Current Issue #488

Light's revision: OzAsia Festival explores Colonel Light's oft-forgotten family tree

William Light, Australia, 1786 – 1839, Self portrait, c.1839, Adelaide, oil on canvas; Gift of G.G. Mayo on behalf of his father, the late George Mayo, F.

180 years after his death, Malaysian-Australian co-production LIGHT will re-examine the life, family and Eurasian heritage of Colonel William Light, in an intergenerational story that maps the tensions and contradictions of colonialism and history.

No South Australian historical figure commands quite the same name recognition, or hushed reverence, as Colonel Light. Look no further than our town hall, where since 2016 each and every council meeting has opened with a shout out to ‘Light’s Vision’, sandwiched between the Acknowledgement of Country and a prayer to the almighty. It’s serious business.

It’s into this atmosphere that Melbourne-born writer/director Thomas Henning and Malaysian theatre makers TerryAndTheCuz lob LIGHT, an irreverent and experimental new play that surveys the interior landscape of our onetime surveyor general, exposing some lesser-known home truths… while also playing fast and loose with them.

“The show exists entirely in Light’s head, we experience the story from inside his perspective,” Henning tells The Adelaide Review. “Everything’s coloured by the way he sees the world and the behaviour of people around him.”

Francis Light’s grave in George Town, Penang (Photo: Shutterstock)

William’s father Captain Francis Light first encountered Penang in the early 1770s while working for the East India Company, and is credited with establishing a British settlement on the island in 1786. In the same year, his common law wife Martina Rozells gave birth to their first child, William.

“He grew up believing that Penang was his mother’s dowry – he thought his father had married a Princess of Kedah, from northern Malaysia,” he says of the misinformation that has followed Light’s family story since birth. “That reality disappeared over the course of his life. He left his parents when he was six years old and was sent to England to go to school, but grew up with the myth of his father, which was growing over time as the British Empire grew.

“The myth of his father created this ideal to which [William] sought to live up to,” Henning says, noting that Penang’s strategic importance for British trade in the region peaked just as William came of age. “So he [William] became this heroic figure. He couldn’t join the East India Company because of his mixed race, so joined the army instead and learned to draw maps, and became aide-de-camp to various generals.”

A staged reading of Light was premiered at George Town Festival in July (Photo: George Town Festival)
A staged reading of Light was premiered at George Town Festival in July (Photo: George Town Festival)

But it’s William’s Catholic mother Martina, and the nature of her presence or absence in retellings of Light’s life, that comes to bear in the play. “She looms all over it,” Henning says of Rozells, whose own lineage is usually approximated as being of Portugese and Siamese descent. “In our interpretation it’s about how history is colonised along with the rest of the world, and certain things are forgotten. The way in which Francis Light was mythologised, and the way his mother disappeared, was erased, and the impact that had on him becomes our central narrative.”

The fact his mother “wasn’t white”, Henning says, informed much of Light’s life and work. “He struggled against that perceived weakness in character of not being completely white, by working far harder than everyone else, to be the most perfect and quintessential interpretation of colonial values.

“His internal conflict which drives it is similar to how we negotiate our inheritance of colonisation and colonialism.” That driving tension eventually brought Light to Adelaide in 1836, charged with the task of mapping and carving up the area of Kaurna country known as Tarntanya into the green-ringed grid we now call Adelaide.

A staged reading of Light was premiered at George Town Festival in July (Photo: George Town Festival)
Thomas Henning (Photo: George Town Festival)

Light’s current canonisation is in stark contrast to the treatment he initially received. Under-resourced by the Colonization Commission and under pressure from eager colonists, Light endured a sceptical Governor and a fractured relationship with his deputy (and successor) George Strickland Kingston. When Light died at Thebarton in 1839, having quit as surveyor general a year earlier, his personal legacy was left to be defined by others.

In Henning and TerryAndTheCuz’s handling of that legacy, race, prejudice and the “weird and bleak” side of our colonial past is brought to the fore. The work received a low-key premiere in July in a staged reading held as part of Penang’s George Town Festival, but Henning is aware LIGHT may prove downright iconoclastic for some audiences further south.

“That’s history isn’t? People resent the way certain things are interpreted, or demand certain things be interpreted only in a certain way. And when that myth of who we are is challenged… then there are problems.”

Nexus Arts
October 17 – 19

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox