The 1821 Greek Revolution is one of the most important events of the 19th century, both at European and global level. The successful outcome of the Struggle was due on the efforts of the fighters in enslaved Greece and the actions of diaspora Greeks and Philhellenes.
At that time, movements in favour of an independent Greece manifested themselves in several European countries, while important philhellenic centres were also located in North America and Asia.
As for Asia, a strong pro-Hellenic current developed in India, which was then under the colonial control of the British Empire. Its development was not accidental, as Greeks and Indians maintained close relations since antiquity and more specifically since the time of Alexander the Great.
Also, the news of the beginning of the Revolution aroused the interest of the Indians, who found similarities between the struggle of Greeks enslaved by Ottomans and their own against the British colonialists.
Another factor that contributed to the creation of a positive attitude towards the Greek Revolution was the presence and action in important cities of the Indian subcontinent, such as Calcutta and Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh). European traders informed the locals about the development of the liberation struggle.
Philhellenism in India was expressed in three main ways: through the action of Greek immigrants in the country, through the establishment and operation of the Philhellenic Commission of Calcutta and through the ideological support of Indian scholars.
Greeks of India
Most Greek immigrants in India settled in Bengal, an area that includes the territories of Northeast India and Bangladesh. The Greek community numbered 120 families and was one of the most active in the area.
Greek expatriates did not forget their compatriots who fought for the overthrow of the Ottoman yoke and for this reason they supported financially and morally the Struggle for freedom.
It is impressive that two decades before the beginning of the Revolution and more specifically on the second day of Easter 1802, the Greeks of Calcutta took an oath. So they pledged to collect enough groschen as well as gold and silver coins in order to strengthen the efforts of the slaves in Greece, when the time of the Revolution came.
One of the Greeks who acted in India and contributed with his work to the enrichment of Greek and Indian culture was the Indologist Dimitrios Galanos, the “Athenian” (1760-1833).
Galanos was born in Athens in 1760 and in 1786 he settled in Calcutta. There he worked as a teacher for the children of the Greek merchants of the city and after seven years he moved to Varanasi (or Benares), where he studied Sanskrit.
He spent four decades in this city translating Sanskrit texts into Greek. After the liberation of Greece, Galanos planned to return home, but his dream did not come true. Most of his works were published and sent to Greece after his death.
Also noteworthy is the case of the Zakynthian merchant Nikolaos Kefalas (1763-1847), who in 1823 traveled to India with the approval of the provisional Greek government in order to raise money for the Struggle.
In India he met Galanos, who gave him various manuscripts to hand over to the leaders of the Revolution as well as a text by the philosopher Sanakeas written in Sanskrit. In fact, the latter was accompanied by its Greek translation.
However, on his return to Europe, Kefalas went to Rome in 1825 and finally handed over the original to the Vatican Library. He also published a Greek and an Italian translation of the text.
Hellenic Committee of Calcutta
In the city of Calcutta, a Philhellenic Committee was founded in 1823, chaired by the Englishman Aring. Apart from the Greeks of the local community, several European (mainly English), Indian, American and Chinese merchants participated in it. This committee was quite active and mainly supported the Revolution financially through fundraising.
Important information about the action of the committee is taken from a letter of its members that was written in October 1824 and published in the newspaper of Messolonghi, “the Hellenic Chronicles” in the issue of January 17, 1825.
The news from revolutionary Greece arrived in India through ships that transported letters and informed the Greeks abroad about the successes of their compatriots in Psara, Samos and elsewhere.
In fact, in October 1824, a meeting of the committee was organised in Calcutta to celebrate these victories.
In addition, the members influenced by the achievements of the Greek fighters showed interest in learning about the ancient Greek history.
So they asked the English to teach it to them, and an American named Miller translated Oliver Goldsmith’s History of Greece (1809) into the local language. In order to publish the book, donations were given by many members.
One of the donors was the young son of Fateh Ali Sahab Tipu, Sultan of Mysore, who fought against the British colonialists in the late 18th century.
The English bishop Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was also a prominent member of the committee. Heber arrived in Calcutta in October 1823 and remained in the city until June 1824. In July of the same year he went to North India showing interest in the local communities of the region, including the Greek one.
During this trip he met Dimitrios Galanos and was interested in both the news of the Greek community and the Greek Revolution. In fact, for the needs of the struggle, he offered 200 pounds. It is worth noting that this was not the first time that the bishop dealt with Greeks abroad, as in the past (1806) he had expressed his support to the Greeks of Taganrog and Southern Russia.
Hindu scholars and Brahmins
One of the Indian scholars who supported the Greek Revolution was the Philhellene educator and poet Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809-1831), who is considered one of the first national poets of India. Derozio was a radical thinker who studied Greek philosophy and classical literature and worked as a professor at the Hindu University of Calcutta. He admired the Greeks so much that he wrote a series of poems dedicated to ancient Greece, such as “Thermopylae”, “To the Greeks of Marathon”, “Sappho” etc.
As a teacher he taught his students Greek history and Homeric epics. The Greek Revolution was one of the themes of his poetry as he was influenced by the ideas of the French Revolution and Romanticism.
On January 26, 1826 he wrote the poem “Address to the Greeks”, in which he praised the fighters and called on them to revolt against the Ottomans by liberating the land of their ancestors. Also, in his poem “Greece” he presented the drama of the Greek civilians and women and children who were killed by the Ottomans, at the same time that the European powers remained apathetic.
Another case of a learned Indian philhellene was that of Khettro Mohun Mookerjea, who was the first to write the history of Greece in the Bengali language. His book “Greek Desher Itihas” was published in 1833 – just a few years after the independence of Greece – and was essentially a translation of Oliver Goldsmith’s book “History of Greece”. It numbered 400 pages and was published by the Calcutta textbook organisation for use in schools and by students attending private lessons.
It is worth noting, however, that the Greek Revolution also provoked ambivalent feelings in a section of Indian society. More specifically, the Indian Brahmins (members of a higher religious caste), although moved by the struggle of the Greeks for freedom, considered the Revolution to be an intervention and attack by European forces against an Asiatic Empire, the Ottoman Empire.
In summary, the Greeks and philhellenes of India, although they were miles away from the place of the Revolution, were not only informed about the development of the Struggle, but they supported it financially and morally with their own forces and means. The Greek Revolution thus inspired people who, although they had different cultural backgrounds, shared common values, proving that the ideal of freedom has a timeless and universal character.
George Giannikos is a contributor to Efsyn.