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Kytherian Cultural Exchange

Yassou, Souvlakia and Paniyiri: Adapting Greek Culture for Australians

Sue Keays,

Humanities and Human Services, QUT

Historically the Greeks have always travelled. Their foundation myths point to epic sea voyages of discovery, take for instance the travels of Odysseus or Jason’s voyage in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. (1) Seafaring and venturing abroad became part of the Greek way of life, a normal way of settling excess population or providing opportunities for younger sons. From the earliest European contact Greek sailors and ship-owners visited Australia and carried home fantastic stories of the New World. The most infamous Greeks were seven pirates who had the temerity to attack a British warship in the Mediterranean and found themselves transported to New South Wales in 1829. Small numbers of Greeks arrived during the nineteenth century gold rushes, but, in general, they looked for steady business opportunities rather than speculative ventures.

In Queensland, links to Greece were forged at the highest level of colonial society. Diamantina, Lady Bowen, wife of the state’s first governor following separation in 1859 was born on Zakynthos (Zante), the Ionian Islands which were then a British protectorate. The Roma family were titled aristocrats who traced their lineage back to thirteenth century Rome. Diamantina’s father, Count Giorgio-Candiano II da Roma, had served as President of the Ionian Islands Legislative Assembly and President of the Senate, for which he was decorated. The family was well connected in Greek politics; two of her brothers were ministers in the Greek Parliament and a nephew was the Speaker. Members of the family had also married into royal circles. Diamantina herself was an intelligent dark-eyed beauty, educated for a life of privilege.

George Bowen had spent ten years on the Ionian Islands, as president of the University of the Ionian Islands, before becoming Chief Government Secretary. A keen classicist with first class honours from Oxford, Bowen was a respected scholar and author of several books. He was knighted shortly after his marriage and appointed Governor of far-away Queensland.

The arrival of Sir George and Lady Diamantina Bowen at Brisbane was a gala occasion as they were met by a flotilla of ships, fireworks and most of Brisbane’s residents lining the river-bank in welcome. A new residence, with a graceful arc of Ionic columns, was built for the couple at Gardens Point (now within the QUT precinct). Sir George liked to make the most of his classical training and sprinkled his speeches with classical allusions and metaphors, a habit that endeared him to Bulwer Lytton, Secretary for the Colonies, but presumably not the more practical settlers. He judged things by Greek standards; for instance views from Hinchinbrook Island, near Cardwell, reminded him rapturously of Greece. We do not know what Lady Bowen thought, as her letters home were destroyed in a flood. As the state’s first lady, she carried out her official duties with grace and style. Women admired her luxurious dark hair, creamy complexion and slim figure. For her tireless charity work, she gained the respect and affection of Queenslanders. She worked to establish a children’s hospital, an orphanage and the Lady Bowen Hospital for the relief of the sick and poor. Her name was commemorated in the town Roma, Roma Street, Diamantina River, Diamantina Home for incurables, Lady Bowen Park and the Lady Bowen Creeper (bignonia venusta). (2)

It is one of the oddities of race relations in Australia that educated or would-be educated people would quote Homer and pepper their written and spoken expression with classical allusions, and yet demonstrate extreme racism towards modern Greeks. ..........

1. ClSt 200 – Homer , www.classics.upenn.edu/myth/homer/odymap.php, accessed 20.6.04.

2 Hugh Gilchrist,, Australians and Greeks: the Early Years (Sydney: Halstead Press, 1992), pp 69-72.

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