Saturday, February 22, 2014
The personage of Chris Moustakis has fascinated me for years. Possessed of a master’s degree in history from Harvard, he was one of Leon Trotsky’s secretaries in Mexico, just months before the old revolutionary’s assassination by a Stalinist agent. Moustakis is enthralling because he is so elusive. Appearing as brief footnote in the life of a great man, what insights could he have shed upon Trotsky’s character? What inside knowledge could have he gleaned about diverse topics pertaining to the Russian Revolution and the inner workings of the Bolsheviks? Sadly, there are a dearth of sources and we shall never know.
Chris Moustakis slight and mysterious presence on the margins of history is one but many. Scratch the surface of many a historical event, and chances are that you will find a Greek, however insignificant, having played a role therein. Take for example the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, marking the first of many failed attempts to conquer Afghanistan in the modern period. The British Army began its retreat from Kabul following the killing of the two British representatives there. The nearest British garrison was in Jalalabad, 140 km away, and the army would need to go through mountain passes with the January snow hindering them. 4,500 military personnel and 12,000 civilian camp followers set out for Jalalabad, on the understanding that they had been offered safe passage. However, Afghan tribesmen intercepted them and proceeded to massacre them during the next seven days. The British garrison in Jalalabad came across a Dr Brydon. Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword and he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood's Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor's life. While Dr Brydon became widely famous for being the only survivor of the entire army, according to his own testimony, he was not alone. Apparently, a Greek merchant, a Mr Baness, also made it to Jalalabad, arriving two days after Brydon but surviving for only one day. Who this Mr Baness was and what he was doing in tribal Afghanistan is a complete mystery, yet it is absorbing to contemplate Greek merchants of the nineteenth century traversing such remote and dangerous areas of the world, all the while become witnesses to events that would eventually become enshrined in myth and legend. Baness, like Moustakis, is a tantalising signpost to a road that has now become lost in obscurity.
Other Greek merchants display a penchant for being in the right place at the right time. Take for example the massacre of General Hicks’ army in the Sudan by the followers of the Mahdi, one of the first modern Islamic fundamentalist movements that challenged the myth of the invincibility of the British Empire in Africa. Hicks’ force left the Nile at Duem and struck inland across the almost waterless wastes of Kordofan for Obeid, with a mission to smash the forces of the Mahdi. A month later, the army, misled by treacherous guides and thirst-stricken, was ambushed in dense forest at Kashgil, 30 miles south of Obeid. With the exception of some three hundred men the whole force was killed and the Mahdi was able to seize western weaponry. It was this massacre that caused the British command to send General Gordon to hold Khartoum, culminating in the famous siege, and of course, the construction of the famous homonymous movie, starring Charlton Heston. We know details of the massacre, because a Greek merchant, a M. Constantino, who happened to be travelling with the British Army, survived the massacre and gave a blow by blow account of it to the Times, in 1884, detailing how each protagonist was killed, as well as what weapons were seized by the forces of the Mahdi.
Fascinatingly enough, another account of the Hicks’ massacre as well as the arrival of General Gordon’s relieving force in Khartoum survives, this time, provided to the Cairo correspondent of the “Standard” in November 1884 by another Greek merchant, who was captured by the forces by the Mahdi and compelled to embrace Islam. Costis Mouskos, who renamed himself Abdullah, was captured by the Mahdist forces before the Mahdi took Khartoum and was privy to the Mahdi’s machinations in attempting to trap General Hicks’ army, stating that he had sent his solders out to track Hicks’ army, under the pretext of being friendly. Mouskos was a servant to the Mahdi and was thus able to pass on information about his character and personality. Further, he was permitted to go to Khartoum when that city was occupied by General Gordon and was able to get to know General Gordon and his subordinate Colonel Stewart. As a spy for the Mahdi, he was spared death in the ensuing massacre of the British garrison, making his way to Cairo, where he passed on valuable information about the Mahdist forces to the leaders of the British administration in Egypt, Lord Wolseley and Sir Evelyn Baring. All this, Abdullah-Costis Mouskos accomplished at the tender age of just twenty-three. In his account, he also mentions other Greek merchants resident at the time in Khartoum, dealing largely with ostrich feathers, ivory and gum.
To consider that one of the most profound historical events that shook and moved the British Empire to its core, causing it to question the Gladstonian policy of limited empire and instead discarding it for a Disraelian conception of an expanding empire, is known to us largely through the testimonies of a few obscure Greek merchants, plying their trade within the maelstrom of religious and colonial warfare, is to marvel both at the resilience and the determination of these unknown compatriots. Subsisting on the fringes of events far beyond their capacity to control, they either attempted to exploit the opportunities that arose through conflict to their advantage and lived to tell the tale.
Fast forward to the Russian Civil War and the amazingly complex anarchist movement in the Ukraine, known as the Makhnovist movement, led by the anarchist Nestor Makhno. We learn that a certain Pontic Greek, surnamed Papadopoulos was considered to be so effective at fighting both the Tsarist and Bolshevik forces, that he was celebrated in a Makhnovist song and was renowned among the Pontic Greeks for decades. His fate, like that of other Greek Makhnovists such as the Mavroudis brothers has been lost, suppressed in the aftermath of the defeat of the anarchist movement by the Bolsheviks and they exist only as markers in the memoirs of the exiled Nestor Makhno. Somewhere, somehow, it is quite possible that local lore, in the form of memory or song survives and the participation of the anarchist Pontians in the Makhnovist movement offers tantalising opportunities in examining another set of relatively unknown Greeks, influencing the course of history from the margins.
Whether on the proscenium, or backstage, Greeks have the tendency of making themselves apparent in the most unlikely of places. From becoming prime ministers of Siam, to ruling Romania and beyond, it is for us to pay heed to the footnotes of history and do all we can to ensure that our fascinating compatriots who lurk within them, emerge in their fullness.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 February 2014