In the period 1890-1914, almost a sixth of the population of Greece emigrated, mostly to the United States and Egypt.
In two previous posts, I described two economic issues in Greece, especially in the Peloponnese, that impacted the rush to emigrate to the United States. A wave of emigration was spurred by the economic crisis of 1893 that followed the rapid fall in the price of currants – the major export product of the country – in the international markets.
These were two economic drivers of immigration, but there is another driver, one that is somewhat speculative and more of a qualitative issue, unlike economic issues.
In addition to the economic conditions in Greece in the early 20th Century, another “push” for immigration was the topology and environment of the Peloponnese. The area was characterized by small villages nestled into “tiny, fertile valleys.” These pockets were walled off from neighbors by barren, difficult mountains. The result was a population living in small towns and villages, separated from each other by more or less impassable terrain. (Or course the topology has not changed much, but our ability to navigate and communicate has.). Given the lack of communications and transportation facilities at the time, it was no wonder these villages were isolated from each other.
Physical isolation led to social isolation, and to economic isolation. Large commercial or industrial growth could not take place given social, communication and travel encumbrances. Villages and towns were on their own – Greek for sure – but local entities, with local social ties and local economic ties.
Villages and towns grew to be self-sufficient. Currants, wheat, olives, corn, vegetables could be grown everywhere. The fields small, but fertile. Surrounding mountains supported goats and sheep, for cheese, meat, and clothes. Everyone could grow, trade, provide service to each other, within their village.
But each man’s products were the same as his neighbors’ and there was little reason for trade or commerce outside of their village. No one went unfed or under nourished; subsistence was very likely.
But what about growth? It did not seem possible to differentiate yourself or get ahead. Where was the outlet for ambition? How could you hope for success, for bold plans?
Imagine a young man in a village. What did he see around him? He will have the same life as his father and grandfather. Where was the elbow room? Where was the dreams for a better life?
About this time, there were voices and stories infiltrating the villages and falling on eager ears of young men.
In the early 20th century, stories started coming in of work and riches in America. How could a young ambitious man not pay attention? Subsistence is not enough for many a young man – restless, strong, bold. Relatives did not just tell stories of America, and jobs and wealth. They also sent money home. Real money that young local farmers and laborers could not provide their families. This money was not just good for families, but for the Greek government who saw the money encouraging the economy.
Emigration was, in a sense, encouraged by Greek authorities, who saw remittances as helping to improve the balance of payments of the Greek economy. The lasting effect on Greece’s national consciousness was the expansion of the notion of “Hellenism” and “Hellenic diaspora” to the “New World.” http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/greece-history-migration/
The main source for this post is – Fairchild, Henry Pratt, Greek Immigration to the United States, Yale University Press, 1911
Next Post – Imagining my Grandfather’s Trip to the United States