Philhellenes And Philologists: NSW Teachers Of Modern Greek

This is the text of a speech by Gough Whitlam to the NSW Teachers of Modern Greek Association, in Bankstown.

Philhellenes and philologists

The ancient Greek gods are alive and well. Athena and Phevos will make the awards at to-day’s ceremony in Bankstown. Last year their images presided over the splendid Olympics in Athens. Throughout Australia the Governor-General makes more and more appearances as Zeus to express his omnipotence. A generation ago a Governor-General whom I had chosen made an unforgettable appearance as Bacchus to present the Melbourne Cup at Flemington in Victoria.

The matters on which I should address you are (a) how important is the Greek language in Australia? (b) how important is Greek civilisation to Australia?

Australia’s leaders, diplomats, educators, and opinion-formers tend to embrace automatically the UK and US – the North Atlantic – perspective on the Balkans and to discount the full range of knowledge and tradition available within Australia itself. There are more people in Australia than in the whole US and UK who are familiar with the politics and traditions of the Balkans and with ancient, Byzantine and modern Greek.

As Prime Minister I ensured that all roads led not only to Rome but also to Athens. In January 1975 I was the first foreign Head of Government to be received by Konstandínos Giórgiou Karamanlis, the first Prime Minister of the second Hellenic Republic; I invited him to visit Australia and seven years later he came as President. Two months ago John Howard went to Athens and delivered a Philippic against Peter Costello. I may have thought I was Pericles but John Howard must have thought he was Demosthenes. At least I learned the meaning of two Greek words 30 years ago. The Greeks used demokratía for both republic and democracy and praxikópima for coup d’état. (Australians had one later that year.)

The 2005 Year Book Australia estimates that in 2002 there were 15 075 280 Australians who were born in Australia and 131 200 who were born in Greece. Between them, there were:

  • 1,179,800 Australians who were born in United Kingdom and Ireland
  • 413,700 New Zealand
  • 240,500 China and Hong Kong
  • 235,200 Italy
  • 207,500 Serbia and Montenegro
  • 171,600 Vietnam

The 2001 census recorded that just on 16% of Australia’s population spoke a language other than English at home.

  • Italian was spoken at home by 2%
  • Greek 1.5%
  • Cantonese 1.3%
  • Arabic 1.2%
  • Vietnamese 1.0%

I developed an interest in ancient Greece and Greeks when my father introduced me to the Reverend Charles Kingsley’s 1856 book The Heroes, which gave modest accounts of the adventures of Perseus, Theseus and Jason. Any indications of Greek male chauvinism were bowdlerised in that book.

I developed an interest in modern Greece and Greeks in 1924 when I was 8 and starting to collect postage stamps. I got two Greek stamps inscribed ‘Lord Byron’. They were issued by the first Hellenic Republic to commemorate the centenary of Byron’s death at Mesolongi. In the 1930s at school in Canberra and at the University of Sydney I became familiar with the poems of Byron. He excoriated Lord Elgin in The Curse of Minerva, written in Athens in March 1811; he admired the plunder but abhorred the thief.

At school in Canberra I could learn Latin but not Greek. I was able to learn ancient Greek on Saturday mornings in 1933 and 1934 at the home of Leslie Holdsworth Allen, who is commemorated by the Haydon-Allen building at the Australian National University. I shall be indebted to him for the rest of my life.

All Australians are involved with Greek words. We can study mythology and theology, astrology and astronomy, mystery and history. In politics and economics we can be rhetorical, ethical, theoretical, or practical, idealistic, autarkic, academic, plutocratic or dogmatic. In poetry we can write epics, lyrics, bucolics and parodies in trimeters, tetrameters, pentameters, hexameters and heptameters. In mathematics we can excel in geometry and trigonometry and assess physical phenomena. In theatres we have Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns and can enjoy dramas, tragedies and comedies, symphony orchestras, melodies and music of all kinds. In philosophy we can be skeptics, cynics, stoics and epicures.

In medical circles the names of the intimate male and female body parts are mostly Latin words and the names of the diseases arising from their careless interaction are mostly Greek words. In religious circles we distinguish between Greek words such as patriarch, exarch, metropolitan, ecumenical and autocephalous and Latin words such as uniate, ex cathedra, in partibus and filioque. In military history we remember Greek place names. Sebastopol, ‘the city of the Empress’, was named after the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who liberated the Crimea from the Ottoman Empire. Gallipoli, ‘beautiful city’, is found not only near the Hellespont but also in Magna Graecia on the route from Otranto to Taranto.

