Monday, August 10, 2009


“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Winston Churchill.

Socrates Tsourdalakis, author of the groundbreaking and weighty tome that shares a title with this article, prefaces his study of the Cretan diaspora community in the Antipodes with an array traditional mantinades, or verses. One of these, is as follows: «Κρατάτε Κρητικόπουλα μέσα εις την καρδιά σας/ αμόλυντα τα έθιμα, της ρίζας της δικιάς σας.» (“Cretan youth, keep in your hearts unsullied, your traditions and roots.”) This poetic exhortation forms the raison d’ être of Tsourdalakis’ handsome, leatherbound, brilliantly presented and illustrated study. In encapsulating a century of Cretan culture and efforts towards its transplantation in this country within the pagers of his magisterial work, Tsourdalakis is in effect, bequeathing the treasures of the experience of an entire people to the latter generations. The injunction is clear: “This is what we have striven for. Now take it, keep it and improve it.” Unlike many Greek community so-called ‘doyens’, Socrates Tsourdalakis is certainly morally qualified to make such an injunction. Whereas the offspring of most of the first generation ‘leaders’ who immerse themselves in the quagmire of internecine politics in the name of ‘perpetuating Greek culture for our children’ are nowhere to be seen on the community proscenium, both of Socrates Tsourdalakis’ sons have in their own way, ensured the perpetuation of Cretan culture: Sifis Tsourdalakis is a profoundly gifted traditional Cretan musician, whereas the ubiquitous Antonis is the president of the Rethymnian Association of Melbourne “Arkadi,” a Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria board member, and a lot more besides. This is a family that has invested heavily in Hellenism. Consequently, when Socrates Tsourdalakis seeks to present the sum of that experience, we are compelled to sit up and take notice.
It is quite beyond the scope of this diatribe to examine the reasons why our ethnic identity is so particularized as to require a separate treatment for each region of Greece. One would consider that the experience of Greek migrants in the diaspora is not so much coloured by the region from which they derive but rather, where they settled and what they did when they arrived here. At most, it could be argued, the organisation or rather fragmentation of the Greek community into insular, often competing and rival ethno-specific groups deserves but a chapter in the wider study of the history of the Greeks of the Antipodes and only, so as to examine how Greek diasporans viewed themselves, and responded to the challenges of transplantation and acculturation.
The structure of Socrates Tsourdalakis’ work is thus novel because it departs from the usual approach to particularistic Greek regional historiography, which is generally comprised of long and rather tedious lists of such important activities as barbeques and dances, irrelevant dates and mention of obscure and historically insignificant committee members. From the outset, he seeks to place the Cretan community within the broader context of Australian society and the Greek diasporan community at large, through a concise and well-researched analysis of its history and social organisation, including statistics as to the population and demographics of Greek-Oceanians, a list of schools, and lavishly illustrated though brief accounts of the Greek community in each state. In this way, the book works on two levels with a marked measure of success, in that it embraces and engages both those who have knowledge of the unique social fabric of Oceanic society, as well as those who do not have direct experience of it. Tsourdalakis seems to be addressing the book to Cretans both in the diaspora and the motherland and further cements this through the bilingual format he chooses to adopt – again a departure from tradition which either records community history in Greek (eg. Petros Petranis’ ‘History of the Epirots in Australia), or in English (eg. From Tsamanta to Melbourne). Of particular interest is Tsourdalakis’ brief though partisan analysis of the Orthodox Church in Australia. In that account, which is based upon the selective exposition of correspondence, he chooses to centre upon the Cretan Archbishop of Australia Stylianos’ opposition to the controversial Council of Greeks Abroad and also an ecclesiastical dispute involving another hierarch of Cretan origin, Joseph. It is instructive, in so far as it provides an insight into popular opinion and commonly held misconceptions about the institution in question.
