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Greek-Australians: One of Australia’s Most Vibrant Communities

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Greek-Australians on Australia Day. Credit: Chris Phutully/ CC BY 2.0

Greek-Australians are one of the largest minority groups in the country, and they have a long history in Australia.

According to recent census data, more than 422,000 people in Australia said that they have Greek, Greek-Cypriot, or Greek-Vlach ancestry.

This begs the question: how did this exotic land manage to attract such a great number of Greeks away from the land of their birth half a world away from Australia?

Greek migration to Oceania, like that of most other Europeans, to this land at the other end of the world is a tale of bravery and ambition, love, and adventure.

It is one that combines all of the individual personal stories together to create a national narrative which still bonds hundreds of thousands of people nearly two centuries after the first arrivals on the land.

The earliest Greek-Australians

The very first Greeks who arrived in Australia, however, didn’t go there freely of their own will.

Seven sailors, convicted by a British naval court of piracy, were sentenced to be transported to the “Antipodes,” as Australia was called in those days, in 1829.

Transportation, in essence a banishment and exile to faraway colonies, was the especially cruel punishment to which almost any criminal could be sentenced during that era in Britain.

After weeks of what was assuredly a harrowing and exhausting trip, these seven Greek men set foot for the first time in this incredibly harsh land so utterly different from anything they had known before.

When all of the pirates received official pardons several years later, five of them returned home.

However, two made the courageous decision to stay in the country where they had been sent. These two ex-convicts became the first-ever Greeks to permanently settle in Australia.

Ghikas Bulgaris and Antonis Manolis, men who had once been pirates roving over the seas, came to have their names recorded in history books.

Bulgaris soon became known as ”Jigger Bulgari” since, for English-speaking people, the name Ghikas was most likely impossible to pronounce.

Bulgari settled in Monaro Plains in the southern part of New South Wales. He met a local woman there and fell in love with and married her. They had many children, and Bulgari died a successful, honorable family man, completely belying his previous clandestine life as pirate.

Manolis settled near Sydney, in the town of Picton. After spending years in Australia, he was eventually naturalized in 1854, becoming a proper citizen of the British colony.

The first free Greek to settle in Australia

Bulgari and Manolis were the first Greeks to settle in Australia, but of course they both initially went there against their will. The first Greek to willingly go to Australia to live was Katerina Georgia Plessos.

Born in 1809, Plessos fled from the Greek mainland to the Ionian islet of Kalamos during the Greek War of Independence.

In her effort to save herself from the Ottomans, Plessos went to Kalamos at a time when it was part of the United States of the Ionian Islands. This autonomous state, part of the British Empire, comprised all of the islands of the Ionian Sea.

There, Plessos met Major James Crummer, a British citizen who lived in the British Ionian Islands. The two were married, and they both decided to emigrate to Australia in 1835.

They lived in three different cities across Australia, including Sydney, Port Macquire, and Newcastle. They clearly thrived in the Antipodes, having a total of eleven children!

Later waves of Greek migration to Australia

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Greeks arriving in Australia in the 1920s. Greek-Australians have a long history in the country. Credit: Public domain

Greeks kept going to Australia from the early 1900s until the end of WWII, as the country seemed to be a place where better careers and a better quality of life were easier to achieve compared to war-ravaged Greece.

This trend was only boosted after WWII when Australian authorities adopted the so-called ”Populate or Perish” doctrine, which effectively encouraged mass European migration to the country.

As part of its controversial and racist ”White Australia Policy,” which favored European immigrants over others, such as Asians and Africans, thousands of Greeks, Dutch, Spanish, Belgians, and, of course, British and Irish were encouraged to flock to the country between the 1940s and the 1970s.

This massive wave of newly-arrived Greeks enriched the already-existing Greek communities in Australia, establishing a permanent and distinctive Greek presence in Australian society.

Greek restaurants, retail businesses, and sports clubs were established across the country, enriching Australia’s society and giving its economy a much-needed boost.

Developments in the Greek-Australian community over the years

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Greek-Australians at a rally about Greek history and Macedonia in Melbourne in 2007. Credit: George Papadopoulos/Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-SA-2.0

However, there has been a significant reduction in Greek immigration to Australia from the 1970s through the early years of the 21st century.

The rapid economic development of Greece and the decades of growth that followed the restoration of democracy in the country in 1974 created an environment which, for once, didn’t favor arduous migrations to distant lands.

Of course, this pendulum swung once again due to the global financial crisis of 2008, which hit Greece in a way that no other nation has experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

With approximately one quarter of its total GDP lost between 2009 and 2015, Greece suffered one of the worst economic blows ever seen in modern history during peacetime.

This rapid, dramatic downturn led thousands of Greeks to make the decision to temporarily leave their homeland.

Thus, from 2010 onward, there has been a significant uptick once again in the number of Greeks who have moved to Australia, most of them trying to find distant relatives who had already lived there for decades in order to settle into already-existing communities.

Although the exact extent of the new Greek wave of migration to Australia is not yet fully known, many believe that the next few years will determine whether this wave will become permanent, or if the potential quick recovery of the Greek economy will make those who recently left, return back home.

Regardless of what happens in the near future, however, Greece and Australia have created a long-lasting relationship which will endure forever.

From the common battlefields of World War II and the countless graves of Australians who fought for freedom in the 1940s dotted across Greece to the many Greek communities of which Australia is comprised, the two nations share unbreakable bonds of history.

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