Top End Greeks: Tales of Greek cafes ‘up north’

Two contemporary chroniclers of the Greek experience in Australia give us a taste of the Greek presence in the Top End

The Northern Territory’s first Greek arrival appears to have been a crewman aboard the Moonta, George Goyder’s survey vessel: M. Kengris, who was listed as a cook.

The ship anchored in Bynoe Harbour on 5 February 1869. The initial survey of a number of town sites was undertaken, including Palmerston, which would later become the Territory’s capital, Darwin.

Like Kengris, other confirmed initial arrivals, such as B. Foulis and Angelos Sakellarios, were transient. One, Antonius Gemenis, who was originally from the island of Kastellorizo, operated beche-de-mer luggers from Samarai in New Guinea.

Significant Greek settlement in the Northern Territory commenced in the early 1910s. Early permanent settlers such as Alexandros Harmanis, Kyriakos Kailis, George Margaritis and Efstratios George Haritos, were soon joined by other Greeks, primarily Kastellorizians. Most were attracted by the work on offer in the building and operation of Vestey’s meatworks in Darwin.

Many Greeks would travel from Queensland’s sugarcane fields at the end of the cane-cutting season to work at the meat works. When cutting recommenced, they would remigrate back to the cane fields. According to passenger lists of ships arriving in Darwin between 1900 and 1928, Greeks were also arriving from Western Australian coastal towns and ports such as Geraldton, Port Sampson, Wyndham, Port Hedland, Broome and Fremantle.

Unfortunately, in 1920, the meatworks closed – it had supplied meat for the Allies during World War I, and with the conflict’s end, demand rapidly declined. Those Greeks who decided to remain in Darwin after the closure of the meat works generally ventured into employment as wharfies, fettlers, fisherman, miners, cooks, waiters, cleaners, and in labour gangs laying pipelines.

By 1917, a small community had formed and a simple Greek Orthodox church constructed. The first resident Greek Orthodox priest was Father Chrysanthos. The community consisted of two groups located at different ends of Darwin. One group was close to Darwin’s port and the area was referred to as “Greek Town”. The other group settled near the rail link to the meatworks and that area was referred to as “Salonika”.

In 1919, Efstratios George Haritos established a salt works at Ludmilla Creek in Darwin with three other Greeks – John Sfakinakis, Dick Colivas and George Harmanis. Efstratios’ knowledge and skill in salt production directed the enterprise that principally provided salt to Vesty’s meat works; the salt was used to assist preservation of the meat. Salt was also sold to Darwin’s inhabitants and to outlying pastoral stations.

Between 1914 and 1919 over 1,000 Greeks are claimed to have arrived in Darwin, though it is likely that there was on average about 400 Greek residents in the Northern Territory during this period.

By 1920, there were approximately over 300 Greek residents in Darwin, but with the closure of the meat works, the number fell to just 76.

During this period, the overwhelming majority of the population was male. Greek numbers remained low in Darwin until the 1950s when Greek-Cypriots and Kalymnians began to arrive in solid numbers.

In 1916, on successive weekends, brawls erupted in Darwin between Greek and British-Australian workers. The fighting spilled from hotels into Cavanaugh Street.

A “feeling of animosity” for the hostile manner in which British troops had been treated in Athens during the war was indicated as the cause.
Greece’s King Constantine was accused of pro-German sympathies.

During the 1920s, Kyriakos Vayanos established a combined cafe, cool store and small-goods business on the corner of Cavenagh and Bennett Streets in Darwin.

Its name was provided by Australian author, Xavier Herbert – whose novels featured harsh outback landscapes peopled by a rugged, cosmopolitan grouping of humanity, amongst whom were Greeks. The name that Herbert gave to the enterprise was Zero in the Tropics. It provided Territorians with an oasis in which they could escape the humidity, flies and dust.

The name caught on quickly, given the enterprises’ cool store facilities and its provision of a very popular food treat, new to the tropical north, Peters Ice Cream – American-style ice cream had arrived in Darwin. Later, during the 1940s and 1950s, Greek-run food-catering businesses in Darwin – such as the Star Milk Bar, the Rendezvous Cafe, and the Continental Milk Bar – all attempted to express a sophisticated American style in their design, furnishings, staff uniforms and customer service.

