Remembering Absence: Catastrophe, Displacement, and Identity Among Chiots and the Chiot Diaspora

Nicolas Argenti

In the spring of 1822, at the start of the Greek war of Independence, the Ottoman Navy sailed to the Aegean island of Chios to put down an uprising. The punitive expedition that ensued lasted for six months and resulted in the massacre or sale into slavery of nine tenths of the island’s population, leaving 10,000 survivors in a population of 120,000 – so colossal were these slave auctions that the price of a slave dropped dramatically throughout the Ottoman Empire. This project will provide a comparative analysis of social memories of these events in two distinct communities: members of the diaspora descended from survivors of the massacre who settled in Europe and America on the one hand, and contemporary inhabitants of the island of Chios on the other.

In both cases, despite the passage of nearly two centuries, the massacres of Chios remain core aspects of the collective memory of the community. Many of the survivors from the island’s leading families settled in the European ports in which they had hitherto conducted trade: Alexandria, London, Liverpool, Livorno, Odessa, Marseille, and Trieste. Once there, they continued to intermarry amongst each other for the next hundred and twenty years, until the 1940’s, forming an international community in exile that was closely linked across geographical space and national borders despite the successful assimilation of each local community to its country of asylum.

Following the unification of Chios with Greece, however, the First World War and the forced exchange of populations in 1922 brought further instability to the island. All of these geopolitical factors mitigated against the Chiots in exile ever returning to their Agean enclave following their precipitate departure in 1822. This research will question whether and how the massacre of 1822 played a role in the foundation of a lasting Chiot identity abroad. Meanwhile, in Chios itself, where the skulls of thousands of the victims of the massacre are still on public display in the island’s most prominent churches, the material evidence of the massacre is palpable throughout the island, in particular in certain sites which have entered collective memory as places where killings took place. Monasteries on the island have become the sites of annual religious ceremonies commemorating the massacres, and are said by contemporary Chiots to contain miraculous evidence of the events that they witnessed.

This project applies my earlier theoretical work on violence and transgenerational memory to explore the historicity of Chios; the means by which past, present and future may become mutually intertwined following episodes of political violence. It will investigate what role endogamy played among the diaspora in keeping alive largely silent memories of the annihilation of 1822, and in Chios it will examine how contemporary discourses regarding Turkey and more recent violent political events such as the 1922 exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey and the fascist occupation and ensuing famine of the Second World War are refracted through the lens of this earlier catastrophe. This project extends my critical research in the field of trauma, specifically examining the possibility that social memories of political violence have the potential to transform our understanding of historical time, introducing telescoping effects and conflating atrocities committed by separate occupation forces (Genoese, Ottomans, Turks, Germans, Italians), making of the commemorations of 1822 a means of addressing much more recent experiences of political violence.

Funding for this project has been provided by an Economic and Social Research Council Mid-Career Development Fellowship.

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