1. Greece in general from the end of the nineteenth century until 1974
By the end of the nineteenth century, the economic crisis of the European countries led to the rise of modern imperialism. According to this system, a country that is experiencing financial difficulties protects itself by adopting an aggressive approach and searching for new markets in order to create its own international economic area.
One of the consequences of these activities was the shift of economic investments from Europe to lower-risk areas such as the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Africa.
In 1880, the international recession had an immediate impact on Greece with the raisin export crisis – raisins being the main export product of the country. This crisis led to the large-scale desertion of the countryside and the migration of many people to the cities in search of work. Many of the unemployed decided to emigrate. They came mostly from western Peloponnese and Thessaly, due to the “raisin crisis” and the manor system. This system saw the majority working for a few landowners under miserable conditions, often facing famine.
At the same time, the “Big Idea” revived in Greece: the union of all areas formerly inhabited by Greeks, and the transformation of the Aegean Sea into a Greek “lake”. It must be stressed here that, at this time, the borders of the Greek state were by far smaller than it is today, and the idea of liberating the enslaved brothers was very popular amongst all Greeks. Greece took part in many wars in order to accomplish these ideals: the Greek-Turkish war (1897), the Balkan wars (1912-1913), World War I (1911-1918) and the disastrous Asia Minor expedition (1922). The results were not always positive. Three million Greeks from the regions of Asia Minor and Thrace were violently displaced from their homes by the Turks and the Bulgarians respectively. Many of them emigrated, and some of them reached Bloemfontein. Although these wars enabled Greece to expand, almost reaching its present borders, the toll was high.
During the interwar period after the disaster of Asia Minor, Greece faced enormous problems due to the international crisis that followed, as well as the demographic pressure created by the refugees from Asia Minor, resulting in higher unemployment numbers. The productive activity in the rural areas didn’t ensure a monthly income for the families.
During the occupation of Greece by the Germans, Italians, and Bulgarians (1941-1945), the population suffered from oppression and hunger. Over 150 000 people died of starvation during the occupation. When the conquerors withdrew in 1945, they left behind a completely destroyed Greece, while the civil war that followed (1946-1949) worsened the situation even more.
The political persecutions, the involvement of the Great Powers in the country, the leadership of the political powers (who were unable to achieve national reconciliation), the destroyed economy and unemployment were the reasons that, during the ensuing years, forced many Greeks to emigrate. Despite the economic development of the country after the end of the civil war, emigration continued – with several fluctuations – for roughly 35 years.
2. Aegean Islands and Cyprus
The majority of the Greek immigrants in Bloemfontein originated from the Aegean Islands (most of them from Lesvos, and others from Hios, Samos and Limnos), and Cyprus. A few came from Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands (Kithira and Ithaca), while some were originally from Asia Minor and the Eastern Thrace.
A short history of the Aegean Islands and Cyprus will indicate what the economic conditions of these islands were when the Greek emigrants departed for Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Lesvos, the biggest island of the central Aegean Sea, was liberated from the Turks and united with Greece in 1912. At the beginning of the twentieth century it had a population of 150 000. Olive oil was the main product of Lesvos. Soap was also manufactured, and agriculture produced citrus, grapes and other fruit.
Plomari is a village in south Lesvos, and was home to the majority of the island’s inhabitants who emigrated to Bloemfontein. The village was originally situated inland, built on a hill out of fear of pirates, and was called Megalohori. After a devastating fire that destroyed much of Megalohori, the inhabitants of this village moved to the coastal area and founded Plomari. Today, the old Megalohori still exists at its original location.
Life in Plomari was as difficult as in the rest of Greece. Most of the residents were small-scale farmers, and the children had to help their parents in the fields from a very young age (about five years old).
When the Germans occupied the island in 1940, life became even more difficult for the inhabitants. In order to provide for their army, the Germans confiscated all the agricultural products, leaving such a minimal quantity for the local inhabitants that they could no longer make a living. Thus, the islanders mobilised all their cunning in order to outwit the Germans and ensure that they would survive.
During the first year of the occupation, people were not prepared and suffered a real famine. The cold winter of 1941-1942 worsened the situation even more. People died of starvation in the snow, without even a priest to bury them. Everything came to a standstill. Many, risking their own lives, found ways of snatching food from the storehouses of the Germans, while others went to distant beaches and threw dynamite in the sea to catch fish. They then secretly tried to exchange the products they had gathered, so that they could feed their families.
