The Gemidjii: the Anarchists that Thundered Thessaloniki

The Gemidjii (the Boatmen)65 are an interesting and not so insignificant part of the liberation struggle from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. They were a group of young anarchists of Slavic origin who in April 1903, during four days, made several attacks against the property of the European capitalists in Thessaloniki. Their goal was, through the attacks, to deliver a clear message to the Western European governments and capitalists that they cannot do business undisturbed in the region of Macedonia, ignoring the oppression of the masses under the Ottoman rule.

Their action, from April 28th until May 1st 1903, included several attacks: blowing up the French ship “Guadalquivir” during its departure from the Thessaloniki harbour, blowing up the Ottoman Bank building, several bombings of different locations in Thessaloniki, two skirmishes with the Ottoman soldiers and the unsuccessful assassination of the Ottoman mayor of Thessaloniki. During these actions, six of the Gemidjii were killed, and four were captured and imprisoned.

Concerning the Gemidjii’s action it is important to stress two points. The first one is the aware intention of the group, during the action, to avoid civil casualties and to make the action as clearly as possible an action against the European capital and Ottoman government. Thus, the ship “Guadalquivir” was purposely disabled near the harbour and not at open sea in order to make possible the easy rescue of the passengers. Similarly, five minutes before the blowing up of the Ottoman Bank building, the person responsible for this action, Orce Pop Yordanov, ran into the building to tell the manager and his family to leave the building immediately if they don’t want to be killed by the explosion. However, when this point is stressed it should not be forgotten that because of the Gemidjii’s four-day long actions in Thessaloniki a lot of innocent people were killed in the generally spontaneous revenge action of the Turkish mob in the streets of Thessaloniki: according to the Ottoman authorities – 35 persons, and according to the Macedonian Liberation Organization between 200 and 300.66 Many people were arrested as well, and 29 of them were imprisoned without having any connection with the Gemidjii’s action.

The second important point to stress is the political views of the Gemidjii group. Even though there are no direct sources, the programme of the Macedonian Secret Revolutionary Committee gives us a quite probable picture. The Macedonian Secret Revolutionary Committee was formed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1897 by Anarchists from Bulgaria and Macedonia. Soon afterwards, its members returned to the Balkans and worked, mainly among young people, to create anarchist groups. The Gemidjii group was formed in this way, and, while autonomous in its actions, its members cooperated closely and shared the political views of the former Macedonian Secret Revolutionary Committee, which was disbanded in the meantime.

Concerning Macedonia, the programme of the Macedonian Secret Revolutionary Committee stated that the Committee advocates the independence of the region of Macedonia from the Ottoman rule and supports the broadest freedom of the people in Macedonia to create a government of their choice. Quite importantly, the Committee emphasized that it will not favour one nationality living in the region of Macedonia over others and that the question whether, after the liberation from Ottoman rule, Macedonia would be a separate political unit or it would join some of the neighbouring countries should be left to be decided by the population itself, without foreign interventions, after the victory in the struggle for liberation of Macedonia.67 As it was mentioned above, it is quite probable that due to the close collaboration and shared political views of the Macedonian Secret Revolutionary Committee and the Gemidjii group that this view was shared by the Gemidjii group too.

What is the treatment of the Gemidjii group in the historiography in Republic of Macedonia? Surprisingly, the Gemidjii and their action in Thessaloniki are presented in an exclusively positive light. To begin with, this is surprising because the group was anarchist in orientation and neither during the communist regime before 1990 nor today the mainstream values anarchism positively. Secondly, as mentioned above, innocent people were killed as retaliation to the Gemidjii’s action, and the Gemidjii were aware that retaliation would be а probable reaction to their action. Lastly, Gemidjii’s action had negative repercussions to the plans for the Ilinden Uprising of the Macedonian liberation organization in August 1903. The biggest setback was the killing of Goce Delchev, one of the most prominent figures of the Macedonian Liberation Organization, which happened only three days after the events in Thessaloniki as a result of the increased activity of the Ottoman army due to the Gemigjii’s action. Concerning the uprising planned by the Macedonian Liberation Organization, it should also be mentioned that the Gemidjii, wanting to be an independent group and to act as such, refused to coordinate their action with the uprising plans of the Macedonian Liberation Organization and to postpone their action in Thessaloniki for a period of just three months or so.

So, the question is: why the historiography in Republic of Macedonia values the Gemidjii exclusively positively even though they were anarchists, even though their action resulted in (expected) retaliation against the peaceful population and had negative repercussions on the plans for the Ilinden Uprising of the Macedonian Liberation Organization? The reason probably lies in the approach to historiography according to which everyone that is “our guy” and has done something for the liberation from a foreign country cannot be valued negatively, no matter his behaviour, the consequences of his actions, his relations to the other freedom fighters etc. Concerning the creation and maintenance of the positive image of the Gemidjii it should be emphasized that, even though it is often stated that its members were anarchists, they are primarily presented as fighters for national freedom.

Whatever the image of the Gemidjii in the historiography in Republic of Macedonia, two aspects speak unequivocally positively of them. Firstly, their effort to avoid civil casualties during their actions. The importance of this can be deduced if we compare the Gemidjii’s action with the so called “donkey assassinations” organized by the right wing of the Macedonian Liberation Organization in 1911-1912. The right wing “freedom fighters”, treating all the Turks as enemies, regardless whether they were military of civilians, rich or poor, on several occasions put explosives on donkeys and exploded them in the marketplaces in moments when poor Turks, attracted by the low prices of the products, were gathered around the donkeys carrying the explosives. Such acts were unimaginable for the Gemidjii. Even the life of the manager of the Ottoman Bank branch in Thessaloniki was spared.

Secondly, keeping in mind that the region of Macedonia was populated by different ethnicities and religions, the Anarchists, including the Gemidjii, advocated the idea of granting the people, no matter their religion or ethnicity, the broadest freedom to decide the future of their country. Instead of bloodshed among the people on the issue whose is Macedonia, they wanted the people, after winning the liberation, to settle the potential disputes peacefully. In this sense, the bomb-throwing Gemidjii were more civilized not only than many of the people inhabiting the region of Macedonia as a whole a century ago, but also today.

65 This group choose the name Gemidjii or Boatmen because they wanted to stress that they are people who choose to leave their lives and, like a boat, to sail in a turbulent sea, where, if unsuccessful, the boat will be destroyed by the rocks. Христо Силянов „Освободителнитѣ борби на Македония“, “Наука и Изкуство”, София, 1983, I, 247, Back

66 Силянов, op. cit, I, 259. Back

67 See „Програма на Македонскиот таен револуционерен комитет“ in Данчо Зографски „За работничкото движење во Македонија до Балканската војна“, Институт за национална историја на македонскиот народ, Скопје, 1950, 136 стр. Back


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