An oft-quoted thing about Australian multiculturalism is that Melbourne has the third-biggest Greek-speaking population after Athens and Thessaloniki.
If true, it would be quite a claim. But according to a Monash University registry, only around 162,000, or 3.6% of the Greater Melbourne population, can claim some kind of Greek ancestry. That is equivalent to around 95% of the total Greek population in the state of Victoria, and 42% of the Australian-wide total of nearly 400,000.
In fact, Melbourne does not even make the top five largest Greek-speaking communities in the world, according to World Population Review figures. The capital city Athens currently has around 664,000 inhabitants while Thessaloniki has ~354,000, the Cypriot capital Nicosia has ~200,000, while Patra and Piraeus report ~168,000 and ~164,000, respectively.
But Melbourne’s diaspora is, indeed, the largest Greek-speaking population outside Greece and Cyprus, the experts at Diaspora Travel Greece point out.
Myths and boasting aside, the real point is that waves of Greeks braved hardship and vast distances to forge a new life on the other side of the planet. Many never saw their homeland again. Holding onto their language and culture thus became a matter of great pride. See side story on the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne.
1. Braving the waves
The first recorded Greeks in Australia were a group of seven sailors transported in the early 1800s to the convict colony of New South Wales for piracy. All were eventually pardoned and two took the opportunity to make Australia their permanent home.
The first true ‘wave’ of Greek immigrants to Australia began in the 1850s with the discovery of gold in central Victoria – the state’s capital Melbourne would have been their first experience of this exotic New World.
No noteworthy migration waves took place for several decades after the goldrush tapered out in the late 1860s. Australia reported a steady trickle of arrivals – mostly relatives and townspeople of already established Greeks in the country. But the numbers were adding up.
A Greek diaspora was taking shape in Melbourne and Sydney around the turn of the century and led to the several Greek Orthodox churches being erected and a growing sense of community. Popular jobs for ‘Greek Australians’ included shop- and restaurant-ownership, skilled trades, field work, cane-cutting in the north, and other manual jobs.
The period leading up to 1920, marked by the Great War, tested this new Greek-Australian bond. While the number of Greeks in Australia continued to rise steadily (reaching 2,000 by 1911), and Greek cultural identity was expressing itself – the first Greek-language weekly newspaper was issued in 1913 – the outbreak of war dealt a blow. It led to a souring of relations – Greece initially took a neutral stance – and this slowed the inflow of Greek migrants for some years.
A second true wave of arrivals came between the world wars, on the back of tensions between Greece and Turkey, culminating in the 1923 population exchange. Immigration quotas imposed by the US in the early 1920s also pushed many aspiring emigres to look for alternatives in the likes of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. This influx of Greek immigrants between 1925 and 1929 led to a national cap being imposed of 100 Greeks per month.
The depression and a period of post-war dust-settling resulted in slower immigration to Australia. Greece’s economic troubles and its Civil War (1946-1949) gave it priority status under the Australian government’s ‘Populate or perish’ immigration scheme. In 1947 alone, some 12,000 Greek immigrants braved months at sea to reach Australian shores.
2. Boom to bust: 1950s to the present
A booming Australian economy demanded skilled and non-skilled labour alike. Government programmes involving assisted passage lured tens of thousands of Greeks. The increasingly well-established Greek community in Australia began making a “substantial impact in the country”, according to Diaspora Travel Greece. Particularly in sport – Heidelberg United FC (‘Alexander the Great’) was founded in 1958 and South Melbourne FC (Hellas) in 1959 – but also in cultural pursuits. See side-story on Spiros Stamoulis.
Greek immigration to Australia continued to expand throughout the 1960s, spurred on by droves of young men wishing to flee the country’s military junta (1967-1974). By 1971, the number of Greek-Australians had topped 160,000 – with 47% living in Melbourne. Overall arrivals began to drop year on year, but a large increase in Greek Cypriots was observed following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
When Greece joined the European Economic Community (eventual European Union) in 1981 and later entered the Schengen free-movement area in 1992 – opening up opportunities to travel and work within Europe – fewer Greeks emigrated to Australia.
This trend continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as Greece enjoyed greater prosperity and growth. Many Greek-Australians permanently relocated back to their homeland during this period. But in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and protracted economic belt-tightening in Greece, these flows reversed again in favour of Australia.
3. Spiros’ dream of a Hellenic Museum for Melbourne
Spiros Stamoulis was a Greek-Australian businessman and philanthropist who dreamed of creating a cultural institution to promote what he called “an understanding and enjoyment of Greek classical and contemporary culture, art and history”. His vision and significant endowments ultimately led to the creation of Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum in 2007. Today, it is housed in the former Royal Melbourne Mint.
Described as a “passionate Hellene”, Stamoulis left his homeland in the 1950s as an impressionable 12 year-old, reaching Melbourne during a post-war boom. He grasped the opportunities with both hands, starting several successful businesses, while amassing his own collection of Hellenic artefacts as a reminder of his mother country’s rich history.
The idea to set up a more formal house for Greek art and culture to blossom was born out of a desire to “give back” to the community that enabled his success and to honour the memory of his late daughter, and her eternal passion for Greek culture.
To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is to live forever.
The Hellenic Museum opened to much acclaim as the first and only museum in Australia dedicated to preserving and showcasing Greek heritage. According to its website: “By bringing together multiple artistic disciplines and perspectives, the Hellenic Museum presents a holistic experience of Greek culture and the contribution it has made, and continues to make, to society today.”
From contemporary art to historic exhibitions the collections – spread across various rooms and floors – are a product of partnerships with local and international contributors, both Greek and non-Greek.
Current exhibits (August 2023) include a look at ‘Greek Gods, myths and mortals’ seen through an eclectic blend of objects, Byzantine artworks and ecclesiastical icons, post-Byzantine secular art, as well as contemporary artworks and historical insights.
Downstairs, the lifelike ‘Messenger Goddess’ – a naked Iris pondering her reflection – is truly breathtaking. Eerily real yet clearly in the realm of gods and myths. Sculptor Sam Jinks says this winged wax figure was inspired by the “statue of the goddess Iris which once graced the west pediment of the Parthenon”.
Indeed, according to Wiki, Iris is depicted in ancient art as a “winged young woman carrying a caduceus, the symbol of the messengers, and a pitcher of water for the gods”.
Upstairs, a collection of original Olympic torches – ‘Flame of Olympia’ exhibit – offers a unique account of Greek history through the lens of modern battles of strength. This is juxtaposed next door in an informative exhibit on warfare in ancient Greece (‘Heroes and Hoplites’).
More historical context comes from an exhibit (‘Ex Graecia’) on Greek culture and the Roman world, alongside a series of cast statues, contemporary photographs, and more.