The history of Serifos is linked to the mines, remnants of which are still vivid to the island and function as a travel-machine back to a glorious but also harsh past. Its harbors have been formed as loading stations of its minerals, while the whole social and economic life of the island is intertwined with its mines, which, from 1870 to 1964, fueled with more than 100 million tons of iron ore, the “chimneys” of the industrial revolution in Europe. It is more than worthwhile to visit the open-air mining museum in Megalo Livadi and talk to the old miners that will shock you with their stories of life in the galleries since prehistoric era.
Serifos since antiquity has been known as a barren island. Indeed, Serifos had (and has) a remarkable subsoil of iron deposits (hematite and magnetite) formed by contact transformation at the border of a granite penetration. Copper deposits are also found in Koundouros as well as residuals of copper ore mining in the location “Skouries” (copper rust in Greek). The copper rust in this position over the bay of Abessallou, witnesses of metallurgical activities from prehistoric to late antiquity. Important rocks can be seen in the Folklore Museum in Kato Chora.
The mines exist on the island since the 3.000 BC that gave such prosperity and strength to the islanders that in the 6th century BC, they created their own currency. Mines continued to work during the Roman times while it was the Venetians later on that systematically organized the mining operations in the island. However, due to the frequent attacks of pirates and the suppression of the Ottomans who occupied the island, in the 16th century, the mining activity stopped for a long time. After the end of the Greek Revolution, in 1830, and more intensively since 1869, Serifos reopened its mines, under the management of the Greek Mining Company, which belonged to the Greek National Bank.
A new dynamic company appeared in 1880, the French interests “Serifos-Spiliazeza, which was consisted by rich Greeks from Constantinople cooperated with the Ottoman Bank. In 1884 the company commissioned by contract the operation of the mines to the German mineralogist Emile Grohmann.
The company’s offices Headquarters were initially located in Koutalas, where quite soon a small community was created. When Grohmann undertook, though, they were transferred in Megalo Livadi where a two-story neoclassical building, with architectural elements of the “Ziller” style were created, ruins of which still stand at the end of the beach today.
Megalo Livadi was the main iron ore export harbor of Serifos, equipped with all the necessary sorting and shipment facilities. There was also a conveyor system with rails and wagons that assisted the operations, part of which one can also see today, along with the loading bridge, by the side of the moorage.
In the 21 years of Emile Grohmann’s stay on the island, 2,800,000 tonnes of ore were extracted, while the inhabitants of 2,134, which were in 1870, rose to 4,400 in 1912 as workers from other Aegean islands (Paros, Karpathos, Amorgos etc.) and other regions of Greece (eg Peloponnese) came to the island to work in the mines. Grohmann forced the landowners to assign him any land he was interested in, in exchange of a miniscule payday. However, Emilios showed some interest in the island, investing some of the mining profits in infrastructures. He created the hospital, the school (“The Grohmann School”) and the Baths in Mega Livadi. He also made wood-carved tributes in some of Serifos’s churches, as well as the transport and storage of relics from the Cyclops Cave. However, it is said that the employees of the school and the hospital were paid by the workers themselves, not by the mining company. Moreover, the miners gave back 2% of their wage back to the company, for unknown reasons, while 1 drachma per month was withheld, for the erection of some church that was never built.
After the death of Emile, in 1906, manager of the mines became his son Georg Grohmann who proved to be more brutal than his father.
While the economy of the island boomed in general, the working conditions where inhuman. The workers were forced to show up in the arcades at dawn and leave at sunset and if anyone was late, he was not allowed to work, thus losing his payday. Whoever did not stay in the area of the mines, in the southwest part of the island, had to walk many kilometers in a rocky distance in order to get there. Part of this route still exists in the hiking trail leading from “Giftika” area to Ano Chora. Moreover, security measures were nonexistent inside the mining galleries, leading to about 60 working accidents within just 2 years.
During the decade of 1910 when the first severe mining crisis aroused, many mines closed in other islands, while “Serifos – Speliazeza” production steadily declined up to 2015. When the First World War broke out, at the same time several ideological and political fragmentations in the labor party resulted in strikes in many Greek mines that were still in operation.
Within this period Constantinos Speras, a Serifos native educated in Egypt, who was an anarcho-syndicalist with long experience of labour struggles on the Greek mainland, is arriving in the island and decides to organize his Serifians compatriots, by founding on July of 1916 the “Miners Association”, initially counting 460 members. As Head of the Association, he sent a dispatch to the Greek Government, describing the unacceptable working conditions and informing, at the same time, Grohmann’s company about the workers’ requests. These were the introduction of the 8-hour work-day, the wage raise and the establishment of security measures inside and out of the mining galleries. The requests found no response, neither from the Government nor from Georg Grohmann.
The strike broke out on August 7th 1916, when the miners refused to load a cargo ship with orders to leave immediately for the northern Europe. In response to the strike, Grohmann asked for the help of Greek authorities, who sent lieutenant Chrysanthou in order to quell the workers’ revolt. After detaining Speras and the strike committee, the gendarmerie lieutenant ordered his men to fire on the workers, who had gathered along with their women and children near the loading bridge. Four workers were killed and a dozen wounded. The uproar that followed the killings was tremendous, with workers, women and kids rushing on the gendarmes, most of which, avoiding to participate in these atrocities since they recognized the workers’ rights, shot in the air.
A few meters away from the abandoned once company’s Headquarters is the memorial, dedicated to the four miners who lost their lives in the bloody strike, along with the bust of Speras.
However, the union has achieved wage growth, the control of the ‘Self-help Fund’ and the 8-hour work-day in the mines that was officially established by the Greek State in 1925.
From 1933, George’s son, Emily Grohmann, took over the administration. In the time of the German occupation, and although the Cyclades belonged to Italy, the mines were exploited by German forces, with Grohmann -now officer of the German army- being the technical supervisor. When World War II ended, the Grohmanns, charged as quislings and German affiliates, leave Greece. Six years later, in 1951, the company “Serifos – Spiliazeza” ceased operations while the work was continued by small Greek businesses and joint ventures. The mines are finally cease operations in 1965 as a result of the depletion of stocks, the high costs of relatively small-scale exploitation, and mainly as a result of the collapse in iron ore prices worldwide.
The Ministry of Culture declared as historical monuments the Headquarters of the mines and the loading bridge in Megalo Livadi and the loading bridge in Koutalas, the workers’ residencies as well as any kind of equipment that remains to provoke memories both of the flourishing of the island in another era, and of the tragic events of 1916.