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How much must one suffer to understand the other?

· Fr Angelo Confalonieri, the Missionaries and the Australian Aborigines ·

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of European expansion in the modern age has been the destruction of indigenous peoples. In the Americas, in Africa and in Oceania the arrival and colonization of the land by the powerful of the Old Continent resulted in an immediate and dramatic decrease of the local population. Why?

The first answer is for health reasons — related to the spread of unknown diseases which found the indigenous peoples without immune defenses. Secondly, the settlements of the new arrivals altered and quickly made ancient ecological ways of life and survival impossible, such as the nomadic lifestyle which calls for ample space. But there is also a more criminal and brutal reality: the “hunting” of the natives that took place almost everywhere. Often the missionaries were the stunned spectators of this slaughter and hence the only witnesses.

Their reports from Patagonia, the Nile Valley and Oceania (to cite a few) contain sometimes horrifying reports of the brutality that occurred in these places. Although, in the “Land of Fire”, the Salesians — (it is enough to remember the late Alberto Maria De Agostini, who passed away 50 years ago this year) — took up the defense of local tribes, particularly the Ona and the Yamana, they were not successful in preventing their extinction. In retrospect, one can still imagine horrifying pictures of the Romanian adventurer Julius Popper, who for years exercised a kind of personal dominion over the most southern parts of South America, portrayed next to the prone corpse of an “Indian”, shot as though he were an animal. A few years of the European presence sufficed to wipe out an entire population, discovered only in the early 1800s by Charles Darwin, who had survived for centuries in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

Some time before, the missionaries of Daniel Comboni described episodes of similar ferocity in the Southern Sudan, of today, perpetrated by European explorers, adventurers and hunters. Here too there were those who fired at “blacks” as one might shoot a pheasant, or who chopped off hands or feet to punish some perceived offense. The fearful memory of these infamous deeds rendered the local regions impenetrable even to the missionaries for a long time.

Similar episodes happened in Australia, an island for the most part remote and hardly known until the beginning of the 1800s. It was initially used by the British as a place where criminals, convicts and prisoners were deported. There were missionaries here as well, both Protestants and Catholics, who looked upon the Aborigines with different eyes and denounced the atrocities to which they were subjected.

In 1837, the Benedictine William Ullathorne, in charge of a small local Catholic community, wrote: “These poor creatures have often been treated by the convicts, at the out stations, with atrocious barbarity, who have even been known to shoot them, as game, for sport”.

The idea to establish particular missions among the Aborigines had to do, then, with their rapid decrease in numbers, apparent from the first half of the 19th century, as well as with the fact that in order to flee maltreatment the Aborigines abandoned the coastal areas occupied by the Whites to take refuge further and further inland. In 1842, when Benedictine John Bede Polding became the first Catholic Bishop of Australia and Archbishop of Sydney, concrete attempts to evangelize the Aborigines were made. These attempts aimed to tackle not only the immense distance that divided the two cultures, but also the diffidence and fear which by that time was prevalent among indigenous Australians, who kept anyone at a distance and purposefully made it difficult for anyone to learn their respective languages. Two books that record these efforts and various strategies of Roman priests (Italian, Spanish, Irish, British) have recently been published. One is dedicated to Angelo Confalonieri, the missionary from Trento, by Rolando Pizzini ( Nagoyo. La vita di don Angelo Confalonieri fra gli Aborigeni d’Australia. 1846-1848 ). The other is about the Spanish Benedictine Rudesindo Salvado, ( Aborigeno con gli Aborigeni per l’evangelizzazione in Australia). These are two interesting works that give a straightforward account of what the approach of the “civilized” world to the “un-civilized” actually cost.

Confalonieri (born in Riva del Garda in 1813) and Salvado, a Spaniard (1814-1900), landed in Australia in January 1846 with a company of other missionaries, priests, and lay people sent from Rome. The voyage from England to Perth, on the western coast of the continent, lasted four months. Salvado stayed here, while Confalonieri went further. He was assigned to work with the Aborigines of the Cobourg Peninsula, and he only arrived there in the middle of May. He had to sail around three quarters of Australia, before reaching the North via Sydney and survived a shipwreck, in which he lost everything, only one year after leaving Rome.

The amazing travels of these missionaries — by land and by sea, across unknown territory and through dangers of every kind, without roads and maps, and with insufficient means, besides meeting people of all kinds — take up a full chapter and deserve particular attention.

