Our First Indigenous People

7 January, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have a kindle edition of a book by David Brewer:

Greece-Hidden-CentBrewer, David. 2011. Greece, the Hidden Centuries: Turkish Rule from the Fall of Constantinople to Greek Independence. I. B. Tauris. ISBN: 9781780762388.

The hidden centuries of Greek history are hidden because the source material is scanty and not easy to access for non-Turkish researchers, but more so because it is in the interest of nationalistic history to hide, distort or indeed invent essential and emblematic bits and pieces befitting the past. If, today, we believe that history came about because of the development of national identity and nation states in opposition to the Other and other communities, we will have something to learn from modern scholars, such as David Brewer, who respect and tell us what actually happened, thus  making it easier to redeem the future. This point is successfully proved, and in its setting: the history of Greece and its historiography, this view upon past, present and future is still a radical one. Having read the book, the common reader, to whom the hidden centuries were probably well hidden before reading the book, will profit from David Brewer’s history lesson because it is easy to follow, novel, informative and mind-broadening.

That the common reader is expected to be British can be inferred from a number of passages, e.g. when Enoch Powell (location 2705) is referred to and we are told that he was ‘professor of Greek as well as a controversial politician’ the latter in this case irrelevant information is there only to satisfy a reader whose curiosity has been evoked by the name – most probably a British reader.

In the 24th and last chapter, or song, of this Greek history, or epic told from a distance, ‘Some Conclusions’, the book comes to an end having proved its point about past, present and future. Nevertheless, the critical reader is tempted to contextualize the book putting it into a post-colonial colonial setting, arguing the following: Since we in Northwest Europe have been able to maintain some sort of political power without always playing the nation card in the game about ‘us’ and ‘them’, as we used to do, we are now telling those, e.g. the Greeks, once taught by us to build their state on heritage, national pride; uniting identity, language and hardship; binary confrontation, etc. to stop doing so, because we have stopped, having understood that we were wrong.

Try, for example, to solve the climate crisis on the basis of national heritage or pride, uniting identity, language, hardship warfare etc., if you can! It cannot be done; we are right as always – today also about having been wrong.

This is unfair criticism of the book, but it allows us to look for the construction of the Greeks as an indigenous people – exactly because David Brewer is not looking for it. The reason for doing so is the tendencies in the present economic crisis to blame the Greeks (1). They are worthy of blame, because having been irresponsible they betray their heritage – anybody can find quotations from Aristotle or Plato that will tell the responsible citizen how to behave. Criticizing the indigenous for not being indigenous enough is a classical post-colonial colonial argument. And in the Greek case teaching the Greeks a lesson is all the more important because their heritage is our heritage too. ‘Pote, touche pas à mon héritage’!

Fig 04 place names

In Greece the construction of the indigenous probably started already in the Middle Ages, but under Turkish rule the first systematic step was taken. There can be no colonial or indeed post-colonial understanding of the situation in a country without creating, or in the post-colonial case pointing out, the go-between and the in-between. They are needed for a lot of practical purposes but also to create the indigenous. Sometimes these go- or in-between succeed in defining themselves as significant others and an entity in social, cultural, religious or political terms, i.e. whatever terms accepted in society, i.e. accepted by the colonial power. In Bhabha’s post-colonial terms they have succeeded in ‘enunciating a third space’ for themselves and from this space they interact and take part in the definition of the rulers as well as the ruled, i.e. the colonized progeny of the original population. Conquering a Greek Island, the Turks would almost automatically upgrade, create or transform an existing group of individuals, such as a nobility, to fill a space between themselves and the majority, whom they would see as individuated – elements in a subset called ‘tax payers’ (cf. Chapter 13 Turkish rule in Cyprus and Crete). There were several groups among the ‘tax payers’, but the Greeks as indeed Greeks and ‘indigenous’ were always there inasmuch as they were stigmatized. Because we are Happy to take part in the definition of the indigenous as ‘the suppressed’ we tend to be critical of the middlemen, who per definition serve the oppressors.

