Monday, 15 February 2010

A few steps on and still so far to go

It is interesting to think that the experiences of my great-grandparents would influence their children and their descendants, if only because we absorb cultural attitudes both consciously and unconsciously. I have absorbed from my parents and they from theirs in turn.

I have a better idea of what my great-grandmother’s English ancestry has brought to me because I have spent long periods living and staying in England. But I have never been to Greece and so have little idea of what it means to be Greek or what ‘Greekness’, should there be such a word, which I doubt, may have come down through the family.

But I do remember a realisation which came to me when I was 19 about how ‘Greek’ my father was in nature. I was living in Melbourne and my flatmate, Maureen, had a Greek boyfriend, Kon. I spent a great deal of time with the two of them and with his friends and family and that was my first taste of Greek culture and life. Just watching the Greek men I could not help but see how very like them in manner and attitude was my father.

I suspect he also looked a little like his paternal grandfather because he had the same broad, almost round face, stocky build and black hair .... straight, not curly. And his eyes were the deepest brown, almost black and when he got angry, which he did often, they seemed to burn with deep, ancient fire. But, when my father grew a beard it was ‘red’, an inheritance no doubt from his Scottish maternal grandmother and so may have been the anger. My father's maternal grandmother, Florina Muirhead had a tongue like a fishwife and was a force with which to be reckoned. Her gentle, English husband, Robert Jones (Jonas) who had been abandoned by his Jewish family because he married her, was said to be no match for his feisty, Scottish wife. I am sure though, that he loved her as much for the feistiness which Scots women seem to have as for anything else.

We are, in essence, the end-product of all that our ancestors have been. I remember a Canadian friend saying to me once, that she had been shocked to read a book about cultural inheritance and to see how clearly she was more the product of her ancestors than her environment. She had grown up in Scotland and emigrated to Canada as a young woman.
She saw herself as Scottish although her grandparents had been Irish. It was only when she read the book that she saw how Irish she really was in nature and that ancestral inheritance over-rode much of the Scottish childhood environment and the Canadian adult experience.

But when I looked at my flatmate’s Greek boyfriend, and his brother, and his friends, I had none of this insight into cultural inheritance. I merely saw that my father was very like them in the way he saw the world, in the way he saw women and in the way he saw himself. It was probably the first time that I had insight into him and the point at which I began to understand, and to forgive, who and what he was.

And what was it that I saw in him and these Greek men? I suppose what I would call traditional and conservative values particularly in regard to women and the role that a man sees himself playing as a ‘protector.’ I thought my father was just old-fashioned and dictatorial but at 19 I began to see he was just ‘Greek.’

It was not that I had not been exposed to Greeks.... they were part and parcel of everyday life in Australia through the corner delis and the ubiquitous Greek fish and chip shops, but it was the first time that I had mixed socially with Greeks. The Greeks, like many other immigrant communities, kept to themselves a lot with inter-marriage often not beginning until the third generation. No doubt one of the reasons was that few Greek women would learn English and most of their husbands would always speak in heavily accented English ... as did my great-grandfather. It was not that they were not friendly, nor sociable, but more that it easier to socialise where they could speak Greek. To that degree they were no different to any of the other immigrant cultures which have arrived on Australian shores.

It is more than 150 years since the first Greek set foot in Australia and the biggest wave of migration arrived after 1940 in the wake of the Second World War. It was a Greek, in fact, who first wrote about the existence of a great unknown continent to the south of India although Ptolemy was probably drawing upon even older Greek writings about lands at the other end of the earth.

The Greeks have always had the sea in their blood although when the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 it served to confine Greek ships to the Meditteranean. Although Greek sailors were free to travel far afield to find a ship and that is exactly what they did. My great-grandfather amongst them.

The first Greek book to mention Australia was written in the late 17th Century by a Greek priest, Meletios, who later became Archbishop of Athens. New Holland was mentioned under the title of ‘Unknown Lands’, which was followed by a speculative discussion about the Earthly Paradise.

Did young Charlie, or Carolus, dream about the Great South Land as he grew up on Ithaca? Did he always want to leave his island home or was he forced, like to many, to take to the sea to earn a living?

The story was that he was sailing on his uncle’s ship when he deserted in Australia. I had always thought this meant his uncle was also a sailor and it was he who got the young Charlie a job. Although he was not so young when he jumped ship. But if the name is Rossolimos it adds a completely different dimension to the story for some members of the family were rich and powerful ship-owners. Was Charlie a poor relation who was given a job by a rich uncle? It’s possible, but then many things are possible, in fact almost all things are possible in ancestry research and therein lies the problem.

