Saturday, September 29, 2012
The obscure Constantine Hierax was born in Cephalonia in 1647, in a family possessed of impeccable pedigree. His father was the son of the governor of Cephalonia, and his mother's forebears governed the island under the Republic of Venice. Family lineage notwithstanding, in 1660 at age thirteen, with no formal training he left home in search of a better life, taking up with an English master where he completed several voyages prior to migrating from the Mediterranean to England.
In England he soon became immersed in the heady politics of Restoration England, studying the English language and enlisting in Prince Rupert's fleet against the Dutch. Subsequently, he sailed to India under another master who changed his name from Hierax to "Falcon," the English equivalent. Feeling a strong attachment to the Far East, upon his return to England he decided to return and make his fortune as a trader. Consequently, he signed on as an assistant gunner on the Hopewell, bound for Batam in 1669 in order to obtain passage back to The East Indies. Arriving in Batam he enlisted his services with the British East India Company where he was assigned as a junior clerk. Here he picked up yet another language, Malay, in addition to Siamese, English, Greek, Latin and Portuguese.
Phaulkon's first big break came on 29 May 1678 at a birthday party for King Charles II of England. A gunner, while loading a cannon, accidentally set fire to the gunpowder that spread to the well-stocked powder magazine nearby. When everyone fled, he alone entered the magazine, removing the open cask of gunpowder, thereby saving the magazine and the factory. For his heroism, he was given a reward of one thousand crowns. Having never before set his eyes on such a princely sum, he saw this as an opportunity to make his fortune. He resigned his post with the East India Company in Batam and invested in a modest vessel and cargo that he intended to sell in Aceh.
It was at this point, that his fortunes decidedly changed.
The city of Singora had rebelled against Siamese rule and, Phaulkon, decided to make a profit by supplying the rebels in that town with arms and provisions.. However, during the voyage a storm broke out and his boat was broken into pieces by the violent sea off the cost of Ligor. This unfortunate experience was observed by some locals, and the Siamese authorities were quickly notified. The Governor caught wind of what was going on and interrogated Phaulkon and his crew. Phaulkon, who had by this time mastered the Siamese language, replied to the governor in his mother tongue. He surprised the governor and was able to talk his way out of receiving any punishment by stating he was working for the East India Company and was bringing supplies to various towns in Siam when the ship was wrecked. To avoid further suspicion from the Siamese that he was trading outside the Company and carrying contraband goods, Phaulkon offered his services to the Barcalon or foreign minister, in 1680, to serve as an interpreter between himself and the English.
Acquitting himself in his position admirably, he soon earned the trust of the king. After the death of the king’s chief counselor, the Iranian Aqa Muhammad, the king foiled an attempt by the Iranian’s at his court to dethrone him and replace him with his brother. Fearing the Iranians, the king turned to Phaulkon to fill the void in his administration. However, by degree of momentum, raised him in the space of eight years to the highest credit and authority. He was put at the head of the finances of the Kingdom, and also the direction of the King's household. Almost all public affairs of the most important concern were determined by his advice, and whoever had anything to solicit was required to apply to him.
Although at the zenith of his power in 1685 he was in complete control of the country, he refused to accept official positions, rightly fearing to create more enemies than he already had. He placed nonentities in government posts and held all the power in his hands. The Abbe De Choisy in his memoirs states; "Mr. Constance, though neither Phra Klang, nor prime minister possessed all their functions..."
In the mid 1680's, King Narai had Phaulkon turn to the French in the hope of using them to counteract the Dutch influence in Siam. Initially the idea had merit since the Dutch and the French were enemies in Europe. The credit for opening up the relations between Siam and France did not go to Phaulkon, but to the French Catholic missionaries whose main aim was to propagate Roman Catholicism in Annam, Tonkin, and China. Narai sent two embassies to France with the hopes of securing their "friendship." The first embassy was shipwrecked, and the second embassy was entrusted with the duty of inviting France to send an embassy to Siam with the idea of concluding a treaty of friendship. Louis XIV sent an embassy to Siam in hopes of converting Narai to Christianity.
While the French embassy itself was written off as a failure, it represented a great success for Phaulkon and Siam. For his master, he had obtained the coveted alliance with France, without surrendering anything more than vague offers for the missionaries which were never published.
