The Sponge Wars of Tarpon Springs in 1914

No short account can hope to even outline every clash, engagement, or battle of the extended Sponge Wars. For nearly fifty years, Greek immigrant sponge divers fought American-born fisher folk over the richest sponging grounds on the planet. Spanning literally thousands of miles of water, these deadly engagements in the waters of Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have seen retelling in motion pictures, regional history and even folk songs.

Since this war was never officially declared, its beginning can be arbitrarily given as 1905 the date of the first mass influx of Greek immigrant divers to Florida. A clash of vitriolic racial prejudice as much as commercial competition the end of the massive sponge trade after World War II can serve as the termination date of these undeclared but quite bloody series of “wars.”

If you have never heard of these sponge wars it is not necessarily your fault. Lynne S. Brown in Gulfport, her book on the establishment of Gulfport FL, wrote: “[T]hese so-called ‘wars’ represent a series of events, not always considered important enough to mention in many histories, but which were in fact a complex and crucial factor in the founding of this and other localities (Charleston, SC: Arcadia 1999).” Not important enough to mention, for whom?

Prior to the arrival of the Greeks local Floridians had worked the shallow sponge beds using small two-man boats. As one man rowed and steered the boat, the sponges were located by another man looking through a bucket (or wood box) with a glass bottom. Next, taking a 12-foot (or longer) pole with a three-pronged hook at its end, the sponges were pulled from the ocean depths. Using this time-honored method, these fishermen were known as “hookers.” By the mid-1880s, hook boats were found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, all along the shorelines of Florida and throughout the Caribbean.

In the 1880s, John Cheyney, a Tarpon Springs businessman, hired Greeks to come and work the Florida waters with their new sponging methods. Using the deep-sea diving suit, (the “skafandro”, as the Greeks called it) enabled the previously-naked divers to gather larger quantities of sponges at greater depths (up to 70 meters), as well as the ability to stay down for longer periods than was previously possible. The Greeks employed the new technology and could use the hook method when appropriate – working from boats that had both engines and sails – and in so doing harvest four times the quantity and often better quality sponges from deeper waters.

Aside from more advanced technology, the newly-arrived Greeks had no trouble with the local African American sponge workers, often known as “black hooks,” and soon hired these men to work aboard their boats and in all phases of the sponge trade. For whatever reasons, the local native-born White Anglo Saxon fisher folk (known as “Conchs” after their habit of eating that delicacy of the sea) continued to hook sponges in the old manner and would not or could not work with the newly-arrived Greeks. The Greeks also worked on their boats and on land in a collective manner that offered them a privileged economic and social base difficult for random individuals to challenge.

For their part the Conchs contended that the Greeks’ use of fifty-pound metal shoes, to keep them working in the deep-waters, killed the young sponges and so ruined the beds where ever they worked. Beds, in areas of water, the Conchs believed to be exclusively their own. While the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the high seas surrounding Florida and the Caribbean islands are open to all fishermen by international law, the time-honored traditions of local fisher folk have long trumped any and all such claims.

With these points serving as a rough sketch of existing circumstances the 1914 burnings of the schooners Triton, Amelia and the Edna Louise are sadly typical of the protracted sponge wars. On May 22, 1914 toward dusk at Key West, FL the Amelia was dynamited and burned to the waterline. The Amelia was the second Greek boat destroyed that day. As it was discovered later, the Edna Louise, another Greek sponge schooner, had already been destroyed earlier that very same day.

Harry Bell, owner and captain of the Amelia had pulled into Key West and dropped anchor. His account of events is as follows: “I went ashore with six of my men. I left four of them with the small boat, and went into town. When I returned, I found that 500 ‘of the enemy’ were rioting on the dock. They had driven my four men into a store owned by a Greek, and were held at bay there by two women armed with revolvers. Part of the mob was destroying our small boat. I protested. They got mad and threw me overboard. They fired two shots at me as I swam for my life. One struck me in the left knee. The sheriff drew his pistol, called for help and carried me to the county jail for protection.

At 11:30 o’clock that night a big launch named Key West with twenty-five men on board, all armed proceeded to my schooner. They ordered the crew to get out, giving them no time to take even their clothing. They then robbed the schooner of everything of value and fired her. A Negro named John Manis was burned to death on board when they explored the dynamite. The rest of the crew was brought ashore practically naked (Fort Wayne Sentinel June 15, 1914).”

Captain Michael of the Edna Louise described the earlier Conch attack near the Marquesas keys: “the men on the launch took the Louise’s crew by surprise, leaping aboard with pistols drawn. They robbed the men of what money and other valuables they had appropriated some of the diving outfits, ruined the remainder, then drove the crew over side into the lifeboat (Atlanta Constitution May 27, 1914).” The Conchs set the Edna Louise ablaze.

During the days immediately after these unwarranted attacks a report from Tampa circulated which I have as yet to confirm: “There is a story, here, that a third schooner has been destroyed somewhere off Grand Cayman.” Reports originating out of Key West, at the time the Amelia and the Edna Louisa were destroyed, did assert that the Conchs “burned the Triton, one of the Greek boats, as a warning” prior to May 22nd.

Much ink was spilled in the national press, in the days immediately following the destruction of these sponge schooners, that that the Greeks would gather in large numbers and burn Key West to the ground. Nothing of the sort happened. Captain Bell did press for legal measures to be taken against the criminals but if anything did happen to these individuals it was not subsequently reported in the public press.

Bill Baggs, longtime columnist for the Miami Daily News, in his appraisal of yet another of the periodic sponge wars, “Why the Conchs Declared War” observed that “[T]he conflict was long and bitter – in fact, when [the Hollywood film about these wars] Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was shown in Key West in 1954, the audience loudly cheered for the octopus to kill the [Greek] diver in the underwater fight scene (Miami Daily News July 24, 1955).”

Why do Greek-American historical accounts continue to ignore this long-running series of conflicts on the open seas? When will the Conchs finally have their crimes exposed in the pages of history?