Tuesday, 13 April 2010

When the world shook literally and metaphorically

PHOTO: Damaged chimney on a building in Adelaide after the 1954 earthquake.

I am reading Britain’s Greek Islands, Kythera and the Ionian Islands 1809 to 1864, by Peter Prineas. In the book he talks about a public school where children are taught ancient and modern Greek, Latin, French and Italian.

I realise this may well be where Charlie Ross’s ‘five languages’ came from. He of course also spoke English. I had presumed that he had picked up languages as a sailor but this is not very realistic given the fact that a ship would have one spoken language and time in port would generally be brief.

However, if he had been educated on Ithaca there is every chance that even by the mid-19th century when he was born; public schools would be teaching more than one language as well as writing and arithmetic.

It seems odd to think that there were 100 years, give or take a few months, between my birth in September, 1949 and that of Charlie Ross in January, 1849. How the world changed in that time and how much it has changed in the 103 years since his death.

We were both born at a time which led the way to new freedoms. For me it was the beginning of the baby boomer years which brought massive change after the Second World War. And, in the year before Charlie was born people all over Europe were rising up to demand constitutional and liberal governments. The movement spread to the Ionian Islands with various revolts occurring during 1848-49 which would ultimately lead the way to reforms including press freedom, and changes to the process of Government budgets, expenditure and elections. The secret ballot would be re-instated and jury trials would be required for political offences.

Finally, when Charlie Ross was fourteen, the treaty of London, allowed the union of the island with the rest of the Greek state. The resolution of London, in 1863 stated: ‘The islands of Corfu, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Zakynthos, Lefkas, Kythera, Paxi are united with the Kingdom of Greece, and comprise an inseparable part of it, in one and indivisible State under the constitutional sceptre of the King of Greece, George A' and his heirs.’

I am sure there were celebrations and Charlie Ross and his family took part. How long it would be before he left his island home forever, I cannot know, but perhaps even at fourteen he was dreaming of the world beyond his small island. Or perhaps there was a family tradition where sons went to sea. He may already have been at sea because in times past boys could be apprenticed or indentured before they were twelve.

There is so much that I cannot know, and may never know, and so much that he would never know. He would never know that within 90 years of these joyful celebrations, much of the island would be destroyed in a terrible earthquake. The villages and towns which Charlie Ross would have known and the streets he walked no longer exist. Most of the buildings on Ithaca are no older than 50 years.

The earthquake of 1953, which reached 7.2 on the Richter scale, destroyed almost all of the homes on Ithaca. There were few exceptions, the Drakoulis mansion being one of them. Entire towns and villages of Ithaca were razed to the ground and hundreds perished ... no doubt, amongst them, distant relatives of Charlie Ross.

The earthquake hit at midday on August 12 when people were preparing lunchtime meals and this meant that fires spread quickly. It must have been a scene of utter carnage and in the aftermath of the quake more than 70 percent of the buildings of Ithaca were demolished and replaced. The earthquake also brought a new wave of emigration and countless residents left Ithaca, just as Charlie Ross had done, to start a new life elsewhere.

Ithaca, known as a sleepy, rocky little island - Homer called it 'good for goats' - was awakened with shocking force and would never be the same again. I was four, nearly five, when Ithaca was ruined by the massive earthquake and would have known nothing of it... and no doubt, neither would my parents who were not great newspaper readers at the best of times.

But there was a connection because, just over six months later, on March 1, 1954, Adelaide, like most of Australia, never prone to large earthquakes, was hit by its biggest quake ever - registering 5.4 on the Richter scale. The damage was severe, and has been estimated, should it happen again, to cost $1billion in today’s money.

But the damage done to Adelaide was nothing like the damage to Ithaca and other Ionian Islands. No-one died in Adelaide for instance and only three people were injured. And, unlike Ithaca, no-one was made homeless or forced to leave their country for a better life elsewhere. The Australian Government recorded that the earthquake, which lasted for 20-30 seconds, damaged 3,000 buildings including collapsed and cracked walls, smashed chimneys and broken windows.

It hit around 3.45 in the early hours of the morning, causing some metropolitan black-outs for up to two hours; radio stations to be cut off and the movement of parapets in some buildings by as much as two inches.

I, however, the good sleeper that I was and remain, slept peacefully through it all and knew nothing until the morning. My only memory of the quake was the trail of broken crockery in the kitchen from where dishes had been shaken off the dresser.

But Ithaca suffered far more than a few bits of broken crockery. The earthquake of 1953 also destroyed many records so there is even less chance that when I get to Ithaca, there will be much to find. However, ‘long shots’ are the life blood of family ancestry research and part of the fun of it all.

No comments:

Post a Comment