Saturday, April 18, 2015


In the common consciousness of the Greeks, Byzantium and its last ruling dynasty, the Palaeologus family came to an end on 29 May 1453, when the last Emperor, Constantine Palaeologus, fell in battle, fighting Mehmet the Conqueror and his marauding hordes. Constantine's body was never found giving rise to the popular legend that an angel had taken him and entombed him in marble. There he lies until such time as we need him most, whereupon he will once more arise and re-establish his Empire. Considering that his profligate nephew, Andreas sold the rights to the Byzantine crown to Charles VIII of France in 1494, a dispute as to the legitimacy of the title of Emperor seems more than likely, considering that said Andreas also sold the title to King Ferdinand of Spain.
 Meanwhile, in far off Cornwall, a monument in the Landulph parish church commemorates the most unlikely of parishioners, members of the Palaeologus family that, after remaining in Chios, then under Genoese control, gradually made their way, via Italy, where many Byzantine refugees and a considerable number of members of the Palaeologus family had settled, marrying into the ruling family of the marquisate of Mantua, to England, settled and died there, having played an interesting role in key events in English history. In particular, a brass near the vestry door of the church commemorates a certain Theodore Palaeologus, who on 6 July 1593, married Eudoxia Commena, descended from the previous imperial Comnenus dynasty. The couple had a daughter, Theodora, who in October 1614, married Prince Demetrius Rhodocanakis in Naples.  One of their children Dr. Constantine Rhodocanakis, born in 1653, became a well-known physician, scholar and friend of King Charles II, whom he met during his European exile.  
The patriarch of the family, Theodore Palaeologus not long after his wife's death in 1596 came to England, and in 1600 was named "Rider to Henry Earl of Lincolne" at Tattershall Castle.  There he met the celebrated Captain John Smith, who had recently returned from service in Europe and at the age of only 21, "being glutted with too much company wherein he took small delight," had retired into seclusion at Tattershall.  Apparently, his friends "perswaded one Seignor Theadora Polalga......a noble Italian Gentleman, to insinuate into his woodish acquaintances" and gradually drew him back into normal society.  In the same year, Palaeologus married at his second wife, Mary Balls, in Yorkshire. The next we hear of him is few decades later, in 1627, when at Plymouth, he wrote a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, begging to be taken into the King's service.  The response is unknown and he next learn that Palaeologus owned a small property in Plymouth, as his name appears among the monthly assessments for the relief of the poor in Old Town Ward for the year 1628, being rated at one halfpenny per week.  At some time, presumably after this date, Palaeologus and his daughters from his second wife settled in Landulph, and apparently lived with Sir Nicholas and Lady Lower at Clifton, both classical scholars who enjoyed the company of Palaeologus and studied classics with him. 
According to the church brass, Theodore Palaeologus died, on 21 January 1636.  He was laid to rest in the parish church of Landulph and in 1795 the vault containing the body of Palaeologus was accidentally broken into, revealing an oak coffin, which was opened.  The body was well preserved, "in stature much above the common height, his countenance oval in form, much lengthened, and marked by an acquiline nose, and a very white beard, reaching low on the breast."
Theodore Palaeologus sons also have an interesting history. The first, John, is said to have fought for King Charles I in the English Civil War, and was probably killed at Naseby.  The second, Theodore, is recorded as being among the lieutenants in the army sent against the Scots in 1640.  When the Civil War broke out, he sided with Parliament, and his name occurs again as a lieutenant in the Earl of Essex's army in 1642.  In 1644 he died or was killed, and was buried in Westminster Abbey near Lady St. John's tomb in the north transept, possibly the only Greek ever to have been buried there, ptrobably owing to his service in Lord St. John's regiment. There even exists in the House of Lords, a draft order dated 3 May 1644, for payment of £50 to Sir Philip Stapledon, being part arrears of pay due to Captain Palaeologus.
The last brother, Ferdinand, who also fought for the King in the Civil War, migrated to Barbados in the West Indies, where his mother's family owned property.  In 1649, his name occurs as vestryman of the parish of St. John, and thereafter he held a number of parochial offices, including that of churchwarden. He died in 1678 and his will, dated 26 September 1670, is still preserved.  A hurricane in 1831 destroyed the church of St. John, where he was buried and his coffin was discovered under the organ loft.  Some years later it was opened, and revealed a skeleton of an extremely large size The coffin was carefully deposited in another vault and in 1909 a tablet was erected over it, which an inscription identifying Ferdinand as a descendant of the Byzantine Emperor. In his will, Ferdinand divided his property between his widow Rebecca and his son "Theodorious," the widow to be trustee till he should attain the age of fourteen years.  In 1693, Theodorious, who had returned to England and had a son and a daughter, died in Corunna, Spain.  A sailor signing his will Theodore Paleologey died at sea in 1693, and has been variously described as a son of Ferdinand or of his elder brother Theodore, but his relationship to the family cannot be established.
            Whether the Palaeologoi of Cornwall and Barbados will, like King Arthur who according to some legends is also buried in Cornwall and is awaiting the appropriate time to make a special guest star appearance to rid the British people of their ills once and fore all, ever return to leaf their people to greatness is unknown. Such was the lasting appeal of the family in the hearts of the Greeks that in the nineteenth century, the provisional government of newly liberated Greece sent a delegation to England to determine whether there were any living descendants of the Palaeologoi who could assume the Greek throne. They visited Landulph and noted the grave of Theodore, but strangely not locate any living descendants. Nonetheless as late as 1862, when the Bavarian Otto was ousted from Greece, a Theodore Palaeologo of West Norwood in South London and originally an immigrant from Malta, pressed his hereditary claim to the Greek throne and was duly ignored. We cannot help but admire however, these doughty exiles of noble lineage, who make lasting contributions in diverse and unexpected ways, to the countries they chose to call home.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 April 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Every year while attending the Greek Community's annual 1821 Revolution Commemoration at the Shrine of Remembrance, I am reminded of the verses of Epirote poet Panagiotis Noutsos' brilliant poem 'National Magma,' (Έθνους Μάγμα). Noutsos writes
«Δεν είναι εδώ το Σούλι, εδώ ναι το μαγιασούλι!
Σούλι, καψούλι, μαξούλι, μαγιασούλι, 
ζητωζητωζητωκραυγάζουν ούλοι
In his own unique way, by employing wordplay in an uncharacteristic, almost Anglosaxonic manner in order to subvert traditional poetic forms and motifs, Noutsos is making a point about the effusive yet ultimately empty rhetoric surrounding nationalistic events such as the traditional military parades and accompanying hyperbolic speeches that present the liberation of Greece as an inevitability stemming from unique and superior qualities residing with the DNA of each person who calls himself a Hellene, μαγιασούλι, being a synonym for an overabundance of speech. The implication is that ultimately, when all is said and done, a hell of a lot more is said, than actually done and we are all somehow implicated in this ceremony of mass self-delusion, by being willing and or passive participants of it. 
            This year driving to the Shrine, dressed in the full regalia of hoplarchs, I began to recite Noutsos' verses under my breath as a friend turned and asked: "Why do suppose the English or the Aussies value cricket more highly that parades like this? Think about it. The British have numerous battles to commemorate: The Battle of Hastings, the Battle of Bosworth Field, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, various World War I battles and of course VE day. But they don't seem to capture the imagination of their people the way our 1821 'parelasi' does. Why?"
            The answer of course is a complex one and probably has much to do with how comfortable a society is with their identity. Save for VE day, which took place within living memory, most British military turning points have taken place a long time ago. Nonetheless, as any visitor to Britain would know, the Britons feel great pride in their history. Having been lucky enough to have known few invasions, they have been able to preserve and conserve a vast amount of artefacts, building and lore and this has permitted their composite identity to emerge naturally in, around and from that history. As such, their identity is a historic inevitability of their surroundings and rather than being prescriptive, is expansive, embracing and for the most part, participatory.
            Greece has experienced neither the security nor the stability of Britain. As a result, its history exists in shards and disparate fragments that historians and ideologues have attempted to weld together into a coherent narrative of continuity. Whereas it could be said that Britons live history, the Greeks on the other hand have lived the ruins of history. Layer upon layer of destruction has been covered by the earth, awaiting reconstruction and reunification with long sundered memories and expectations as to which particular 'ancestors' we should emulate. 1821 therefore, marks the symbolic starting point for a process of reconstitution and recreation - point zero, where anything is possible and yet the archaeologists's trowel and the classical scholar's erudition prescribe for us, just who the shattered fragments of our past should be put back together and by implication, just who we should be. Thanks to their expert welding skills, 1821 is a mere culmination of the indomitable ethnic spirit that gave us Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae (its Neohellenic counterparts being Dervenakia, Mycale and Souli). Celebrating 1821 thus helps us to interpret the resistance of OXI, providing us with a depth of resources real and imagined in times of crisis, simultaneously trapping us in a perpetual time warp where past and present coalesce continuously. 
This would probably explain why as a boy, attending the parelasi in a foustanella, accosted by a group of older pant-wearing Pontians, I was exhorted to jump into the water fountain at the Queen Victoria gardens, in pure Greek-Australian: "If you are a real τσολιάπήδα." I refused to do so for fear of soiling my costume, whereupon I was castigated for lacking the courage, indomitability and recklessness to act the way a true wearer of the kilt would display. I have felt a fraud ever since.
Australia, as an aside, does share a parallel to the Greek pride in the parelasi. As a young nation needing to construct an identity, it has chosen to emphasize the legends of Gallipoli, tantalizingly beyond living memory as an ideal starting point for the weaving of strands that constitute an ideal. That it has done so at the expense of the (within living memory) experiences of World War II veterans, in which War Australia's territorial integrity was actually threatened, tells us much about the power of identity construction.
Undoubtedly there is a good helping of such constructed pride within Greek-Australian participants of our own parelasi. After all, this is part of our imported heritage and forms the backdrop of our identity in Australia. Yet it would be wrong to consider the Melbourne march as merely a form of nationalistic elation or threadbare jingoistic rhetoric. Marching up to the Shrine this year felt more like a family picnic than the pompous regimented affairs of yesteryear. Gone was the measured step, the stiff turning of the head to honour puffed-up 'dignitaries.' Instead, masses of children and community members sauntered past their elated peers towards a friendly and smiling group of VIP's, the relaxed and familiar tone being set by His Excellency the Ambassador of Greece, resplendent in a broad brimmed slouch hat, who enthusiastically cheered on the younger participants. This was no militaristic or nationalistic parade. Instead, it had the feel of a street party.
