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Culture > Bibliography

submitted by John Stathatos on 05.07.2011


The English-language bibliography on Kythera and Kytherians is relatively small, but it includes some unexpected surprises; what follows is an account of some books currently in print, most of which are available in local bookstores.

There is only one English-language general guide to Kythera, but it’s inexpensive, widely available and reliable. Emmanuel Kalligeros is, amongst other things, publisher and editor of Kythiraika, the island’s newspaper of record, and his "Kythira: Historic and Tourist Guide" provides the visitor with useful information on the island’s history and principal sites of interest in compact form. Though it includes a couple of pages listing hotels, petrol stations and useful telephone numbers, the emphasis is more on general information. Unfortunately the other main guide, Tzelly Hadjidimitriou’s "Anexerevnita Kythira" (Unexplored Kythera), a chunky paperback in Lonely Planet style, is not yet available in English, but is worth recommending for those with even minimal Greek for its stunning colour photographs, up-to-date maps and detailed information.

Those interested in the history of Kythera are rather better catered for. "Kythera, a History'" by Peter D. Vanges, published by the Kytherian Brotherhood of Sydney in 1993 and subtitled “A History of the island of Kythera and its people”, is still the best and most complete all-round introduction to the subject for the general reader. The historical chronicle begins in about 2,500 BC and runs to the end of the Axis occupation; the last events mentioned record the uneasy peace which descended upon the island in early 1945 with the withdrawal of the last EAM-ELAS paramilitary elements and the arrival of an eighty-strong Greek army contingent under the orders of the new Greek government. Concluding the historical section of his book, the author notes that during 1947, “a large wave of immigration to Australia by Kytherians began. [...] As the murderous civil war raged on the mainland, young children were often sent on the long journey.... They carried with them the bitter memories of a war-riden country and the desire to work hard and succeed in their new country in order to forget”.

Between these two poles, brief but informative chapters cover the Minoan period, when Kythera was known as Porphyrousa and flourished thanks to the production of purple murex dye; the classical and Hellenistic periods; the middle ages and the crusades; the long period of Venetian domination; the brief periods of French, Turkish and Russian occupation; the Septinsular Republic; British occupation; and, at last, unification with Greece. A chapter is devoted to what is perhaps the least-known but most astonishing event in Kytherian history, namely the 28 days in 1917 during which, following an abortive Venizelist coup d’etat, the island was a free and independent state: “…the idea of the royalist government taking over the island was not well received. The municipal councils were summoned to Potamos on Thursday, 5th March 1917 […] and Kythera was declared an autonomous state, with Panagiotis Tsitsilias as Governor. … The life of the independent Kytherian state came to an end when on the 3rd April 1917, thirty-five police officers from Crete arrived and law and order prevailed”.

"The Island of Kythera. A Social History (1700-1863)" by George Leontsinis started life as a doctoral dissertation, and is therefore by definition heavier going. Nevertheless, it will repay study by anybody curious about the island’s history, focusing as it does on Kythera’s most turbulent and dramatic period, that of the peasant rebellion of 1780. The rebellion culminated in the almost operatic melodrama of May 1799, when two of the island’s privileged nobles were lynched by a peasant mob during Saint Theodore’s fair; the following year, a peace meeting brokered by the Archbishop between peasants and nobles ended in a massacre of the latter in the citadel of Chora. Despite its academic origins, the book is accessible to the layman, and includes masses of information not available elsewhere.

Peter Prineas’ "Britain’s Greek Islands: Kythera & the Ionian Islands, 1809-1864" is a remarkable book by an amateur historian whose thorough research would put many professionals to shame. Prineas, making extensive use of the British National Archives at Kew as well as many other primary sources, has written what is probably the first ever complete history of the Ionian Islands under the British. His erudite and highly readable account of this little-known but fascinating historical period is highly recommended. Though his narrative takes in, as it must, all the islands, with an emphasis on doings at the administrative and political capital of Corfu, he returns often to affairs on Kythera.

His accounts of the mutual incomprehension between the usually well-meaning if often high-handed British administrators and Kytherians of all classes make fascinating reading. James Colthurst, the Resident in 1835, was particularly incensed by the kidnapping of Marulla, a young shepherdess of Aroniadika, by her suitor Demetrio Aroni: “On the following day, Demetrio and Marulla presented themselves at the capital where they obtained a license and married in the presence of Marulla’s incensed parents. Colthurst was aghast that Ionian criminal law could allow a man to abduct and perhaps even rape, a young woman, and then marry her without penalty and enjoy her dowry. However, he overlooked the possibility that not all the young women involved were innocent victims. Some participated in these village dramas to avoid marriages forced on them by their parents”.

