Australia Day offers an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between European settlers and our first peoples, and appreciate the lessons we can learn from honouring indigenous connection to land, culture and country, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ.

Australia Day recalls the arrival of the First Fleet under Governor Phillip in 1788. It marked the beginning of European settlement in Australia and of Indigenous dispossession. For many Indigenous Australians, Australia Day is an occasion for grief. For many other Australians it is an uncomfortable day, one for rumination, for pondering the creation and the destruction of cultures and for revisiting the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the overseas invaders.

If we see Australia Day as a day for reflection on the complexity and ambiguity of Australian history, it might invite us to wonder together at the first meeting of cultures and at the richness of each. Against this background, Captain Cook’s expedition was not only about discovery and possession and demonstration of superior power. It was about enriching the European world’s knowledge of flora and fauna, of mapping universal as well as local seas and skies, of curiosity about the Indigenous peoples encountered on the voyage, of marking points of connection and of haven in the circling of the world. For good or for ill, and in this case great ill, Cook was one of the people who brought very different peoples into contact and collision.

The landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay can now be seen to have offered the colonists who arrived later with Governor Phillip opportunities and choices they did not take – to be curious about the Indigenous people whom they met, to be schooled in the ways in which indigenous peoples cared for the land and the rituals with which they engage with one another, and on their respect for their world.

We more recent Australians, including those of us at Jesuit Social Services, are beginning to learn this through the rituals of honouring the Indigenous owners of the land and their descendants, smoking ceremonies and particularly in conversation with the Indigenous people whom we accompany in our work.

After a year in which the ways in which Western cultures have dealt with the environment have been evident in bushfire and global warming, and in the cavalier response to viruses crossing species, the delicacy and sophistication of many Indigenous rituals in passing on respect for the land bear honouring. To honour them is also to honour the best traditions of the European culture that contemporary Australia also inherits, found in Cook’s restless spirit, respect for the world through which he travelled, and boundless curiosity.