Aptly titled “Hawks in a Cage,” a book released recently describes the fascinating story of the first seven Greeks who sailed to Australia. The book, by Konstandina Moshou, is a fictional adventure taking place on a British ship in May 1829.
The British ship “Norfolk” carried a total of 192 other criminals, mainly from the United Kingdom, to the harsh continent to serve their sentences. Australia served at that time as a British penal colony where criminals could be sent for infractions of the law — or sometimes just for looking like a vagrant.
The Greeks on the ship to Australia were seven sailors convicted of piracy in the Mediterranean sea by the British. History has recorded their names: Georgios Vasilakis, Gikas Voulgaris, Georgios Laritsos, Antonis Manolis, Damianos Ninis, Nikolaos Papandreas and Konstantinos Strompolis.
The voyage to Australia, which was a type of punishment in itself, lasted between 91 and 93 days and the captain was assumed to be Alexander Greig. The Norfolk sailed from the port of Speedhead in the south of England on May 29, 1829.
Its orders were to sail to Valletta, Malta, to pick up 201 British convicts and head on to New South Wales. Most of them had been convicted of piracy, at a time when the British Empire had just started to convict pirates and send them to the gallows.
Greeks sailing to Australia were convicts from Hydra Island
The prisoners onboard were of a wide variety of ethnicities, from counties in England, including Lancaster, Suffolk, Wiltshire, Surrey, Norfolk, Essex, London, Southampton, Cambridge, Warwick, York, Sussex, Worcester, Berkshire Suffolk, Nottingham, Rutland and from Malta, Corfu island in Greece and Jamaica.
The seven Greeks among them were convicted sailors from Hydra who had fought in the Greek War of Independence. They were convicted of piracy by a British naval court in 1828, and sent to serve out their terms in New South Wales in Australia.
According to historian and former Australian ambassador to Greece, Hugh Gilchrist, the seven Greek sailors were crew members of the pirate ship “Herakles.” In July 1827, the Herakles attacked the British brig “Alceste.”
The freighter was sailing from Malta – then part of the British Empire – for Alexandria. It was intercepted by the Greek vessel north of the Libyan coast. The crew stormed the Alceste and took part of her cargo.
Their loot included pepper, navigation and utility items, ropes and sulfur. Two days later, they were arrested by the British ship “Gannet,” patrolling south of Crete. Five months later the Greeks were put on trial in Malta and found guilty.
Greeks’ sentence commuted to Australian transportation
Three of them were sentenced to death but then had their punishment commuted to transportation, as did the others. So in May 1829 the Greeks were picked up by the Norfolk in Malta and began their fateful sail to Australia.
The Greek sailors were illiterate and didn’t speak much English. They were kept in the ship’s second hold, where they suffered the horrendous weather and conditions of the trans-Pacific journey to Australia.
“Hawks In A Cage” is a fiction suspense story taking place onboard the Norfolk, with the Greek convicts on center stage. Their adventures begin when Carmela Bouhayiar, the only female convict onboard, reaches out to them, as she considers them the key to her survival.
The Norfolk convicts disembarked on Monday, September 7, 1829. The former pirates were pardoned seven years later. In a dispatch dated July 8, 1836, they were granted Absolute Pardons and were free to return to Greece if they wished.
Two of them, Antonis Manolis and Gkikas Voulgaris, remained in the colony, however. The other five men, Georgios Vasilakis, Georgios Laritsos, Damianos Ninis, Nikolaos Papandreas and Konstantinos Strombolis, eventually returned to Greece.
The two former convicts were the first male Greeks ever to live in Australia. The first female Greek ever to set foot in the country made her own journey sixteen years later, in 1835.