Phaulkon's closeness to the king naturally earned him the envy of some members of the royal court, which would eventually prove to be his undoing. When King Narai became terminally ill, a rumor spread that Phaulkon wanted to use the designated heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet and actually become ruler himself. As unlikely as this was, it provided an excuse for Pra Phetracha, the foster brother of Narai, aided by the Durch enemies of Phaulkon to stage a coup d'état, the 1688 Siamese revolution. Without the king's knowledge, both Phaulkon and his followers as well as the royal heir were arrested and executed on June 5, 1688 in Lopburi. When King Narai learned what had happened, he was furious - but was too weak to take any action. Narai died several days later, virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Phetracha then proclaimed himself the new king of Siam and began a xenophobic regime which expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom.
Despite being a man of outstanding qualities, Phaulkon is considered as a failure in conventional historiography. Orientalising historians emphasize his Greek background, possessing “all of their negative behavior traits and vices,” as one stated, despite having limited contact with Greece after the age of thirteen, save for a few letters from his mother and bottles of Greek wine which he lavishly entertained.
Yet the truth is much different. Phaulkon ably ran the kingdom for his master and was able to deftly skit past the imperialistic ambitions of the European powers. Siam during his time was enlightened, tolerant, pluralistic and independent.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
MUSEUM OF OUR INNOCENCE
Enter Menelaos Stamatopoulos, who, looking up absent-mindedly from his Philhellenic plate of comestibles a few weeks ago, was shocked to arrive at the realization that the smiling and dapper young gent pictured second from the right was a youthful portrayal of his now eighty seven year old progenitor, Odysseus. Moved beyond belief and astounded that he had never seen this photograph of his father before, he arranged a small surprise for him, inviting him to dinner at the restaurant and seating him directly underneath the photograph. When the venerable, hearty but hale octogenarian cast eyes on the photograph and beheld himself in his prime, resplendent in full foustanella, fashionably fastened at the waist, he wept.
A few weeks later, I am seated opposite both Menelaos and Odysseus at Philhellene restaurant. With trembling hands, Odysseus lovingly opens an envelope and fingers the black and white photographs that spill out from it. They too, are photographs of a suave and debonair Odysseus, resplendent in full regalia, ensconced among other suitably attired gents and demoiselles, posed in various dancing attitudes. The play of light and shadow causes their outline to be juxtaposed crisply against the background, granting them a nineteen forties movie star aura of glamour. The reason for the fortuitous capturing of these moments in such a skillful manner can be discerned by flipping to the reverse of the photographs. There we see stamped indelibly in purple ink: “Property of the Herald.”
“These photographs were taken in 1953,” Odysseus explains. “I had just arrived in Melbourne and was feeling lonely, so I joined the Olympic Dance Group, a way of meeting new people. Of the girls that you see in the photos, at least two are Australian. Back in those days, some of the Australian girls who had married Greek men would learn to dance and perform with us. Other Australian girls had no connection with Greece other than an interest in the country after the War.”
This statement, it seemed to me, tended to do much to restore balance to a somewhat one-sided community myth that would have the pre-nineteen sixties broader Australian social context look disparagingly upon migrants and especially their culture to the extent where openly being Greek was socially impermissible. The stereotype of Greek men marrying Australian women who were invariably opposed to manifestations of Greek culture and thus excluded their menfolk from the community also seemed to be in part, contradicted. Such bias apparently did not exist among the smiling young Australian ladies of the photograph who seem less embarrassed to don Greek traditional costume then some of their Greek-Australian counterparts some six decades later.
Further belying the myth that Australia was largely not interested in the migrant cultural experience prior to the advent of the official policy of multiculturalism, is the fact that the series of photographs have been taken by mainstream Australian print media. Odysseus takes great pains to point out that the bulk of the performances undertaken by the young dance group were for Australian audiences, with the group even performing publicly at festivals organized to welcome the advent of the 1954 Olympic Games to Melbourne. It appears that, possibly because of the novelty value, that exhibitions of Greek culture, such as they were, and possibly owing to their novelty and the sympathy Greece elicited in the hearts of many Australian returned servicemen at the time, were much more integrated within the mainstream and captured more interest than many do now, our primary focus being our own entertainment.
As I gazed at the photograph and listened to the venerable Odysseus relate fascinating stories of his life, I marveled at the swiftness of the passage of time. The young man, full of promise, optimism and raw sexual energy is now a mellow yet sprightly grandfather. Many of the smiling youths of the photograph are no longer with us and when the last of them go, one of the fading reminders of their brief sojourn on this earth will be a photograph on the wall of a restaurant, interesting, evocative but largely incomprehensible to those who have not yet embraced oblivion.
