The Revival of Athens and Sparta in North America:
Western Views on Greek Migration to Colonial America during the Age of Reason
Mr. Menios Papadimitriou, PhD candidate
Why should not Athens and Lacedaemon be one day revived in North America? Why should not the city of Turnbull become in a few centuries the residence of politeness, of the fine arts, and of eloquence? The new colony is less distant from this flourishing state than were the barbarous Pelasgians from the fellow citizens of Pericles.1
Abbé Raynal’s enthusiastic, if optimistic, sentiment offers penetrating insight into the Enlightenment salons of the philosophes, who delighted at the news that popular ideas to plant a colony of Hellenes in North America would finally come to fruition. For decades, British philosophers, mercantilists, and government officials advanced the proposal that the Greeks possessed both the character and skills needed to advance the nascent civilization in the New World. And it was believed that the Greeks would be just as eager to embark on American-bound vessels as the British would be to invite them aboard, due to their non-Muslim standing in the Ottoman world. “The Greeks,” elaborated Georgia planter and colonial government official William Knox, “who profess the Christian religion…I am well assured that great numbers of these might be induced to become our subjects if the mode of their worship was tolerated and the expense of their transportation defrayed.”2
The establishment of a Greek colony in the Americas was economically expedient for the British Empire and certainly politically beneficial to most Greeks. In accord with Knox’s recommendation, and writing around the same time, Scottish pamphleteer Archibald Menzies distributed his 1763 leaflet, Proposal for Peopling His Majesty’s Southern Colonies on the Continent of America, to British mercantilists who were engaged in burgeoning commercial enterprises in the southeastern region of the new continent, wherein he declared, “the Greeks of the Levant are in general, sober and industrious…accustomed to a hot climate, and bred to the culture of the vine, olive, cotton, tobacco,” and other fine goods, such as silk. Menzies, an otherwise unknown Scottish naturalist, and others anticipated that the introduction of Greek labor into the British colonial context would supply their markets with luxurious commodities that Great Britain had heretofore depended upon Turkish merchants to supply them with. And if this was not convincing enough, Menzies punctuated his case with a final, modest proposal with which to entice his readers: “The Greek women are remarkably handsome. This circumstance would naturally prompt intermarriages between our people and them, and soon put an end to all distinctions.”3
While visions of classical arts, philosophical oratory, beautiful women, and certainly money may have persuaded the enlightened British aristocracy to introduce Greeks to American soil, these Western eyes knew there was more at stake for the Greeks than merely high culture and profit. Menzies regrettably explained that “being reduced, by their severe masters, to the greatest misery, [the Greeks] would be easily persuaded to fly from slavery, to the protection of a free government.”4 Perhaps fatefully, Menzies pronounced that “they well know how much happier they would be under his Majesty’s government, than under any other whatsoever.” 5 It was clear that the establishment of a Greek colony across the Atlantic would foremost be an act of liberation. In some sense, it would be one for both parties. A Greek labor force would ostensibly release the British Empire from economic reliance on Turkey, while at the same time unfetter the Greeks from Ottoman subjugation and place them under the aegis of a benevolent sovereign.
It was the 1763 Treaty of Paris, transferring the territory of present-day Florida from the Spanish to the British, that set Knox and Menzies’ proposal into motion. The Spanish departure from the region left it scarcely populated. Repopulation was regarded as an urgent problem, but also one that opened new commercial opportunities for Britain due to Florida’s geographic and environmental conditions. No longer merely speculative, the British believed they now had the real ability to domestically produce materials that it relied on foreign markets to supply it with, especially luxuries like tobacco, silk, olives, and wine. Seizing this opportunity, Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish Physician and British Consul at Smyrna, organized what was to become the largest attempt at British colonization in the New World—three times the size of colonial Jamestown—the so-called Smyrnéa colony, or New Smyrna colony, as it is known today.
