In the northern suburbs of Brisbane, 24-year-old Georgia Reeves uncovered some extraordinary family history.
She grew up in a family with a strong presence of Irish culture due to her father’s origins. On her mother’s side it appeared she only bore her Australian identity and a question mark associated with a name.
According to Georgia’s grandmother, her great-great grandfather’s name was “Demetrius” and may have been Greek. Two years ago, Ms Reeves decided to search in depth for her family tree, looking for the mysterious man and hoping to certify her Greek roots.
The young woman started her research on ancestry.com without to no avail.
“I knew his daughter was called Teresa and I was looking for him, using her last name, which I thought was her paternal name. I quickly realised that Teresa had been married twice so the surname I thought was her paternal was actually her first husband’s. When I finally got her birth certificate, I found her father’s name: Demetrius Donnell,” Ms Reeves told Neos Kosmos.
With the full name of the family legend in her hands, a new investigation began, this time in the archives of the country’s newspapers.
Much to her surprise, one by one, articles began to appear linking the name to one of the largest shipwrecks ever recorded in Australian history; the 1859 shipwreck of the SS Admella in southwest Mount Gambier.
Demetrius Donnell, or “Pete the Greek” – as it was mentioned in some of the publications – was one of the rescuers and was honored by the State with the medal of bravery.
“I felt so proud to learn that I came from someone so brave who is also Greek…The whole family is excited about this development. Mainly, because we have always admired Greek culture and history for its richness. My mother was sure that the name of her great grandmother ‘Teresa – Anastasia – Asprisia’, was of Greek origin. Our Greek origin.”
WHO WAS DEMETRIUS DONEL AKA “PETE THE GREEK”?
According to Ms Reeve’s research Demetrius was born in Kefalonia in the 1820s.
“He arrived in South Australia around 1850, probably illegally, as there are no naturalisation documents anywhere. I do not know his Greek surname and I believe the name “Donnell” was invented as he started his new life in Australia.
He stayed in South Australia for a few years and then moved to New South Wales and in 1861 he married Theresa Trainer of Manchester, England with whom he had three children, my great-grandmother Teresa, Lawrence and Peter Horatio Donnell.
Demetrius was known as ‘Pete the Greek’ among his fellow fishermen in the wider area,” explained Ms Reeves.
One morning in February 1903, Demetrius around the age of 80, and his son Peter went fishing and never returned.
“Their boat must have capsized due to bad weather and washed ashore without the two men, who were thought to have drowned,” said his proud great granddaughter.
THE WRECK OF “SS ADMELLA” AND THE MEDAL OF BRAVERY
It was the dawn of 6 August, 1859 when the steamship “Admella”, performing its usual voyage between Adelaide and Melbourne, found itself on a reef outside Cape Northumberland and began to sink.
For seven days and nights, the survivors aboard the steamer fought for their lives before finally, on 13 August, “Pete the Greek”, defying danger and throwing his fishing boat into the raging sea, managed to save 24 souls from drowning, preventing them from joining their other 89 passengers who were lost in the wreck.
READ MORE: “My Greek ancestor was not born in Greece”
Newspapers at the time shared testimonies of those who met the brave Greek fisherman. They describe a man with a rough face due to his contact with the sea, but with a tender heart that always commanded him to do good by defying danger.
For this act, the brave Greek fisherman was honored in 1860 with a special medal of bravery.
“This medal is preserved in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where it was handed over in the 1960s, but I do not know by whom. I emailed the Museum asking about it, but unfortunately, to date I have not received any response. I would love for this medal to return to the family,” said Ms Reeves.