This summer in Areopoli, Mani, I visited the one-of-a-kind Adouloti Mani bookstore. The owner, Georgios Dimakogiannis, is also a publisher and his store is a treasure for anyone seeking information about the southern Peloponnese and Mani in particular.
In his magazine, Adouloti Mani – Laconia Odos, Issue 3, 2019, was an article about emigration from Lakonia in the early 1900’s. That was the experience of all four of my Spartan grandparents, and I wanted very much to read the story. I tackled the translation using a dictionary and online translators. It is by no means exact and it is somewhat redacted, but it certainly illuminated for me the realities of their experience. I scanned the original article and it can be accessed here. If you read Greek, you may prefer to read that untouched version which also has additional photos.
by Donald-George McPhail (author, researcher, historian)
published in Adouloti Mani – Laconia Odos, Issue 3, 2019
From 1896 to 1921, more than 400,000 inhabitants emigrated from Greece. The legend of America as the “land of promise” and as a refuge for emigrants around the world undoubtedly permeated Laconia. The years of misery that plagued the predominantly rural population—agricultural disasters, government mismanagement, uncertainty and insecurity, frequent military drafts, and grief over the loss of the war in Thessaly–caused thousands of Greeks to board foreign ships and emigrate. They left haunted by poverty, with the sorrows of their homeland in their hearts, and trusted that things will change in the New World. They believed that in this way they would pay off their homes, marry off their sisters, and help their parents, their families, and their villages. They hoped that in a few years they would return rich, honored and equipped for a better life.
Emigration was also due to the fact that the demand for labor was greater in America and the wages paid were much higher than in the immigrant’s home country. The Greeks who immigrated to overseas countries had no qualifications other than physical fitness. They were illiterate, naive and innocent deprived people who had no awareness of their power, nor of course their rights.
Greek Immigration to the USA
- First Immigration: 1873-1899; 15,000
- The Great Wave: 1900-1917; 450,000
- The Last Exodus: 1918-1924; 70,000
- The Era of Restrictions: 1925-1946; 30,000
Preparation for Departure
The trials of the poor and destitute migrants, who cared little for amenities they had never tasted, began long before the trip. Most were unaware of the great difficulties that awaited them in the New World, which hundreds of immigration brokers presented as the Promised Land. The trip required a lot of money, and the loan agents were looking for security. So, among the emigrants were many small farmers with mortgaged land. Even for the very poor and the landless, there was a way. They were bound by employment contracts and so they paid off their fares, as slaves literally, by working in the railways or mines.
Usually the departures of the ocean liners, especially the Greek ones, were festive. The decks were packed by immigrants who waved their handkerchiefs to those who led them, along with the curious crowds who thronged the pier. The band of the municipality played, the ship’s whistles blew, and flags decorated the ship and pier. Last greetings were exchanged with those poor immigrants who had left their hometown and had lived for a few hours in Gythio and Kalamata.
Before 1907, the Greek transatlantic wave to America was overseen by foreign steamer companies until the establishment of the first Greek passenger line. The ports of departure were Piraeus and Patras. Subsequent Greek ocean liners were generally poor, small, slow-moving, and badly traveled trips without even the minimum comforts of a boat.
Life on Board
Judging by the horrible living conditions during the journey on the ships, especially those from 1907 to 1937, immigrants were considered as “cargo.” The third-class steerage areas beneath the main deck were packed with rows of iron or wooden double beds. Passengers were literally on top of each other in desperately narrow spaces. From the very first day, the crowds, the exuding fumes of vomit, the smell of passenger bodies and the lack of elementary cleanliness caused the atmosphere to be suffocating.
The bunks were filled with straw or seaweed. There were no chairs, stools, or tables. Luggage, clothes, utensils and all belongings had to somehow fit between the narrow beds. Separation of women passengers was impossible. In their quest for isolation, women hung clothes around their beds to create a rudimentary curtain. The women had the opportunity to dress before eating breakfast and leaving their compartments. They could not arrive late or there would be no food available. Usually, they were not as harassed by their male passengers as by the crew men.
Upon boarding, each passenger was given a spoon, a fork and a tin cup. When breakfast was announced, everyone crowded into an open area as there was no dedicated dining room except for a space with a few tables and benches where women and children would usually sit. The men had to go through the serving area and then find some place to eat, or go out on the windswept open deck.
For ventilation, the law provided for two small “windshields” for every fifty passengers. These “windshields” ended up on the main deck, which was usually a short distance from the surface of the sea, causing third-class passengers to be sprayed with frozen ocean water.
