My grandparents were from the Peloponnese (southern peninsula) part of Greece. My paternal grandfather was from Aghios Petros (Άγιος Πέτρος), in the North Kynouria (Νόρεια Κυνουρία) I have tried to imagine his life, and study what influenced his emigration, as well as others.’ (Aghios Petros below courtesy of my cousin Alan)
Part 1 – How an American Insect Drove Greek Emigration – The Currant Crisis
The lead up to the Currant Crisis in Greece begins years earlier in France with the Great French Wine Blight. Starting with the Spanish in the 1500’s, and then the French in the 1600’s, settlers tried to grow European wine in America. But the foreign vines were subject to local diseases and pests. Nor did the wine did taste like Europe’s. American wine growers began experimenting with hybrid vines; grafting French vines to the roots of American vines. This process allowed the American grown wines to have better taste, while carrying protection from local disease. By the 18th century, as both industries flourished and competition grew, French vintners began importing American vines into France.
But by the mid-1860’s problems began for the French wine industry. Individual vines would fail in vineyards, and the next year more would fail. In a few years, entire vineyards were lost.
As vines died and the French grape crop shrank dramatically, wine makers looked to currants as a replacement for grapes. Greek farmers, especially in the Peloponnese, began growing currants. As the demand grew, Greek farmers stopped growing other crops, such as olive trees. Currants became the most lucrative crop in Greece.
The boon to Greek agriculture was only temporary.
The French government began a search for the cause of the blight in 1868. It took several years to agree on a cause. Genetic and biological science was not what it is today. By 1874, scientists agreed that the cause was an American aphid – phylloxera – that had come over with some of the American grafts, and infested the fields. But finding a method to kill the insects was difficult. It was not until the 1890’s that new grafts were used, and eventually the blight was defeated. (Source: the above discussion of the French Blight – i09-Gizmondo “How the Great French Wine Blight Changed Grapes Forever http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-the-great-french-wine-blight-changed-grapes-forever-1691598233 and Wampum Keeper http://www.wampumkeeper.com/wineblight.html
Currant exports began dropping, and in 1893 France closed imports of currants. The over-supply of currants in Greece grew rapidly. By the early 1900’s warehouses were full of currants without any demand for export. Various attempts were made to put the currants to some other use, including lamp and heating fuel. Farmers had replaced traditional crops of silk and olives with currants. It would take several years for these crops to grow back and produce revenue. (Source: 1912 “Greek Immigration to the United States” Henry Fairchild)
Next post – a look at the Debt Crisis of 1893.