Habemus Consulem: The First Greek Consul at St. Louis

1837 was a very significant year! Not only did King Otto return to Greece from his prolonged travels to the US, but it was also the year signifying the terminus post quem, the inauguration, of diplomatic bilateral relations between Greece and the United States. Simply put, the United States of America officially recognized for the first time the independent Greek state. This was preceded earlier in 1833 when Great Britain, France, and Russia had sent the United States an invitation to acknowledge Prince Otto of Bavaria as King of Greece. Secretary of State Edward Livingston responded however ambiguously to this invitation on April 30, 1833; although expressing a willingness to recognize Prince Otto with this title, he did not officially do so through actions! The United States’ official recognition of Greece’s sovereignty came on December 22, 1837 in the form of a treaty of commerce and navigation that was signed in London by representatives of the two countries. This form of agreement was a common practice of the day in dealing with bilateral affairs of this nature, and remains tradition even in today’s international politics.

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Aside from being officially recognized as an independent Greek state by the United States of America, the importance of this signed treaty, for our purposes, lies in Article XII. Article XII grants the right to the contracting parties/countries to appoint consuls and vice consuls while further explains their duties, jurisdictions and privileges. As a general rule the function of Greek diplomacy, especially during the nineteenth century had a threefold purpose:

  1. To assist the Greek population still residing in territories within the Ottoman Empire.
  2. To promote the interests of the Greek state in Europe’s political centers.
  3. To support and protect the trade activities of the Greek merchants in major ports throughout the world.

It then becomes apparent, that early Greek consuls in the United States functioned mainly as protectors of Greek merchants and their financial enterprises.

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Immediately following the treaty’s ratification in the later part of 1837, Greece appointed two consuls in the United States for the cities of Boston and New York. The United States in turn sent Greek-American Gregory Perdicaris to Athens, to serve as the first American consul in Greece.

In 1854, the increased commercial enterprises of the Greek merchants on the American side of the Atlantic and especially their active involvement in the cotton and sugar trade business with the American South, led to the establishment of a third Greek consular post in the city of New Orleans. The 1850’s was a time that the Greek merchants in the United States continued to thrive. The Crimean War (1853-1856), a major armed conflict among the great powers, forced the more wealthy Greek merchants to turn their gaze further into the American South. The war in Crimea had disrupted their lucrative grain trade from the Black Sea and had heavily affected their commercial activities in that area. A perfect alternative enterprise had now surfaced for them through “King Cotton”.

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Nikolas Benachi, Greek Consul in New Orleans

As the Greek merchants’ commercial networks continued to expand, their constant search for new posts, markets and products became their modus vivendi in the New World; Greek merchants and their retinues were able to make themselves more influential and present in even more American cities. It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that in order to support their commercial activities in the Midwest, and connect at the same time the North-South route between Chicago and New Orleans, the Greek merchants would choose and use the city of St. Louis as an important trading post. The pragmatic need for a Greek consul in the city soon became a reality.

In the late summer of 1863 an official request was made to the Greek State, and more specifically to Pavlos Kalligas, the Greek minister of Foreign Affairs, in the form of a diplomatic petition, by Demetrius Botassi, the Greek consul of New York, in order to establish a consular post in St. Louis. On August 27, 1863, Demetrius Botassi wrote to Pavlos Kalligas, and explained the reasons why there should be a Greek consul in the city of St. Louis. Botassi justified his appeal arguing that: “Due to its central location, the city has become a very important commercial center while its population, according to the latest census, is 250,000 residents. At the same time, certain Greek mercantile houses have opened their quarters there lately, and many Greeks reside in the city due to their commercial activities. They often need the protection and assistance of the Greek consular services and for this very reason the establishment of a Greek consulate in the city of St. Louis is necessary! “

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Botassi’s letter to Minister Kalligas

Botassi further claimed in his letter that, “ … during the hot and humid months of the summer, most Greeks from the city of New Orleans migrate to St. Louis and quite often their interests are being harmed by the absence of consular services in the city!”

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The Greek consul in New York, Demetrius Botassi. He was the son-in-law of Nikolas Benachi

Botassi concludes his letter to Pavlos Kalligas with a recommendation to appoint consul or vice-consul in St. Louis, “Mr. Constantine P. Ralli, a wealthy Greek merchant from the island of Syros who is already residing there and his business is flourishing in the city!”

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Kalligas’ response to Botassi’s letter

There was an immediate response to this request from Kalligas. On September 6, 1863, the official certificate of Constantine P. Ralli’s appointment as the Greek vice-consul in St. Louis had been issued.

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The official certificate issued by the Greek government and signed by Kalligas that establishes a consular post in St. Louis and appoints Constantine P. Ralli as the first Greek vice-consul in the city.

Finally, on November 26, 1863, Constantine P. Ralli personally wrote to Minister Kalligas in order to thank the Greek government for the honor of appointing him Greek vice-consul of St. Louis. Ralli informed Kalligas that once his appointment had been accepted and signed by the US government, he was ready to assume his consular duties.