In the Greek case of the hidden centuries the Orthodox Greek Church (Chapter 10) is the formidable example, because it was understood by the Turks as a political entity controlling religion, education and part of the jurisdiction. In effect, therefore, the Church controlled the common written language of the Greek. Because of the Orthodox Church there were no ‘Old Greeks’ to liberate when it became obvious to the enlightened Europeans that the Greeks, enslaved by Turks and Church, had been detached from their true identity. This is a crucial point: before the original population can be termed indigenous they must have been almost extinct in cultural terms.

Fig 03 Arcadia

But this is not enough. We cannot just pity them for becoming extinct. Before they become indigenous they must be criticized and patronized with open, opaque or silent references made to their loss of virtue as we understand it.

Arcadia (location 1085 ff), is an early example. In the late Renaissance 1502 the myth of Arcadia was spelled out by the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro and during a century it developed into the idea of rural landscape and setting. The ever-present delightful nature populated by shepherds – an original life quality belonging to the Greeks in as much as Arcadia was a region in the Peloponnese. To begin with some, but not all, travelers saw the landscape and the progeny of the shepherds that must once have been Arcadia. But gradually, beginning in the 17th century when a rude and frank Scotsman toured Arcadia and ridiculed the falseness of the myth, the impression faded away and travelers found no resemblance between the mythic and the actual Arcadia. The myth was a falsification. This meant that in the 17th century travelers to Greece (Chapter 17) went from denouncing the Greeks as raw and uncivilized, pointing out their detachment from classical culture, to eventually seeing some faint signs of an affinity with the ancient Greece.

In the 17th and 18th century, therefore, the western European travelers had seen the corruption of ancient Greek values and the false myths, but also the genuine valor of the Greeks, i.e. something to support as genuinely indigenous almost lost in slavery and historical phantasies. What the Greeks themselves were unable to turn to their advantage, the Europeans knew how to restore. This is a decisive step towards creating the indigenous as indeed truth.

Since the indigenous by definition and construction equals the suppressed it ought to be liberated as a way of restoring dignity of the enslaved people. This, nevertheless, is a political decision which means that before an indigenous population can be assigned political rights they must at some stage have been betrayed or deceived by those who have detected their valor. This betrayal must be admitted by those in power as self-criticism forcing them to take active part in redeeming the appalling situation.

In the early 19th century, the feeling that Europeans did too little for the Greeks became widespread guiding Byron and many others. David Brewer relates a piece of dubious historical discourse which may nevertheless be seen as an early indigenous and intellectual way of opening up a discussion along the lines that will give an indigenous people political rights accepted by those who have defined them as indigenous. The example comes from a work that claimed to be The Chronicle of the Galaxídhi written 1703 and commenting upon a situation supposed to have been a reality 130 years earlier c. 1570 when a Venetian fleet captured a Turkish fortress somewhere on the southern tip of the Peloponnese in the Mani province. The Venetians left again losing the opportunity to make this bridgehead the start of driving out the Turks from the Peloponnese. The chronicler’s argument runs as follows: The Holy League called upon everyone to take up arms against the Turks. On the Mani peninsula the Greeks did exactly this (parallel to the Holy League at Lepanto 1571). But when the Venetians captured the fort and the Greeks offered their help and asked for weapons, their proposal came to nothing. Instead the Venetians under their admiral Marco Quirini just left. So much for solidarity and the greater cause of the 1570s. Ergo says the alleged chronicler in 1703, you cannot trust the Venetians and the Franks (i.e. any Catholic or Protestant European).

In 1703, moreover, the chronicler knew from the Venetian wars on Peloponnese since the 1680s (location 2900ff), that starting liberation in the Mani was prolific. This was proved again during the War of Independence in the 1820s.

The chronicler expressed 18th century sentiments, which he considered equal to those of the 16th century. He didn’t prove that his sources expressed 16th century opinion. Although his discourse was probably based on fabrication, his argument eventually convinced western powers of their guilt and of their duty to remedy the situation. The last element in the construction of the indigenous is thus to admit to the political rights of people already defined as culturally indigenous. It comes with a price to be accepted as indigenous.

