The Bellstone: The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean : One American's Journey Home
Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2003 - History - 287 pages
For centuries,the young men of the Dodecanese Islands, a string of islands in the Aegean Sea between Greece and the coast of Asia Minor, earned their living by diving for sponges. They would descend to the bottom of the sea on just a single breath of air, using as a weight and rudder a flat, marble diving stone called a bellstone. They used this ancient technique of "naked diving" until 1863 when the deep-sea diving suit was introduced into the sponge-fishing industry. The new diving suit (dubbed "Satan's machine" by the divers) allowed the diver to remain under water for long periods of time, increasing his productivity a hundredfold, but it also brought a dramatic change in the physiology of diving. Rather than taking one deep breath, the diver now breathed compressed air, which caused "the bends" if he rose from the depths
of the sea too quickly. Pressure from international companies to increase the number of sponges harvested on each dive led to mounting casualties. Between 1866 and 1895, on the island of Kalymnos alone, 800 young men died of the bends and 200 more were paralyzed. Michael N. Kalafatas's grandfather, born on the island of Symi, was eye-witness to these events.
In 1995, Kalafatas discovered an epic poem entitled "Winter Dream" written by his grandfather, Metrophanes Kalafatas. The poem, composed a century earlier in Greek, recounts the plight of sponge divers confronted with this new technology. He had the poem rendered into English by award-winning poet, Olga Broumas, and using it as his bellstone, dove into his own past.
While tracing the historical and cultural contours of this uniquely Greek livelihood, Kalafatas carries the reader from the Dodecanese Islands in the nineteenth century to Constantinople and the Black Sea as well as to contemporary Tarpon Springs, Florida and Melbourne, Australia--the far-flung outposts of the Greek sponge-diving diaspora. He portrays the
hubris of young sponge divers defying the odds; the passion of their wives and mothers in protesting the new diving suits; the venality of international capitalists intent on maximizing their investments; and the courage of the Dodecanese people in adapting to catastrophic changes beyond their control.
The story Kalafatas weaves is deeply personal, as his grandfather's poem leads the author back to Greece. But The Bellstone is more than just a personal story; it is a lamentation for and celebration of the families, history, and culture of the sponge divers of the Dodecanese.
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Abdul Hamid Aegean Anatolia Australia beautiful bellstone bends breath breath-hold diving called captain Church coast Conchs cousin Cretan Crete crew cultured pearl dead death deep depth diving suit Dodecanese islands Dodecanesian Doumanis Drossos father feet fishing Flegel Florida ftou gear George grandfather Greece Greek divers Greek sponge divers Gulf harbor harem helmet island of Symi Italian Jacques Mayol Kalafatas Kalymnian Kalymnian divers Kalymnos Kastellorizo Kyriacos lived Mediterranean meters Metrophanes mother naked divers never Nicholas Nikitas Olga Broumas Ottoman Ottoman Empire oyster Paspaley Pearling Pipin platika poetics of manhood port Pothia reports Rhodes riov rock Russ Bernard sail sea sponge shark ship skafandra Souliot Spetses sponge beds sponge boat sponge industry spongers Stathis Steve John story Sultan Symi Symi's Symiot Tarpon Springs tells TIOV Today TTJV Turkish Turks Winter Dream women writes wrote young