The Greek Centre is to present a lecture on the Greek cotton entrepreneurs who thrived in Egypt in the early 20th century and helped modernise agriculture in the wider region.
Dr Nick Dallas, GOCMV board member and convenor of the Community’s public seminar series, will elaborate on this story and the legacy of Egypt’s Hellenic community.
Why did Nick choose to investigate this topic?
“Well, one was an internal calling. Having been born in Karditsa, one of the largest cotton-producing regions of Greece, I always wondered what if my parents didn’t migrate to Australia, what would my life have been like if I grew up surrounded by the terminology of the cotton cycle,” he tells Neos Kosmos.
“The other factor was a chance encounter of some books on the topic. Visiting the bookshop of the American University in Cairo, I encountered a book on the Cotton Plantation. This was followed by the discovery of Professor Matoula Tomara-Sideri’s book, Egyptian Hellenism: the Cotton Roads, in an Athenian bookshop. One thing then led to another. However, the main protagonist in this story is really Mohammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt and one of Kavala’s favourite sons. The modernisation pathway he attempted to follow later on laid the groundwork in attracting many Greeks to Egypt in the mid-19th century.”
In any discussion on cotton in Egypt it is next to impossible to avoid mentioning the name of Sakel, an extra-long staple cotton variety introduced by Ioannis Sakellarides which dominated the Nile Delta between 1911 to 1935.
“Its strong and lengthy fibres not only commanded a premium price, but European textile mills even modified their machinery to accommodate it,” Dr Dallas explains.
However, Sakellarides was simply continuing the legacy of other innovators who had introduced new improved cotton varieties.
Cotton entrepreneurs like Kartalis, Kanavas, Psihas, Voltos, Papaheimonas and many others had made their mark beforehand. Greeks were involved and dominated almost every aspect of the cotton trade in 19th century Ottoman Egypt.
They provided loans to Egyptian peasant farmers, owned 90 per cent of cotton gins and 25 per cent of all cotton exported went through Greek brokerage houses. How did this story begin?
“Well, from an accidental observation by French Swiss engineer, Alexis Jumel, in the garden of Mako Bey, a retired Ottoman officer. He was awestruck by an ornamental plant that Mako Bey had cultivated from Ethiopian seeds he had brought back. Jumel convinced the Kavala-born ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to invest in the cultivation of this long staple cotton variety. For the rest of his reign, Muhammad Ali then focused on the expanded production of cotton agriculture to raise the financial resources to modernise the Egyptian economy and realise his imperial ambitions.
“It was a rollercoaster ride plagued by numerous challenges and always hostage to global price fluctuations, but his successors continued this legacy,” Dr Dallas continues.
“Things really took off when the American Civil War erupted and production collapsed in the slave plantation cotton fields of the southern United States. The global price tripled, Egyptian production increased fourfold in the space of a few years. Many Greeks made fabulous fortunes, became significant benefactors and played a leading role in Egyptian commerce.”
* Nick Dallas has a multi-discipline background which spans chemistry, political science and economics. His numerous academic interests include economic history, globalisation issues and climate science. Presently he is the national sales manager for professional and vocational education at McGraw-Hill Australia, a global learning science company. He has been on the GOCMV’s board of management since 2012 and takes an active interest in all of the Community’s education initiatives.
When: Thursday 15 September, 7.00 pm
Where: The Greek Centre, mezzanine level, 168 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, VIC