The Cobourg Peninsula, that closes the gulf where the city of Darwin stands today, in the northern-most part of Australia, was a remote British army outpost, a limb of land on the outskirts of the world that had just begun being explored, with a lethal climate, plagued by malaria. And indeed it was malaria that brought the 35-year-old Confalonieri to his death on 31 May 1848 after only two years on the mission. But even this brief time in which the priest tried to live in community with the Aborigines, an experiment which actually proved unsuccessful as regards the transmission of Christian truth and doctrine, earned him a place in the history of Catholicism in Australia.

Catholicism — scarcely tolerated and on the margins of the British colonial environment, and of a very poor standard — was in truth not intended to serve the indigenous population, but the Irish emigrants. It was Bishop John B. Polding, as has already been mentioned, who broadened the scope of his young Church and proposed the evangelization of the Aborigines: “I am convinced by my own personal experience”, he wrote with a kind of optimism that the facts were to belie, “that the faith would easily spread among the tribes which are removed from all intercourse with the Europeans, with whom any contact is commonly a source of corruption”. His persuasion that they “were not inferior to us” challenged the opposing prejudice, prevalent among the British elite, and was precisely at the origin of Confalonieri’s brief adventure.

All of the eyewitness accounts in our possession, which are examined in Pizzini’s book (with contributions by Bruce Birch, Maurizio Dalla Sera, Elena Franchi, and Stefano Girola) show him to be the European who succeeded the best in adapting himself to the indigenous world — the only one who entered it, who tapped into some of the secrets and interacted with the locals sharing their camps, their dwelling places, their shifting, nomadic way of life, their food (the most repulsive aspect to a European), their ways of expression, beginning with the language. He also compiled a bilingual handbook of prayer, in English and in the local dialect, two copies of which survive today: one in Propaganda Fide’s archives, Rome, and the other in Auckland, New Zealand. He probably never succeeded in interiorizing what he was living, as he would not acknowledge anything as truly his own if not accepted rationally. Indeed on nearing his death it seems that he may have expressed more misgivings than satisfaction with the life he was leading, and with the world so different from his own that he had chosen, into which he had literally been projected, and with everything around him.

In the history of extreme missionary activity like that of Confalonieri, many more experiences than one supposes, remain as a testimony of an incomparable boldness which bore little fruit. I call to mind the similar adventure of Angelo Vinco (1819-1853), a missionary from Verona bound for Africa, who, during the time of Confalonieri, lived for more than a year completely alone in an African village with the Bari people near what is today the border between Southern Sudan and Uganda. He, too, on approaching death showed signs of dismay and of rejection of all that surrounded him. Clearly courage and willpower are not enough to bridge the infinite distance that separates the “civilized” from the “uncivilized”.

Certainly the choice made by Rudesindo Salvado seems more reasonable and successful. This Benedictine reached the shores of Australia with Confalonieri, but stopped in Perth, realizing the impossibility and futility of trying to share the life of the Aborigines. In the report that he wrote for the Propaganda Fide in 1883, after nearly 40 years of activity and in an uncertain and faulty Italian, completely reproduced in Cipollone and Orlando’s text, he relates that his option, the opposite of Confalonieri’s, was “to create a centre, namely establishing a monastery, a mission, in the most ideal place to be found in the bush, where he decided to stay and educate as many natives as possible in the Christian doctrine, as well as in agriculture and mechanic arts, in order that, at the same time, they might slowly become Christian and unconsciously become attached to the soil from which they would draw their sustenance, and thereby abandon the nomadic, primitive lifestyle for a stable Christian way of life”.

Therefore, it was not recommended to mix with the Aboriginal peoples, nor attempt to take on the impossible and futile experiments of cohabitation, but to respect the differences, resist the temptation of imposing one’s own culture and also the utopian idea of immersing oneself in the culture of the natives. It was an intuition not unlike that which inspired the Jesuits of South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, when they founded the missions among the Guaranì. The famous Reductions in Paraguay, not by chance were taken as a model for many missionary endeavours of the 1800s.

In general, the winning idea was that of not denaturalizing the “children of nature”, as these populations were described, but also of not denaturalizing oneself or losing one’s own culture. They needed to convert by example and with meekness, not by being untrue to oneself.

Born of this intuition was the Benedictine monastery of New Norcia, hundreds of kilometres north of Perth, which has survived to the present day and, until recently, it was the only monastic settlement in Australia. Salvado’s writings tell us how much sweat and blood these foundations cost: “the use of the flesh was for us out of the question. Our monastic habits were unrecognizable and fell to pieces everywhere. Our trousers were patched with kangaroo skin and by scraps that the natives threw away. Many suffered and were no longer able to walk barefoot, as so often their feet were cut and bled. We made shoes out of wood, and covered them with kangaroo skin as well”. But New Norcia’s survival to the present-day is evidence that the blood and sweat of those priests was not shed in vain.

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