Turnbull’s letters to his business partners provide further evidence of the widespread nature of the belief that the Greeks would be ideal partners in the population and civilizing of the New World—both because of their agricultural skills and due to their status of political inequality. “As far as the ‘remarkably handsome’ Greek women were concerned, he probably knew more than Knox and Menzies”6 as he married one; the elegant Maria Gracia, daughter of a Greek merchant from Smyrna—the namesake of the emerging Greek colony. His letters further indicate that the Greeks he encountered ardently sought the opportunity to sail with him to America, just as William Knox suspected. According to Turnbull, he was often approached by Greeks who implored him for the opportunity to flee Ottoman Greece for America and participate in his colonial project. That these Greeks saw migration as a means of liberation from Ottoman inequities, self-described as “slavery” and “oppression,” substantiates the views of Westerners who characterized the formation of a Hellenic colony as a means of Greek emancipation. Turnbull writes:
During my residence in Turkey and in travelling thro’ Greece I observed that the Christian subjects in that empire were in general disposed to fly from the calamities which they groaned under in that despotic gouvernment. On which it occurred to me that the Greeks would be a very proper people for settling in his Majesty’s Southern Provinces of North America. They being bred to the making of silk and to the culture of the vine, cotton, madder, etc. And many of them declared to me that they would embrace the first opportunity of flying from that country of slavery and oppression where their lives and properties were at the will of their hard masters. These repeated declarations from thousands of that people engaged me to petition his majesty order in council for a tract of land in East Florida on which I might settle a small colony of Greeks7
On the whole, the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, American colonists, and British aristocratic mercantilists concerning the Greek colonial project in America leads us to conclude that the Western intelligentsia viewed the establishment of Hellenic populated colonies in the new world as an early opportunity for political liberation for Greeks, if not emancipation from slavery (though it is not clear from the documents discussed here what “slavery” in this context entailed). Within these texts, the prevailing attitude is strongly inflected with British Empiricism, particularly the Lockean political values (for example liberty and the pursuit of happiness) which later influenced Jeffersonian and American revolutionary thought. For instance, this can be seen in Menzies’ pamphlet, where he reasons that the Greeks “would be fond of any favourable opportunity, to change a country of slavery and oppression, for one equally rich, where they could enjoy the invaluable blessings of liberty, and the security of their property.”8 Menzies further expounds upon the politico-economic realities of the Greeks vis-à-vis the Ottoman Porte, such as perceived taxation inequities, explaining, “the Greeks of the Islands are more oppressed than any others, having the same taxes to pay as the Greeks of the continent; with the addition of an annual visit from the Capitan Bacha, or Turkish High Admiral…the sums arising from their exportation of vast quantities of silk, wine, oil, wheat, tobacco, mastic, cotton, hardly suffice to satisfy their greedy tyrants, who fleece them upon all occasions. They groan under the calamities of a despotic government.” Not merely an act of migration, establishment of a Greek-American colonial polity would be an affirmation by the Greeks of their unencumbered agency and self-determination; to freely pursue life, liberty, and happiness—a declaration of independence.
On April 30, 1768, it was reported that seven crowded ships filled with more than fourteen hundred people left the Mediterranean Sea bound for Florida. “Those with me,” Turnbull explained, “are from among those who inhabit a chain of mountains which makes the southmost promontory of the Peloponnese. That people submitted to the Turks when they conquered the Morea…the Turks have often attempted to bring them under subjection, but have always failed from the impracticability in their mountains. Several mountains in the Turkish Empire are inhabited by people who maintain their liberty in this manner, and who would rather choose to work hard in cultivating little pieces of ground they find among the mountains, than live under tyranny in the fertile and extensive plains under them.”9
Several years later, Turnbull hearkened back to his experience in facilitating the first Greek migration to America, opining that, “it was a cruel tyranny and the most pinching poverty that made them wish to fly from such a complicated distress; otherwise they would not have emigrated, for there is not a nation on earth more prejudiced in favour of their own country than the Greeks, and indeed with reason.”10
1 Panagopoulos, E. P. “The Background of the Greek Settlers in the New Smyrna Colony.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1956): 95-115, 113.
2 Ibid., 95.
3 Menzies, Archibald. “Proposal for Peopling His Majesty’s Southern Colonies on the Continent of America” The Journal of Modern Hellenism, Volume 21 (24 May 2016), 202.
4 Ibid., 200.
5 Ibid., 202.
6 Panagopoulos, E. P. “The Background of the Greek Settlers in the New Smyrna Colony.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1956): 95-115, 97.
7 C.O. 5/541, 211; also in “Narrative of Dr. Turnbull,” Lansdowne MSS. LXXXVIII, 133, quoted in Panagopoulos, E. P. “The Background of the Greek Settlers in the New Smyrna Colony.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1956): 95-115, 113.
8 Menzies, Archibald. “Proposal for Peopling His Majesty’s Southern Colonies on the Continent of America” The Journal of Modern Hellenism, Volume 21 (24 May 2016), 200-201.
9 Panagopoulos, E. P. “The Background of the Greek Settlers in the New Smyrna Colony.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 35, no. 2 (1956): 95-115, 105.