Saturday, March 20, 2021



Last Wednesday, the 17th of March, the City of Moreland, home to one of the most historically significant Greek communities in Melbourne, held a Greek Bicentennial Day Celebration and Flag Raising Ceremony. I was honoured to be asked to give the keynote address 


And musing there an hour alone, 

 I dream’d that Greece might still be free; 


When Lord Byron penned these immortal verses, Greece was not free. For the West, Greece was a memory, a cultural legacy into which they put whatever meaning suited their own aspirations. As Byron put it: For what is left the poet here? 

For Greeks a blush—for Greece a tear. 


For the people living inside the country, Greece too was a memory. A memory of a free, independent, cosmopolitan people, a curious tribe, that liked to discuss, explore, examine, ponder and share with others. As Cardinal Bessarion, one of the leading intellectuals to flee Greek lands prior to their subjugation observed: “We intermingle with all foreign peoples, we interact with all races….We collect what is best from everywhere, selecting what is useful and trading in every kind of knowledge.” 


These days, when nation states appear to many to be an antiquated construct for defining and governing a people, it is hard to realise just how revolutionary the 1821 Greek struggle for independence was. 


The Greek fight for freedom was exactly that. At the time the Revolution commenced, there were two categories of people. The privileged and second class citizens. You belonged to the second category if you had a different faith from your rulers. As a result, you had to dress differently. You were not allowed to ride a horse. You were limited as to how many rooms and windows you could have in your house. You were not permitted to build houses of worship. Your testimony did not count in court as much as a member of the privileged class did. There were certain jobs you were not allowed to hold. If you encountered a person belonging to the ruling class walking down the street, you had to stop and afford them right of way. Every so often, you would be placed under pressure to change your religion. You lived in fear that your children would be taken from you and your girls abused. This was the climate under which these disenfranchised people lived for four centuries. 


Now if this seems far-fetched, it is worthwhile to remember that in many countries around the world today, there are minorities that suffer from the exactly the same type of treatment. Indeed, the City of Moreland is home to many of their members, who have settled here, fleeing persecution. The only difference is that in 1821, the Greeks decided they could take it no more and resolved to do something about it, in the face of worldwide official indifference and no matter the cost. 


It should be noted that between 1453 when Constantinople, the last free Greek city was conquered, to 1821, when the Revolution that led to the establishment of the Greek state broke out, there was a revolt every ten years or so, because the Greek people never accepted that their sovereignty was ceded. What was different in 1821, was that there was widespread sympathy and support for the Greek cause within the West.  


On 25 March 1821, the Revolution was proclaimed at the Holy Lavra Monastery in southern Greece.  A month prior to this, a Greek prince crossed over from Russia and proclaimed the revolution in modern day Romania. Thousands of volunteers from all over Europe but especially the Balkans flocked to Greece to fight for freedom. In doing so, they believed that that they were fighting for the right of people all over the world not to be discriminated against because of creed, colour or race. 


The Greek struggle for independence captured the imagination of Europe and galvanised well-meaning philanthropists into action. All over the continent, from England to Russia, families contributed to humanitarian appeals to alleviate the plight of Greek refugees and the war afflicted. In Paris, Greek traditional dress became the fashion statement of the season. Across the ocean, the brave, newly created Caribbean nation of Haiti, having only recently thrown off the shackles of slavery, was the first state to recognise the independence of Greece, its president, Jean Pierre Boyer, writing: 


“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 dishonourable slavery and finally, with our own chains, broke the head of tyranny.” 



The path towards independence was a slow and difficult one. Bloody battles were fought. Terrible massacres and atrocities were committed. There were times when it seemed as if the cause was lost, yet the revolutionaries with the help of the European powers, finally prevailed.  


In the first Constitution of Greece, which was drafted in 1822, a year after the revolution broke out, we find these clauses: “All Greeks living in Greece shall be treated equally under the law. All non-Greeks living in Greece shall also be treated equally as Greeks under the law.” 


Let’s reflect on that for a moment. At that time, Catholics in Great Britain were discriminated against by law and continued to be so until 1828. 

In Austria and Russia, millions were serfs and owned by their masters, a regime that lasted in Austria until 1848 and in Russia until 186. 

In the United States, millions were enslaved because of the colour of their skin until 1865. 

In contract, this tiny new country was formed on two important  principles: 

1.         As a refuge against persecution; and 

2.         As a safe haven where everyone is treated equally. 


And these are the key elements that continue to reverberate and are of particular relevance to us here in multicultural Australia today. 


For arguably, it is because of this small group of people who fearlessly took a stand against violence, oppression and inequality that here in Australia we have a commitment to treating people equally and decently, helping those that need it most and condemning those who consider their fellow citizens to be inferior. 


We don’t always get it right but that does not mean that our commitment to these core values, that were personified for the first time in the Greek state founded as a result of the revolution whose bicentenary we commemorate today, is not absolute. Indeed, they lie at the very heart of what it is to be an Australian.  

It is therefore fitting that in the years that followed  Australia would go on to act to implement those principles, on the battlegrounds of Gallipoli, a peninsula populated by native Greek villages, and also in Greece and Crete during the Second World II, defending the freedom of the country that was created in order to protect and personify the very essence of freedom. 


And indeed, in the aftermath of that war, welcoming so many people of diverse backgrounds into Australia, so many Greeks among them, allowing them to thrive and contribute to the development of this great nation. 


I feel very proud as an Australian, to be sharing these thoughts with you, here in the City of Moreland, one of the most vibrant multicultural municipalities of Melbourne,  a region in which the historically important Greek-Australian community is such an inseparable part, where all peoples, in the spirit of the 1822 Greek Constitution of Freedom are treated equally, and celebrating and respecting each other’s beliefs, customs and traditions, thrive. 


Lord Byron finishes his poem “The Isles of Greece” by declaring  

“May hear our mutual murmurs sweep; 

A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—” 


Rudyard Kipling, on the other hand, renders the last stanza of the Greek national anthem in English as follows: 

“From the graves of our slain, 

Shall thy valour prevail, 

 as we greet thee again, 

Hail, Liberty! Hail!” 


The word for liberty in Greek, ελευθερία, literally means the state of being able to go wherever you want to. Long was the path that led to that liberty. Long was also the path that led us here, to these shores, to this municipality. Either way, it is this liberty, this freedom, this most precious ideal, that we celebrate and cherish today.. And when do, not matter where we come from, or where are going, we are all Greeks.  



First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 March 2021