The last decade has seen a rapidly increasing interest in the history of Greek emigration, and as a result we now have a growing bibliography on the subject of the Kytherian diaspora. One of the most unusual items has been the republication and translation into English, nearly a century later, of a book written by and for the earliest Greek emigrants to Australia.
First published in 1916, "I Zoi en Afstralia" (“Life in Australia”) proudly bills itself “the first Greek book to be published in Australia, and the first Greek book of any origin whatsoever whose subject is Australia and the Greeks established there”. The title page describes it as “an encyclopaedic publication with numerous artistic illustrations, biographies of Greeks settled in Australia, interesting statistics, a comprehensive commercial directory, etc., etc.”.

The book consists of two unequal halves. The shorter first half opens with “Concerning Australia” , a compendium of basic information about the country from the time it was first colonised in the year 1788, (“Australia has differed radically from the world’s oldest nations in the male to female ratio of its population”), continues with a section on the history of Greeks in Australia and ends with a chapter of “vital advice & essential rules”, including the invaluable warning that “raising your voice, banging your hand on the table, making gestures, impertinence, scruffy dress are, for the Australians, something strange and unattractive”.

The second and much more extensive section is headed “The Mirror of Hellenism; or, Artistic Pictures of Persons and Establishments, together with Biographical Notes on many of the Greek Race settled there”; in effect, it is a gazetteer of Greek settlers in Australia, (more particularly in New South Wales), including a potted biography and usually a portrait photograph for each entry. More precisely, it concentrates on the financially successful immigrants, almost exclusively those who have achieved ownership of their own business, shop or restaurant, a significantly large number of whom appear to hail from Kythera.

"I Zoi en Afstralia/Life in Australia" has now been republished in two volumes by the Kytherian World Heritage Fund: an exact copy of the original Greek edition, and an English translation which reproduces the original layout. Both editions include valuable addenda, including an essay by Hugh Gilchrist on the background to the first edition and another by the translator, Andrew Farrington. The latter has made a brilliant job of reproducing the stiff, pompous and at times slightly ludicrous formal katharevousa of the original Greek.

"Katsehamos and the Great Idea", also by Peter Prineas, is subtitled “A true story of Greeks and Australians in the early twentieth century”. The title, which is frankly confusing, requires some explanation: “Katsehamos”, which is derived from the Greek imperative “sit down!”, was the nickname of Panayotis Firos, the author’s Kytherian grandfather, and his brother Filippos. “The Great Idea” is a literal translation of “Megali Idea”, which was the name attached to Greek irredentism of first half of the 20th century, when the Greek state emerged from two Balkan wars with its territory doubled through the acquisition of Epirus and Macedonia, only to suffer defeat in Asia Minor and the loss of Smyrna in 1922; “The Great Enterprise” probably communicates a more accurate sense of the original. At its most utopian, the Megali Idea looked forward to the reconstruction of the Byzantine Empire with a capital at Constantinople.

In any case, Prineas’ engaging book conflates family history, a record of the life of early Greek immigrants to the USA and Australia and an fragmented beginner’s history of Greece from the Balkan Wars to WWII with an epic account of the building of the Greek-owned Roxy Cinema Theatre in Bingara, New South Wales – itself, of course, in its own way another “great enterprise”. In fact, the book is a little like a traditional rich fruit cake, full of compulsive little bits of information and narrative: “In 1904… the appearance of Greek priests in the streets of American cities did sometimes produce a reaction. Their long hair and beards, stovepipe hats and robes seemed bizarre to American tastes and some were harassed or followed by jeering mobs. A few were even stoned. There were lessons to be learned before the church would adapt to the new environment”.

The author does at time appear to be on the verge of losing control over his multi-layered narrative. Names are one problem; there are too many people with closely similar names, and then there is the added confusion of anglicised names: in Australia, Panayotis Firos becomes Peter Feros. He starts up an enterprise with Emmanuel Aroney under the name Peters & Co., not because of his own baptismal name, but because “it had become an informal franchise among Kytherian Greek shopkeepers. If there was someone who might once have claimed the rights to the name Peters & Co., he was either dead, or had returned to Kythera, and did not care that he had spawned a shoal of imitators”. An entertaining and illuminating book, not least for the sake of nuggets like this one.

Kytherian history and the history of photography are both catered for by "A Kytherian Century", a selection of 61 photographs drawn from the Kytherian Photographic Archive which range in time from 1890 to 2006. Printed one to a page on high-quality paper, they include such images as the students and teacher of Chora primary school in 1900; the beautiful pre-war portraits of Kytherian master photographer Panayotis Fatseas; the photographs taken by his son Manolis during the Axis occupation; a rare scene of women carrying a bride’s dowry to her new home taken in 1963; and the landing of the first scheduled flight at Kythera airport in 1971. Fatseas’ haunting portraits can be seen to best advantage in the large-format hardback album "Panayotis Fatseas: Prosopa ton Kytheron" (“Faces of Kythera”), printed in high-quality duotone. Though the main text is in Greek only, individual captions are in Greek and English.

(First published in a slightly truncated form in "Kythera Summer Edition", 2011. The author wishes to point out that he was involved in the publication of the two last-mentioned volumes.)

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