The Melbourne parelasi is unique, in that it takes place on a practically self-contained stretch of road, largely out of the broader public's gaze. As such, the self-conscious pandering to other's conceptions of what Greeks should act or look like that form much of the parades of Greeks through the cities of America, for example, (caryatids, Olympic rings, Doric temple floats and the like) is mercifully absent. In relaxed and comfortable Melbourne, we present ourselves, not as the Greeks of Greece wish us to be, nor as mainstream Australians perceive us to be, but rather, as ourselves, marching out of step, some of us combining shorts with a fermeli, and almost all of us leaving prior to the politician's speeches. As we march, we talk about the cricket, the Alexandros versus Hellas match (yes, it will always be Hellas) or we will laughingly wonder why the Stalinist old guard of three separate organisations from the same region of North-West Greece are unable to let go of incomprehensible internecine squabbles and conspiracies and march together, rather than separately, in a Greek-Australian Monty-Pythonesque parody of the infinite combinations and permutations of the appellations of the rival Popular People's Front of Judaea and the Judaean Popular People's Front, before breaking ranks to shake a friend's hand who we haven't seen for a while.
As I marched this year, I did so with pride, not so much for the sake of my ancestors, but because marching to my left, as she has done ever since she was two, was my sister and between us, for the first time ever, my own two year old daughter, enthusiastically waving flags and exclaiming: «εν δυόεν δυό» and «Ζήτω.» Unquestionably, she has no conception of the fact that Andreas Miaoulis preferred to scuttle his fleet rather than hand it over to the government of Free Greece, or that Odysseas Androutsos was a sell-sword and when she grows up, I doubt that she will care. For really, it is this sense of the coming together of all generations in the unspoken knowledge that we all belong to the same vast, complex, dysfunctional, frustrating but intricately absorbing and ultimately endearing family that lends each Melburnian1821 parade, its sense of wonder. Long may it continue to do so.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 April 2015

Sunday, April 05, 2015


“The Orlov rebellion… was absurd in conception, devoid of genuine libertarian teleology and brutal and chaotic in execution.” J. C Alexander
In the popular Greek imagination, there was the fall of Byzantium and then, 400 hundred years of continuous darkness in which the Greek nation gradually lost its civilization and spirit, oppressed under the upturned slipper of the Ottoman conqueror. What is not widely known, is that since the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Greek people were, in various regions, constantly engaging in revolts, whether this be the revolt of Greco-Albanian Giorgos Kastriotis, or that of the Himariote fighter with the fascinating name of Krokodeilos Kladas who let a revolt in Mani in 1480, or even that of the Epirote Bishp of Larissa, Dionysios the Philosopher, renamed the ‘Skylosopher,’ by the Ottomans, who led an agrarian revolt in Agrafa in 1600 and another in 1611, when he managed to occupy the city of Ioannina for a brief period of time.
These early revolts were generally fomented by Venice, which still controlled vast tracts of territories along the coastline and the Aegean islands for much of the early Ottoman occupation. In later years however, the mantle of protector and prospective liberator of the Greek people was assumed by Russia, especially during the reign of Catherine the Great, who sought to expand her empire at the Ottoman’s expense, reclaiming territory along the Black Sea that had been settled by Greeks in times ancient. Catherine the Great even conceived of a plan to retake Constantinople and have her grandson Constantine preside over a newly resuscitated Byzantine Empire, underwritten by Russia, of course.
It is for this reason that the Orlov revolt, that is, one of the most major and most recent revolts against the Ottomans in Greek territory, is mostly referred to by historians as an ‘incident’ within the broader context of the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774. Catherine the Great dispatched Count Fyodor Orlov to the Aegean, where he was to contact the Cretan shipping magnate Ioannis Daskaloyiannis, and raise the Greeks of Peloponnesus.
Even before Fyodor Orlov arrived in Peloponnesus with his small group of fighters and provisions, various attempts were already being made to provoke a revolt among the Greeks. An officer in the Russian Imperial Artillery Corps, Giorgos Papazoglou had been active in the region, attempting to foment an insurrection among the affluent Christian kotsabasis of the region. Especially prone to his particular form of propaganda was Panagiotis Benakis, one of the largest landowners of Peloponnesus, who as well as owning six vast agrarian estates, also controllen much of southern Peloponnesus’ external trade and the collection of its taxes.
As a result of his immense influence, Benakis was the master of a patronage network that included both Muslim and Christian notables and it was due to this influence that Orlov decided to appoint him leader of the rebellion. It is stated that he may have even had Benakis commissioned into the Russian army as a general. 
The plan was that Benakis, working in concert with Orlov, would seize control of Peloponnesus so as to render it secure by the time a Russian occupying fleet would arrive. Yet as Thomas Gallant writes, the uprising was never anything more than a power struggle between Benakis and the other factions that opposed him, more specifically, those led by the most powerful Mulsim notable in the region, Halil Abdi Bey of Corinth, as well as the Zaimis family of Kalavryta, who went on to play an important role in the Greek revolution and the formation of the Modern Greek state. In the months prior to  the uprising, Greeks and Muslims alike were informing the acting governor Hassan Effendi, that Russian agents were actively inciting Greek and Muslim notables to rise in rebellion.