Despite all these hardships parents never stopped sending their children to school, even during the occupation period. The majority of the children completed their primary school education, while a few continued to high school, and even fewer went to university. Children from Megalohori walked for ten kilometres to reach the school in Plomari, often carrying their shoes to avoid wearing them out, since their parents could not afford another pair.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that so many people from Plomari already began emigrating from the beginning of the twentieth century.
After liberation in 1945, the civil war brought new sufferings to the inhabitants, who were separated into two “camps”: the right- and the left-wingers. Many people were forced to leave their villages because of the political strife. As often happens under similar conditions, there were certain big landowners who exploited the poor majority. Jobs were very scarce, and the daily wages of those who did succeed in getting a job were very low. Thus, many people – especially young people – left and went to the big cities or abroad. Because of the fact that many people from Plomari had already resided in South Africa before World War II, they attracted new emigrants to the same destination.
The research shows that only one family (the Manidis) from Hios settled in Bloemfontein in the early 1930s. The son of the family, Georgios Manidis, and his wife, Dorothy Troupos (daughter of the very first Greek family in Bloemfontein), played an important role in the Greek community of Bloemfontein. Even today, the Greeks of Bloemfontein talk of these two people with great respect and love. Therefore a brief description of Georgios Manidis’ island of origin, Hios, is given here as a tribute for his contribution in the Greek community of Bloemfontein.
Hios, the second-largest island of the central Aegean Sea, with a population of 70 000 at the beginning of the twentieth century, suffered under the calamitous earthquake of 1881 and the plague of 1883. In 1912, the island became part of Greece. The main sector of the economy of Hios was commercial shipping. Hios produces a unique product: The gum that is secreted by the trunk of the mastiha tree (shinos). This gum has been known since ancient times for its pharmaceutical and aromatic qualities, and is a basic source of income for many families on the island.
The history of Hios followed that of Lesvos and the rest of Greece, but the majority of the people who emigrated from Hios went to the U.S.A. and Australia, and only a few came to Africa.
In 1878, as stated in the first seminar, Cyprus was sold to the British by the Turks. The British brought many administrative changes to the island as well as its judicial system, and also some form of parliamentary institution. These were the positive consequences of the British sovereignty in Cyprus. The British, however, did not end the people’s tax exploitation. They maintained all the Ottoman taxes so that this money could be used to pay the sultan’s compensation for the concession of Cyprus to Great Britain. This exploitation gave rise to the political claims of the Cypriots, which continued until Cyprus finally gained independence. The union of Cyprus with Greece was always the dream of the Greek Cypriots, but the Great Powers never allowed it.
Daily life in the villages of Cyprus from where most of the Cypriot immigrants of Bloemfontein came was as difficult as in Greece. The majority of the inhabitants were small-scale farmers. The children had to help their parents from a very young age. When they were not working in the fields, they had to prepare meals for the family. There were also some Greeks who led wealthy and happy lives in Cyprus, but unexpected economic disasters led them abroad.
The relations between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were good until the 1950s. Turkish Cypriots always had a lower standard of living than Greek Cypriots. Later, Turkey began to interfere in Cyprus, and to mobilise Turkish Cypriots against Greek Cypriots. While initially the children of all Cypriots attended common schools, after the 1950s Turkey sent schoolteachers who initiated propaganda campaigns against Greek Cypriots. The British incited the tension between the two Cypriot communities until, in 1974, Turkish military intervention divided the island in two, with its northern half still occupied by the Turkish army today.
The economic situation was very bad, with the average monthly income at no more than £5 in 1939. Thus, poverty was the reason that led many Cypriots abroad, seeking a better fortune. Many Cypriots also actively participated in guerrilla acts against the British, demanding the union of Cyprus with Greece. Many of these people had to abandon their homeland in order to avoid arrest. In 1974, the Turkish army’s invasion created new emigrant waves.
Despite their difficult life, Cypriots always had a passion for education. Children kept going to school, even if they had to do other hard work as well. Cypriots also love sport, and a lot of Greek immigrants from Cyprus distinguished themselves in various sports before they left their homeland. Many of them continued their participation in sport after their settlement in Bloemfontein. Others continued their studies in Bloemfontein, and one of them, Dr Antonios Vrahimis, obtained a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of the Orange Free State.