Saturday, September 15, 2012
ISTANBUL NOT CONSTANTINOPLE
Ellinarades would perhaps, be consoled by the fact that the Chinese are one of the few peoples who call us by our preferred appellation, where allowing for pronunciation difficulties, our country is known as Xílā, pronounced Shila ie. Hellas. The historical context aside, one is mystified by the unilateralism of our Ellinarades’ approach to the sensitive topic of our collective cognomen, given that as Greeks/Hellenes/Romioi/Yunanlar, we rarely call other nations or their cities by the name they call themselves. Thus, the Γερμανοί are not referred to as the Ντόιτς, their capital city is referred to as Βερολίνο and not Μπερλίν and even the hapless Chinese who have been so kind as to call us by the name we wish to call ourselves, are not recipients of grateful reciprocity, for we Greeks do not call their land Τσόγκουο, but instead Κίνα. Similarly, Albania is not called Σκιπέρια, Armenia is not called Χαγιαστάν, nor Hungary, Μαγκιαρορζιάγκ. The reason for this is simple. Names of countries or people convey to us, not only information about them, but also about how they relate to us and our own culture.
Ellinarades who insist upon others using Greek titles to describe geographical and cultural entities would never dream of calling Constantinople Istanbul or Izmir, Smyrna. This is because, regardless of the fact that these cities lie in the Republic of Turkey, they have formed culturally and for a long time politically, an inseparable part of the Greek world. Though Istanbul is actually a corruption of the Greek term «Εις την Πόλιν,» it is culturally unacceptable for a Greek to use this term as it connotes a de-Hellenization of what was the cultural capital of the Greek world for one and a half thousand years.
While it would appear axiomatic that each culture would employ its own terms to denote regions of significance to it, regardless as to where they lie, this does not appear to be the case when it comes to Greece and Turkey. Recently, the Greek border police restricted entry into Greece, to three members of a Turkish delegation accompanying the vice-president of the Turkish Republic upon an official visit. The reason cited was that on their passports, their birthplaces, which were all situated in Greece, were recorded with their Turkish names, rather than their official Greek ones. Thus MP for Adrianople (oops, I should say Edirne shouldn’t I?) Mehmet Muezinoglu, was restricted entry as his birthplace was recorded as Gümülcine, rather than Komotini, while his wife was restricted entry for the reason that while her passport did record her birthplace as Komotini, it referred to Greece as Yunanistan. Finally, the acedemic Doctor Halit Eren who states on his webpage that he was born in Gümülcine (Komotini, Greece), was denied entry as the village of his birth was recorded as Kizilağaç, (meaning Red Tree) rather than Ragada, its offical Greek name.
All this seems rather petty and stupid until it is pointed out that there exists a bilateral treaty between Greece and Turkey, whereby these countries undertake not to employ their own terms when referring to regions within each country but rather those recognised internationally and officially by each sovereign country in question. It remains to be seen whether Constatinopolitan Greeks, Imvriots or Tenedians now resident in Greece, would have their birthplace registered as «Ιστανμπούλ, Γκοκτσεαντά,» or «Μποζτζαντά» in their passports and if they didn’t, whether they would be denied entry into Turkey. It would be hurtful and mindless if they were, as this would deny the core of their identity.
Some have argued that the persistent breaching of the bilateral treaty by Turkey, through its insistence on using Turkish names for Thracian villages in which a large Muslim minority currently resides, is in bad faith, and deeper, fouler and nefarious purposes are at play here. Whatever the intention, it is an incontrovertible fact that Muslims have resided in the Greek lands of Thrace for over four hundred years, just as Greek people have inhabited the lands of modern Turkey for over three thousand years and that it is as natural to expect these people to refer to the regions in which they have been born or derive their origins with their own particular names, as it is for Victorians to call their capital city Melbourne, rather than one designated by its original inhabitants, the Kulin nation, as long as the Kulin nation’s right to refer to their land as they will, is respected.
Saturday, September 08, 2012
DEATH OF A STEREOTYPE
Whereas Greeks would invite Australians into their homes readily, Austalians would not. When a much coveted invitation was ever received, the Greek would be surprised at the paucity of foodstuffs offered to guests, commenting that they would be lucky to be provided with more than a beer and musing that this is for the best since Australian homes were invariably filthy and messy to boot.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 September 2012
Saturday, September 01, 2012
SILENCE SPEAKS FROM SINAI
First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 September 2012