Why colonialism is such a big theme of Edinburgh festival – Joyce McMillan

The Secret River tells of sinister attitudes that developed as 19th century Australia was colonised (Picture: Hugh Hartshorne/News Corp Australia)
The Secret River tells of sinister attitudes that developed as 19th century Australia was colonised (Picture: Hugh Hartshorne/News Corp Australia)
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Colonialism is a theme of this year’s Edinburgh festival that has huge relevance today, as challenging colonial patterns of wealth, power and identity that still persist has led to various forms of reactionary resistance, from American white supremacists to climate change deniers, writes Joyce McMillan.

Everyone in Edinburgh knows that the city’s annual August festival is a strange beast; vast, varied, and with faces that range from the gorgeous and thrilling, to the sordidly exploitative.

One of its strangest features, though, is its capacity to throw up themes that suddenly seem to appear everywhere, as if by some spontaneous collective decision; and they often recur insistently enough to suggest that the philosopher-psychologist Carl Jung was not entirely wrong, when he suggested the existence of some kind of global “collective unconscious”.

This year, for example, on my annual journey around the Festival as the Scotsman’s theatre critic, I found that of the first dozen Edinburgh shows I saw, at least six – and arguably more – were on themes of colonialism, and the impact of colonial attitudes on both coloniser and colonised. These shows included the National Theatre of Great Britain’s Peter Gynt and the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River, both still playing this weekend as part of the international festival; the wonderful international festival show show Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, about a dialogue between southern and northern Canada, and the Inuit people there; and Fringe shows ranging from Mara Menzies’ gorgeous yet chilling account of the interface between Scotland and Africa in Blood And Gold at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, to the magnificent New York writer and performer Dael Orlandersmith’s tragically timely show Until The Flood, which explores gun violence in America, and the complex of attitudes surrounding the 2014 shooting of young black man Michael Brown by a young white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri.

READ MORE: Theatre review: The Secret River, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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And what all these shows and many more seem to be saying – through their very different stories – is that we can go no further in understanding some of the huge social and environmental issues that pervade our politics, unless we come to grips with the history of colonialism, which – from the beginning of the modern age – formed the foundation of the crisis-ridden economic system in which we now live. The Australian show The Secret River, for example – set in New South Wales around 1815, and based on Kate Grenville’s best-selling 2005 novel – makes it clear that this was not about all western colonists being evil people; its two chief colonisers, William and Sal Thornhill, are the poorest of England’s despised poor when they arrive in Australia, desperate for a chance to grab some land and make something of themselves.

Yet that act of land seizure could only be accomplished if those behind it began to close their hearts and minds, and perpetuate a series of lies. That the land was “empty”, which it was not. That the native people who inhabited it were “savages”, which they were not. That those “savages” presented a far greater threat to settlers than the settlers did to them – which they did not; then crucially, that while often useful as cheap or slave labour, the non-white and indigenous peoples of the world, were somehow intrinsically inferior, stupid, untrustworthy, and to be both despised and feared.

What these great shows have helped me understand, though, is how closely these attitudes – much discussed over the last two generations, as some western societies have tried to overcome the ingrained racism that helped underpin their economic development – are related to other issues that now plague us. In both The Secret River and Kiinalik, for example, it is obvious how colonial attitudes to indigenous people were linked to shockingly abusive attitudes to the landscapes with which they lived in relative harmony. Uprooting native plants to grow cash crops, hoovering up fish stocks, brutally burning away and felling the vast forests on which the planet’s climate balance depends; all of these represent rapes of the environment that are often accompanied, in the minds of colonialists, by a profound protective sentimentality about the “home” landscapes they value and love – no open-cast mines or rivers running with oil pollution in the green fields of the tellingly named Home Counties, please.

The word “rape” is not lightly chosen, either; because as The Secret River again makes clear, the colonial enterprise, and the genocidal horrors it often entailed, tended to exaggerate gender differences, driving a wedge between men and the families they claimed to love, but wished to protect from the truth about how their prosperity had been achieved.

Kate Grenville, researching the history of her own Australian family, found an astonishing silence in the records about exactly how the Dharug people were cleared from the area around Sydney, or what became of them. And once a culture founds itself, and its ideas of proper manly behaviour, on such a structure of lies, silences and evasions, tensions rise, both in the home and in society; with the threat of hair-trigger violence ever present, whenever anyone – wife, child, servant, employee, or young black man on the street – seems to threaten the highly artificial sets of rules and divisions that police such societies.

And this, in a sense, is where we all live now: in a global society which may have recognised some of the injustices on which it is founded, but whose patterns of power, wealth, ownership and identity are still so bound up with those historic abuses that the attempt to change them throws up violent and potentially catastrophic forms of reactionary resistance, from climate change denial and the accelerating destruction of the Brazilian rainforest, to the growing threat of white supremacist gun violence on the streets of America.

And no, theatre and the arts cannot change this, or single-handedly cause humanity to make a massive cultural shift. What they can do, though, is to help us see the frightening tangle of threats we face in all their depth and inter-connectedness; and also offer us a glimpse of the positive love, respect and joy in others, in our similarities, our differences, and our limitless potential, that must be the foundation of any viable future. It’s been my privilege to experience some of that clarity, and that joy, around Edinburgh’s festivals this week; but the fact that this remains a privilege, available to so very few, is also in a cold and hard-edged reminder of how far we still have to go.