When Orlov arrived at Kalamata in mid-February 1770, he joined with Benakis and his 4,000 fighters in attacking Koroni and Methoni. Another Greek collaborator from Mykonos, Antonios Pasros, led a mixed band of Russians and Greeks to rendezvous with Yiorgakis Mavormichalis and the forces of the Koumoundouros family, both of whom were also to play an important role in the 1821 Revolution, and to attack the city of Mistra. They were successful and massacred its Muslim inhabitants. However, every other attack, including those at Leondari and Kalavryta were met with a complete failure. 
The reasons for the failure of the uprising were manifold.  The majority of the Greek inhabitants of Peloponnesus met the ‘freedom-fighters’ with complete indifference. As well, many powerful Greek clans refused to compromise their own privileged position by taking part. Indeed, some of the most powerful clans, such as the Zaimis family, actively opposed the uprising, not for any other reason than that it was being led by the Benakis clan, who were their rivals.  One member of the family, Andorusakis Zaimis, even wrote to Muslim notable Syleyman Penah of Gastouni, reassuring them that he had nothing “to fear from our rayas, so please be at ease. If any one of them participate in the rebellion, I will kill them myself.”
What the Russians had not realized is that rather than expecting all Greeks to unite under their banner in order to fight for freedom, all they had achieved was to entangle themselves in a brutal, on-going power struggle between competing factions. The minute they picked one side, they thus alienated all other factions against them. Meanwhile in Crete, the military support promised to Daskaloyiannis by Orlov did not materialize and he was captured and skinned alive.
From the Russian point of view, Count Orlov's mission was a success, damaging the Turkish Fleet, directing Turkish troops south, and contributing to the victory that led to the signing of the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji, where Russia was, at least recognized as the protector of the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire.
From the Greek point of view, the affair was a failure which is generally blamed on the Russians for providing half-hearted support to the national aspirations of the Greek people. As a result, many among the next generation of Greek revolutionary leaders, would look to Britain and France for protection in the years to come. What is fascinating however, is to see how clientilism and networks of patronage among the Greeks conspired to render ineffectual any attempts at united action for the purpose of nation building. Considering that the same networks and factionalism caused the Greek revolution to descend into a civil war on more than one occasion, resulting in the intervention of the Great Powers in order to save ‘Greece,’ the fact that the 1821 Revolution actually took place, is indeed a miracle.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 April 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015


"Kαι τώρα πώς εξέπεσαν, πώς έγιναν, να ζουν και να ομιλούν βαρβαρικά, βγαλμένοι -ω συμφορά!- απ' τον ελληνισμό.»  Cavafy.
If Cavafy's poem «Ποσειδωνιάται»  is anything to go by, the phenomenon of diasporan Greeks feeling concerned about losing their mother tongue in their adopted countries is neither a product of the post-colonial, globalised capitalist world or a product of cultural imperialism. Instead, it is a historical inevitability. In his poem, set in Poseidonia in Southern Italy, colonised originally by Greeks from Sybaris, who over a long period of time, assimilated with their Latin neighbours, Cavafy sets out the manner in which assimilated Greeks struggle to make sense of their cultural heritage, going through the motions of conducting "Greek" rituals, mouthing words they barely understand and finally, being overwhelmed with the sense that they have lost something that they really can't define. 
Cavafy's poem was inspired by the ancient writer Athenaeus who wrote that the Poseidonians celebrated an annual festival of "forgetting", where they called up from memory, the remnants of their heritage and lamenting their loss, went their separate ways. Cavafy, and Athenaeus, are making a pertinent point: Despite what we may have been led to believe by the various myths that underpin and inform our ethnic identity, geographic alterity does produce amnesia. Otherwise, whet real need is there for our "Speak Greek in March campaign," or indeed our many other festivals which, rather than exhibiting or expressing a dynamic culture of their own making, instead, appear to be a litany of past remnants of memory, re-enacted so as to not be forgotten? 
Olbia Pontica, nowadays called Nikolayev and situated in the Ukraine, also provides a striking parallel to our contemporary reality. Founded by Greek settlers in the sixth century BC and serving as the granary of Greece, Olbia remained a predominantly Greek city  until 63 BC when an army of Dacians and Getae captured and destroyed it. 
In his 'Borysthenitica', Stoic philosopher Dio Chrysostom of Prousa  describes his visit to the city in 95AD. He relates how the local inhabitants were were obsessed with remaining Hellenes. 'Those that come here' one citizen complained to Dio, 'are nominally Greeks but actually more barbarous than ourselves...but you would appear to have been sent to us by Achilles himself.."
During his visit, Dio found himself in a time warp. The Olbians were determined to impress him with their Hellenism, much as we do visitors from Greece, but it was an archaic and obsolete version of Hellenism that they clung too. In addition, they appeared to Dio to be as much Scythian as Hellenic. His definition of ethnicity had nothing to do with genetics and descent but with the clothes, customs and language. The Olbians wore Scythian clothes and the Greek they spoke was barely intelligible.
Walking through the town, Dio met a young man by the name of Callistratus on horseback and started a conversation. Callistratus seemed straight out of a museum. He was wearing 'barbarian' trousers and a cape, but on seeing Dio, he alighted from his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like other Olbians, he knew Homer by heart and was immensely proud of this, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. He boasted that he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, interest in philosophy, his beauty and because he had many lovers. Dio saw this not as a statement of sexual orientation but as a wonderful survival from a bygone age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Athenian veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual experience. The Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea, homosexuality was still in fashion.
