The following is a review of “The First Greek Ambassador to the American Federation 1867-1868: From the Memoirs of Alexandros Rizos Rangavis.” Translation and commentary by Christine Gabrielides with a preface by Efthymios Th. Soulogiannis. Minneapolis: Nostos Books, 2019. 173 p.
This book offers us a fascinating view of America in the immediate post-Civil War era through the eyes of a Greek diplomat. It is most probably the earliest recorded Greek account of the New World, written long before the large-scale arrival of Greek immigrants that began in the 1890s.
The author, Alexandros Rizos Rangavis, was born in Constantinople in 1809, attended a military school in Munich and served briefly as an officer in the Bavarian army. He then went on to become a diplomat, a man of letters and a well-known poet in Athens.
Rangavis served as Greece’s first ambassador to the United States between 1867-1868. His mission was to see whether Greece could purchase warships, obtain a loan and rally American support on the side of the Greeks on the island of Crete who were engaged in a three-year uprising against their Ottoman rulers that lasted from 1866 to 1869. Their goal was that Crete be united with Greece which they would eventually achieve in 1913.
The pragmatic Rangavis soon realized the warships for sale were not suitable for Greece, and a loan would be impossible to procure so he focused on the Cretan issue. Because of the Monroe Doctrine that stipulated American non-intervention in Europe’s affairs, all that Rangavis could achieve was to elicit the support of Washington D.C.’s residents for the Cretan cause.
Rangavis’ success in promoting the Cretan cause was aided by the pro-rebel reports sent by America’s Consul in Crete, William James Stillman. It was for that reason that the Ottoman Empire sent a permanent representative to Washington D.C. during Rangavis’ tenure. His task was to present a counter view. The two diplomats politely avoided each other.
Even though his effectiveness as a diplomat was limited to rallying support for Crete, Rangavis’ memoirs offer a colorful picture of life in America’s capital city and especially his meetings with President Andrew Johnson, President Lincoln’s vice-president who succeeded him after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
Rangavis, who followed the proceedings closely, became the only diplomat in town who managed to get Johnson to talk to a foreign ambassador for more than a couple of minutes. Johnson was apparently tongue-tied on issues of foreign policy even though “he was gifted with the natural eloquence of the common people which at times could reach the limits of foul language.”
But Rangavis managed to get him talking at length not about foreign affairs but about Congress’ effort to impeach him. Johnson was the first president to be impeached. He had an almost continuous disagreements with Congress and it impeached him during the time Rangavis was in America. Johnson avoided conviction by only one vote.
Rangavis took a liking to the refined manners of his fellow European diplomats. The ambassador was after all a descendant of a Phanariot family, the so-called Greek aristocracy that went back to the Byzantine era. But by the same token he found some American social skills too roughly hewn for his taste. But he made clear his appreciation of American women, about whom Rangavis (whose Scottish wife did not travel with him to America) repeatedly remarked on their good looks.
With his duties limited to visiting naval shipyards and drumming up support for the Cretans, Rangavis had ample time to do some traveling. His observations vary according to how long he spends in place and how many times he visits, but his itinerary is impressive by mid-19th century standards. He managed to visit Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and finally Niagara Falls.
Rangavis also went on a trip by beyond the eastern seaboard, going first into Pennsylvania where he spent a night in Altoona which to him resembled a Greek provincial town. After stopping for lunch in Pittsburgh, “beautifully situated on the banks of the charming Ohio river,” he traveled northward along the west side of the Allegheny Mountain range where “it was quite obvious that European civilization was just a newcomer to those areas.”
The next stop was Chicago where he notes the growth of the city and marvels at the technology employed to protect the city from Lake Michigan “which had dimensions of a sea.” Rangavis tried to refuse the mayor’s a guided tour of the city’s slaughterhouses until he was told they were the pride of the city. These were the famous Union Stockyards that had been built very recently in 1865 and the Greek ambassador was impressed enough to include a detailed description of his visit.
On his return route to Washington D.C. Rangavis admired the beauty and cleanliness of St. Louis and its open sky that he noted rivaled the Greek sky.
Rangavis’ memoir stands out because it introduces us to the mind of a 19th century Greek diplomat and offers us an evocative snapshot of 1860s America.
The publishers who brought this book to light
Rangavis’ very personal, lively account of America in the 1860s has been expertly translated into English by Christine Gabrielides. The publishers, Nostos Books, deserve to become better known among English speakers interested in Greek culture and literature.
Under the inspired stewardship of its founder and editor, Professor Theofanis G. Stavrou, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Nostos Books has published a total of 28 volumes — the first, poems by Yannis Ritsos entitled “The Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland” appeared in 1974. Since then, many of the works in the Nostos Books series have been adopted in North American university courses dealing with modern Greek history and culture.
Stavrou, who also heads the Modern Greek Studies program at his university, believes that “good literature can serve as the best and most direct introduction to the history and culture of a particular country.” And the program’s many initiatives aimed at promoting that concept, and especially the number of volumes published in the Nostos Books series, put to shame other Modern Greek Studies programs, including those at wealthy Ivy League universities.
The series includes the translation of the complete works of Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos. Another Nostos Books “exclusive” is the English version of Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Sodom and Gomorrah.”
For several years, the only biography in English of the first Greek Nobel Prize winner, George Seferis, was the translation in the Nostos series of “My Brother George Seferis” by the poet’s sister Ioanna Tsatsos.
Yannis Ritsos, Nikiforos Vrettakos, Takis Papatsonis, Kiki Dimoula, Aristotelis Valaoritis, Kyriacos Charalambides and Costas Montis are Greek writers whose work appeared in book form in English for the first time thanks to Nostos Books.
How to purchase the book
Nostos Books may be reached for orders or other inquiries via email. Click here.
Alexander Kitroeff is professor of history at Haverford University in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Kitroeff’s research and publishing focus on nationalism and ethnicity in modern Greece and its diaspora, and its manifestations across a broad spectrum, from politics to sports. His latest books are “The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt” (2019) and “The Greek Orthodox Church in America: A Modern History” (2020).
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