I travelled to Greece and/or Cyprus and other Greek islands on 24 occasions between 1962 and 2000. The Department of Foreign Affairs had and still has a scarcity of officials who are familiar with the peoples of south-eastern Europe and their descendants in Australia. I was better informed. Thanks to the hospitable skills of some excellent ambassadors in Greece, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, Margaret accompanied me on most occasions, but not, of course, to the holy Mt Athos.

As the MP for Werriwa from 1952 to 1978 I had the opportunity and duty of serving the greatest variety of immigrants in Australia, including Greek Orthodox and Greek-speaking families from Greece and Cyprus. Margaret and I first visited Athens in June 1962. As Deputy Leader of the ALP I had to assess the impact of Britain’s application to join the European Community, of which Greece had just become an associate member. In April 1967 Geórgios Papadópoulos, expecting Geórgios Papandr?ou to win the elections in May, led a coup ‘to avert the danger of a Communist threat against the nation’. A retired Liberal MHR, Joe Gullett MC, had become the first Australian ambassador resident in Athens in May 1965. He approved this coup by the ‘Colonels’. A diplomat, Hugh Gilchrist, replaced him in June 1968.

Margaret and I first visited Nicosia in December 1968 in transit between Lebanon and Israel. The Australian police helped and impressed us so much that we decided to spend some days in Cyprus on our next visit to Europe. In December 1971 I was received by Archbishop Makarios in the President’s Palace and we then had a press conference. Our police took me by helicopter to Polis, Paphos and Polemidia. Other police took Margaret, our second son Nicholas, our daughter Catherine and my sister Freda in two army cars to Salamis, Famagusta, Lemesos and Kourion.

After I left the Parliament I was, between 1983 and 1989, a vice-president of the World Heritage Committee. Between those years the first ten Greek, the first five Turkish, the first four Lebanese, the first two Jordanian, three Bulgarian, one Cypriot, one Serbian and the latest Syrian properties were inscribed on the World Heritage List.

With my background I feel qualified to speak about the situation in Cyprus in greater detail. Australia has the largest Cypriot community in the world after Cyprus itself. As British subjects Australians were first involved in Cypriot politics during the 1878 Congress of Berlin which was held after the Russian Emperor Alexander II had liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. Just before the Conference, in order to protect its Suez Canal and Indian Empire, Britain signed the Cyprus Convention, under which the Sultan assigned Cyprus to Britain as ‘a place of arms’ in the Levant on payment of an annual tribute. Britain undertook to join the Sultan in the defence of his Asiatic dominions against any Russian attack. Captain Harry Holdsworth Rawson RN (1843-1910) hoisted the British flag at Nicosia on 2 July 1878 and was commandant there for a month. He was Governor of NSW from 1902 to 1909. The Rawson Institute for Seamen in Sydney is named after him.

On becoming Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in December 1972 I inherited proposals to withdraw the Australian police from Cyprus. I persuaded all the Premiers except Bjelke-Petersen to maintain their contributions. In April 1973 my Government established diplomatic relations with Cyprus. Since Australia was a member of the Security Council in 1973 and 1974, my Government became deeply involved in Cypriot affairs. I give the timetable for July 1974, an inglorious chapter in the history of the UK Labour Party and the US Republican Party:

  • 15 July – The Greek colonels promoted a coup by the Greek officers of the Cypriot National Guard against Makarios.
  • 16 July – Makarios escaped through one of the British sovereign bases to Malta.
  • 17 July – Makarios and Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit flew to London to persuade Britain to restore Makarios. During Nixon’s Twilight Kissinger, who approved the fall of Makarios but feared the fall of the Greek colonels, persuaded Wilson and Callaghan to take no action.
  • 18 July – Makarios flew to New York to address the UN, where he was accepted as the President of Cyprus. Ecevit flew home.
  • 20 July – Turkish troops landed in Cyprus and Turkish aircraft bombed the principal towns other than Lemesos near a British base.
  • 23 July – The Greek colonels were overthrown.
  • 24 July – Karamanlis returned from exile and became Prime Minister.
  • 30 July – Australia joined the other members of the Security Council in calling for a ceasefire.

