Two centuries of Hellenism in Australia

“Canberra was discovered by the British, designed by Americans, built by the Irish and conquered by the Greeks,» say Australian politicians commenting on progress made by Greeks in far-off Australia. The progress has not been restricted to Australia’s capital, Canberra, of course, but is also obvious in all aspects of social life. Nearly half a million people of Greek origin live in Australia, and their history has been recorded in the book «The Greeks of Australia,» the result of cooperation between Athens University and Melbourne’s La Trobe University, published on the occasion of a recent two-day symposium on Hellenism in Australia and a photo exhibition. The texts were written by Anastassios Tamis, professor at La Trobe and director of the National Center for Greek Studies and Research (EKEME), and edited by Professor Grigoris Stathis of Athens University. Two centuries of history The history of Greeks in Australia began in the early 19th century. «The first official record of Greeks arriving in Australia was in August 1829, when seven Hydriots sentenced for crimes against Britain were transported to Australia as convicts,» explained Tamis. «It was not until much later that systematic immigration began. Before World War II, about 17,000 Greeks went to Australia; after the war about 270,000. «Today the Greek community numbers about 485,000 people (about 48 percent of whom live in Melbourne), but about three quarters of those were actually born in Australia,» he said. Australia’s Greeks have a strong sense of their ethnic and linguistic heritage. «At least 360,000 people use Greek, not just at home but in their daily lives. They experience their Greek identity in various ways, in culture, music, education. «Modern Greek is one of 12 languages protected by law in Australia, and about 43,000 pupils, 32 percent of them of non-Greek origin, are learning it at school,» he said. By comparison, in the United States, there are only about 16,000 students of Modern Greek. The presence of Greek immigrants is felt strongly at all levels of society in Australia. In 2003, there were 28 elected politicians of Greek origin in Australia, and over 120 local government officials. Over the past 90 years, more than 200 books have been published by writers of Greek origin, not to mention the many Greek-language newspapers and magazines. Since the 1980s, at least 200 young artists, sculptors, designers and architects have emerged. There are about 8,000 Greek-owned businesses and industries, mostly in the sectors of retail trade, supermarkets, furniture manufacturing, confectionary, and petrol stations. The percentage of students of Greek origin at the country’s universities is about 11.8 percent. Although the Greek population is large, it is geographically a long way from the motherland, with all the attendant problems. Dilution «The main problem is the aging of the population,» explained Tamis. «Immigration ended in 1975. Without first-generation immigrants, the main purveyors of Greek culture, the situation will change slowly. For the second generation there is less of a problem, but for the third and fourth?» «I have to say that considerable problems were caused by the conflict between the Greek Church and older communities (which led in 1962 to the secession of 12 communities from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia),» said Tamis. «This has diluted the Greeks’ activities and isolated useful sectors of the community, and has distanced young people from Greek culture.»