At this stage, Dio, being a stranger and overtly 'Greek' was being swamped by other Olbians who believing that all Greeks ever did when they met each other was to discuss philosophy, begged him to discuss Plato with them. In the manner reminiscent of the 'older' Greeks, they all sat down outside the portico of the temple of Zeus to hold their debate. As the older men sat down, Dio noticed that they all wore beards, at a time when shaving had been the fashion in Greece for half a century. Dio was touched by the 'real Greekness' which he found surviving at Olbia. It appeared to him that they were more Greek than the Greeks in many respects, a sentiment echoed here in Melbourne time and time against by visiting Greek dignitaries and indeed, in sentiment and practice, not much seems to separate the Olbian Greeks from their Melbournian counterparts two millennia later.
As such, campaigns such as "Speak Greek in March" and our various festivals may appear to some to be, trite, kitsch, or anachronistic, given that they either present an idealised, ossified re-construction of a culture that bears no resemblance or relevance to a modern reality, or, at least, in the case of the Speak Greek campaign, represents a futile and ultimately doomed attempt to stave off the inevitable. However arguably what we can do, in view of our history and current practices is to realise that perhaps in so far as any concepts of Greece or a Greek identity inform our composite sense of self, our culture is a culture of memory, and a culture whose sole aim seem to be to stave off amnesia. Having accepted this, we can then accept another key value, something that our diasporan ancestors have troubled themselves with for thousands of years: that regardless of the state of preservation, or of the intensity of our own effects to effect such preservation, whatever we understand to be Greek culture or language is important to us, and sine our culture is founded upon our attempts to preserve it, without its preservation, we will cease to exist.
Undoubtedly, users of the Greek language among the second and third generations of Greek Australian do not possess in adequate numbers, the fluency or dedication that will see the Greek language used for daily discourse beyond a generation or so. Yet faced with such a bleak prospect, our Olbian ancestors provide consolation. For the wheels of history turn in unexpected ways. Centuries after the Greek language died out, Catherine the Great re-settled the entire area with Greeks eager to leave the Ottoman empire. The vibrant communities that they founded provided the impetus for the creation of the Philiki Etaireia and the emergence of Modern Greece. The creative impetus of these communities has largely died out as they too have become assimilated, culturally and linguistically with their neighbours, yet the shared memory of both sets of ancestors' exploits appears to be enough to sustain them, until the next turn of the cosmic wheel. In absence of all else then, we can do as the Olbians do, and always remember.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 28 March 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015


“Haiti’s connection with Greece has more to do with modern Greece than with Ancient Greece,”  writes Caribbean writer Jean Charles. He goes on to say: “The culture of faking the sentiment of patriotism ….is now ingrained in insidious ways where upper echelons of Greek media intertwined with the political structure prevented reporting of financial mismanagement that may cloud any hope for resolving the crisis….we find the same scenario in Haiti, the motherland of nation-building…..The rest of the population, akin to the Greeks, develops a fake patriotism culture that makes the country an easy prey for foreign meddling.”
Greece, a yardstick by which an ostensibly failed nation state such as Haiti measures itself? Perish the thought! Yet these two seemingly distant countries have much in common, commencing with the manner in which they were founded. For, contrary to common belief, which generally holds that it was the Great Powers of the day that first recognized Greece’s independence, guaranteed it and thus gave themselves the right to meddle in its internal affairs, it was in fact the recently liberated Haiti that has this honour.
Rather than being a failed state, Haiti in the early nineteenth century was widely considered to be an innovative state of great promise. After a long and bloody conflict, African slaves had managed to overthrow their French overlords in 1804 and established a state whether its founders believed, equality and justice would reign. 
The fact that armed struggle could result in liberation seemed to be of some inspiration to the Greek people, who identified with their plight, but also their achievements. This is the reason why supporters of the Greek revolution some seventeen years after the founding of the Haitian state saw fit to write to the Haitian government and seek its assistance. It was felt that the Haitians, who were slaves of the French, could uniquely appreciate the inferior social position afforded to Greeks by the Ottoman Empire and just how this worked to dampen any future prospect of the development of the Greek people. Furthermore, Greek expatriates living in France would have definitely heard of the Haitian Revolution and abolitionism from relevant circles in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France. Also, the writings of prominent French abolitionist, Abbe Gregoire, who, was a firm supporter of the Haitian republic and remained in contact with some Haitian leaders, would most likely have played a role in disseminating knowledge of the Haitian Revolution to Greek nationalists and intellectuals. Thus, the idea of reaching out to the Haitians probably originated within the Greek diasporic community.
The letter sent to Haiti received a response by no less a personage than the president of Haiti himself, Jean Pierre Boyer, who on 15 January 1822 wrote to the great man of letters and “teacher of the Greek nation” Adamatios Korais, expressing sympathy with the Greek cause and recognising the Greek people’s right to freedom and self-determination. In the letter, Boyer mentioned that he viewed both Haiti and Greece as similar in their long history of oppression from others, from imperialism, both European and Ottoman. According to President Boyer, "Such a beautiful and just case and, most importantly, the first successes which have accompanied it, cannot leave Haitians indifferent, for we, like the Hellenes, were for a long time subjected to a dishonorable slavery and finally, with our own chains, broke the head of tyranny." In addition, Boyer's letter addresses the theme of slavery in relation to imperial or colonial rule as well as several allusions to classical Greek history and culture, such as referring to the Greek nationalists as "descendants of Leonidas."

