In 1898 a group of 26 Greek-Romani people from Thessaly arrived in Largs Bay, South Australia and left a few days later on foot for the eastern colonies. These early migrants of Greek origin were among the reasons why the first racial legislation was introduced in South Australia followed by its enforcement through the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. This incident has remained the ong0ing reason for diplomatic relations between Greece and Australia.
The story behind these 26 early migrants and their exploits has resurfaced once again and taken center stage as part of the continuing dialogue focused on managing the problem of mass immigration and the reception of asylum seekers into Australia.
The Greek-Romani migrant story begins back in Greece in 1897, when the Greeks lost a war against the Turks. The May 1898 truce between the two rival countries in Lamia created a wave of thousands of migrants forced to abandon their land and either migrate abroad or seek shelter in the then free Greek territories. Like many, the 26 Romani were also forced to leave their homes in the villages of Thessaly, flee to Volos and take a ship to Australia without a clue as to what the future would have in store for them.
Heeding the advice of merchants and ship-owners in Volos who told stories of a prosperous life in Australia, the Romani decided to give up whatever last funds they possessed in order to pay for their journey aboard the French steamer “Ville de la Giotat” on June 20, 1898. And this is where their adventures commence.
By mistake the 26 migrants landed in Adelaide instead of Sydney and soon became the center of unpopular negative attention in the country for quite a long time. The local authorities were alarmed by the arrival of the unexpected, unwanted and dangerous newcomers clad in rags. Their entry into the country had not been authorized, a fact which soon ignited the racial flame against the colored migrants that swept across the whole of Australia.
The local newspapers painted the arrival and appearance of the 26 Romani in the blackest of colors, while they also published their pictures. Special emphasis was put on the fact that these Romani were not of Greek origin but rather born and raised in Greece with the only work known to them was that of tinkers. Their settling into the area attracted many visitors right from the very start; some gave them money, some made fun of them and others offered them clothes and food. Most of them, however, under the guidance of the mayor of Adelaide, began organizing a campaign to drive them out of the city. Even the Australian Ambassador of Greece visited the small settlement and was surprised to know that the 26 migrants could only speak Greek.
In the meantime, the Greek-Romani issue was introduced at the South Australian parliament by an MP who suggested that no Greek, Hindu or Chinese should be allowed to enter Australia henceforward.
But the Greek-Romani migrants had a more serious problem to solve: survival. Without any means to support themselves, they resorted to wandering and begging or staging random acts of street entertainment for the local residents. They started dancing, joggling, and singing in order to make ends meet. But their way of life was not appreciated by the press or the aristocracy.
Local authorities in Adelaide did their best to expel the 26 migrants to Melbourne, but their journey did not end there. The Greek-Romani were first boarded on a train to the suburbs of Norwood, South Australia, where the people gathered at the station and made them leave with the next train. In other stations, the locals would throw stones at them or would not even let them get off the train. Whenever they could get off the train, they would put up their tents at a good distance from the village and seek for food from the peasants. There were people who helped the outcasts in any way they could before finally reaching Serviceton,Victoria on June 23rd, 1989.
The Melbourne media announced their arrival by describing them as Greek refugees or simply as Gypsies. Ninety-four Greeks publicly protested because Australian authorities and the media “classified them as Greeks” and insisted that the group were Romani from Serbia, who could speak Greek. However, the then Minister of Justice denied this story because all 26 migrants had Greek passports with them issued by the Greek Consulate in Egypt.
The press continued with its racially biased reports against the Greek-Romani. The migrants started wandering once again from one village to the next. The New South Wales government ordered its police forces to prevent the Romani from entering the county. Starving, huddling in rags, the 26 Romani dreamt of reaching Melbourne where the Greek community would hopefully help them. On August 17th, the wanderers got to Ballarat, one of the few places where they would be treated as humans. There they spent a week before setting off again to Melbourne, making a living by performing in the nearby villages. Finally, the Melbourne authorities did not allow them to enter the city opting to have them camp at the suburban area of St. Kilda, which was not under the city’s jurisdiction.
Their wandering and adventures did not stop there but rather continued for several decades.