Baths were taken on open decks between seats and compartments. Showers were in small iron “cabins” and the water was seawater. Needless to say, passengers rarely used them. They were used for washing dishes and clothes, without soap or towels and with cold salty water.
The ticket issuing agencies described the food as healthy and nutritious. In reality, however, it was so poorly cooked that many found it inedible. The only exception to the whole trip was the last meal before arrival, a supper that could smell like delicacies such as fried potatoes. The farewell dinner dinner was intended to give pleasure to the next day’s arrival and inspection by the health authorities.
Various states had been slow to adopt provisions for the proper transport of passengers, resulting in steamboat companies exploiting the unfortunate immigrants. An American law stipulated that each passenger could have no less than 2.83 cubic meters. Two children under eight years were counted for one passenger. If this space was not available, the ship’s master had to pay a $50 fine per passenger, but there was never any control by authorities and no relevant fines were imposed.
When the ship anchored in America, a fleet of small boats encircled the ocean liner. Men from the Immigration and the Public Health Services boarded the ship and quickly passed through the first and second class cabins, giving a cursory inspection of the passengers in those seats. They then went down to the “fragrant” compartments where the third-class passengers were to examine each traveler. This was the most time-consuming part of their job. When the Public Health people reboarded their boat to go to other vessels, the ship raised the anchor and slowly headed to the port of New York Harbor, traveling through the fumes of the tugboat towing it.
Upon arrival, the immigrants’ day was just beginning. After an endless wait on the ship for the checks to be completed, they began to finally descend the staircase of the ship, loaded with their luggage. So overloaded, they headed to the Aliens Service boats waiting for them to take them to the famous Ellis Island known to the Greek immigrants as “Castigari” (from Castle Garden).
Ellis Island, off Manhattan, was the main hub for immigrants arriving in America from the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. There, immigrants were put to the final test, undergoing medical examinations to approve their entry into the United States. There was tight control for medical conditions that were contagious. Most passed the check and then forgot the hassles of traveling. But if someone was ill or unbalanced he was obliged to return to the port and surrender to the steamship company for repatriation. These unfortunates were sent back to their homeland at company expense, a fact which made steamship companies careful when selecting passengers.
When stringent requirements for trachoma and other contagious diseases were understood, health authorities in Greece examined travelers and checked for trachoma because eye disease would prevent entrance into America. Ophthalmologists in Greece were stationed in Ageranos, Mani and elsewhere in Laconia where prospective immigrants went to make sure they had no contagious conditions or, if they did, to make them well.
The immigrants, after endless suffering, were finally admitted onto the new Promised Land where other adventures began for them. Most newcomers, at least in the early years, stayed in New York and New Jersey. There were small hotels and small shops owned by Greeks, who welcomed them when they were unloaded from the boats that brought them to the south of Manhattan from the Ellis Island. The city was expensive and most had less than thirty dollars in their pockets, so they were in a hurry to continue their journey.
The Greeks who progressed in America were mostly employed in textiles, heavy industry, coal mines and railroads. They often worked for twelve hours and lived in unhealthy homes, cramped in small rooms. Life for Greeks working in the mines and on the railroads was especially difficult. They lived in tents or wooden huts and their diet was very poor. The savage exploitation of underage children, who worked as “blackboots” [the shoeshine business operated by compatriots] prompted the intervention of American and Greek consular officers.
I don’t think there is a Lakonian that doesn’t have a relative, even a remote one, in America. At the beginning of the previous century, thousands with the hope for a better tomorrow left for the distant continent.
On the Internet, the Ellis Island archives are available, the small island in New York in which all immigrants were registered. While researching for immigrants to America, I worked with this website and found information about Ligerian residents who immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. For those who don’t know, Ligereas (Λυγερέας) is the smallest local district of the municipality of Gythio and is my wife’s village. I found details of the Ligerian immigrants where their disembarkation was recorded at Ellis Island, a few hours before they were “sucked” into the new land. I found over 190 residents in 32 arrivals reports which contained valuable information that even today’s descendants did not know.
[END OF ARTICLE]
Photo Credits: All photos are from Mr. McPhail’s original article.
Note: Mr. McPhail is half Scot, half Greek and he married a Greek lady from Mani. He never went back to England he raised his family in Greece. His full name in Greek is written as Ντόναλντ-Γεώργιος Μακφαίηλ. (Many thanks to Marina Haramis for this information)