Enlightenment liberated North Americans, but not the Greeks. It couldn’t. As a true indigenous people and thus under colonial rule the destiny of the Greeks in the late 18th century was backwardness and fruitless rebellion. Europe was ruled by wars and the Greeks by the Ottoman state and their politically subaltern Church. It took a post-war Europe and a measure of Late Romantic ideas about national character, right and destiny, as well as historical heritage and religion, before the ideas of enlightenment could become part of the political foundation for the liberation of the Greeks. Since liberation was impossible without nationalism, the young state, like many former colonies, had to live with nationalism and in the Greek case, the obligation to preserve Ancient Greece, Ancient Greek and the Greek Church – its heritage.

There is a strong heritage management side to staying indigenous and true to ideals. That is why those who have constructed the indigenous are saddened when a people defined as indigenous shows signs of drifting away from its ‘true’ heritage becoming masters of their past using it to redeem the future.

As noted in the very the beginning of this text commenting on of the indigenous, echoes of the colonial attitude to the indigenous are surprising and prolonged.


When Byron was in Athens on his Grand Tour in 1811 and Elgin was there to dig up graves and steal the marbles on Parthenon, Byron wrote the poem The Curse of Minerva strongly condemning this theft, because it robbed the Greeks of their heritage. Athena was eloquent:

“Mortal!”—’twas thus she spake—“that blush of shame
Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name;
First of the mighty, foremost of the free,
Now honour’d less by all, and least by me;
Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still be found.
Seek’st thou the cause of loathing?—look around.
Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,
I saw successive tyrannies expire.
’Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,
Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.
Survey this vacant, violated fane;
Recount the relics torn that yet remain:
These Cecrops placed, this Pericles adorn’d,
That Adrian rear’d when drooping Science mourn’d.
What more I owe let gratitude attest—
Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.
That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,
The insulted wall sustains his hated name:
For Elgin’s fame thus grateful Pallas pleads,
Below, his name—above, behold his deeds!
Be ever hailed with equal honour here
The Gothic monarch and the Pictish peer:
arms gave the first his right, the last had none,
But basely stole what less barbarians won.

When Lord Byron died some of his books and belongings were catalogued and sold, among them an antique funerary urn of silver, weighing no less than 186 ounces, i.e. c. 5 kg, which Byron had come across at a cemetery in Athens 1811. He may not have had a team of diggers like Elgin, but robbing the Greeks of their heritage both lords took part in constructing the indigenous. True to the colonial perspective when constructing the indigenous, we stress that heritage must be protected, because it is the heritage of the indigenous people, who, although they cannot protect themselves, must have access to their heritage, because they are supposed to learn from it. But at the same time, in the colonial reality, that is not the point. Instead heritage is a matter of who has the power to own it. That is why stealing from people we have just declared and accepted as indigenous is so stigmatizing.

When we want to neutralize the indigenous rather than stigmatize it, there is a point in anchoring it firmly in the past not least by means of dressing it up in newly invented traditional dresses, i.e. ‘folklorizing’ it. In the late 19th and early 20th century when it became possible to take photographs of indigenous people in more or less everyday situations plainly dressed, their finery was soon enhanced to become emblematic of the indigenous – adding a showcase identity to their daily life. All kinds of indigenous people: Greek brigands, reindeer herders in Sweden (Sámi) or transhumant shepherds in Greece (Sarakatsani) may therefore be imaged as replicas of themselves.

Fig 01

When the idea of the indigenous has almost disappeared and culture and civilization stand out as a diverse as well as an amalgamated flow of human life with no specific beginning, Anthropology can be relied on to revive the indigenous – the Sarakatsani being a case in point even in anthropometric terms. As late as the 1950s, by means not least of the anthropology of the Sarakatsani, the roots of (the primitive) Greek folk medicine were (respectfully) traced back to ancient Greek traditions (location 3500ff.).

Accepting the indigenous as primitive and conservative is the only way to respect it. Emancipation, the Enlightenment way –‘man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’, is the only way to come to terms of the indigenous.

(1)    A more thorough discussion of the construction of the indigenous can be found in Hillerdal, Charlotta. 2009. People in Between: Ethnicity and Material Identity, a New Approach to Deconstructed Concepts. Occasional papers in archaeology 50. Uppsala.

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