Hospitality as a special care

Modern Australia began when the First Fleet turned this ancient land into a prison camp. But in 2024, we have much to learn from one another.


Fr Brian McCoy SJ, former Australian Provincial, delivered this homily on Australia Day

Some years ago, an Aboriginal friend of mine casually commented: “You know this country was built on the foundation of rejection!”

I thought he was referring to our relationship with his Aboriginal and Torres Strait forebears. 

“No,” he explained, “it was your own people you were rejecting. You were creating a prison as far away from England as you could, at the very ends of the earth.”

It can be sobering to remember that modern Australia began as a prison camp. The overcrowding of prison hulks in the Thames had created a problem. It’s 236 years ago since Captain Arthur Phillip and eleven ships arrived in Botany Bay after a journey of 252 days. On that voyage across some 15,000 miles of ocean, 48 people died. The English beat the French, Portuguese, Dutch and many others who were also seeking to expand their colonial empires.

There were 736 convicts aboard that First Fleet, mostly Londoners, men and women alike, all guilty of crimes against property and with an average age of around 27.

As the late Australian historian Robert Hughes noted: “Many who survived the first fleets were condemned to starvation, disease and horrifying brutality and yet within eighty years it became a promised land to which people have flocked ever since.”

In reflecting on today’s national public holiday and its beginnings, we should not forget that colonial aggression, prejudice and violence were not limited to Australia. Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region have experienced colonisation in some form or other and Cambodia experienced attempts at genocide as well. 

Before Australia Day became a national public holiday, it had several iterations. From the late 1800s onwards, it was known variously as Anniversary Day, First Landing Day, Empire Day or Foundation Day and was observed variously on 24 May or 30 July. It was not until 1935 that the date was moved to 26 January, to mark the day on which Captain Phillip first raised the Union Jack on our soil.

In 1988, the Bicentennial Year, 26 January first became a national public holiday. However, because of the arbitrary practice in some places to celebrate Australia Day on Monday the closest to the 26th in order to create a long weekend, it was eventually agreed in 1994 to observe it on 26 January.

This striking mural wraps around a long, curved wall outside Redfern station in Sydney. Photo: David McMahon

In recent years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have called it Survival Day or Invasion Day. This year, following the failed 2023 referendum which sought to name our First Nations people in our Constitution and give them a Voice to our Parliament, we are now more likely to hear the sound of hurt, sad and angry voices. This is a day which can mean many things to different people. It can hold a memory of shame for past hurts but also much gratitude on the part of those who have settled here and made Australia their home.

Today’s first reading from Isaiah portrays many blessings coming upon the land and its people. It can sound a bit hollow when, at the beginning of chapter 32 of Isaiah to hear, “See, a king will reign in righteousness.”  It was not referring to the present King Charles III, but the promise of new life, one that has certainly been experienced by many migrants and refugees in this land, even if not by many First Nations people.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a reminder of how we are called to love, with profound respect for each other. The final bite, “make hospitality your special care”, can cut quite deeply. For while my Aboriginal friend is right about how this country began as a prison and on a foundation of rejection, it is also true that the ongoing relationship between settlers and First Nations people has also been one of rejection. Not just the lack of any treaties (unlike NZ, Canada and the US) but at a deeper, race-based level and one where the use of arms to create “dispersal” of tribes often became a euphemism for indiscriminate killing and massacres. There are now over 400 documented massacre sites in Australia that occurred between 1788 and 1930.

So, what can we make of the gospel of Luke? “Don’t worry about your life and what you are to eat … for life means more than food and the body more than clothing”. That’s easy to say when you have plenty of food and a healthy bank balance.

At the heart of what separates us from First Nations people is that we have too often thought our ways were better. We believe we hold the gifts of civilisation and that we have nothing to learn or receive from them.

When we realise that we have much to receive from one another we will, as St Paul encourages us, live hospitality as our special care. It will be a hospitality of respect and appreciation of our differences but also what we can share together in this land. This will require a letting go by our dominant, white and western culture. But, by letting go it will be a letting in of something new.  It will let in God’s kingdom.

Banner image shows Sydney Harbour a few hours before dawn on Australia Day this year. Photo: David McMahon

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