Anna Cominos interviews Peter Prineas about his book 'Britain's Greek Islands' for 'Kythera Summer Edition' 2010

Kythera Summer Edition: What other books have you written?

Before writing Britain's Greek Islands I wrote Katsehamos and the Great Idea, another book about Kytherians. It tells the story of my grandfather Panagiotis (Peter) Feros and his brothers as immigrants to the USA and Australia in the early 20th century. They had hard lives. Between them they fought in all of Greece's numerous wars of that period – the two Balkan wars, the First World War and the war in Asia Minor. In Australia, my grandfather had to endure long years of separation from his wife and children who were left behind in Kythera. In the 1930s Panagiotis Feros and his partners built a cafe and cinema in the small country town of Bingara in New South Wales. The Roxy cinema was a fine building but for reasons explained in my book Katsehamos it was closed and stood dark for 40 years. It has now been restored and re-opened by the local council in Bingara. The council is also restoring the Greek cafe and a museum of Kytherian and Greek settlement is being planned for the rooms above. I am glad to have been able to contribute to these developments through my writing and in other ways.

Where did the idea for Britain's Greek Islands come from?

In my visits to Kythera, a friend or relative would show me a bridge or an old building and say "that was built by the British". I learned that Kythera was ruled by English monarchs for 55 years in the early nineteenth century. It was a state in the "United States of the Ionian Islands". When I read Professor George Leontsinis' excellent history which covered many aspects of that period, I felt there was a need for a book that conveyed a sense of the times and especially the politics. As I was born and educated in Australia, a country with British colonial origins, I felt I could bring some insights to Kythera's story as a British colony. After the Aroney Trust in Sydney agreed to fund the project, I went to the National Archives at Kew in England where I was delighted to find a mass of original material, much of it previously unpublished. While it took a long time to digest, I was rewarded with many discoveries which you can now read about in "Britain's Greek Islands"

How long did the book take to research?

I had to spend time in the Ionian Islands but that was no great hardship. I made it to all the islands except little Paxi. I visited the Archives at Kew twice and spent about three weeks there on each occasion. I spent my time there reading the documents and photographing the ones of interest. Initially this was difficult as the letters were all handwritten and referred to unfamiliar people and places. At the end of each day I would download hundreds of images from the camera to my laptop. I also visited the archives at Corfu and in Kythera, but they were not set up in a way that made extensive research feasible. Back in Australia, I read the documents closely on a computer screen. This took the best part of a year as there were thousands of them. Many months were spent writing, more months in production. In all, it took me two and half years to produce the book.

What do you think makes the Ionian Islands interesting?

While the Ionian Islands are part of Greece, their historical and cultural influences are in many ways unlike the rest of Greece. For centuries these islands looked westwards. The songs of the islands were Italian cantatas. In the churches Byzantine icons competed for attention with Italianate frescoes. The islands were strategically important. Napoleon valued the Ionian Islands highly; so did the Russian Tsars; so did the British Empire. When the Greek Revolution broke out in 1821, the Ionian Islands were in some ways separate from the struggle and in other ways very much part of it. For example, there was a terrible massacre of Turks who arrived on Kythera's shores at the height of that conflict. This event and its consequences is a continuing thread through my book. The history of the Ionian Islands is complex and interesting. In writing this book I was surprised at how these small islands often managed to find a place on the stage of world history.

What can Kytherians today learn from the history of the British colonial period?

As Kytherians, they can learn a lot about their recent ancestors and perhaps something about themselves. The research reflected in Britain's Greek Islands includes many observations of the Kytherians (then called Cerigotes) by the British administrators, both admiring and derogatory. Kytherians may be surprised to learn that the British hanged quite a number of their forebears and that they built roads and bridges on the island using an unpopular system of forced labour known as the "angaria". The book also gives some insights into how the Kytherian peasantry, known as the "contadini", interacted with the upper class Greeks, the Italian speaking signori. The politics of the islands at that time were quite intense and by the 1850s Kythera had an active movement pressing for union or "enosis" with Greece. Eventually the British Government was persuaded to let go of the islands. Britain's Greek Islands also goes some way to explaining how Kythera became notionally divided into two communities, the "Mesa dimos" and "Exo dimos". This grew out of the experience of the Venetian colonial era when law and order were to be found in and around the Venetian capital at Chora, while the north of the island in and around Potamos and Karavas was considered to be a troublesome district in communication with outlaws and pirates from the nearby mainland region of Mani.

