Saturday, July 11, 2020


“The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectable way.” Honoré de Balzac - Le Père Goriot
Mention the name “Giorgios Averoff” to any Greek, and the immediate response is “benefactor.” A wealthy expatriate businessman, he applied his wealth to a number of institutional and educational projects  for the benefit of the modern Greek State, including  the founding of the School of Agriculture in Larisa, the construction of the Evelpidon Military Academy, a sizeable donation to the Athens Conservatory, another  donation for the refurbishment of the Panathenian Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held, funding the completion of the National Technical University of Athens, as well as a donation for the construction of a famous battleship of the Greek Navy, named after him. Businessmen of such standing occupy a hallowed position within the Greek pantheon and are collectively known as «ευεργέτες του έθνους», literarily “doers of good deeds for the nation,” hearkening back to a Hellenistic system of public philanthropy known as Euergetism, whereby the state specifically directed the public benefactions of the richest of its members while also providing them with official honours.

If you hail from the region of Epirus, you will also know that Giorgos Averoff, who was from Metsovo, constitutes a rags to riches success story that embodies the entrepreneurial values and aspirations of the Greeks of the region. Migrating to Alexandria at a young age, Averoff tried his hand at a number of business opportunities, took various calculated risks, such as cornering the Egyptian gold braid market at a time when gold braid was desperately required by the government to outfit its soldiers with new uniforms.  Participating in banking and real estate speculation, his riverboats, carrying such cargo as cotton and grain proliferated in the Nile and he came to dominate Egypt’s domestic and foreign trade. The Epirotes will tell you that despite his newly acquired wealth, Averoff never forgot his specific homeland, donating large sums for the construction of vocational training and other educational institutions in Epirus. They will also point to his progressive nature, funding early Greek feminist Kalliopi Kehagia’s project to reform juvenile prison institutions, and his presidency of the Alexandrian Greek community as best exemplifying the enormous potential of the Epirote migrant.

Speak to someone from Omdurman in Sudan however, and they have a different story to tell. At the time Averoff was making his money, Sudan was ruled by British dominated Egypt. According to historian Antonis Chaldeos, who has written extensively about the Greek communities of Sudan, Averoff was able to capitalize on the relative security offered by British colonial domination, in order to penetrate Sudan and gain lucrative contracts for the export of Arabic gum and ivory to England. He set up the centre of his operations in Omdurman and so significant were they, that the dock from which they were performed has entered into legend, with local merchants and indigenous Sudanese calling it “Aburoof,” ie. Averoff, after him.
Antonis Chaldeos’ extensive on the ground research with residents of Omdurman reveals another, altogether unsavoury aspect to Averoff’s trade operations. According to folk memory, Averoff, was involved in the local slave trade, as Chaldeos writes, “an activity that lasted for decades and made him earn a great part of his huge property.” According to British government reports, a number of Greeks of the time were accused of participating in the slave trade. Chaldeos places their activity in the following context: “In the late 1860s, more than 60,000 slaves were sold in the area of Bahr al-Ghazal and in the late 1870s, the Greeks of Kassala and Gedaref were blamed for extensive use of slaves on their cotton plantations. One of the main slave transfer points was Omdurman, where slaves boarded in ships besides the Nile shore and then transferred to Egypt. Nowadays, a few Sudanese believe that most of these ships belonged to Averoff.”
Here in Melbourne, we, being the offspring of a generation of migrants that did all they could to establish themselves in this country, we can see how, if Averoff did profit from the Sudanese slave trade, he and others like him were likely, a product of their time, their worldview shaped by a colonialist/Near Eastern paradigm that considered African people inferior to “whites” and thus a merchantable commodity. Averoff used whatever means at his disposal to “get ahead,” at the same time legitimising orientalist paradigms that justified colonial domination over Sudan by his participation in their socio-economic structure and its underlying assumptions about race and colour.
The recent bout of iconoclasm that has rocked America and the western world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the defacement and destruction of statues and the renaming of public institutions and even music groups, has fueled a passionate debate as to how historical figures are to be commemorated, and how their commemoration can lead to the entrenchment of racist perspectives. It is a debate that Greek communities throughout the world have followed with interest but also, with a sense of detachment. After all, ours is a national narrative constructed around the motif of emancipation from the bonds of slavery, not of political or cultural domination. Although our modern incarnation is a product of the same western colonialist processes, our understanding of them is distanced from any complicity or involvement with the subjugation of others on the basis of race and culture. There is therefore a deeply held conviction that this is not our original sin.
The case of Averoff thus gives us pause for thought. How must modern Greeks deal with the legacy of a person who is universally lauded and held up to be a paragon of benevolence, whose donations have shaped the topography of Athens to the present, when the profits from which they were created may be tainted? Does the uncritical acceptance of the Greek euergetic discourse perpetuate racist stereotypes and colonialist domination? If so, how does that impact upon the prevailing narrative of the emergence of the Greek state as an emancipation from slavery itself? What do we do with the statues of Averoff, and the commemorative plaques that dot the Greek urban landscape? Do we topple these and erase his name? Do we further investigate this apparently seamy side to one of our nation builders and try to justify or explain his conduct so as to preserve his place in the pantheon and our enjoyment of the wealth he has bequeathed to the nation, or do we admit that Greeks too have availed themselves of the opportunities and institutions provided by colonialist powers in order to indulge in criminal behaviour, perpetuating human misery, in pursuit of profit? If we do admit such complicity, this would force a radical rethink not only of the mythology surrounding the foundation of the modern Greek nation but also, that of the Greek migrant communities worldwide, with far-reaching implications for the way we view our historical relationship with native communities in our place of settlement.
All this of course, is conjecture, for although British reports refer to Greek slavers in Sudan (slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833, although the British continued to buy products from businessmen who owned and used slaves in Africa), there is no documentary evidence directly linking Averoff to the trade. Yet one would have thought that given that the anecdotal evidence uncovered by Antonis Chaldeos in his publications: “The Greek Community in Sudan” and "Sudanese toponyms related to Greek entrepreneurial activity," implicating Averoff has been public knowledge for several years now, this would have sparked off a public debate within Greece, or by those outside that country concerned by the perpetuation of narratives of racial subjugation. The fact that it has not, suggests that the position of Greece within the socio-political apprehension of the parties now engaged in the iconoclastic debate within the western world, is a peripheral one, which in turn gives rise to questions as to the manner in which orientalist and racial stereotypes may be internalized by those who rail against them, in certain cultural contexts.
It is unknown to what extent, if any, Greece will engage with, or be compelled by external agents to critically assess its nation building myths in the light of the western legacy of slavery, or to what extent Averoff, with his Slavic-derived surname, will be maintained or dethroned from the Greek pantheon of heroes. One thing, however, is certain. Possibly for the same reasons, no one engaging in the debate seems to have realized that we refer to an entire group of people as slaves: the Slavs. This ethnonym, is taken from the Latin word sclavinae which means slave. Slavs were captured and enslaved first by the late Romans and then the Ottomans for centuries. It could be argued that the West and indeed the Slav peoples themselves, have, by employing this term of reference, encoded and embedded the tragedy of their enslavement within their own discourse. As the Slavs, especially Orthodox ones, feature only as an orientalist “other” or a subversive element in the various dominant narratives, none of the key stakeholders have realized that as they campaign for multifarious forms of equality, they are referring to millions of people comprising a multitude of nations, as slaves. In the radical, iconoclastic reassessment of those myths that we hold sacred, past and present, the words of Lord Byron ring truer that ever before: “Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 July 2020