Though expressing much sympathy, Boyer goes on to explain that owing to the Haitian’s parlous finances, Haitian troops or cash could not be sent to Greece. Interestingly, Boyer also attributes the recent integration of Haiti and the Spanish-speaking former Spanish colony to the east, now known as the Dominican Republic as another drain on the Haitian budget because "the revolution which triumphs on the eastern portion of our island is creating a new obstacle in carrying out our aim; in fact, this portion, which was incorporated into the Republic I preside over, is in extreme poverty and thus justifies immense expenditures of our budget." 
It is worthwhile observing at this point that revolutionary Haiti, like its neighbor Cuba over a century and a half later, was devoted to exporting its revolution, its first president, Petion, lending support to South American liberator Bolivar and the liberators of Venezuela and Colombia and we could possibly view Boyer’s letter in this context: as an attempt to at least claim some sort of moral “ownership” over the Greek revolution, in the hope of the future establishment mutually beneficial ties.
Some historians claim that Boyer did send Adamantios Korais twenty five tons of Haitian coffee that could be sold and the proceeds used to purchase weapons but not enough evidence exists to support this, or, the other claim, that one hundred Haitian volunteers set off to fight in the Greek Revolution. Allegedly, their ship was boarded by pirates somewhere in the Mediterranean and these fighters purportedly never reached their destination.
Nevertheless, Boyer’s letter is widely believed to be the first official recognition of Greek independence and sovereignty, to be followed in succession by the recognition of Great Britain and that other republic that was founded after a war of independence, the United States. Boyer’s reference in his letter to democracy, Greek triumphs against the Persians, and revolutionary idealism accord with the founding myths of the Greek State which is why even today, it resonates with those Greeks who have read it.  Indeed, what is even more fitting is the fact that this self-same Boyer who waxed so lyrically about democracy, the classical past, freedom and equality presided over a country where corruption and venality became the norm and it is this dichotomy, between founding myth and actual reality both in Greece and Haiti that seems to arouse the sensitivities of Caribbean writers today.
Were the Greek and Haitian revolutions actually betrayed, or do we take a Trotskyist approach and declare that the revolution is eternal and thus, having no end, is still a work in progress? Either way, Boyer’s letter provides a unique insight into the prevailing aspirations and myths upon which two states were supposedly emancipated and founded. Just how true to those ideals those countries developed is a question that an increasing number of its respective citizens are now asking. In this, the final word, belongs to Jean Charles:  “Greece in the Mediterranean, like Haiti in the Caribbean, needs to start creating a new generation of citizens who accept the concept that duty is the reverse side of privilege. The nation will move forward when each citizen does his part, in paying taxes, in volunteering for the common good, and forsaking the vain desire of spending what you do not have. It was Abraham Lincoln who promoted the notion that a nation is the aggregate sum of moral citizens working for the common good, providing individual satisfaction for each one.” Long live the Revolution.

First published in NKEE On Saturday 21 March 2015

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Is it possible in this day and age to articulate or identify a particularly Greek-Australian attitude to girls and education? This was the question I asked myself as I listened to a distinguished group of panelists and guests, comprising, State Minister for Families and Children and Minister for Youth Affairs, Jenny Mikakos, Dr Vivianne Nikou, principal of Alphington Grammar, Greek Ambassadrice, Ms Eva T Dafaranou, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Joy Damousi, Professor Georgina Tsolidis, of Ballarat University, Dr Anne Mitsis of Swinburne University and Arts/Law student Maree Skalistis, expound their unique perspectives on this question, at the recent Food For Thought Women's Network event, in celebration of International Women's Day. The inspiration for the discussion, Food for Thought Chairperson Varvara Ioannou, herself an educator and community activist, has long been at the forefront of a concerted effort to empower, motivate and establish networks among Greek-Australian women and in this, the month of speaking Greek, an examination of one of our founding myths and the way it has played out among Greek-Australian women presents a myriad of foci and possibilities.
 Evah T Dafaranou certainly believes that we can articulate a Greek attitude towards education. In a concise, perceptive and thoroughly moving exposition, she outlined a manifesto of education that had its roots in ancient Greece and defied gender boundaries or stereotypes. According to her, the main aim of the ancient Greek education was to rear children to be καλοί και αγαθοί, that is, beautiful and good. The emphasis therefore was not only upon knowledge but on ethics and spirituality, a sense of responsibility and service to a higher purpose than one's self, as well as a dedication to excellence. Such an education also required constant lifelong cultivation. I would argue that this perspective was somewhat tweaked by the time we get to the birth of the modern Greek State. For activists and educators such as Saint Kosmas the Aetolian and Adamantios Korais, education was a form of spiritual rebirth that was inextricably linked to the rebirth of the Greek nation. This is important to note, as education thus forms one of the founding myths of our modern identity, one that has been absorbed by our ancestors and passed down the generations ever since.
