Greek Australians: The History of One of Australia’s Most Vibrant Communities

Greek-Australians march during the Australia Day parade in 2014

According to the latest census from 2011, more than 422,000 people in Australia said that they have Greek, Greek Cypriot or Greek Vlach ancestry.

This begs the question: how did this exotic land manage to attract such a great number of Greeks away from the land of their birth, half a world away from Australia?

Greek migration to Oceania, like that of most other Europeans, to this land at the other end of the world is a tale of bravery and ambition, love and adventure.

It is one that combines all of the individual personal stories together, to create a national narrative which still bonds hundreds of thousands of people, nearly two centuries after the first arrivals on the land.

The first arrivals

The very first Greeks who arrived in Australia, however, didn’t go there freely, of their own will.

Seven sailors, convicted by a British naval court of piracy, were sentenced to be transported to the “Antipodes,” as Australia was called in those days, in 1829. Transportation, in essence a banishment and exile to faraway colonies, was the especially cruel punishment to which almost any criminal could be sentenced during that era in Britain.

After weeks of what was assuredly a harrowing and exhausting trip, these seven Greek men set foot for the first time in this incredibly harsh land, so utterly different from anything they had known before.

When all of the pirates received official pardons several years later, five of them returned home.

However, two made the courageous decision to stay in the country where they had been sent. These two ex-convicts became the first-ever Greeks to settle permanently in Australia.

“British Sailors Boarding a Greek Pirate [vessel],” publisher J L Marks, date unknown. Credit: The Mariners’ Museum, Newport News
Ghikas Bulgaris and Antonis Manolis, men who had once been pirates roving over the seas, came to have their names written down in the history books.

Bulgaris soon became known as ”Jigger Bulgari,” since for English-speaking people, the name Ghikas was most likely impossible to pronounce.

Bulgari settled in Monaro Plains, in the southern part of New South Wales. He met a local woman there, and fell in love with her and and married her. They had many children, and Bulgari died as a successful, honorable family man, completely belying his previous clandestine life as pirate.

Manolis settled near Sydney, in the town of Picton. After spending years in Australia, he was eventually naturalized in 1854, becoming a proper citizen of the British colony.

The first free Greek to settle in Australia

Bulgari and Manolis were the first Greeks to settle in Australia, but of course they both initially went there against their will. The first Greek to willingly go to Australia to live was Katerina Georgia Plessos.

The flag of the United States of the Ionian Islands, from 1815 until 1864, when the UK offered them to Greece

Born in 1809, Plessos fled from the Greek mainland to the Ionian islet of Kalamos during the Greek War of Independence.

In her effort to save herself from the Ottomans, Plessos went to Kalamos, at a time when it was part of the United States of the Ionian Islands. This autonomous state, part of the British Empire, comprised all of the islands of the Ionian Sea.

There, Plessos met Major James Crummer, a British citizen who lived in the British Ionian Islands. The two were married and they both decided to emigrate to Australia in 1835.

They lived in three different cities across Australia, including Sydney, Port Macquire, and Newcastle. They clearly thrived in the Antipodes, having a total of eleven children!

Later waves of Greek migration to Australia

Greeks kept going to Australia from the early 1900s until the end of WWII, as the country seemed to be a place where better careers and a better quality of life were easier to achieve compared to war-ravaged Greece.

Greek immigrant welcomed to Australia after WWII

This trend was only boosted after WWII, when Australian authorities adopted the so-called ”Populate or Perish” doctrine, which effectively encouraged mass European migration to the country.

Part of its controversial ”White Australia Policy,” which favored European immigrants over others, including Asians and Africans, thousands of Greeks, Dutch, Spanish, Belgians and of course British and Irish were encouraged to flock to the country between the 1940s and the 1970s.

This massive wave of newly-arrived Greeks enriched the already-existing Greek communities in Australia, establishing a permanent and distinctive Greek presence in Australian society.

Greek restaurants, retail businesses, and sports clubs were created across the country, enriching Australia’s society and giving its economy a much-needed boost.

Developments over the most recent years

However, there has been a significant reduction in Greek immigration to Australia from the 1970s through the early years of the 21st century.

The rapid economic development of Greece and the decades of growth that followed the restoration of democracy in the country in 1974 created an environment which, for once, didn’t favor arduous migrations to distant lands.

Young Greek-Australian crowd in Melbourne shows its support for Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas in 2019

Of course, this pendulum swung once again due to the global financial crisis of 2008, which hit Greece in a way that no other nation has experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

With approximately one quarter of its total GDP lost between 2009 and 2015, the country suffered one of the worst economic blows ever seen in modern history during peacetime.

This rapid, dramatic downturn led thousands of Greeks to make the decision to temporarily leave their homeland.

Thus from 2010 onward, there has been a significant uptick once again in the number of Greeks who moved to Australia, most of them trying to find distant relatives who had already lived there for decades, and settle into already-existing communities.

Although the exact extent of the new Greek wave of migration to Australia is not yet fully known, many believe that the next few years will determine whether this wave will become permanent, or if the potential quick recovery of the Greek economy will make those who recently left, return back home.

No matter what happens in the near future, however, Greece and Australia have shaped a long-lasting relationship which will endure forever.

From the common battlefields of World War II and the countless graves of the Australians who fought for freedom in the 1940s dotted across Greece, to the many Greek communities which make up part of Australia, the two nations share unbreakable bonds of history.