The Olympics – Shakespeare, Nelson and noises ringing hollow

by Survival’s Director Stephen Corry

The Olympic bell is inscribed, ‘The isle is full of noises’, from Shakespeare’s Tempest. The speech in which it figures was used in the 2012 Games’ opening ceremony. Are the words supposed to arouse feelings of respect for Britain or, hopefully and more likely, did those who chose it recognise the very different message conveyed by its context?

The words are spoken by Caliban, the man-monster who is thought to be derived somewhat from Elizabethan ideas about the Carib Indians who gave their name to the Caribbean Sea. Shakespeare seems to have based the opening of his story on a real 1609 shipwreck in the Bermudas, and the ‘isle’ in question is certainly not Britain. Caliban is an only child, destined to be the end of his race. Indeed, by the time the play was written, Spain, France, Britain and others, were well on the way to ensuring the extinction, through disease and killing, of almost all Caribbean Indians.

Caliban is an accomplished woodsman, but he’s also thoroughly untrustworthy and dangerous, and yearning to rape the exquisitely sweet and dutiful virgin, Miranda, daughter of Prospero who lords it over the island. He delivers his famous speech during a binge drinking session when he’s desperate to get his new clownish mates to kill Prospero by knifing, battering, impaling, braining or, more imaginatively, knocking a nail into his head. Binge drinking, violent attacks on those representing authority – maybe we’re not far from home, after all?

When Shakespeare wrote perhaps his last major play, England was (with Spain and France) one of three ‘premier league’ colonial powers starting to vie for world supremacy, though Spain was (literally) sinking, due to a real-life tempest and disastrous own goal by its Armada. The competition between them was long. When the final finally came around, at Cape Trafalgar in 1805, England had of course secured the undisputed captain of all time, Nelson, who decisively wiped out the (bigger) French-Spanish fleet, delivered Britain as world superpower, and of course was heroically but fatally wounded in the thick of battle.

But what of Caliban? Shakespeare axiomatically wrote about all life – except he didn’t: apart from the monster, I can find nothing in the canon which even mentions the ‘natives’ that the colonial powers were coming across – and destroying – in their scramble for world dominion. You might imagine that what became of them is now well-known, but it isn’t really. Some of their descendants – those ‘lucky’ enough to survive at all – are now the most impoverished in the world’s richest countries (in one former British colony, the USA, longevity on one Indian reservation is lower than in Bangladesh), but this chapter has been white-washed from Britain’s ‘island story’ and is unlikely to feature in ‘Britishness’ tests for migrants.

I am trying to establish which colonial power wins ‘the greatest destroyer of Indigenous peoples’ medal. So far, Britain looks like the favourite: the only possible competition is from Spain or France, and it’s not accidental that it’s the same teams as in the Trafalgar face-off. The destruction of tribal peoples wasn’t a regrettable result of empire: it was often one of its objectives. So what now? How does Britain’s record stand today? Has it, for example, ratified the only international law confirming tribal peoples’ rights? It was originally written in Geneva over 50 years ago and the Foreign Office has been ‘reviewing’ it for years.

The earliest publication of ‘The Tempest’ had uniquely elaborate, perhaps original, stage directions. The setting is described as ‘An un-inhabited Island’ (sic), but it’s not true: Caliban was born there. It’s another prescient parallel with British imperialism, which decreed Australia terra nullius, ‘land of no one’, when Europeans turned up to steal the homes of nearly a million Aboriginals.

If the jingoism surrounding the Olympics is intended to instil pride in Britain’s best achievements – and why not – then Shakespeare must be present. But the Caliban speech is a not-so-subtle own goal. Personally, I can exult in the poetry, but will save any feelings of pride for when Britain eventually agrees that tribal peoples have enforceable rights, for when it stops funding ‘development’ which destroys them, and for when it no longer allows its businesses to do the same. It’s high time it acknowledged its blacker role, both historical and contemporary, and took the most basic step of at least agreeing to the international law, which it consistently has refused to do.

Now, anyone for an alternative quote? How about Orlando’s, in As You Like It: ‘…the fashion of these times, where none will sweat but for promotion, and having that, do choke their service up even with the having?’