 Evah T Dafaranou's incisive contribution to the discussion was invaluable because it can be juxtaposed with the complex attitudes Greek-Australians have had towards education since arriving in this country. All of the panelists agreed that both their parents placed great emphasis upon their children's education, regardless of their own socio-economic position or level of education and provided a supportive environment in which to pursue their own academic interests. From thereon, the panelists examined aspects of gender relations in the academic and broader context yet in my mind they kept returning again and again to the same point: for their, in most respects, uneducated parents, education was an important ideal. This is consistent with our community foundation mythology: our particular reality was brought into being by our creators because they wanted their children to be better of than they were, that is, educated and affluent. The fact that within a decade of our arrival here, Greek-Australian women began to emerge as educated professionals attests to the power of this myth. 
 It is a pity that time constraints did not permit an analysis as to why this was so. Had the opportunity been provided to do so, arguably, enough anecdotal evidence would have emerged to suggest that the motivations of that section of the community that prized their daughters' education were actually quite diverse and produced by a complex set of historical and social phenomena. Rather than being just a matter of producing women that were 'beautiful and good,' one could speculate, education was seen as a means of social advancement, of material and economic gain and also, as a form of attaining respectability and a sense of emancipation. This is logical considering the rigid, almost untranscendable social structures existing in post-war Greece and the manner in which an Australian education could facilitate social mobility.
 Education, was also seen as form of escape. This is the reason why so many Greek-Australian first generation women today take great delight in involving themselves in literary circles, to the chagrin and merciless mirth of the local media. To these women, upon whom a multitude of expectations were foisted upon their arrival in this country, including becoming economically productive units, all the while adhering to a set of often oppressive stereotypes about their place and duties to the family and broader community, education, the ability to learn and discover, as well as to be transported, at least noetically away from a world of drudgery if only for a brief moment, was a luxury and form of solace available only to the lucky few. Further than this, it was felt, by a good many first generation Greek-Australian migrants, that their daughters' or grand-daughters' education would empower them in their relationships, granting them an equality that they themselves did not enjoy. These are viewpoints and psychologies have seldom been articulated openly, yet they form the foundation of the way our community views the education of its female members today and thus deserve deeper analysis.
 It is easy to feel pride both in the panelists and our community when considering the manner in which their education was prized and fostered by their families. Their stories, similar in many respects save a few nuances, are valuable, leading us to believe that possibly, the Greek-Australian attitude towards education has been a truly enlightened one from the outset. However, this is not so. For again largely unexamined is the experience of a large number of young Greek-Australian women of the sixties and seventies whose parents did not value education as highly as the stereotype would have us believe. In some cases, Greek-Australian women had to fight hard against their parents and prevailing social stereotypes in order to secure their education and faced extreme prejudice and difficulties from their family unit, when embarking upon their careers. Others, removed from school as young as fifteen, they were expected to work in order to earn their keep and/or to get married.  The presentation of such limited life prospects caused inestimable damage within that generation, its after-effects being felt within the family, the marriage and in relationships with children. It also influenced the manner in which that generation passed on an education value to their daughters: in some cases, it served to emphasise the importance of an education but in many others, mothers, who were taught not to attach particular importance to education, merely passed on the same attitude to their daughters, expecting them to follow in their footsteps, to produce and reproduce.  The Food for Thought Network thus makes an invaluable contribution to the consideration of all facets of this issue, in giving rise to the need to examine such experiences.
 As we can identify both conservative and progressive currents of thinking within our community's historical attitude towards education, perhaps it would be instructive to see just how if at all, such conflicts are a reality for modern Greek-Australian women. If the work of influential local poet Koraly Dimitriadis, who has written extensively about the manner in which what she perceives as archaic social expectations, are given greater priority than education or the prospect of a career in many a contemporary Greek family, it is quite possible that this unspoken conflict still is yet to be resolved for a considerable number of modern Greek-Australian women. Again the unique historical, social and psychological phenomena that comprise this continued conflict cry out for further investigation.
 Finally, even if we could argue that a unique Greek-Australian attitude towards women's education has ever existed, a question that the event rightly left unresolved, to what extent has this attitude, after half a century of our sojourn in this country, merged with the mainstream of public opinion? The Food for Thought Network is to be commended for instigating a debate that gives rise to such pertinent questions, inviting a certain introspection and self-knowledge that can only come from a deep respect and sensitivity to the unique and largely unarticulated experience of Greek-Australian women within our community. 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 March 2015

Saturday, March 07, 2015


Not a few things made a profound impression upon me at the launch of the Speak Greek in March campaign, which took place last Sunday at the new improved Greek Orthodox Community HQ. The first was the blessing of the whole endeavor by the articulate and functionally grecophonic second generation priest, Father Eumenios. In perfect Greek, tinged with the lilting tones of the ecclesiastic, Father Eumenios made, what I believe to be, a profound point: that language retention is linked to «αξίες,» that is, values, or an ideology, just as these same values depend upon the language that underpins these and the erosion of these values results in a corresponding erosion on language use and retention. Father Eumenios was most likely pointing to religious observance as a key component of these values and historically he would be right in doing so, but obviously if one accepts that the Greek language is the medium through which a unique way of thinking has evolved, it follows axiomatically that abandoning the aspirations or perspective of that way of thinking, will most likely result in an ancillary loss of the medium that conveys these.
