In this interview, History researcher Fotis Papadopoulos describes his research on the history of Greek immigration to colonial Tanzania and Zimbabwe, sharing what it tells us about the influence of socio-economic factors on the development of racial prejudices and migration policies.
Q: Your research deals with Greek immigration to Rhodesia (a British colony) and Tanganyika (a German and then British colony) from the late 19th century to the 1960s. Why did you choose to work on this topic?
A: The topic sparked my interest during my late undergraduate years, amidst Greece's economic crisis, at a tense time for Greek–EU relations. This is when I started looking at Greece's historical, non-European political/cultural/diplomatic encounters and realised this part of history is largely neglected in political speech but also rather understudied by scholars. My focus is on case studies of independent migration of Greek individuals who settled and prospered outside Europe without support from the Greek or colonial states. This is revealing of the ways in which capitalism and whiteness and European belonging were interrelated in the colonies. In the case of Tanganyika, Greeks came to control almost one-third of the agricultural economy by the 1960s, and in Rhodesia, many Greeks were assimilated into the political culture and became mayors and members of parliament. From a political perspective, I am interested in understanding the process by which Greeks came to be perceived as Europeans and consequently as (colonial) settlers.
During the earlier years of the economic crisis (around 2009-2012), stereotypes about modern Greek people shifted suddenly from one fiction to another: from founders of the so-called Western ideals and heirs of ancient Greek civilisation, they became lazy tax evaders. Similarly, throughout the historical period I am studying, I found that the desirability and Europeanness of Greek immigrants were determined not by their ethnic background but by how the British and German colonists perceived the Greeks' economic position as useful for their colonial endeavours. In other words, a person's class determines where they belong, then as now.
Q: We live in a world where North-South migrations are accompanied by the resurgence of racial prejudices and discriminating legacies from the colonial past. How can the history of European migrant communities help our understanding of current times?
A: The discourse evident in the negative sentiment in Greece towards migrants from outside Europe is the notion that 'they come illegally' whereas past emigration of Greeks to Germany, Australia, USA and other places is assumed to be legal. In fact, according to colonial migration law, at least in the period from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, Greek migration to Africa could be considered as 'illegal'. Most Greek migrants originated from poor communities in the Ottoman Empire, in search of a better future. Some were even refugees who hid in the cargo holds of commercial ships passing through Suez Canal. Despite initial objections to Greek migrants from British and German colonists, and sometimes from indigenous elites, after Greeks began to succeed economically, settlers' attitudes changed to framing them as desirable. Colonial history can be revealing of the fact that many of the anti-immigration sentiments in Europe are based on completely constructed and non-factual situations. Moreover, the 'undesirability' and 'desirability' of a migrant is based to large extent on how much he or she serves the global and state market economy.
So far, my case studies confirm that the interrelation of state and capitalism allows, or actively promotes, racial prejudice to regulate who can have access to ruling classes and who is confined to a worker class. Higher class was deemed an assimilation factor, rendering Greeks 'good' migrants. Interestingly, today as well, anti-immigration sentiment in the European Union and especially the UK is often based on social class. European politicians or citizens seldom criticise Saudi Arabians or Qataris for investing in Europe, buying football teams and obtaining 'golden visas'. Only people in need, those fleeing from war who do not bring capital with them, are criticised.