Anti-Australian Sentiment toward Greeks in Perth in the Venizelos Era


Published in The National Herald, November 21-27, 2015 Issue
Authored by Stavros T. Stavridis


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From September 1916 to June 1917 Greece had two rival administrations:  one under King Constantine in Athens and the Provisional Government under Eleftherios Venizelos in Thessaloniki.

This schism highlighted the political divisions existing in Greek society with the former pursuing a neutral foreign policy whereas the latter wanted to join the ranks of the Entente powers:  Britain, France, Russia, and Italy in fighting the Central Powers:  Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire.  These divisions would major repercussions for the Greek-Australian community beyond the First World War.  In Australia, ordinary Anglo-Australians could not distinguish between Venizelists and Royalists and considered them suspect and possibly disloyal to the British Empire.

The occupation of Fort Rupel in May 1916, the establishment of the government in Thessaloniki, the demobilization of the Greek Army, the handover of mountain batteries, and the Benazet-Constantine agreement, led to the differences between the Anglo-French and Venizelists with King Constantine.

On December 1, 1916 the clash between Anglo-French marines and Greek Royalist forces in Athens (also known as the Noemvriana) would have a major impact on the small Greek-Australian community.  The Australian press described King Constantine action as full of "treachery," judged him "guilty," acted with "duplicity," was "cunning," "fooled the diplomats refusal to hand over guns," and acted with "perfidy."  Despite his neutral stance, he was known for his pro-German proclivities.

The Greeks in Melbourne (Victoria), Sydney (New South Wales), Brisbane (Queensland) and Perth (West Australia) passed resolutions supporting Eleftherios Venizelos and expressing allegiance to the British Empire.  It is worth noting that Australian Government had earlier conducted a secret census in June 1916 to ascertain the number of Greeks domiciled in Australia.  This information was divided into two categories:  Form A (Return of Greeks giving personal particulars which included address, name of person, sex, age, occupation, nature of transport, distance from capital city and remarks) and Form B (Return of places where Greeks are known to congregate which showed locality, means of communication:  nature of transport and distance from capital city, club, cafe, or other institution, name of manager, number of persons and remarks).  The remarks column highlighted a very small number of Royalist sympathizers in Australia.

It was the Greeks of West Australia (WA) who suffered the most of their compatriots in Australia.  Greek businesses in Perth, Kalgoorlie, a goldmining town, and Boulder were destroyed and looted by rioters.  Press reports highlighted that 100 Greeks fled Kalgoorlie for Perth.  The events that unfolded in Constantine's Greece between September and December 1916 were widely reported in the Perth and Kalgoorlie press displaying anti-Constantine headlines.  Such headlines would have influenced these hotheads not to be able to distinguish between Venizelists and Royalists.  Rioters were arrested and prosecuted with some serving jail time for their actions.  There was an antipathy for Greeks in Australia like in the United States during the Great War.

The Western Australian Greeks were concerned for their safety and requested the protection of the British Government.  They cabled Venizelos in Thessaloniki, asking him to lodge a protest on their behalf in London.  Venizelos informed them to make representations to the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, 1914-20 regarding their concerns.  Finally, this came to the attention of the Australian Prime Minister, William Hughes who cabled the Premier of WA to investigate the riots that had taken place.

These communications high-lighted two aspects of the Australian political system at this time.  Firstly, all official communication sent by the Australian Prime Minister went via the Governor-General to the Colonial Office in London and vice versa; and secondly, the Federal Government had no jurisdiction as the riots came within the purview of the State Government of WA.

The Greeks of Perth were characterized as disloyal and treacherous by Anglo-Australians and dispelled such notions by showing their loyal to the British Empire.  They prayed for an allied victor and even a tiny number of pro-Constantine sympathizers were horrified as to what occurred in Athens.  Many Greeks were British subjects and had been resident for more than 20 years in West Australia.  They sought compensation for destruction to their businesses.

The Greek Consul in Perth filed for damages but was declined by the WA Government.  Originally, the victims' claims of £11,728-4-0 was reduced to £5388-10-0 on the recommendation of Commissioner, A. Green.  Moreover, representations to the Australian Government in 1917, 1920, and 1921 for compensation was declined on each occasion despite the Greek Government's approach to London.  There were Greeks who hired private counsel to recover damages for their losses only to be rebuffed by the Australian Government on April 9, 1919.

This issue dragged on for more than a decade when the Consul General for Greece, L. Chrysanthopoulos, a career diplomat, requested on February 21, 1930 for a reconsideration of the Greek claims.  The Australian Government declined to reopen the case for three reasons.  Firstly, a long time had elapsed when this event occurred and the Attorney General's department had never rendered a legal opinion on it; secondly, the Departments of Treasury and Defense made the original decision of not providing compensation; and finally, it seems the Australian Government sought to find a legal avenue to avoid paying compensation and cited an instance to shore up its position.  The WA Premier informed the Federal Government in January 1917 that the police exercised all due diligence in trying to quell the riots and to afford protection.  Furthermore, police arrests and convictions obtained was insufficient.  There was no evidence to back up this claim.

However, the Australian Government laid down principles based on international law to cover such a future eventuality for compensation.  It stated:  "(a) A State is responsible for damages caused to the person or property of a foreigner by persons taking part in a riot or mob violence.  If the movement is directed against foreigners as such, or against persons of a particular nationality, when it is shown by the claimant State that there was negligence on its part or on the part of its officials to prevent the damage; and (b) in a federal State the Federal Government assumes this responsibility."

In conclusion, the Greek-Australians in Perth were over-whelmingly pro-Venizelist and concerned as to what happened in Athens.  The refusal of both the Australian and WA Governments to pay compensation highlighted its discriminatory position towards the Greek community.  It is regrettable that the political divisions in Greece impacted this small community and also exposed the anti-Greek sentiment in some sections of Anglo-Australian society.