegrowers of Lefkada (TAOL) was founded in 1915. During the population exchange in 1923 that followed the end of the Greco-Turkish War, 5000 refugees from Asia Minor and Pontus were settled in Lefkada. During the period of the WWII Occupation Lefkada and the rest of the Ionian Islands were under the rule of the Italians from May 1941 to September 1943, when the Germans came to occupy the island until September 1944. The conflicts that arose throughout the Civil War were particularly harsh and traumatic for the island.

After the end of the war, the island followed all the socio-political developments of Greece, while the tourist growth slowly began after the purchase of the island of Scorpios by Aristotle Onassis in 1963.

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