In his new book, “Wild Colonial Greeks”, Peter Prineas suggests that it is a mistake to imagine that the roots of Australia’s Greek community are shallow; that they only extend to the mid-20th Century, or at a pinch, to the interwar years. It is a mistake and offensive to those who came before; those, without whom, the journey of the Australian Greek would have been much harder. Those who endured racism and isolation in small country towns, but who left their mark there anyway, and those who began in small groups in the inner cities, and slowly-slowly grew them into communities. Many never returned to Greece, but they always kept the memory of their homeland within them, and as the communities they founded matured, they began to import their cultural touchstones; the religious traditions, the celebrations, and the Greek schools, which were usually associated with the church like some form of antipodean krifo scholio.
Although Australia began as a penal colony, not everyone who came on the First Fleet were convicts. It, and those which followed including countless solitary vessels, carried soldiers and administrators, camp followers, sailors and free settlers of both sexes, who saw not exile, but opportunity. Among them were Greeks. Even with the kind of colonial records that are available, finding people is not easy, however, trawling the National Library’s Trove of digital newspaper archives, Peter Prineas has located some who have more than earned their place in Australia’s early history. In recounting the lives of Nicholas Millar, Timoleon Vlasto, Eugenios Genatas, Andreas Lagogiannis, and Spiridion Candiottis, he tells a story full of sound and fury, and signifying everything.
Laying the groundwork in the early chapters, Prineasbegins with the Colonial attitudes towards Greeks, which were largely rooted in the ancient past. They tended to compare modern Greeks unfavourably to the heroes. If Colonial writers wanted to demonstrate their erudition, they scattered their writings with Classical allusions, referencing The Iliad, or ancient philosophers, or monstrous mythological beings. Many were so inspired by the Greek War of Independence, which they watched from the distance of time and space, that they wrote poetry about it. Lines like this appeared in the local press:
On to battle Grecians on!
Think of all your sires have done!
Dream, oh dream of Marathon
And glorious Thermopylae.
But often they saw the modern Greeks as knife-wielding mischief-makers, running riot in city streets or in the intensely multicultural but violent environments of the goldfields in the 1840s. And their disdain extended into the 1890s and beyond when they disparagingly referred to the Greeks as Dagoes.
Wandering through this morass of contradictions, Prineasreaches beyond the seven crew members of the Herakleswho were transported for piracy in 1829, and finds the presence of an earlier Greek, the sailor George Manual, or Manuel, who arrived in 1823.
Prineas’ search of newspaper reports of court proceedings has produced a rich haul of information about those early Greeks, who were witnesses, defendants or litigants, and at least two of them, Lagogiannis and Candiottis, often turned to the courts to resolve their issues. Dr. SipiridionCandiottis, in particular, as a result of a feud with a local newspaper proprietor, Charles Buzacott, was forced to sue for libel. Buzacott, a religious zealot and a bigot, was so unscrupulous in his writings about Candiottis that Candiottis had no choice but to seek legal redress. But despite the rulings against him, Buzacott was recalcitrant and he continued to pursue the doctor over the years, reprising his original calumnies against him two decades later.
Courts certainly played a part in the fate of young Timeleon Vlasto, who had been found guilty of stealing ancient Greek coins from the British Museum and sentenced to seven years in Van Diemen’s Land. Vlasto(I’m with him by the way,) came from a very well connected family, who it may be surmised, found a way to bring him back from his exile much earlier than the term of his imprisonment required.
If the law sent Vlasto to Australia, it was connections that brought Eugenios Genatas here as a free man, intent on using his acquaintanceship with the Governor of Queensland, Sir George Bowen, and his wife Diamantina, to his advantage. Sir George recommended him to the Native Mounted Police out of Rockhampton, where leading an adventurous life at the very edges of the Colony, he reached the rank of 2nd Lieutenant before he resigned and set himself up as a teacher of languages in Sydney.
Through his job, Genatas, like Nicholas Millar, had direct experience of the fractious Aboriginal-settler relationship. While Genatas witnessed violence against the Aborigines, Millar’s tragic end arose out of a cultural misunderstanding that turned a positive interaction with an Aboriginal tribe into a deadly act of violence.
Spotting an opportunity from the other side of the world, the merchant, Andreas Lagogiannis, brought a massive amount of stock from Asia just in time for Christmas, setting himself up in premises in Melbourne. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to open a number of businesses, eventually acquiring a hotel. Intensely litigious, and at the same time mildly contemptuous of the licensing laws, he had a colourful, boom-and-bust career, which occasionally got him in trouble with the local authorities.
You’d have thought that with his education, Spiridion Candiottis could have set himself up as a doctor for the higher echelons of Colonial society in Melbourne or Sydney. Instead, he took his family to the goldfields, where he treated the victims of horrific accidents and diseases. The family eventually moved to Clermont in Queensland where Candiottis encountered his bête noir, Charles Buzacott, whose antipathy towards the Greek doctor knew no bounds; certainly not those of principle, honesty, or truth.
Those who have read Peter Prineas’ two earlier books, “Katsehamos and the Great Idea”, and “Britain’s Greek Islands”, know to expect meticulous research and good writing. In this book, he doesn’t disappoint. He tells us about these early Greek men whose first steps into a new land were determined, energetic, entrepreneurial, and imaginative, with great perceptiveness and sympathy, and he puts them front and centre of their historical domain, which is exactly where they should be.
Peter Prineas was born in Junee NSW of parents from the Greek Island of Kythera. His father ran the “Allies Café”. The family moved to Sydney and he completed his education at the University of Sydney where he graduatedin Arts and Law.
Peter initially practiced as a solicitor. He then worked for eight years as the executive officer for an environmental NGO where he applied his legal training (Prineas v Forestry Commission) and writing skills in campaigns to preserve native forests and wilderness areas, and in securing national parks.
He resumed legal practice for some years and then served on the staffs of federal members of Parliament. His interests also extended to publishing, and to arranging and leading tour groups to Greece (“Mountains and Monuments”), and writing on a contract basis for various publishers.
Peter served on the boards of environmental NGOS and NSW governmentbodies including the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council, the Licence Regulator for Sydney Water and Hunter Water, and the Board of the Environment Protection Authority. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2012 for “service to conservation and the environment in executive and advocacy roles”.
Peter’s early writing, “Colo Wilderness,” “Wild Places,” reflected his interest in environmental conservation. He later explored the inter-war Greekimmigrant experience in Australia with “Katsehamos and the Great Idea,” published in 2006. This book came after the reopening of Bingara’s 1936 Roxy Theatre and stimulated interest in the Greek history of the Roxy buildings. This led the local council to the restore and re–open the Roxy Café in 2011, and to develop Bingara’s Roxy Greek Museum. The Museum was curated by Peter and designed by Convergence Associates of Melbourne. In 2015, the Museum was awarded first place in its category of the MAGNAs(Museum and Gallery National Awards).
Peter continued his interest in the intersection of British and Greek cultures in his book “Britain’s Greek Islands,” published in 2012, a history of Kythera and the Ionian Islands under the British protectorate.
Peter Prineas lives in Sydney. He has two sons and four grandchildren.