Why do 550.000 Australian citizens of Greek origin live in an earthly paradise?

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By Anastasios M. Tamis*

With my next three articles I would like to justify the title of earthly paradise that I offer to Australia, starting from the difficult years of settlement and survival. I will attempt to give tangible historical and social examples with which contemporary Australia is emerging indeed as a country with the highest performance and achievements in the world in the quality of education, in medical-hospital and research care, sports, arts and culture, theater, cinema and arts, in social maturation, in the level of security it provides and the quality of life.

Australia is a country of immigrants, western, with main European characteristics, multicultural, English-speaking, developed as a British colony, on a continent inhabited for years by other older settlers who also came from Asia and developed here one of the oldest primordial civilisations.

The main characteristic of Australia is that it is a European structured country, cut off from the old continent and transplanted to the far south, having as its neighbour to the north, the largest Islamic country on the planet, Indonesia. Australia, which until the beginning of the Second World War had not exceeded seven million souls, among them 15,000 Greeks, mainly islanders, lived not only with the tyranny of distance, but also with the fear of a conquering aggression from the north, mainly from Japan and China.

The 15,000 Greeks of the pre-war period were manual workers, agrarians, loggers, travelling workers of all kinds in the vast countryside, specialists in deforestation and the distillation of eucalyptus oil, working in groups, with an improvised hierarchy and rotating assignment of duties to those who would take care of the maintenance and cleanliness of the group, in tents and camps. Close to them were the unskilled workers in the vast sugar cane and banana plantations, in the tobacco plantations, as well as those who made a living in the foundries and refineries, in the mines and in the pits where they melted the lime.

The few Greek settlers in the cities were small shop owners, small businessmen, waiters, few bakers and even fewer privileged workers in shoe factories and construction. Working in the cities was the prerogative exclusively of British subjects. Foreign nationals, mainly southern Europeans, were forbidden to work in the few factories, and factories were scarce, because the metropolis, the United Kingdom, did not allow goods to be produced in the colonies, but to be exported to the colonies so the metropolitan workforce to have work. The only exceptions were shoe-manufacturing factories and some sewing factories.

For the Greek settlers of pre-war Australia, the country was not an earthly paradise. Work was hard, state care almost non-existent, welfare benefits did not exist, solidarity and care for the unemployed were the duty of the church, missions, communities and collective bodies. There was no easy enrichment, and the prosperity of goods was limited. People were generally more frugal in their needs and less consuming, caring for necessities, trying to give their children better opportunities for education and prosperity.

Australians, like their colonial ancestors, were less accessible to outsiders. They were not used socially, economically, culturally, to living with others, with ethnically different people. Their ancestors used to oppress the foreigners as colonisers, as slaves. Thus, Australians as descendants in the colonies, did not accept them as equal citizens. Australians of the pre-war period behaved with intense xenophobia, with misoxenia, with feelings of racism, with intense prejudice and suspicion.

In the Commonwealth Parliament, racist speeches were made by MPs against Greeks, Italians and Maltese, with painful epithets that fostered hatred and prejudice. The immigrants were cursed for working all day from Dawn to Sunset, and were decorated by their fellow Australians as “degos” and “stools,” they were kicked out of work; Australians went on strike if some merciful and pitiful Australian decided to give work to a Greek or a Maltese; stoned them in the countryside and bombed immigrant cafes.

In the pre-war period, ignorance and prejudice prevailed. First, were the Chinese, whom they considered a “yellow terror” and a “yellow menace”. Then, the Albanians, who were not even allowed to disembark in Australian ports and were sent back by the boat that they came as “unwanted scams.” Then were the Yugoslavs, Maltese, Greeks and even Italians, whereby their houses and shops were set on fire in Broken Hill, Boulder, Kalgoorlie, and other rural towns of NSW and Queensland. Some were deported, some were exiled, others were excluded. State governments banned banks from giving loans to Southern Europeans, cutting them off from any bank transactions. Premiers even punished Australians who broke restrictions and gave money or loans to Greeks in the decades of 1924-1935. Other states recorded their names and addresses, policing them as enemies of Australia and the Empire. Since 1932, the Cypriots have been officially described as “terrorists” and enemies of the Crown and the Empire. 

In the Australian Archives there are thousands of documents of the Security Forces and the Ministry of Justice, where hundreds of Greek leaders and ordinary citizens have “glaring files” with surveillance reports and scenarios of “hostile behavior” either as communists, anarchists, or enemies of the Throne and Australia. And on top of all this is the Act of 1701, a law passed by the British Parliament, which until today, in 2024, prohibits any non-British or citizen who was not born in one of the British possessions from “claiming or obtaining a position in the public service of Australia.”

In this climate of xenophobia, a wonderful Hellenism functioned and matured in Australia; a Hellenism that laid the foundations for the operation of secular communities, a Hellenism that founded the first Orthodox Churches, the first newspapers, published the first books, organised the first theatrical workshops, the first Greek schools, the first choirs. A Hellenism that accepted and gave meaning and purpose to the existence of the Metropolis of Australia and the institution of Consuls and Our diplomats. A Hellenism that laid the strong foundations and essentially bankrupted the xenophobia and prejudice of their Australian fellow citizens, against the 270,000 Greek immigrants who settled Australia in the period 1949-1978 and 2009-2019, in order to offer them today’s Australia, the earthly paradise enjoyed today by the 550,000 Australian citizens of Greek origin (Greeks and Cypriots). This is what we will examine in the next two editions of The Greek Herald.

*Professor Anastasios M. Tamis taught at Universities in Australia and abroad, was the creator and founding director of the Dardalis Archives of the Hellenic Diaspora and is currently the President of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies (AIMS).

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