From this general foundation, Tsourdalakis proceeds to document the arrival of the first Cretans in the Antipodes and their social organisation into brotherhoods in order to protect their collective identity. Two things become apparent from the outset: that despite the prevailing Australian historical narrative that tends to view Greek migration as a primarily post-war phenomenon, the earliest documented arrival of Cretans in Victoria can be traced to 1848 and thus, the way we view pre and post Federation Australia needs to be coloured by the experience of such largely unrecorded and unsung pioneers. Secondly, Tsourdalakis makes a case for a specialized analysis of Cretan-Oceanic ‘history’ by including a chapter in which he presents an overview of the history of Crete. This will not only serve to familiarize English-speaking Cretan-Oceanians with their place of origin but also juxtaposes the Cretans as against the rest of the Greek community owing to their distinct culture and mindset. This is further exemplified by the multitude of references to Cretan dancing and the teaching of Cretan musical instruments in the text, along with the provision of corresponding photographs. From this we are able to glean that in ways the parallel the many Pontian communities of Australia, the Cretan community’s conception of itself revolves around the lynchpin of dance and music.
One of the enduring criticisms I have of ‘brotherhood’ histories is that they tend to attempt to glamourise the organisations they portray and make them more active or relevant than they actually are. What amateur historians either do not realise or rather try to hide given their own involvement in the affairs they seek to record is goodly proportion of the significance of these organisations to our history is not actually their activities (which following a canon of music, dance and barbeque ‘prove’ that they are perpetuating Greek culture) per se but rather the manner in which they engage in conflict with each other and rival organisations, vie for power and then, how they wield this. What is perhaps the most endearing element of Socrates Tsourdalakis’ approach to recording the history of the many Cretan organisations, is that he does not shy away from the various disputes or disagreements taking place within or among these organisations. Some of these are particularly revealing of what their founders were setting out to do: “…having considered that even though the Cretan Brotherhood’s attempts were genuine in representing the Cretans, the Cretans themselves were dissatisfied because the functions organised and held were not truly of Cretan character.” Tsourdalakis’ commentary about the stance of certain organisations towards the youth also makes fascinating reading at a time when the presidents of the major Cretan organisations in Melbourne derive from the second generation: “the fact that children were prohibited from certain functions organized by the Brotherhood did not encourage the Cretans who had children to attend. It seemed culturally inappropriate to discourage the presence of children at dances because they were the functions that Cretan culture could flourish and be sustained. Only with the establishment of other Cretan organisations was this nonsensical practice acknowledged and change came about.” There then follows a lengthy examination of the Cretan communities in each state, along with the relevant Cretan organisations that have been formed by these, culminating in the history of the Cretan Federation.
Towards the end of the book is perhaps the most valuable addition to our history, in the form of a list of a registry of first generation Cretan-Oceanians, an invaluable resource that would permit the latter generations to trace their ancestry and kinship with each other. Unfortunately, this list only appears in the Greek language and it is hoped that in subsequent editions it will be provided in English as well, for it is of intrinsic importance.
Like any conscientious historian, Socrates Tsourdalakis candidly points out the limitations of his work. For all their distinctiveness, Cretans do not form an impermeable entity. Many Cretans have never belonged to Cretan organisations, many Cretan girls, as he says, have married ‘outside’ the Cretan community and do not play an active role within it. This observation is illuminating and valuable, as he identifies the historian’s challenge for the future: how to record the histories of those persons who claim kinship with us but who do not fit within the constructs we have created for ourselves.
Socrates Tsourdalakis’ stated aim in writing his history of the Cretans of Oceania was to leave something behind for “our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that will remind them of their roots, because sadly, “All things in the world are lost and people are mortal, but whatever is written on paper remains immortal.”” It is revealing that even stalwarts who have managed triumphantly to pass their culture on to the next generation now talk, not of perpetuation but of leaving little nuggets of unobtrusive clues behind, in the hope that these will capture the curiosity of estranged future generations. Fittingly launched in Crete on 5 August, ‘The Cretans of Oceania from the 19th Century,’ is an invaluable addition to our community historiography. To Mark Twain’s observation that: “history does not repeat itself, at best it sometimes rhymes,” this from the Cretan Vintzenzos Kornaros, equally applicable to Socrates Tsourdalakis’ grand work: “the circle’s turns that rise and fall, and those of the wheel that now mount high and now plummet to the depths, time’s changes that never rest – all these have moved me today to tell a story…”


First published in NKEE on 10 August 2009