Monday, March 06, 2006


The lode of intense but ultimately futile effort that runs through the strata of Greek history is especially rich when it comes to the Greek conception of society. From ancient times it was the custom for Greeks to abandon their war-ravaged or civil strife-stricken homelands, ostensibly in order to preserve themselves and their culture and to set up what they hoped to be a convivial re-forged society anew, elsewhere, in the hope that the prospect of a tabula rasa in an unknown land, would give them a second chance for survival and success . Ostensibly, this was undertaken Many of these new cities/colonies, bore the name of their mother city or place of origin. Thus the city of Messina in Sicily has been named after Messinia in the Peloponnese, while the city of Isparta in Asia Minor was named after Messinias’ arch-nemesis, Sparta.
It says much for the concept of a tabula rasa that most of the ancient Greek colonies have largely been swept clean of a Greek presence within them. Instead, and especially in the aftermath of the Asia Minor catastrophe, the ancient colonies, unable to survive trial, tribulation and destruction, disgorged their colonial population back into the windpipe of the motherland, creating colonies from colonies. And thus it is in the death throes of the dream for a new society that suburbs such as Nea Philadelphia or Nea Smyrna came into being.
Interestingly enough, Athens Nea Smyrna is not the first child of woe to emerge prematurely and bloody from the womb of its stricken mother. For almost two hundred years prior to tumultuous events that caused the destruction of the mother city, its passion under the Ottoman yoke saw it again embrace the prospect of escape and rebirth, not around the littoral of the Mediterranean this time, but in the ultimate embracing of the tabula rasa, in the New World itself.
The colony of New Smyrna, though financed and established by the British East Florida Company, was the brainchild and project of the Scotsman, Dr. Andrew Turnbull (1718-1792). After having spent years in the Ottoman Empire, Dr. Turnbull married a Greek woman, Gracia Maria Rubina Turnbull (1736 - 1798) from the city of Smyrna on 22 August 1753. The New Smyrna Colony was named in honour of her city of birth. Aside from family sentiments, Dr. Turnbull sought to provide a haven for the Greeks of Asia Minor, who, residing in the lands where Ottoman power was strongest, bore the brunt of an increasingly intolerant and repressive society. Further, Turnbull believed that Greeks and other peripheral peoples who were used to a Mediterranean climate and methods of agriculture would be perfectly suited to the lands in eastern Florida.
On 26 June 1768, eight ships carrying 1,255 Mediterraneans arrived in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, in Florida, in preparation for their re-settlement. Collectively, this is said to be the largest single contingent of colonists ever to immigrate to North America. The colonists included individuals from Corsica, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy and the Balearic island of Minorca near Spain. While the individuals who composed this colony were drawn from numerous locations in the Mediterranean, Asia Minor Greeks and Greek-Corsican colonists numbered more than half the original contingent.
This mixed bag of colonists came as both freemen and indentured servants to work on a large plantation some 100 kilometres south of St Augustine, in an area then known as Mosquito Inlet. The British Crown Colony in what is today the general area of New Smyrna Beach awarded a grant for some 40,000 acres of land to Dr. Turnbull and his partners. This is to where the weary colonists travelled in the summer of 1768, immediately after their arrival in St Augustine.
With food, tools, provisions and housing for only 500 colonists awaiting the 1,255 individuals, circumstances at the new plantation would have been difficult under any conditions. What made matters worse was that despite his championing of the Greek cause and his stated intention to provide a haven for Greeks who had suffered Ottoman oppression, Dr. Turnbull chose to ignore the conditions set forth by the indenture contracts he had his would be new settlers sign. With the ill-fed colonists exposed to severe weather and cruelly mistreated by overseers used to driving Negro slaves, trouble was inevitable.
In 1768, a revolt took place on the plantation, in protest against its prevailing poor conditions and the inhumane treatment of the colonists by their purported ‘saviour.’. The colonists were subdued by British troops and put on trial in St. Augustine. Three of the rebel leaders were condemned to death: Carlo Forni, Giuseppe Masiadoli (alias Bresiano), and Elias Medici, a Corsican Greek. In an obvious attempt to divide the strong alliance which had developed between the numerous unmarried Greek and Italian colonists, the life of Elias Medici was to be spared on the condition that he be the executioner of Forni and Masiadoli.
