The Great Frost (or "Kais") of 1850

By Ioannis Manoukas

Translation by Joanna Michalakelli
Original article appeared in Palmoi tis Vatoussas
[quarterly publication of Vatoussa, Lesvos, Greece],
Vol. 25, Jan.-Mar. 2004, pp 9-10

Fierce and prolonged bad weather conditions this year--rains, great snowfalls and heavy cold--resulted in the damage of agricultural cultivation in the whole country and especially in Lesvos. It reminded us of the rather bad weather conditions that took the form of a calamity in January 1850, the same year we inaugurated the newly-built Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

It was so destructive, especially for the olive trees, but also for other rural crops and many animals, that other realignments of social and financial nature ensued on the island (emigration to Asia Minor and Constantinople and changes in the business activities of the merchant class of the island, for which we have provided ample information in our historical essay "The Emigration of Vatoussans").

For the time being, enjoy the elegance and the evocative tone of the description of that exceptional calamity of 1850. We gleaned the data from a volume dedicated to the history of Mandamados, which was published by the Mandamados Association a few years ago.

Prodromos Anagnostou (Reverend Prodromos), Sp. Anagnostou's brother and author of the novel Bloody Noblewoman, on page 80 refers to some ruins of a house for the lepers, a short distance from Taxiarchis, which were preserved until the beginning of our century. It was a donation by Noblewoman Rodoula, daughter of Petros of Chrysavgi, so that the leper beggars who came to the village could stay there, because during that period (1832-6) leprosy had hit the island. In the introduction to his novel, Froso's Little Violets, he describes Kais, that is, the great frost of 1850 that hit Lesvos, with the result that most trees on the island "were burned."

"Our island suffered three great catastrophes the previous century. One from the plague of 1836 during which twenty-five thousand people died. The second from the great earthquake that occurred on the 23rd of February in 1867 and another one on the 12th of January in 1850 during which, after the unexpected cold on that day, all the trees and the plants of our island dried up. This last catastrophe was the greatest of all the others and we will attempt to describe it with the greatest brevity possible.

The last months of 1849 were summery. Hot sun, like the sun of June, ceaseless rains, cool breeze, suitable for every type of vegetation, gave the soil so much life, that someone would think that spring had come again. The almond-trees were adorned with their white flowers since the end of November. On the vines, the buds flourished. And the olive trees and the other trees had so much sap inside them that they were about to burst from such exceptional growth, spurred by the extraordinarily summery weather. The eleventh of January arrived. In the evening, the weather started to change and the cold became a little more bitter. The 12th of January dawned. In the morning, when the sun rose, it was so red and dim, that you would think that you had seen a spherical ball full of blood. The sky began to darken at once. Huge and dull clouds, which were pushed by an intense wind, hid the sun and scattered black and silent darkness on the whole island, like the darkness that causes an indefinable horror to people. The atmosphere became heavy and depressive and the cold increased incessantly. People, without knowing why, started returning from their fields intimidated by some indescribable fear, which was depicted on their face.

However, another incident, really extraordinary, which the villagers saw for the first time, made their hearts feel timid and become even more frightened. At ten o'clock, before midday, all the animals that were in the fields, namely oxen, goats, mules and so on, started to leave and with wailing and mournful cries to come to the villages, stand in front of the doors of the houses and seek shelter to protect themselves. In the meantime, this cold continued to increase. Daylight became an everlasting dusk.

At midday, at all the beaches of the island, the sea began to 'boil'--as we say--and produce a kind of steam. No bird flying in the air could be seen. Most of them were already dead, frozen! The hours passed in agony and caused deadly grief to the people, who started to have a presentiment of some great disaster. It was two o'clock after midday. At once, the thermometer started showing 13-15 degrees below zero. At the same time, the soil, especially at the places where it was sown, as if some invisible force was pushing it, began to overturn and hurl the grains, so that their roots could be seen. Gentle noises, gentle but horrible noises which portended nothing positive, were then heard in all the fields. . . and that was all.

The great, calamitous, terrifying catastrophe had come to an end. That horrible noise which was heard like the howling of a fairy spirit, was the tearing of the bark of the trees, which couldn't hold because of the great amount of sap that had gathered inside them in the last, summery months, as we said. When it came into contact with the cold, which was unusual for our place and our trees, it cracked from the cold and caused the great calamity. And the results were really terrifying. All the trees of the island dried up. All the flowers, all the vegetables and every bit of vegetation withered. All the olive-trees, the ornament of our island, the ornament from which we receive our precious revenue, olive-oil, were dry, dead.

Most of the animals died. People were found dead from the cold in the countryside. It was as if a breath of death passed from side to side through all our beautiful Lesvos! And the people? The inhabitants of the island? Ah! The unfortunate people! Misery devoured them, famine exterminated them, poverty beat them! A lot of months passed and they had no jobs. The notables held a meeting in the villages and decided that they would not organize joyful celebrations and festivals, the fiancés would not send presents to the fiancées and they would not wear formal clothes during the celebrations!

Wealthy people were left completely destitute the following day. Renowned ladies were obliged to become charwomen. Girls who were chaste had to become maids. And when one day, a few months later, they realized that they could not "manage" as we say, they went away in despair and left to go abroad.

They departed from the capital for Egypt and Constantinople. People from Mesotopos and Vatoussa headed for Smyrna. From the villages of Mythimna [Molyvos], as well as the inhabitants of Psilometopo, Stypsi, Mandamados, Kapi, Kleio, Skamia, and so on headed for the East, where they built whole villages and settlements. Therefore, the peoples' misfortunate, connected with the destroyed flora of the ground, showed our island to the peoples' eyes like a big and boundless tomb on which the poet's verses were inscribed:

The roses, the flowers,
The leaves on the earth
Are palely covered
By destruction and silence.
Wilderness everywhere, silence everywhere
Nature sleeps palely sullen. . . .' "

(Posted March 2005; reformatted February 2007)

Ioannis Manoukas is the editor and publisher of Palmoi tis Vatoussas, a very fine quarterly publication produced by the Cultural Organization of Vatoussans Abroad, "Koimisis tis Theotokou." Mr. Manoukas is a prolific author as well, penning countless excellent articles about the history of the island. He is a graduate of the University of Athens and a former instructor, as well as an active member and officer of all Vatoussan organizations, including the Christos and Mary Papoutsy Vatoussa Revitalization Foundation.

Ms. Michalakelli is an English instructor in Greece, a graduate of the University of Athens, now completing her Masters Degree, and a native of Lesvos. She has translated a number of seminal articles for HCS about Greek history, particularly local history on Lesvos. See also her translation of "The Uprooting of Hellenism in Asia Minor, Part Two (authored by Evangelos Gdontelis)," and "A Local Law of Old Achyrona (Kalloni) (penned by Christos Stavrakoglou)."

HCS readers who have enjoyed this article about local history in the Aegean may wish to read more in the HCS Archives section about Byzantine and Modern Greek History, Vatoussa, Travel in Greece,and about Hellenic Genealogy.

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