Peter Prineas's Wild Colonial Greeks is a spirited history of 19th century Greek migration to Australia

  • Wild Colonial Greeks, by Peter Prineas. Arcadia, $34.95.

In his account of three waves (trickles, really) of Greek emigration to Australia during the 19th century, Peter Prineas attempts to "realise" individuals' stories.

By "realise" he means bring back to life, make real for contemporary readers, imbue with colour and drama.

Prineas' research is limited by the relative small number of personal records (letters, diaries or memoirs) available to him.

The first Greek Orthodox church was not established (in Surry Hills) until 1899.

Few Greek women arrived during the colonial era; few of the men who did come here wrote much about the experience.

Prineas sometimes overdoes his research.

A reader does not necessarily need to know the 10 Greek names which Demetrios Moustakas (ship's engineer turned gold miner) gave his children.

Nor is there general interest in the recurrence, 1300 times, in colonial newspapers of the phrase, "when Greek meets Greek".

Nonetheless, Prineas offers a spirited, lively account of some of the Greeks who fetched up in Australia.

The conventional place to start is with nine pirate-convicts who were transported in 1829, having boarded and plundered a British brig on its way to Alexandria.

After them, the reader learns about Timoleon Vasto, who stole ancient Greek coins from the British Museum before being caught by a vigilant detective whose career inspired a Dickens character.

He then worked for a hairdresser and "perfumer", who stuffed reptiles and birds as a side-line.

That tale should not inspire anyone seeking to enable return of the Elgin marbles from the same museum.

The fact remains Vasto did not intend to repatriate his cache of coins.

On and on Prineas' stories go, some a bit longer than they need to be.

One Greek imported pineapple cloth and petticoat borders from Calcutta.

Another was unable to save a patient from "hectic fever".

A third made his way in the inglorious Queensland Mounted Native Police.

Greek gypsies were turned back at the Albury border.

Prineas' stories about Greeks is preceded by an appraisal of the three phases of local reactions to Greek arrival, culminating unhappily in the "Dagoes" period from 1885 to 1900.

Prineas is a polite and judicious historian.

Others might have emphasised more sharply the ignorance, xenophobia, prejudices and resentments which Greeks - and others - confronted in colonial Australia.

Locals and their newspapers evinced only a shallow appreciation of the pro-Hellenism which so inspired Byron.

This story Spirited take on 19th century Greek migration first appeared on The Canberra Times.