Saint Kosmas the Aetolian knew this while facing a Greek language crisis three hundred years ago, when he scoured the villages of north-western Greece cajoling his compatriots to speak Greek, instead of Albanian or Vlach. In his view, the key values underpinning the necessity of Greek language use were religion and culture - that is -  it was necessary to speak Greek because the Bible and the liturgy was in Greek and because through Greek, a proper education could be obtained, one which would permit the downtrodden Greek people to achieve not only physical but also spiritual independence. Today of course, we enjoy, at least apparently, both, and therefore Father Eumenios perspicacious observation invites us as a community, to consider and articulate those core values that are deemed necessary for the maintenance of our identity in a post-modern, globalized society that pay lip-service to gastronomic, if not linguistic multiculturalism.
The second impression was that made by former Victorian Multicultural Commissioner and current head of Community Languages Australia, Stefan Romaniw OAM. He spoke of language retention, not as a duty or an aspiration but rather as a commitment, something akin to football training or jazz ballet classes. In this way, and coupled with Father Eumenios' pertinent allusion to values, one can approach language retention as a value that requires, discipline, commitment and dedication in order to attain. It is that sacred cow of Anglo-Australian aspiration - a challenge. Stefan Romaniw also provided a broader perspective on the issue of language retention, pertinently pointing out that this is a problem that is faced by all the non-English speaking communities of Australia and that we have much to learn from each other, if only we communicate. Stefan Romaniw is absolutely right. It is instructive for example, to parallel the linguistic fortunes of a young member of the Greek minority in Albania, whose parents have steadfastly taught him Greek despite the fear of Albanian persecution, only to come to migrate to Australia and within two years, promptly refusing and then forgetting to speak Greek altogether, with a young Assyrian-Australian, whose family has faithfully retained its ancestral language despite a millennium of Islamic persecution, who, after attaining school age, embraces English and becomes less and less fluent in his mother tongue, to the point where he does not want to speak it at all. If we accept that each community has its own set of values underpinning language retention, would we, after consultation and collaboration with other ethnic communities as Stefan Romaniw suggests, be able to identify a common threat to these diverse values and trace how it impacts upon each community differently? Can we identify any differences in values or identities among communities that have already lost their ancestral languages prior to arriving in Australia, such as the Copts, in assessing the manner in which language underpins ethnic identity? The possibilities are fascinating.
Quite apart from trying to make unwilling second and third generations feel "proud" of the Greek language by telling them how many Greek words exist in the English language (an endeavour that is futile, for in my opinion, though it serves to boost the self-esteem of the first generation, it merely serves to prove the flexibility of the English language in being able to absorb so many terms), or trying to entice them to embrace Greek by hinting at future glorious career prospects once proficiency is attained (these are miniscule, for modern Greek is a language esteemed by a specialized few), or even the health benefits, with clinical studies suggesting that polylingualism staves off dementia and at least in one instance, causes weight loss and stops premature balding as well, it is hoped that the Speak Greek in March campaign will act as a focal point among the grass roots of our community, for educators, but most of all, concerned parents who have a vested interest in their children retaining the language.
Given the increasing complexity of Greek-Australian family units, which now tend to reflect those of the broader mainstream, it would be instructive, to have a debate on how this diversity has impacted upon those values that mitigate against language loss. Furthermore, highlighting the experiences of parents on the ground, and finding practical ways in which to enforce language acquisition values would also be valuable. This is because there exist within our community the most remarkable stories of people attaining fluency in Greek. One teacher present at the launch of the speak Greek campaign highlighted the many cases she has experienced whether the child's father is Greek, the child's mother is of another culture and yet the child excels in learning Greek, something which exhausts the stereotypes of mother's being the arks of the "mother" culture and "tongue." The same teacher also highlighted cases of both parents being Greek but steadfastly refusing to speak Greek to their children or taking an interest in their Greek language education, rather treating Greek school as a child minding facility, whose sole purpose was to provide them with free time. It is therefore hoped that the Speak Greek in March campaign will cause our communities and especially our academics to undertake the necessary research required to collate the diverse and largely unknown experiences of parents and students, so that we can have a properly informed debate about the values, aspirations, concerns and practices that lead to successful language acquisition, or its loss. We want to know why and how some of us out there, such as the brilliant Vasso Zangalis, whose mother is not Greek, possesses linguistic skills in Greek that permit her to conduct a radio program on 3ZZZ, while others do not. We want to know why Meron, an Ethiopian girl I had the honour of teaching Greek at St Dimitrios Parish Greek school can, at the age of 10 speak 5 languages and learn for pleasure, while most of us cannot. The fact that we have not undertaken this task is an indictment upon all of us.

The final impression made upon me at the launch was by a grandfather whose daughter has married into an Italian family. That family is at odds with this particular grandfather because he speaks Greek to his grandson, even though he has been told that his son-in-law does not want his child learning either Greek or Italian. "I don't understand it," he lamented to me at the conclusion of the launch. "I told him that Italian is a beautiful language and the more languages the child knows the better. They can teach it Italian and I will teach it Greek. Yet he refuses. Can you imagine not wanting to teach your child your own language? And my daughter complains and tells me that I am putting her marriage in jeopardy. Can you imagine? The whole world has turned upside down." It appears therefore that Father Eumenios is right. As we speak Greek in March, let us remember that the conversation upon our underpinning values, is long overdue.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 March 2015