“The Cretans are immensely picturesque: a large number of black men and women.” : Edward Lear 1846
According to the British consul in Chania, Crete, writing in 1858 about British efforts to eradicate the slave trade in the eastern Mediterranean, he described how “all the black population of the island” regarded him “as their best friend and benefactor “. According to Michael Ferguson’s research on enslaved and emancipated Africans in Crete, there were so many trans-Saharan Africans living in Crete at this time, that another British consul, writing in 1885, argued that freed African slaves on the high seas would be better accommodated with their compatriots already living in Chania.
In this regard, Ferguson cites the account of Mary Adelaide Walker, who in her 1886 book Life and landscapes of the East observes that: the “industrious” trans-Saharan Africans had “planted their village by the sea” at the foot of the city fort. This village was “composed of small square houses with flat roofs”, with a mosque in its center.
While the struggles of the Cretan people for independence feature prominently in Greek historiography, the same cannot be said for the stay of non-Europeans on the island. It is a little known fact that until 1922 and beyond there was a large Greek-speaking population of trans-Saharan Africans on Crete.
Their presence on the island owed much to the importance of Crete as a transit station for ships carrying out the Ottoman slave trade between Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
Brought to the island as slaves, servants, soldiers or wives, the Africans of Crete dislodged from their homeland, converted to the religion of their slaveholders and associated with those oppressors by virtue of that religion by the Christians of the island, were taken between two worlds, belonging to neither. Ultimately, with the rise of nationalism, their continued presence on the island proved untenable and little remains today to bear witness to the centuries of their habitation in Crete.
There are many accounts of the arrival of African slaves in Crete. Ferguson in particular refers to a compendium of these including an account by FW Seiber in 1817 in which he recorded a ship arriving at Chania with “nearly fifty black slaves on board, who were soon landed and sold individually to the Turkish inhabitants as servants.
In his Report from Egypt and Candia, John Bowring estimated that in 1840 there were about 2,000. They were mostly located in Chania, where on a visit in 1864 the artist and poet Edward Lear observed: “the strange village of black, with clustered houses was pretty”. British traveler TAB Spratt also recorded seeing a “perfect little African community” in Chania.
Although ostensibly Muslim, African Cretans had developed their own vibrant culture, preserving many of their own traditions and beliefs. In particular, there are Ottoman accounts such as those by the writer Leyla Saz attesting to the existence of a Zar or Bori cult, involving spirit possession and ecstatic dancing in Crete.
There is also a description of African Cretans commemorating the festivals of Islamic saints in traditional African ways, including dancing, beating drums, and cooking traditional African dishes.
The Africans of Crete were known locally as “Halikoutes”. This word, as researcher Charidimos Papadakis argues, is still heard in parts of Crete, mostly as a derogatory term, to describe someone of ragged or unkempt appearance, such as porters, butchers, and laborers. of the African community came from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds and were often reduced to poverty.
According to one account, the term is derived from the Arabic command “Hal il kutimeaning “put down the box”, an expression commonly used among African porters, who generally spoke Arabic.
Coexistence between Christians on the island and African Cretans was not harmonious, especially during the intercommunal conflicts of the 1890s when Christian Cretans sought to unite with Greece. They were seen as a violent and subversive element, inasmuch as, as Ferguson points out, Christians in Chania wrote to the British, in a series of petitions to Parliament, insisting:
“All Africans who participated in the latest murders, lootings…must be exiled from the island; also those who do not own real estate of 10,000 piastres, and no more emigrants from Africa are to be admitted to the island.
It is fascinating that the Ottoman authorities, in response, sought to focus on the “otherness” of Africans by their Christian counterparts, asserting their equality and inherent right to remain on the island. Thus, in a letter written to the British consul, the Ottomans asserted that the African Cretans were “born here and have become our fellow citizens…they possess equal title with us to our civil rights and can only be regarded as true natives. from the country.”
The polarization of the population of Crete into opposing Muslim and Christian factions, the African Cretans being placed by virtue of their faith in the Muslim faction, meant that in the eyes of the Christian population they were a subversive element: an obstacle to independence, an organ of the oppressors and therefore had to be suppressed.
Ferguson, citing Papadakis’ research contained in his work Africans in Crete, describes how in 1901, a Christian official seized the opportunity to order the demolition of the African quarter of Chania when local newspapers alleged that the police had found swords and other weapons while burning down African Cretan houses. According to Papadakis, African Cretans demonstrated in front of the local parliament against the destruction of their homes, protested to the consuls of European powers and planned to write a letter of complaint to the sultan.
There was no intervention from either side and as a result African Cretans continued to be targeted by local authorities, with children rounded up for deportation, according to Ferguson, to Crete, but most likely to l ‘Asia Minor. As a result of their mistreatment, African Cretans slowly began to leave the island, many seeking work around Smyrna, where they would encounter another Christian community and similar ethno-religious tensions.
As Muslims acculturated to Crete, despite their African origins and the fact that at this stage their only language was Greek, African Cretans were considered Turks by the Treaty of Lausanne and were therefore deemed exchangeable. They were thus officially deported between 1923-1926.
Ferguson cites the memoirs of Afro-Cretan Mustafa Olpak, who claims his family still existed in a state of servitude tied to a Cretan Muslim family in 1923. On the eve of their departure from Crete, he alleges that their master sold a female member of his family to a family in Constantinople. Olpak then recounts how in 1926 the family was liberated and they headed for Ayvali in Asia Minor, stripped of its Christian inhabitants and resettled with Cretan Muslims.
Papadakis in his work cites the cases of three African Cretans who remained after the population exchange. Salis Chelidonakis, who died in 1967, was a fisherman who saved the lives of five soldiers at sea during the war, fed starving children, one of whom is a migrant to Australia and is remembered and donated his pension to the needy .
He was the last of the African Cretans. His sister, Ayesha Chelidonaki, remained in Crete until the 1950s, when she emigrated to Egypt. Able Nuriye Marmaraki, who worked as a nut seller in the market, was the last Cretan African woman. Upon his death, Salis Chelidonakis performed the customary prayers at his funeral, as there was no longer an Imam in Crete. Ali Koko (named for his dark skin) meanwhile worked as a dockhand until 1926. Not wishing to be expelled, he jumped off the boat and attempted to swim to land. Captured by the authorities, he is sent to Asia Minor.
Kostis Kourelis points to other populations of Africans in Greece, including one at the “black caves” on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens, whose population has again been traded.
In modern Turkey, African Cretans have been discriminated against due to their lack of knowledge of Turkish and the color of their skin, and popular prejudice and superstition still linger in some quarters.
In Crete, the land they have inhabited for centuries, they are largely forgotten by a narrative that, like its Turkish counterpart, until recently called for complete homogeneity.