Defend Truth


Let us all act like Cretans: Repeated colonialism conquered


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. A rugged jewel of endless crystal seas, vertiginous hills, plump olives and grapes, snow-capped mountains, year-round sunshine, heartwarming food and passionate people. And yet, in a country struggling with enormous debt, ballooning unemployment, political and social unrest and a bloated bureaucracy (sound familiar?), it is a shining beacon of hope.

Its lesson is, very simply stated, “History does not have to dictate the present, but no one will rescue us from our past.”

Unemployment on Crete is 4%, while in the rest of Greece it is 25%. Since 2010 they have had a degree of redefined and increased autonomy from central government in Athens and EU control in Brussels. Like South Africa, the two great drivers of prosperity in Crete are agriculture and tourism, and like South Africa their infrastructure is in urgent need of upgrade and development.

And historically? The centuries of brutal suppression, colonisation, invasion, grinding poverty that Crete has undergone make our three-century struggle to gain democracy seem relatively puny.

So here is Cretan history – stripped to the barest of bones. If you read this, try to feel the centuries of slaughter, dislocation, and horror that these dry facts cannot convey:

  • 2600 BC -1100 BCOne of the earliest civilisations known to man (Minoan) arises.
  • In 1420 BC the Mycenaeans conquer the island – the first colonisation.
  • From 1375 BC the Greeks repeatedly invade and conquer the island over the next 1,000 years.
  • From 600 BC to 200 BC a truly Cretan civilisation arises and then disintegrates into civil war.
  • 200 BC, the Romans Empire assume more control, with increasingly ferocious invasions, and rule Crete for 400 years.
  • 300-820 AD As the Roman Empire splits, Crete is given to Constantinople. During this time they are invaded by Vandals, Slavs, and Arabs as well as enduring multiple massive earthquakes.
  • 820-960 The Arabs conquer Crete and establish Muslim rule over an Orthodox Christian population.
  • 961-1204 The Byzantine Empire ejects the Arabs, persecutes the Muslims, and re-establishes Christian rule.
  • 1212-1669 After a brief period of ownership by a conquering Crusader, and then invasion by Genoa, Crete becomes a Venetian colony. Catholicism is fiercely enforced, Orthodox Christians are fined and Jews and Muslims persecuted.
  • 1669-1898. The Ottoman Empire conquers the island and enforces Muslim rule. Increasing religious persecution and hardship result in a series of increasingly successful Cretan revolts from 1830.
  • 1898-1908. After a Turkish massacre of Christians, four European Powers expel Turkey and the first Independent Cretan government is established.
  • 1908-1941. Crete votes to join the nation of Greece, which at the time is a series of political fireworks, constantly exploding; a monarchy, then a revolution, then a democracy and back again and so on. Greece is desperately poor, and the million destitute Greeks expelled from Turkey in 1923 almost crush the Greek economy for years.
  • 1941-1945. Nazi Germany invades Crete, and after one of the costliest battles of WWII, carries out a relentless series of massacres, and brutal partisan reprisals – against women and children.
  • 1945-1975. Greece (along with Crete) is a boiling political cauldron of communism, dictatorship, monarchy, military coups, and gradually burgeoning democracy.
  • 1975-present: Democracy, international acceptance, financial growth.
  • 2008… Greek depression.

I write this long (amateur historian’s) list to give a young country like South Africa some perspective on how long subjugation, colonialism, genocide and brutality can dominate a nation: more than 2000 years. And yet Crete is flourishing. So what lessons can we take away from Crete?

In South Africa 150 years ago, the colonising powers were at war with each other. Obviously what follows is a vast over-simplification but in essence Boer (since Afrikaans was not yet a language or a nation), British, Zulu, Xhosa made war on each other, on the Khoi, the San, the Tswana, the Sotho, the Matabele etc. There followed a century of political turmoil, apartheid, virulent racism, conflict and a vast division being sown into the national psyche. Then came the miracle of 1994. And yet like Greece we are debt-ridden, saddled with a bloated bureaucracy, and facing a future of deep uncertainty.

So what has Crete got right, that we are still struggling with? On a psychological level, despite a deep sense of national identity and “tribal” pride they have decided that history is just that. It is done. It is past. Somehow they have decided to forgive the most recent and most brutal invasion. Crete’s main trading partner is Germany. The Germans who were slaughtering their grand-parents in a racist, cold-blooded, brutal invasion now send their grandchildren to the shops to buy Cretan olive oil and tomatoes. These same grandchildren now spend billions of Euros annually, enjoying the sun and sea and history that Crete offers. (To be honest, I don’t think thousands of Turkish tourists would be welcomed, though. Although Muslim Moroccans are welcome, they come to earn Euros as labourers.)

And everyone in Crete works. Unlike much of the Greek mainland, there is no expectation that anyone else is going to rescue them, not the government, not the International Monetary Fund, not Nato, not the EU. Their greatest strength is a sense of self-determination, which is the bedrock of democracy.

And in South Africa we have everything they have and more. Thousands of kilometres of glorious beaches, an agricultural potential that if proactively managed would, using intensively managed grazing and cover cropping, turn the desperation of our former homelands into havens of production and prosperity. Our landscapes are more astounding, our mineral wealth is unparalleled, our infrastructure is better, and our people are as warm and smart and as hungry for security as the Cretans. The diversity of our cultures gives us the advantage of an energy and vibrancy that is life-affirming.

But they have a determination. No one would rescue them – so they rescued themselves. And they knew that to look back would mean that they could not find a road forward. In Crete, nothing is forgotten, not one of those brutal occupations and colonisations is unacknowledged or unrecorded, or unlamented. But they are history. And the only way to overcome history is to move forward.

Somehow we all have to find the determination – no one is going to rescue us, we are all we have.

So let us be like Cretans, dirty in our fields, delighting that we can share our country, and every day moving forward. Arguing, debating, disagreeing, voting – but moving forward, ever forward – like a relentless Cretan. DM


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