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Too Much of a Greek: The American Philhellene George Jarvis

Dr. David Roessel

Some years after the Greek War of Independence, a group of Europeans living in Athens were asked to provide the names of four foreign philhellenes who deserved to be counted among the heroes of the Greek War of Independence. The suggestions represented the contributions of English, French, German, and Italian speaking volunteers. The choices were Byron, Fabvier, Meyer, and Santa Rosa.1 These names joined twelve Greeks as the main heroes of the Revolution.

No Americans made the list, in part because English and American philhellenes were placed in the same group in which Byron was the popular favorite. Still, in the eyes of many, the American contribution had made the most significant impact on the survival of Greece and the Greeks. Citing the American relief efforts of 1827 and 1828, William St. Clair has said that “for the first and last times the reserves of enthusiasm, sacrifice, and good will which the name of Greece aroused throughout Western Christendom were mobilized in a manner which was intrinsically good, and the measures were carried out with intelligence and efficiency.”2 Food and material were sent from the United States to assist Greek civilians suffering from the disruptions of the long war, and distributed to those in need by American representatives in Greece who ensured that it was not diverted to other uses. St. Clair concludes, “the credit for this result belongs exclusively to the people of the United States and in particular to three remarkable American philhellenes.”3

The three Americans were Samuel Gridley Howe, Jonathan Peckham Miller, and George Jarvis. While the most famous of the three now is Howe, Jarvis had been the first to arrive and served as the mentor to his countrymen in Greece. In a letter to the Boston Greek Committee, Miller wrote the following about his arrival in Mesolonghi in 1824. “Thus did the Lord direct my steps, for such was my ignorance of the Greek character, together with their language, that I must have been a lost man, if I had not found in Jarvis a countryman and friend. He speaks French, Italian, German and Greek, and has witnessed all the transactions of foreigners in Greece for three years.”4 Miller served under Jarvis for three months. Howe arrived in Greece in early 1825, and quickly met both Jarvis and Miller. Miller reported that Jarvis provided Howe with “so particular account of things [that] he will do well.”5 Later that year, during an attack on the Greek camp, Howe would take a position under the orders of Jarvis.6 In 1826, these three friends made a collective decision. In the face of the suffering and starvation around them, they would shift their efforts and energize an American relief effort. By 1827, they had all resigned or taken leave from the Greek military to administer the distribution of food and material in Greece. Miller and Howe made journeys to the United States to promote the cause. But the crucial elements of the success of the enterprise were the energy and also the knowledge of Greece possessed by these three philhellenes, a knowledge grounded in Jarvis’s long service in the army and navy of Greece. Rarely have individual people pounded their own swords into ploughshares to such a great effect.

Of the three, George Jarvis was the most unlikely American hero. He had never set foot in the United States. Indeed, in a letter in 1826 to Secretary of State Henry Clay asking for documentation that he was an American citizen, he said, “No Nation has acknowledged me; assuredly I belong to one; and having come here as an American I hope that I have never stained the Nation I have had to represent and for this refer to all Greece as a judge.”7 Born to an American merchant in Denmark, Jarvis does not seem to have received much education. The two volumes of his journal that now exist in the George Finlay Papers in the British School at Athens are written in German, French, English and Greek. His English and French suggest little formal training. His German, while better, is still idiosyncratic, and his written Greek is poor. The reason for his decision to join the Greek cause is not clear, although he seems to have left home in the company of a friend, the German philhellene J. B. Heise.8

Upon his arrival in Greece, Jarvis first joined the Greek navy. Petros Mengous, who later emigrated to the United States and wrote an account of his experiences, recalled meeting Jarvis. “[H]e conformed precisely to our habits in dress and manners, and spoke our language without the least foreign peculiarity. I was much astonished when I found he was an American, a citizen of the United States. It was Colonel Jarvis.”9 In his book about Americans and Greece, Stephen Larrabee notes that “the high esteem in which the Greeks came to hold the American volunteer was that he arrived prepared to identify himself with their cause.”10 Jarvis took pride in his ability to appear as a Greek native. In a letter of 1824, he said that “I have been honoured by an Englishman yesterday with title of Greek, they meant to hurt my feelings by thinking me too much of a Greek. I have no other desire here than to pass for one, and to take all their good qualities.”11 As St. Clair observed, “Probably less than ten Philhellenes made a success of this role during the course of the entire war.”12

