Greek Australians: beyond the stereotypes

March 24, 1999


Greek Australians: beyond the stereotypes

In Their Own Image
By Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski
Hale & Iremonger, 1998.
240pp. $49.95 (hb)

Review by James Vassilopoulos

The most enduring stereotypes of Greek Australians are that they are all souvlaki and fruit shop owners. In Their Own Image explodes these and other stereotypes.

The book is a collection of 194 photos, historical and contemporary, by Effy Alexakis. Leonard Janiszewski provides a history of 200 years of Greek migration to Australia. There are also first-hand accounts of Greek migrants' experiences.

The first Greek migrants arrived as far back as the 1820s. On August 27, 1829, the British convict ship Norfolk arrived in Sydney. Among the convicts on board were seven Greeks who had been convicted of piracy in the Mediterranean and sentenced either to 14 years or "for the term of his natural life" to servitude in the penal colony of New South Wales.

They were snapped up by the colonial elite as labourers and servants. In 1836, the newly independent Greek government campaigned for the release of the convicts because, it said, they had assisted in the liberation of Greece from Turkish domination. All were released.

The next confirmed Greek entrant to Australia was also a convict. Joseph Simmonds, a seafarer by trade, arrived in 1832. He had received a life sentence for stealing a handkerchief.

While the racism against Greeks and other southern European migrants during the 1960s is generally well known, less known are the anti-Greek riots and racist outbreaks that occurred during World War I. Hostility towards Greek immigrants stemmed from the alleged pro-German sympathies of Greece's King Constantine.

There were anti-Greek riots in Perth in 1915 and in Kalgoorlie in 1916. In the Kalgoorlie goldfields, there was a strike and demonstration to demand the internment of all "enemy" aliens, including Greeks. In 1916, a "secret census" of Greek-Australians was conducted on behalf of the Special Intelligence Bureau to prepare for the possible internment of Greek immigrants if Greece joined the Axis powers.

During the 1930s depression, riots against Greeks and other southern Europeans also broke out in Kalgoorlie. Two men were killed and many were injured.

The book's section on work emphasises that many Greeks are working class. The overwhelming majority of Greek-Australians, about 80%, are workers. Only 15% are small business owners and about 5% capitalists.

However, the book does not discuss the disputes Greek workers were involved in, such as the sugarcane cutters in north Queensland.

A pleasing feature of In Their Own Image is that in conveys the depth and complexity of the migrant experience. Many Greeks left their homeland because of war and poverty. Often children left their parents behind. Kristalla Christodoulou, from Kastellorizo, said, "Migration is a bad thing ... those that remained, we were left on our own. My babies left ... but what could you do? ... It was a catastrophe for us."

Unrecognised are the significant numbers who returned to Greece, because they felt Australia was a "black foreign land". Sometimes, they then felt homesick for Australia. They were called xeni (foreigners) in Greece and "foreigners" in Australia.

A less pleasing feature of the book is its attempt to claim that migrants support Australian nationalism. Underlying this is the view that Greeks can prove they are good Australians only by backing the ruling class. There is a section which describes how Greeks have participated in Australia's wars, from the Boer War to Vietnam.

There is also an irritating foreword by Lex Marinos. "Fotios Marinopoulos did not become less Greek and more 'Australian' when he was forced to become Frank Marinos. What makes my father Australian is his unshakeable belief in democracy, freedom, equality, and the notion of 'a fair go'", Marinos writes.

These positive aspects of Australian society — to the extent that they exist — have been fought for by working people regardless of their backgrounds. There is nothing intrinsically "Australian" about those values.

Another criticism is that nearly all the contemporary portraits of Greeks are those who have made it. There are scientists, academics, film-makers, actors, doctors, musicians and lawyers, but very few workers.

The book also glosses over the historical fact that Greek business owners sponsored other poor Greeks, including relatives, in order to use them as cheap labour. Such a disclosure would undermine the false view that all Greek-Australians are united by a common culture.

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