Mani in 1795: a traveler's report

He left Athens after two months, and set off for a journey in the Peloponnese, through Arcadia and Laconia to Kalamata. On the border of the Mani (that ends at Cape Matapan) he and Dallaway were told that the country was impassable, but on 17 April they had penetrated south to Cape Kitries on the Messenian Gulf. It was only thirteen miles, but the track off the road from Kalamata to Areopolis passed through wild, wooded country, and at the end of it they found one of the chiefs to whom they had a letter. He lived in one of the towers that were built in the Mani as convenient devices for carrying on blood feuds. The murder of a member of a Maniot family, or some other insult, would set off a village war in which heavy cannon were used by the contending sides to blast each other a quarter of a mile away or at point-blank range across the street. The towers were actually built under fire, the great stone cubes on the enemy side having been laid on each other at night, and the backs during the day. When two great captains of the same village were at war, each side commanded several towers, and sometimes several hundred men were involved. Occasionally hostilities would go on for years, and Morritt and Dallaway were lucky to find a village at peace.

The chief to whom they introduced themselves was "a spirited, hearty fellow who received us with open arms". He soon took his leave and sent one of his armed men to escort the travellers to another tower which Morritt called "the fair lady's castle, where we are now". It was a battlemented tower with potholes on all sides, and on their arrival the Englishmen were met by an armed guard who came out to know their business. They were admitted, and they introduced themselves to the uncle of the "fair lady", who was the governor of the country. They had letters of introduction both to him and his niece. "The lady is about twenty-eight; her husband, who governed here, is dead, and she is the mistress of the territory ... While her sex is degraded at three hours distance, here they are free, simple, and happy. By what I am told they are very virtuous, and it is the only instance in the Levant. For all this they are all as beautiful as angels; and it was a new thing for us to have an audience of a fine woman, attended by a train of damsels, most of them pretty, and her sister, who was about eighteen and as beautiful as you can conceive." The lady's castle was an enchantment, and they enjoyed the true Maniot hospitality while Morritt, as usual, was admiring the ladies' clothes which he describes at some length in one of his letters.

In the Mani, Morritt found that although the country lacked the remains of ancient Greek architecture, the people "survive in a bolder manner" and "retain the spirits and character of Grecians, more than we had seen". Although the Maniots had a reputation for lacking in education, Morritt found in the first house he stayed in a copy of Belisarius and Rollin's Ancient History* in modern Greek, and his host "talked to us a good deal about ancient Greece, of which he knew the whole history as well or better than us ... and his eyes sparkled when he spoke of the ancient Spartans".

They must have returned a little sadly to the outer world, through Sparta; and in neighbouring Mistra he writes to his sister that she had been in great danger of losing him in the Mani, "for we were very often asked to marry and settle, and I think we should have made excellent captains of a Maniote band. I have bespoke a very handsome Maniote lady's dress...and which, as I shall not always wear, I will lend it to you when I do not want it, as you will look very well in a muslin chemise and a blue silk pair of trousers. We will attend Ranelagh as Maniotes."

*"The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians" (1750)

[From: "Beyond the Grand Tour", by Hugh Tregaskis, 1979--travels to Greece during the late eighteenth & early nineteenth centuries.]

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