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Ralli’s letter to Kalligas

If we took all these events at face value we could say that the establishment of a fourth Greek consul in the United States was both pragmatic and organic in structure. Let’s however add an extra dimension to our story and attempt a bit of historical contextualization. Doing this, we will soon realize that the timing of the establishment of the Greek consulate in St. Louis coincided almost perfectly with the climax of one of the most important and defining events in the history of the United States, the American Civil War! Was this a mere coincidence? Without getting too deeply into an “academic” argument, lets base as a foundation that the Civil War’s progression is partially responsible for the rapidity of the establishment of the consulate in St. Louis. This is something that Botassi perhaps consciously failed to report! [1]

 As Botassi noted in his letter to Kalligas, the Greeks in New Orleans were greatly affected by the excruciating heat and humidity of the summer months. This difficult weather was frequently accompanied by deadly bouts of yellow fever that affected the general population. Consequently New Orleans’ Greeks sought seasonal refuge and escaped up North through the Mississippi river to come to St. Louis. Yet, the development of the Civil War in the South provided an additional destructive circumstance that further threatened the Greeks’ presence and livelihood in New Orleans. The “Beast” had arrived!

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Benjamin Butler, Major General of the Union Army

In the spring of 1862, Major General Benjamin Butler, pejoratively known by his adversaries as “Beast” Butler, led the Union forces in the South that eventually captured New Orleans. For the following months, Butler managed the city with an iron feast and imposed insurmountable impediments to the foreign merchants in the city and to their businesses. He perceived and treated most of the foreign merchants as collaborators for the Confederate forces. Butler used what was known as “The Confiscation Act” of 1862 to seize the shipments, property and even deposits of all foreign nationals in New Orleans. This was something that both irritated numerous Greek merchants in the city, but also brought them into a dire situation. St. Louis at this point might have been perceived as a temporarily good alternative to the unwelcoming situations of New Orleans!

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It should be noted that Butler’s polemic attitude towards the foreign merchants and especially the Greeks was partly responsible for his downfall. A large sugar shipment that Butler confiscated from the Greek company of Negreponte & Covas led to immediate and tenacious protests of the Greek consul in New Orleans. Nikolas Benachi, along with both the French and British consuls petitioned the U.S. Government for mediation on this subject matter. Eventually, Abraham Lincoln himself interfered and asked Butler to return the sugar shipment to its rightful owners. Butler’s refusal to follow orders led to his dismissal, causing Lincoln in early 1863 to have him replaced with Major General Nathaniel P. Banks.

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Nathaniel Banks, Major General of the Union Army

With Banks appointment, the Greeks of New Orleans were presented with a different kind of challenge. Although Banks was not a West Point prodigy, he was very much the representation of a “political” appointment made by Lincoln himself. Banks had served as the Governor of Massachusetts before the outbreak of the Civil War and although he was frequently found wanting in his military tactics, he was more than capable in his political maneuverings. After taking over the reins of New Orleans from Butler, Banks was able to restore a calm to the city’s population. By early summer of 1863, with the Union Army he was able to push well into the Mississippi to lay the famous siege of Port Hudson. Two months later, after this initial strategic move, Banks led the capture of the last Confederate stronghold, which controlled the flow of goods from St. Louis to New Orleans. When Botassi was drafting his letter to Kalligas arguing his case for a consular post in St. Louis, the entire Mississippi River had just been brought under complete Union control!

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Banks, unlike his predecessor was more lenient, if not downright favorable, towards the foreign merchants of New Orleans. In fact, during the unsuccessful Red River Campaign of the spring of 1864, Banks was heavily criticized for allowing foreign merchants and speculators to follow the Union Army’s troops and take advantage of the seized cotton productions. According to our records, Benachi and members of the Ralli company played a very active role at this time. Banks favoritism towards the Greeks and his ongoing business partnership with them would be clearly displayed four years in the future in his role as a Massachusetts Congressman and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. This part of history however will be addressed in another post.

Given this historical backdrop, the question arises as to what is the true light that we should see the establishment of the new Greek consular post in St. Louis. It seems that the new consular post was initiated with elements of both careful defense and aggressive offense. Under the nebulous socio-political and financial environment of the American Civil War, the Greek merchants wanted to have access to additional, and more secure ports while enjoying the protection of the local Greek consul. However, these seasoned and business savvy merchants also understood that war was a moneymaking opportunity that they should not allow to slip away. They wanted to make themselves more visible and their trade more lucrative. More importantly they wanted people to know that they meant business!

On Friday, May 20, 1864, the US Government officially approved Constantine P. Ralli, for his position as vice-consul of Greece at St. Louis. This letter of recognition was signed by President Lincoln himself. The “Fourth City” hosted the fourth Greek consul in the United States!

 

 

[1] Botassi was an avid writer and a sharp thinker! He produced probably the only contemporary “Greek” account of the American Civil War in the form of a series of meditations on the causes of the Civil War and its possible effects on the Greek merchant community in the States.

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