On Tuesday, indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff agreed to answer questions about the murder of a Greek business contact named Konstantinos Boulis. Boulis was shot to death a few months after he sold 11 casino ships to Abramoff and a partner. Meanwhile, Paris Hilton continues to plan her marriage to Greek shipping heir Paris Latsis, and Mary-Kate Olsen has been seen around town with Greek shipping scion Stavros Niarchos III. What’s with all the Greek shipping magnates?
As of 2001, Greek companies owned around 3,000 merchant vessels—more than any other country and about 18 percent of the world’s fleet. The Greeks have been maritime traders for millennia, but the modern prominence of their shipping industry dates from the end of World War II. In the late 1940s, the United States government began to sell off surplus war ships under the Ship Sales Act. Savvy Greek maritime businessmen like Aristotle Onassis and (the elder) Stavros Niarchos purchased large tanker vessels and smaller ships at incredible bargains, sometimes through illegal means.
Greek shippers took advantage of an increase in the oil-tanker trade to amass large fortunes and increase the size of their fleets. The Greek shipping industry doubled in size in the 1960s; by the end of the decade, it was the biggest in the world. Onassis and Niarchos were the best-known Greek shipping magnates, with huge numbers of ships and tremendous personal fortunes. They were also fierce rivals who competed over women and the length of their yachts.
Greeks still profit handsomely from maritime trade, but they’ve fallen from the ranks of the world’s wealthiest shippers. According to Forbes, the richest sea traders in the world include the nonagenarian Dane Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller ($5.3 billion), the Norwegian John Fredriksen ($3.4 billion), and the Taiwanese magnate Chang Yung Fa ($1.3 billon). Not a single Greek shipper appears on the magazine’s tally of billionaires. (Paris Latsis’ uncle Spiro does make the list, but at this point the family’s wealth mostly comes from banking and real estate.)
The era of the celebrity shipping magnate may soon be over. Several high-profile shippers have recently died, like the Norwegian Arne Naess Jr. (who was once married to Diana Ross). And shipping companies are now more likely to be incorporated and run by CEOs rather than playboy private owners. The descendants of yesterday’s magnates such as Onassis and Niarchos tend to get more publicity in the tabloids than modern tycoons like Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller and Chang Yung Fa.
Bonus Explainer: Greek shipping magnates existed long before World War II. One boom happened in the 18th century, when a war between Britain and France left important trade routes between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe open to Greek shippers. The Greeks continued to thrive on maritime trade after they gained independence from the Ottomans in the 19th century. The extravagant mansions built on the island of Syros reflect the wealth of these early magnates.
Bonus Bonus Explainer: Why do we call them “shipping magnates”? Until the mid-1800s, the term “magnate” was used to refer to a political figure or nobleman, rather than an entrepreneur. It wasn’t long before the press started to assign industrial leaders informal titles of nobility like “oil king,” “cotton lord,” “lumber baron,” or “railroad tycoon.” These phrases were mostly interchangeable, but certain titles tended to stick with particular industries. “Shipping magnate” first appeared in the New York Times and Atlanta Constitution in 1910, but the phrase didn’t really catch on until the 1950s. The celebrity of “Greek shipping magnates” Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis may be responsible; the Times gave the title first to Niarchos in 1952, then to Onassis two years later.
Explainer thanks Molly Greene of Princeton University, Shashi Kumar of the Maine Maritime Academy, and Ben Zimmer of Rutgers University.