Bernard Romans, the famed Dutch topographer (1720-1784), witnessed the execution and left this riveting account:
“On this occasion, I saw one of the most moving scenes I have ever experienced: long and obstinate was the struggle of this man's mind, who repeatedly called out that he chose to die rather than to be executioner of his friends in distress. This not a little perplexed Mr. Woodridge, the sheriff, till at last the entreaties of the victims themselves put an end to the conflict in his breast, by encouraging him to act. Now we beheld a man thus compelled to mount the ladder, take leave of his friends in the most moving manner, kissing them the moment before he committed them to an ignominious death.”
Ironically, after the failed revolt, the New Smyrna Colony eventually prospered, yielding vast sums of money as an indigo plantation. Nevertheless in the short term, through mismanagement, greed and political intrigue within the Colonial government in St. Augustine, the plantation failed in 1777. There was great loss of life at the colony. The survivors, who only numbered around 600, literally escaped the plantation in the dead of night, making their way over 100 kilometres along the shoreline beach to St. Augustine.
It was on Saint George Street where the survivors of the New Smyrna Colony first settled after their escape in 1777. Since that time, this area of Old St Augustine has been called “the Greek Quarter” and alternately “the Minorcan Quarter.”
Upon their arrival in St. Augustine, the surviving colonists, soon distinguished themselves. Many houses and shops still found on St. George Street and throughout Old St, St Augustine bear bronze plaques, commemorating not only their status as buildings on the Historical Register of the Untied States, but also the Greek colonists who owned those buildings.
Given the manner in which public records were kept, it is uncertain how many of the original Greek colonists survived. We do know that men such as Petros Cotsifakis, Gasper Papi of Smyrna, Ioannis Giannopoulos of Mani, Ioannis Koluminas from Corsica, Anastasios Mavromatis of Melos, Elias Medici and others survived.
Among the customs and traditional ways of life the Greek colonists of new Smyrna bequeathed to their descendants, was the use of the pezovoli, the traditional Greek fishing net. The cry, “mullets on the beach,” which signals a run of this species of fish, has long been recognized as the freedom cry of the New Smyrna Colonists. For as custom has it, once this call is sounded, all the descendants are free, regardless of their work or other duties, to run to the beach and use their hand-thrown pezovoli.
Another time-honoured relic of St. George Street is the Genopoly House. Ioannis Giannopoulos - who in time went by the name of Juan Genopoly - built a home for himself sometime around 1800. Today, this preserved building is recognized as one of the oldest schoolhouses in North America. As the story goes, Genopoly, in typical Greek fashion, was worried his children would grow up without an education. Genopoly (or one of his sons - the stories are unclear) hired a school teacher, and generations of children from St. Augustine went to school in this building.
Further, St Augustine boasts the only Greek Orthodox Shrine in the US. In 1777, the Spanish governor Vicente Manuel de Zespedes gave the abandoned Avero House to the community for its religious and civic use. Eventually, the second floor of Avero House was turned into a chapel. The Chapel of San Pedro served its mixed parish community for approximately seven years.
In 1965, local Greeks in St. Augustine acquired Avero House, one of the oldest surviving Spanish colonial buildings in the region. Through the sustained efforts of the late Archbishop Iakovos, Avero House was purchased by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. In 1969, Iakovos announced that this shrine would bear the name of Saint Photios, the great Patriarch of Constantinople from the Ninth Century who fought to preserve the original Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and remove the filioque clause, and who sent Greek missionaries to Christianize the Slavs.
A historical restoration ensued with a grand dedication celebration taking place on February 27, 1982. One of the Shrine's express missions is to honor the memories of all the New Smyrna Colonists. The Shrine consists of a courtyard and an exhibition area with artifacts, photographs and historical documents on the colony; a beautiful Byzantine style chapel, a gift shop and offices. With well over 100,000 visitors a year, the St. Photios Shrine is a premier Hellenic American Museum. This year, between 4-5 February, a two-day round of festivities was held to commemorate the twenty-fourth annual pilgrimage to the Shrine, as well as the ingenuity of its hapless Geek colonists. The intrepid immigrants of the New Smyrna Colony deserve nothing less, as long as there are other colonists to remember them.
First published in NKEE on 6 March 2006