On 14-16 August the Turks sent reinforcements and again bombed all the towns except Lemesos. The UN Secretary-General reported that 200 000 Greek Cypriots were displaced from the north of Cyprus and 40 000 Turkish Cypriots from the south. The General Assembly at once adopted a resolution calling for respect for the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and non-alignment of the Republic of Cyprus and for the speedy withdrawal of all foreign troops. A Turkish Cypriot Republic of Northern Cyprus was proclaimed on 15 November 1975.

Makarios returned to Cyprus on 7 December 1974. When the Commonwealth Heads of Government assembled on HMY Britannia in Jamaica in April 1975 Makarios III sat as their doyen at the right hand of Elizabeth II. I was happy to play some part in drafting the Commonwealth’s support for the UN resolutions and in establishing the Commonwealth Committee to pursue developments in Cyprus. Makarios died in August 1977. Australian Cypriots paid for me to attend his funeral, which was attended by prelates from Orthodox dioceses around the world and by many Heads of State. A memorable procession accompanied his remains to his tomb in the mountains above the Kykko monastery where he trained for the priesthood.

I conclude with some reflections on Australia’s relations with Greece. Greece is a neighbour of Albania and Turkey, the two Muslim states in Europe. For a thousand years it has been involved in the rivalry between Western and Eastern Christianity in Europe. Eastern Christians bore the brunt of Ottoman occupation for 500 years. My generation knew dates in British history, such as the battle of Hastings in 1066, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Our contemporaries in Greece knew the dates of the sieges of Constantinople in 1204 and 1453, the battles at Kosovo in 1389 and 1448, the sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683 and the naval battles at Lepanto in 1571, Cosme in 1770 and Navarino in 1827. Moreover, they knew their ancient history, the victories of Athens over Persia at Marathon (490 BC) and Salamis (480 BC) and over Sparta near Pilos (425 BC) and the victory of Agrippa over Antony and Cleopatra at Aktion near Préveza (31 BC). Orthodox Christians, no less than Jews and Muslims, are offended by the irresponsible American use of the word ‘Crusades’. They remember that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were massacred at the climax of the first Crusade, that the Crusaders occupied Greece longer than they occupied the Holy Land and that the fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople but did not proceed to the Holy Land.

In December 1974 Malcolm Fraser ridiculed me for returning from the ruins of Darwin to the ruins of Athens. In 1998 the Greek Government gave us its highest award, the Order of the Phoenix, for our work as the joint patrons of Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles. Too many in the Department of Foreign Affairs hierarchy believe they dwell on Olympus; not enough could dwell on Parnassos. In May 1994 Gareth Evans supinely endorsed a superficial and supercilious answer to Mark Latham:

Return of the Parthenon Marbles is a matter for resolution by Greek and British Governments.

Five years later Aléxandros Downer endorsed that answer. By contrast Bob Carr and Steve Bracks have arranged for the exchange of exhibitions between Athens, Sydney and Melbourne, which were the hosts of the Olympic Games in 2004, 2000 and 1956.

Before the Sydney Games Carr signed an agreement with a minister from the famous Venezélos family for priceless pieces from antiquity to be sent to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney under the title 1000 years of the Olympic Games: treasures of ancient Greece.

As King Constantine II mentioned to me in Sydney, there are more people who speak Greek in Melbourne than in any cities in Greece other than Athens and Thessaloniki. Some years earlier the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with its capital in Skopje, claimed the city of Thessaloniki as part of its territory. The city was named by the kings of ancient Macedonia after Thessalonike, morganatic daughter of Philip II and half-sister of Alexander the Great; she married Cassander, the son of Alexander’s regent, Antipater, and was the mother of Kings Philip IV, Antipater I and Alexander V.

To reciprocate the Greek exhibition at the Sydney Olympics, the Powerhouse Museum and Museum Victoria produced the exhibition Our Place: Indigenous Australia now for the Athens Olympics in 2004. The two Australian museums produced a 112-page catalogue with coloured illustrations and texts in English and Greek.

This year the Benaki Museum assembled Greek Treasures from the Benaki Museum in Athens. Powerhouse Publishing and the Benaki Museum produced a 264-page catalogue of the same name with coloured illustrations and a text in English. The Treasures are at present displayed in the Powerhouse Museum. They will then be displayed in Museum Victoria.

There can be no doubt that the Greek language is important in Australia and that Greek civilisation is important to Australia.

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