Jarvis had a remarkable service record, almost a who’s who and a where’s where of the Greek War of Independence. After his arrival on Idra in 1822, he met with Yiorgos Koundouriotes, who later became President. He joined the crew of the ship Themistocles and sailed with the fleet under Admiral Miaoulis. He stopped at Chios and saw the results of the massacre earlier that year. From the Themistocles, Jarvis saw the flames of the Turkish flagship destroyed by the fireship directed by Konstantinos Kanaris. In early 1824, he went to Mesolonghi and met both Byron and Mavrokordatos. He became part of the company around Byron, training the artillery section of Suliots in the ‘Byron Brigade.’ Jarvis and Miller journeyed together to Nafplio in early 1825, where Jarvis took part in the defense of Navarino against the troops of Ibrahim. He was taken prisoner with Byron’s doctor, Julius Millingen. Ibrahim, hoping to bring the captured philhellenes to his side, offered them freedom and a reward if they would serve him. Millingen accepted, but Jarvis chose to return to the Greek army and stopped the advance of Ibrahim at the Battle of the Mills of Lerna where he fought beside Miller and Makryannis. Although a supporter of Mavrokordatos, Jarvis then served as a secretary for Theodoros Kolokotronis. His last existing journal entry was prior to this time, so it is not clear if the dislike of Kolokotronis previously expressed in its pages indicates a change of heart, or a desire to do what he could for the Greek cause. Finally, he served under Yiorgos Karaiskakis during the attack on Athens in 1827, in which the Greek leader was killed. When the relief effort began in earnest later in1827, Jarvis took leave to devote himself to the enterprise. The only other English speaking philhellene with such a long and distinguished record in Greece was Jarvis’s friend the Englishman Frank Hastings. It is fitting that Jarvis and Hastings had sailed together on the same ship from Marseilles to Greece.13

A picture of Jarvis’s work in the relief effort by Henry V. A. Post. Post sailed on the sixth American relief ship from New York in September 1827. The ship arrived at the American relief headquarters on the island of Poros, where Post met Jarvis and Howe.
As Larrabee notes, “Jarvis was the chief American associate of Post both in the distribution of clothing and provisions,” and Post provides numerous examples of Jarvis’s dedication and bravery in insuring that the relief reached those most in need.14 Jarvis had considered making a trip to the United States to promote the relief effort as Miller and Howe had done, but before he had the opportunity he died of tetanus in Argos on August 11, 1828.

In his journal in 1822, soon after his arrival in Greece, Jarvis wrote:

    If I had not loved their common cause with all more heart, I should this moment not have resisted joining them, nor do I believe anyone else who has yet been able to feel for freedom and humanity. To see these poor Greeks, many without shoes, all without or with the worst of bread, joined, climbing up hills and down dales, to attack the tyrannical aggressor, in defence of their country—never has an object interested me more, never did I feel more sincerely for my own family, than I did and do for these poor Greeks. 15

As Jarvis wrote in his letter to Henry Clay, he needed proof of citizenship because “No Nation acknowledged me.” But if no country had claimed him, it is evident from his writing and life that George Jarvis had claimed Greece as his country. If there is an American who deserves to join Byron, Fabvier, Meyer, and Santa Rosa among the heroes of the Greek Revolution, it is surely George Jarvis. In 1824, he wrote the following lines about “the Departure of Some Philhellenes who, sickened by the ill treatment by the Greeks and by the atrocities committed to some poor captive Turks, returned home”:

    Remember me! my friends,

  • Who here for freedom’s cause remains,
  • In Grecian seas, in Grecian plains,
  • To break the most inglorious chains,
  • And seek humanity.

It is time to remember George Jarvis, whose search for humanity in Greece led him, with his friends Howe and Miller, to see that the greatest need was to break the inglorious chains of hunger.


Writings of George Jarvis
Jarvis, George. George Jarvis: His Journal and Related Documents. Ed. by George Georgiades Arnakis with the collaboration of Eurydice Demetrecopoulou. Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1965.

Other Sources

Crane, David. Lord Byron’s Jackal: A Life of Edward John Trelawny. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999.

Howe, Samuel Gridley. Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, Volume 1: The Greek Revolution. Edited by Laura E. Richards. Boston, 1906.

Larrabee, Stephen. Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece, 1775-1865. New York: New York University Press, 1957.

Mengous, Petros. Narrative of a Greek Soldier: Containing Anecdotes and Occurrences Illustrating the Character and Manners of the Greeks and Turks in Asia Minor, and Detailing Events of the Late War in Greece. New York: Elliot and Palmer, 1830.

Miller, Jonathan Peckham. The Condition of Greece in 1827 and 1828. New York, J& J Harper, 1828.

Parry, William. Last Days of Lord Byron. London: Knight and Lacy, 1825.

Post, H, W. A Visit to Greece and Constantinople in the Years 1827-28. New York: Corey and Hart, 1830.

St. Clair, William. That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the Greek War of Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.