Friday, January 26, 2007

January 26

Today is “Australia Day," which celebrates the 1788 arrival of eleven ships, led by Captain Arthur Philip, at Port Jackson in New South Wales. The eleven ships brought with them nearly 1400 people, over half of whom were convicts serving terms of exile for property crimes. Thirty-three of the convicted travelers on the First Fleet had received their sentences for swiping goods valued at a single shilling -- this included George Barland, who was loaded on to the Scarborough and transported on a seven-year sentence for stealing a coat. John Hatch, traveling on the Alexander stole wheat. Thirty-one passengers had stolen handkerchiefs while Elizabeth Bird, assigned to the Lady Penrhyn, made off with someone else's sheep. John Harris, a wax chandler from London, was caught with silver spoons valued at 60 shillings; initially sentenced to hang, Harris was instead offered a lifetime sentence in Australia.

The greatest property crime of all, however, was perpetrated by the British crown, which eventually claimed the whole of the continent. In recognition of this loss, Australia’s aboriginal population acknowledges today instead as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day.”


Catholics observe the Feast of St. Polycarp of Smyrna on January 26, though he actually met his gruesome and triumphant end in late February sometime between a.d. 155-167. A gifted teacher and early Christian bishop, Polycarp was put to death at the age of 86 or 87 for refusing to deny his faith. His execution turned into something of a fiasco, according to the only surviving account. After being bound to a stake “like a distinguished ram,” Polycarp was miraculously shielded from the flames, at least if the anonymous Smyrnaean author is to be trusted.
For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.

At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished . . . .
After he was dead, a centurian rekindled the fire and roasted Polycarp’s carcass. His bones were then gathered and taken away by his followers. No further mention is made of the dove that had evidently roosted inside him.

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