There’s a story that a sailor from the island of Ydra, named Damianos Ghikas, was captured by Algerian pirates and in turn captured by a British warship and taken to Gibraltar in 1802. He was then put on a convict ship bound for Sydney because he was believed to be an Algerian pirate. He worked for five years as a shearer and managed to send messages back to Ydra, addressed to the chief magistrate, by stuffing them into bales of wool being exported to England. Eventually one of his messages got through and contact was made with the Governor of New South Wales who set Damianos free. He returned, so the story goes, a rich man having saved all of his convict wages.

But the real story is that Australia’s first Greek immigrants were nine young sailors from Ydra who robbed a British ship and were then captured and tried for the crime. Ydra, or Hydra, is like Ithaca, a part of the Ionian Islands group. The court acquitted two and found the other seven guilty of piracy. Seven were sentenced to death, but mercy was recommended for four. WilliamHuski~on the Secretary for the Colonies and a known philhellene, was instrumental in having the sentences reduced to transportation to New South Wales - three for life, and four others for fourteen years; and so, along with 200 other convicts, the seven Greeks arrived in Port Jackson on 27th August 1829, the date which marks the beginning of Greek settlement in Australia.

Interestingly, to me anyway, is that my son shares the name of the possibly mythical Damianos. I wanted to give my son a Greek name and originally thought of Christos. But names are always shortened in Australia and Chris did not feel right. I have no idea why, at 22, I wanted to keep a Greek connection but my husband went along with it and eventually we settled on Damon. Well, the name Damon actually came to us from the American journalist, Damon Runyon, and, as we were both journalists, it seemed an appropriate choice. But it is also a Greek name.

It is derived from Greek, damao, meaning ‘to tame or to subdue.’ According to Greek legend, Damon and Pythias were friends who lived on Syracuse in the 4th century BC. When Pythias was sentenced to death, he was allowed temporarily to go free on the condition that Damon take his place in prison. Pythias returned just before Damon was to be executed in his place and the king was so impressed with their loyalty to one another that he pardoned Pythias. Because of this the name Damon also means ‘constant.’ The word also derives from ‘daemon’ which means a spirit; someone part mortal and part god.

Some of the Greek convicts were eventually granted the right to return home but two of them opted to stay in Australia and became our first Greek settlers. All of this was nearly fifty years before Charlie Ross would decide to do the same thing. And by the time that he did, Greek settlement in Australia had been flowing for nearly forty years.

The Gold Rush was to fuel the real flow of migration, particularly for Greek sailors and fishermen, so many of them serving on British ships ... the British ruled the Ionian Islands from 1809 to 1864 ....or struggling to make a living on their island homes. No doubt the plan was not to travel half way around the world and settle down, but to make money and return home. ‘Jumping ship’ was a renowned pastime for sailors, whether Greek or not, long before Charlie Ross took the leap.

There are records of one of his fellow islanders, Andreas Lekatsas, whose descendants say he jumped ship in Melbourne in 1851 and made for Ballarat. One doubts that three-year-old Charlie would have taken much note of any stories of such exploits, but nineteen years on it would be a very different story.

When Andreas returned to Ithaca in 1870 his tales of prosperity inspired his nephews to go out and start shops and cafes in Melbourne. Island life and village life meant close-knit families and communities where many if not most were related by marriage or blood in some way and everyone knew everyone else’s business. Of course Charlie, now in his early twenties, would have heard stories. Although ,I doubt that he had any real plan to end up in Gladstone, where he was probably the only Greek ‘in the village’ for most of the time that he lived there.

And while, my exposure to the Greek community in Melbourne in the early 70’s made me aware ... not to mention a little shocked ... that the Greek way was to ‘send home’ for a good Greek wife for their sons, this was clearly not an option for the first settlers. Charlie was not alone in marrying ‘out’ and like most Greeks before him, would opt for an English-Scottish-Irish girl.

Neither was he alone in anglicising his name. Most of the early Greek settlers changed, shortened or anglicized their names. Thus Lekatsas becomes Lucas, Lalel~s becomes Lawler, Servetopoulos becomes Service, Sikiotis becomes Scott, , Mavrokefalos becomes Black, Argyropoulos becomes Fisher.... and probably Rossolimos becomes Ross.

It is hard to know how many of Charlie’s countrymen were in Australia during these early years. Many records of birthplace did not indicate ethnic origin. Greeks born in the Turkish-ruled provinces of Greece, such as Crete, Epeiros, Macedonia and Thrace, or in Asia Minor, Cyprus, or Egypt would probably not have been recorded as ‘born in Greece’. And neither do religious records give a clear picture of the number of Greek Orthodox Church adherents in Australia until well into the twentieth century.

Given that Charlie’s burial records listed him as Protestant, no doubt most Greek men, marrying non-Greek wives, would do as Charlie had done. Whether it was because they did not care enough to lay down the law like a good Greek husband it seems that most took on their wife’s religion. Religion, or rather the handing down of religion, was, and remains in many cultures, a mother’s duty. And women, then as now, are more likely to be more religious than their husbands. Whatever Charlie’s Ross’s religious beliefs may have been he ended up in a Protestant Grave. Although a cousin did tell me that her grandmother, Charlie and Polly’s daughter, Georgina Anastasia, or Auntie Teeny as we called her, always said the family were devout Anglicans.

