The Greeks in Australia by Anastasios Myrodis Tamis

Eras Journal – Lothian, K: Review of “The Greeks in Australia”, Anastasios Myrodis Tamis

Anastasios Myrodis Tamis, The Greeks in Australia,
Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2005.
Isbn 0 521 54743 1

In The Greeks in Australia, Anastasios Tamis shows us the enormous impact the Greek community has had on Australia. Most Melburnians know this well. I grew up in Oakleigh, which was reputed to have one of the highest concentrations of Greeks in the country. I now live in a suburb that is the sister city to Sparta, and which is only minutes away from the headquarters of the Greek-language newspaper, Neos Kosmos. In my street, olive trees are the preferred nature strip planting and, alongside the ubiquitous lemon tree, front yards have been transformed into vegetable gardens, and front porches into spaces where the now elderly post-war Greek migrants sit and nod to passers-by.

Despite the ways in which Greeks have helped to transform the nation, there are still relatively few historical studies of this community for those wanting a general overview. Although Tamis has already written several volumes on Greek life and culture in Australia, the lack of a widely accessible and popular history is presumably the kind of gap that he has sought to fill with his latest work.

The Greeks in Australia provides us with an introductory discussion of social, political and economic aspects of Greek life in Australia. Tamis, director of the National Centre for Hellenic Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, opens his account with a potted history of what he calls ‘The Hellas of Diaspora’, noting that more than 40 per cent of the Greek population live outside Greece’s national borders at any one time (p.2). This broad chapter sets the scene for the thematic and Australia-specific chapters on settlement, demographic characteristics and social and community life that follow.

While there is some discussion of the occupations and settlement patterns of migrants in the nineteenth century and in the years before World War Two, Tamis’ focus is clearly on the post-war decades. Due to Australia’s demand for large numbers of unskilled immigrants, over 250 000 Greek migrants arrived in the country between 1952 and 1974 (p. 47). Despite the government policy of assimilation that was in place until the early 1970s, Greek migrants managed to recreate some of their old life in the new world. Often contributing to, and building upon the already existing Greek communities, Sunday schools, music and theatrical performances, coffee houses (kafeneia ) and newspapers maintained a vibrant sense of the Greek presence in Australia. There are interesting discussions here about the tensions between older and newer immigrants, between immigrants and their Australian-born children, and between different political groupings. Tamis’ volume takes us up to the present time, and raises pertinent questions about cultural maintenance in an environment where first generation immigrants are ageing, and it is now the responsibility of their children and grandchildren to carry on the traditions of their forebears.

Tamis’ aim in this volume is a celebratory one. The accomplishments of Greek writers, sportspeople, musicians, actors, artists, businesspeople and politicians are all here. So too is a discussion of the establishment of the Greek Orthodox Church and day schools, the maintenance of the Greek language in Australia and the founding of Greek-language media.

The author is less interested in the attitudes to Greek immigrants within the wider Australian community. There is some mention of discrimination in the workforce, but no sustained discussion of racism and prejudice in other arenas. In my view, this study would have benefited from a more explicit acknowledgment that the Greek Australian experience has been determined not only by the efforts of their own community. It is also embedded within the context of broader community attitudes and government policies such as assimilation and multiculturalism.

It is, perhaps, this focus on the achievements and successes of the Greek Australian community that explains the absence of some important aspects of Greek Australian history. For instance, the 1925 Ferry Report is mentioned only briefly. This overtly prejudiced Royal Commission, appointed to inquire into ‘aliens’ in North Queensland, recommended that Greeks be banned from the country entirely. More generally, Tamis does not discuss the restrictions on Greek immigration (and the reasons for these) that operated in Australia in the years prior to World War Two. We might have heard more, too, about the experiences of tired and overworked women in the factories of Melbourne and Sydney in the postwar period – the hardships they faced and their struggle to establish themselves in a new and unfamiliar country, the way in which their long working hours and their need to maintain the home as well as undertake employment left them little time to learn English. There is certainly much to celebrate about the Greek experience in, and contribution to, Australia, but stories of struggle are important too, and would have added more depth to the author’s stories of achievement.

Tamis’ book is best suited to a general and popular audience rather than to scholars of Australian immigration history and ethnicity who will, in any case, be already familiar with much of the material that this book covers. The book’s analytic ambitions are limited, with much of the material being drawn from Tamis’ previous work in the field, and from a synthesis of the other existing secondary source material. The referencing, it must be said, is erratic and often frustratingly absent. Notwithstanding these criticisms, one of the strengths of Tamis’ book is the remarkable breadth of knowledge he has brought to the task. The book is authoritative, containing an enormous amount of information and covering a great many topics in its 205 pages.

It might be unreasonable of me to want for a richer study that will tell me in a bit more detail about the life and experiences of the elderly Greek residents of my street. This wish is, perhaps, incompatible with the general (and celebratory) task that Tamis has set for himself. Taken on its own terms, however, this book succeeds as a general introduction to a subject that we need to know much more about.

Kathy Lothian

School of Historical Studies, Monash University