They copied Greek cafes and milk bars in Australia’s major urban centres – they tried to offer ‘a bit of Hollywood glamour’ in what was then, still a frontier town.

In 1921, only 7 Greek-Cypriots were recorded as residents of Darwin. After World War II, given the island’s resistance to ongoing British occupation, more Greek-Cypriots arrived in Australia’s “Top End”. Three Dakota aircraft landed in Darwin carrying about 65 Greek-Cypriots each. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, numbers again increased.

In the early 1950s Kalymnian diving crews were brought out by the Australian Government to replace Japanese crews (who were banned after World War II) in an attempt to revive the Australian pearl shell industry. Amongst the pearl lugger operators who were behind giving the Kalymnians a go were three brothers, George, Jack and Nicholas Haritos, and Michael Paspalis (who also became one of Darwin’s leading property entrepreneurs, investing in hotels, theatres, shops and cafes).

Tragically, one Kalymnian diver – Hristos Kontoyiannis – was killed when his air hose became entangled. Experienced in diving for sponges in clear, calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, the murky waters and enormous tides off the northern Australian coast proved a dangerous foe. Moreover, crews complained about their unfamiliarity with the use of “half” deep sea diving suits – the Kalymnians were accustomed to working in “full” suits.

The Kalymnian experiment failed but many crew members subsequently became involved in Darwin’s booming building industry. This proved very successful and attracted more Kalymnians to migrate to Darwin. By the 1980s over 70% of the city’s Greek males worked in jobs related to the building industry or were employers within it such as master builders and contractors – most were of Kalymnian background.

Commercial pearl cultivation took over from pearl shelling in the late 1950s and fundamental to this enterprise in Australia was Kastellorizian, Nicholas Paspaley (Michael Paspalis’ brother; Nicholas chose to anglicize his family name). In 1963, the Paspaley Pearling Company entered into a working arrangement with a Japanese firm, Arafura Pearling Co., and commenced cultured pearl operations at Port Essington, part of the Cobourg Peninsula north-east of Darwin.

Paspaley’s initial arrangement with the Japanese was unsuccessful, but they later reached a satisfactory, workable agreement. From then on Paspaley never looked back. In the 1980s Paspaley Pearling Company’s farm at Port Essington was producing up to 70,000 shells per year.

In 1953 the foundation stone of the current Greek Orthodox Church in Darwin, St Nicholas, was laid. Two years later, the Greek Orthodox Community of Darwin was formally established. During the 1960s, the Kalymnian Brotherhood – St Pandeleimon – was formally instituted, as was the Cypriot Brotherhood of North Australia.

At least 6 soccer clubs were formed in Darwin during the 1960s as was the Greek Orthodox Youth Association.

Such was the prominence of the Greek presence in Darwin during the second half of the twentieth century that in 2000, John Anictomatis, who had been born in Piraeus, educated at Darwin High, and had developed a prominent building and real estate enterprise, was appointed as the Administrator of the Northern Territory. He had previously been appointed as the Territory’s Honorary Consul for Greece.

There currently appears to be between 15,000 and 20,000 residents of Darwin of Greek heritage. The largest group being the Kalymnians followed by the Greek-Cypriots. Others include the Kastellorizians, Greeks from Crete, Rhodes, and Kos, Macedonians and other mainlanders.

Although the majority of Greeks live in Darwin, small groupings reside in other centres in the Territory such as Alice Springs, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Nhulunbuy, Jabiru and off the coast on Groote Eylandt.

Greek cafe exhibition Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Cafe is on at the Northern Territory Library in Parliament House Darwin until 20th June.

The Northern Territory Library is located within the Northern Territory’s Parliament House, corner of Mitchell and Bennett Streets, Darwin. Admission is free.

Opening hours: Monday – Friday, 10.00am – 5.00pm; Saturday – Sunday 1.00pm – 5.00pm; closed on public holidays.