To the farthest place on Earth

Vasilis Vasilas’ latest book, To the Farthest Place on Earth, looks at the journey and settlement of Lesvian migrants to New Zealand

To the Farthest Place on Earth follows its predecessors – Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope (2010), and Our Homeland: Lesvos (2011) – with hundreds of photographs and oral stories of Lesvian migrants as they recount their struggles of adjustment to their adopted homeland and successful integration in the broader New Zealand community.

Asked about the reasons why Vasilas took the bold step to travel across the Tasman Sea to continue his documentation and research in another country, he explains New Zealand’s small Greek community needed immediate attention. “From Greece, New Zealand is the furthest place on Earth, which makes the Greeks there the sentinels of Hellenism,” states Vasilas, “and the processes of the Greek migrants’ integration or assimilation into the broader community are at a much developed stage in comparison to the larger Greek communities in Australian cities such as Melbourne and Sydney.

“What I also found in New Zealand was the lack of research done on the Greeks of New Zealand. Sadly, there are only three books on various aspects of the Greek community. “As the post War generation of Lesvian migrants ages and passes away, there was the need to document their stories now.” Although the book focuses on the migrants from Lesvos, there are several interesting stories that highlight the universality of the migrant experience.

So whether Australian or New Zealander Greek migrants, they can empathise with the stories. There is the story of prominent restauranteur, Georgio`s Mastrogeorgiou (from Plomari) who challenged the restrictive New Zealand laws on the selling of milk shakes. As licenses were needed to sell milk, he successfully argued a milk shake was no longer milk once fruit, flavours and malt were added.

“It is a credit to Mastrogeorgiou who did not give up the case after a magistrate ruled against him and took the matter to the High Court where the ruling was overturned. I am sure Greek milk bar and restaurant owners breathed a sigh of relief when the decision was made,” explains Vasilas.

New Zealand’s first Greek teacher for the Wellington community’s afternoon school was Lefkothea Abatzi (from Antissa), who arrived in the city in the late 1930s. Her impact on the Greek migrants’ children’s education was immediate. In a short time, she was able to organise the children to recite Greek poetry and perform traditional dances. Emmanuel Caldis (from Akrasi) was one of the handful of Greek males who served the New Zealand Army in the Second World War, as most Greek males were working in small businesses at the time.

Hoping he would enlist and serve in the defence of his homeland Greece (and Crete), Caldis ended up fighting the Japanese in the Pacific War where he was wounded in the Solomon Islands. There are also several stories about female migrants who migrated to New Zealand as part of the governmental agreement between Greece and New Zealand for indentured labour in the early 1960s. For two years, the women worked as kitchen hands and cleaners and were spread across New Zealand.

They had to overcome isolation, language barriers, alienation and loneliness during this time. What makes To the Farthest Place on Earth slightly different from its predecessors is an expanded introduction which examines a general history of New Zealand’s Greek community, especially with regards to the Greek pioneers of the nineteenth century. Scouring through naturalisation papers in Wellington’s National Archives and finding Greek names, Vasilas placed the names of the National Library of New Zealand’s website for digitised news papers, Papers Past. Subsequently, wherever the Greek names were came up, Vasilas was able to piece together the Greek pioneers’ stories.

Pioneers like Nicholas Demetrius Mangos, who jumped ship in New Zealand in the early 1840s. He acquired a good reputation as a boatman during the Otago gold rushes (1860s) and became a larger than life character being baptised ‘Peter the Greek’. “In one instance, Peter the Greek challenges a New Zealander to a sculling (rowing) race where he eventually beats him by several lengths. The race was followed by hundreds of onlookers and lots of money exchanged hands. One can only imagine how much the reputation of Peter the Greek grew after such an event,” highlights Vasilas.

There is also the story of boatman, Nichloas Carey, who named his schooner, ‘Young Greek’ (1858). Although his naturalisation was publicly announced in February 1854, only one month later Carey stated that he would be leaving New Zealand. The mystery of his sudden intentions was published in April 1854 (Wellington Independent), where Carey distances himself from his wife Eliza’s debts and takes no responsibility for any future debts.

“Using the National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past provided me with an invaluable insight to the daily lives of the pioneer Greek settlers, states Vasilas, “whether it was losing a business in a fire and becoming bankrupt [Alexander Constantine in 1868] or Greek fishmongers feuding who can sell their fish at which household [Apostolos Raptelis and Gersimos Gambitsis in 1907], there are so many interesting stories capturing these pioneers’ daily lives.”

To the Farthest Place on Earth is being launched by the Mytilenian Association of Wellington and New Zealand on Sunday 11 November as part of their celebrations for 100th anniversary since Lesvos’ liberation from the Ottoman Empire.