Monday, April 11, 2005


Hugh Gilchrist probably doesn’t know this, but I owe my tertiary entrance rank and indeed the fact I passed my history CAT (now known as the SAC) quite a long time ago to him. That rather mundane story has its inception a few years even before that when as a young teenager, I would peruse my uncle’s bookshelves. Finding a newly purchased copy of “Australians and Greeks: Volume I, the early years,” a ritual was established. Every time I would visit my uncle I would immediately remove that weighty tome from the shelf and delight myself in learning that Alexander of Byzantium reached Sumatra in the 11th century according to the Buddhist scriptures known as the Yavanaraja-vrttana, that in the 17th century Konstantinos Ierakis was the prime minister at the court of King Narai of Thailand and indeed, that the correct Greek term for the platypus, as coined in the Athenian magazine ‘Pandora’ in 1856 is none other than the tongue-stretching «ορνιθόρρυγχος.» In this volume, the entire prequel to my family’s arrival was revealed. For Gilchrist masterly described the trials and tribulations, not only of the first Greek migrants, but also the relationship of Australia to Greece, something which our own ‘home-grown’ historians, bent on recording internecine strife and quarrels between community groups, seem to forget.
What emerges is a narrative that blasts once and for all the myth that Greek-Australia’s primary history is that of the period of post-war mass migration or that the bland label of ‘economic refugee’ is of universal application. Through Gilchrist’s research, a quirky, excitingly romantic narrative is uncovered, where our founding fathers aptly enough turn out to be Mediterranean pirates, and where especially in the case of Catherine Crummer, literature collides with fact. Immortalised in Dumas’ classic ‘The Count of Monte Christo,’ Crummer escapes the court of Ali Pasha at Ioannina and ends up in Australia, as the wife of Major James Crummer, a NSW magistrate. Through Gilchrist’s extensive research, we learn that the story of the emerging Australian nation, from its very inception is not confined to the conventional ‘Anglo-Saxon’ narrative taught at schools and that from the beginning, the Greek people have managed to weave their way inextricably into the warp and weft of the fabric of our country. Applying great perspicacity, Gilchrist does not merely confine himself to telling the story of the early Greek arrivals, some of which, especially the shopkeepers had a tremendous effect on the business culture of young Australia. Through the pages of his history, he examines how Greek neo-classicism affected Australian society, both culturally and physically through architecture and tourism and it is here that the origins of the excellent relations between the Australian and Greek peoples lie. It was essentially Gilchrist’s argument, that the fibres of Australian history are composite and worth dissecting under the electron microscope of cultural sensitivity, that impressed my VCE Australian history teacher, who knew absolutely nothing about the importance or even the mere existence of Greeks in early Australian society, enough to give me a decent mark. Thanks Hugh.
My obsession with Hugh Gilchrist did not end at VCE however. His account of the early founders of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria deeply moved me. Outstanding individuals in their own right, I could not understand why their deeds had been largely forgotten, save by a few elderly gentlemen with broad Australian accents living out their twilight years in remembrance of a very different Australia. I found myself in Carlton cemetery, locating the graves of some of these early ‘fathers’ such as Lekatsas and musing over how much we have forgotten in the space of hundred years. My enthusiasm seems to be infectious. A year after graduation, I received a phone call from a friend who had moved up to Canberra. “Guess what?” he said, “I met that Gilchrist dude you were raving on about all the time. Really good bloke.”
Hugh Gilchrist is certainly as most fascinating bloke. Born in 1916 in Sydney, he graduated in Arts and Laws from Sydney University, where he edited the student newspaper Honi Soit and helped found the National Union of Students,
After wartime service in the army in Australia and New Guinea he entered the Department of External Affairs and served in Canberra, London, Berlin, Paris, Greece as a member of the UN Special Commission on the Balkans, Jakarta and South Africa. Later he was Australia's High Commissioner in Tanzania, Ambassador to Greece (1968 - 72), head of the Foreign Affairs Department's Legal Division and Ambassador to Spain,
Since retiring in 1979 he has served on the Australia Council's Literature Board and as a consultant to the Department of Foreign Affairs, and has received grants from the Australian Government to pursue historical research. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia has awarded him its Gold Cross of St Andrew and in 2002 the Australian Hellenic Council conferred on him its Niki Award for services to Greek-Australian relations. A great philhellene, he has named his daughter Athene, while his granddaughters are named Zoe and Ariadne, maintaining a Greek connection.
On 10th April, the third volume of Hugh Gilchrist's award winning history, Volume III, the Later Years covering an age of war and migration, when world crisis brought Greeks and Australians into intimate contact was launched at the Greek Orthodox Community of Οakleigh, courtesy of that organization, along with the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne and the Melbourne University Friends of the Australia Archaeological Institute after a fascinating and inspired address by Professor Stathis Gauntlett of LaTrobe University.
‘The Later Years’ records the largely unknown or forgotten stories of thousands of Australian Greeks, who fought for their adopted country in World War II. It reports heroic exploits like those of Angelo Barbouttis, who destroyed two barges full of Japanese soldiers in New Guinea. It also describes the heroic Cretan and mainland Greeks who looked after the Australians who fought on in occupied Greece, including Lela Karayianni, shot by the Nazis having saved dozens of Australians in Athens. Before the Shrine of Remembrance Trustees seek to impose further restrictions on the Greek Community’s National Day Parade, they would do well to read these sections of Gilchrist’s book over and over again.
New generations of Greek Australians making their mark in the professions and other walks of life are covered. So are all aspects of Greek society in wartime and post-War Australia, the Church, the Press, education, politics and social life.
Most importantly, in this book, Gilchrist examines the background and context to the mass wave of post-war immigration to Australia. At the same time that immigration programs brought large numbers from a troubled post-War Greece, Australian diplomats laboured to secure Greece's place in its neighbourhood, while aid workers delivered help, funds and commodities to a suffering population. Famous Australians, including Patrick White and Dr Evatt, took a close interest in Greek affairs. Hugh Gilchrist follows these issues through to the establishment of Greece's permanent diplomatic mission in Australia in the 1950s.
In a period of trade, travel and communication Hugh Gilchrist’s panoramic eye also surveys bi-lateral economic relations, even records the Greek ships which came to Australia, many sunk in the War, others bringing migrants to a new home. This remarkable trilogy deserves a place in very Greek home. Written in English, it is accessible to all those of us who seek to understand how it is that we came to be here and why we are the way we have become. It is indeed a lasting tribute to our community that Hugh Gilchrist saw it worthy of his historical endeavours. Our lasting tribute to our own community should be to read it.
first published in NKEE on 11 April 2005