The guesstimates are that the colony may have had as many as 200 Greeks in the 1850s; 300 to 400 in the 1860s; 400 to 500 in the 1870s; 500 to 600 in the 1880s when Charlie Ross arrived and nearly 1000 towards the end of the century. By the time that Charlie died in 1907 there would have been barely more than a thousand Greeks from one end of the huge island continent of Australia to the other. Most of them would have been in New South Wales and Victoria, with barely a sprinkling in South Australia. The earliest records show that the first Greeks in South Australia arrived in about 1860 but they stayed in the ports and remained very few in number. He probably was the only Greek in Gladstone in his lifetime but that is only a guess on my part. A reasonably well-educated guess however.

Most of these early Greek settlers were islanders from Ithaca and Kythira , but not all of them. Settlers came from at least twenty-three of the Ionian and Aegean islands and a much smaller number from the Peloponnisos and other places. In years to come, the fact that so many came from the islands became politically important because the islands were traditionally republican and so, in the First World War, Australia’s Greeks, almost to a man, sided with Venizelos and Britain, not with the pro-German King Constantine.

Charlie Ross would not live to see any of this but no doubt he would have been proud to see his sons go off to fight on what he would have believed to be the ‘right side.’ Twenty-three year old Charles Vangaleos, my grandfather, would serve in the Australian Army's 16th Battalion in WW1 and eighteen-year-old Chrysanthous Christus would serve in the 32nd Battalion. Chrysanthous, or Christie as he was known, would marry in England in 1919 and bring his English bride back to Gladstone. He would use my grandfather's name of Charles on his marriage certificate because he did not like the name Chrysanthous. And perhaps because he had a sense of humour. Christie was also marrying a Jones' girl. My grandfather, Charles Vangelios had married Adelaide born, Hilda Rose Jones on September 1, 1917 and Chrysanthous Christus married Alice Maud Jones on a chilly English Christmas Day in 1919. As far as we know there is no connection between the two families although, in that synchronicitous way of ancestry research, I have since been in touch with Alice's great-niece, Cathy Ritter in the UK because it turns out that she is related by marriage to the wife of Spike Jones who is my third cousin. In tracing her ancestry Cathy came upon Spike, who has done brilliant work as a family researcher for the Jones side of our family, only to find that she had no blood connection to him but she did to his relations by marriage, the Ross family of Gladstone.

In ancestry research the trails weave and turn and wind around and around and the unlikely and the impossible join forces to bring unexpected links.

In another 'connection' across the years, my grandfather would fight in Belgium and, because of that, but for reasons not explained to the family, his youngest daughter, my Aunt Jessie, would receive the middle name of Belgian.

And, while he would not live to see it, one of his grandaughters would live in Belgium for more than two years. In 1986 I moved to Antwerp with my husband and family without knowing at the time that my grandfather had been there before me. Just as I had not known that living in Port Pirie and working across the mid-north, I was retracing the steps of my ancestors.

Life was hard for everyone in the 19th century and no doubt even harder for those from an alien culture with a different language and as often as not, a poor capacity to communicate in the lingua franca, English. Most of the early Greek settlers, like Charlie, led lives of hardship , scattered over enormous distances through the isolated and strange Australian bush. They were far from their native villages, their families and their Church, strangers to Anglo-Celtic customs, and rarely able to communicate with their kin or even with each other. No doubt many of them lived their lives with varying degrees of homesickness.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Charlie chose to set up shop as a fish-seller was because two, three, or more times a week he would have to make the journey to the coast where he could buy his fish and once more, smell the sea as he had done as a small boy on Ithaca. Did he stand in the busy port and soak up the smells, sights and sounds of his childhood? For a boy from Ithaca, living so far inland, must have been a challenge.

I have no idea if he ever wanted to return but I doubt that he could have afforded to do so even if he had wished. With five children to raise there would be little chance of saving the enormous sums of money required to make such a journey just for a visit. And memories of poverty, no doubt worse than he experienced in Australia, would remind him of the uncertainty of life on Ithaca should he even dream about uprooting his family and returning home.

Or perhaps Charlie Ross had found who he wished to be on the dusty plains of South Australia’s mid-north. Perhaps he slept more peacefully in the shadows of the Flinders Ranges, whose ancient rock has been above sea level far longer than many other places on earth. Perhaps with Mary, or Polly as she was known, he found love and companionship in a way that he had never expected; and fulfilment in his Australian-born children who would never see his homeland nor understand his language or his culture. But perhaps it was all enough, even though his final resting place would not be on the windswept, rocky hills of Ithaca but in Plot 224, in the red-dirt dust of Gladstone Cemetery.

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