Tell us about the colourful Captain Macphail? Who was he?

Captain Macphail was one of a series of military men who occupied the post of British Resident on Kythera. He was the agent of the Lord High Commissioner in Corfu. Macphail's time on the island was unusual because the Greek Revolution was then raging in the Peloponnesus and the surrounding seas. The men of Kythera were unable to make their annual journeys abroad for seasonal work and the island was crowded with refugees. With a war going on in such close proximity, the Ionian Islands experienced an economic boom.

What engineering, social and cultural innovations did Macphail implement?

Macphail was an enthusiastic road builder and had a more or less captive labour force because of the war in Greece. In his time, the present road system on Kythera was laid out and numerous bridges were built. It was all done with teams of island men working under a system of forced labour known as the angaria. A number of schools were also built at the time and there is no doubt that he and other British Residents did much to promote public education. Macphail is remembered in Kythera today because he left behind so many structures, far more than any other British Resident. I tell the stories of all the Residents in my book. Longley, Colthurst and Hector Harvest are just as interesting as Macphail. My favourite Resident is Captain James Colthurst who seemed to be a frustrated writer and has left us many interesting letters about life on the island in the 1830s and 1840s.

Did Macphail really build the Katouni Bridge to reach his beloved?

I would not rule it out as some of the British Residents and soldiers in the garrisons certainly found the local women interesting. Some senior officers in the administration, such as Frederick Adam and George Bowen in Corfu, took Greek wives. In my book, however, I give a much less romantic explanation for the building of the Katouni Bridge. This bridge was an enormous undertaking for the time. It was a product of the free labour available to Macphail under the angaria, and the desire of the island signori to link the port at Avlemona with the capital at Chora, and capture the benefits of the port for themselves.

What village in Kythera are your family from?

My family on both sides – Prineas and Feros, or to use their paratsouklia (nicknames), Koutsaftis and Katsehamos – are from Mitata. The Prineas family home is in a neighbourhood of the village known as Keromitianika and is now maintained by my brother John Prineas, Sophia Alexander one of my sisters, and our cousin Lexi Zantiotes. Mitata is on a high point of the island and from the terrace of the house on a clear day you can see Antikythera and the mountains of Crete.

Readers can also view this article in the Kythera Summer Edition newsletter.



The ATHENS NEWS talks to Peter Prineas

PETER PRINEAS is the author of Britain's Greek Islands. In the 1920s, his extended family began to move from the Greek island of Kythira to Australia. By the late 1940s, most were resettled in the new country although they maintained their links with their ancestral island. He studied arts and law at the University of Sydney and has worked as a lawyer, environmental activist, political adviser and writer.

Athens News: What are you reading now? Any good?

Peter Prineas: Judith Herrin's Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. It's a nice introduction to the Eastern Roman empire. I have read many books on Byzantium, but it is worth reading some of the newer ones as they give you the benefit of recent research.

What's the first book you can remember reading?

The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. I was five or six years old and I remember my grandmother remarking on my interest in the stories. She was born in Kythera at the end of the 19th century and was illiterate, but carried in her memory a rich store of folktales, and I heard many of them long before I learned to read.

Your top three books ever would be?

I can't name three books that I would place at the top of my lifetime reading list. George Orwell's writings were important to me as a young man. I read everything I could find of his. Burmese Days and Homage to Catalonia stand out, and of course I read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. I felt that Orwell saw the real story and wrote it with great clarity, not bad things to aim for. A book of a very different kind, edited by AJ Marshall, The Great Extermination: A Guide to Anglo-Australian Cupidity, Wickedness and Waste, was a revelation to me in the 1960s and influenced me to work in the environmental field.

And the worst?

I better not be too specific. I don't think I am unusual in not liking undisciplined rants or badly written blockbusters.

What type of book appeals to you most?

A readable history. Sometimes a novel will make the grade.



Readers can view this article and more on the Athens News Webpage.


Learn more about these books by Peter Prineas

Britain's Greek Islands


Katsehamos and the Great Idea


Wild Places