Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections

The first commentary in our forum on Robbie’s The Black Pacific. Heloise Weber is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Development Studies at the University of Queensland. Her main research interests are in the Global Politics of Development/Critical Development Studies and Global/International Political Economy (GPE/IPE), and relations of inequality. Heloise is the author most recently of Rethinking the Third World: International Development and World Politics, with Mark T. Berger (Palgrave, 2014) and ‘Reproducing Inequalities through Development: The MDGs and the Politics of Method’ in Globalizations.


The prophet therefore channels the binding skills of Tāne/Māui and Legba so that colonized History can give way to decolonial pasts. And key among these skills is the use of voice. (p. 135)

Robbie Shilliam presents more than a beautiful and inspiring account of how through ‘grounding’ with the world we can cultivate deep relations that heal colonial wounds and further a ‘project of restitutive justice’. The Black Pacific is itself a whakapapa (a groundation of deep relation) for mana motuhake (self-determination) with the project of restitutive justice at its core.

As the sub-title suggests The Black Pacific is about rendering anticolonial struggles and/through oceanic connections. In this sense, it is a decolonial project that

seeks to bind the manifest colonized world back to uncolonized spiritual hinterlands, the colonized present back to decolonial pasts, (post) colonized peoples to other (post)colonized peoples, and the children of Legba to the children of Tāne/Māui. (p. 30)

More specifically, it is about how through deep relations – spiritual and material– indigenous peoples of Aotearoa NZ have been connecting – with ‘more multiple and diverse peoples than European Settlers’ (p.31).  Shilliam retrieves

the deep relation between the descendants of Africa  and Oceania as part of the broader politics and narrative of the pan-Maori anti-colonial struggle for mana motuhake, a struggle that must involve tātou tātou– I and I. (p. 31)

To this end, the project begins with a discussion of a greeting by a Maori elder of  ‘a Black Theatre troupe called Keskidee along with a RasTafari band called Ras Messengers’ of the UK, who had arrived to ‘undertake a tour of predominantly Maori and Pasifika communities in Aotearoa NZ’ (p.1). Importantly, this greeting entailed an acknowledgement of ancestors and the meeting of ancestors (of Maori and Rastafari), not least because their peoples were coming together in the current meeting place. This greeting is connecting through deep relations and is importantly premised on a distinctively different temporality to colonial logics of ‘time and the other.’ Shilliam states that a kaumātua (elder) concluded this ceremony “with the traditional greeting of tātou tātou– ‘everyone being one people’” (p. 1). Tātou tātou – ‘everyone being one people’ expresses an understanding of Being as always in relation to the whole (oneself cannot be understood outside of relations with others) and this understanding is in turn significant for the project of restitutive justice. We will return to this.

Learning to cultivate a decolonial political project through deep relations

The Introductory chapter sets the background and frame for apprehending the deep relations and connections at the heart of this project; be it through the arts, music, religion and spiritual realms (the latter is referred to as ‘invisible intitutions’). Shilliam weaves the connections that ground relations between Maori and Rastafari through a discussion of substantive examples across space and time. The connections and struggles criss-cross while always aiming for restitutive justice and to heal colonial wounds.  For example, the Maori Land March of 1975 (of course relating to prior struggles including the Declaration of Independence in 1835) is connected to the struggles and aspirations for justice of Black South Africans which surround the proposed Springboks’ tour to Aoetoria NZ through to Maori struggles connecting with Bob Marley’s politics and music (from the inspiration of Redemption Song through to ‘get up, stand up’), as well as with political struggles for decolonisation through Black Power. The Polynesian Panthers are connected to struggles and politics of Marcus Garvey, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, for instance. Shilliam pays much attention to detail, and always present is the question of struggles for justice and dignity.  For instance, Black Power politics is discussed in relation to policies in Aotearoa NZ that were deliberately crafted to further disenfranchise Maori peoples, such as the “passing of the Maori Affairs Amendment Act of 1967 that effectively made easier the compulsory acquisition and sale of putatively ‘un-economic’ Maori land in freehold” (p. 39).  It is heartening to know of the various practical efforts of the Polynesian Panthers towards realizing restitutive justice: part of their ‘Ten-Point Programme of freedom, equality and social justice’ included

organizing prison visit programmes and sporting and debating teams for inmates, providing a halfway-house service for young men released from prison, running homework centres, offering interest-free ‘people’s loans’, legal aid, and organizing food banks that at one point catered for 600 families. (p.53)

The challenges faced as a consequence of racial segregation of Maori in Aotearoa NZ included managing high rates of urban poverty and unemployment. In addition to the Polynesian Panthers’ efforts to ensure that basic needs  (and beyond) were met of those subject to poverty, the Twelve Tribes of Aotearoa NZ (belonging to the Rastafari Faith and the ‘‘mansion’ to which Marley belonged’ (p.123) also focussed on the delivery of social services. Indeed, Shilliam notes that one of their core objectives was to ensure that

its membership can feed, clothe and shelter themselves. In this respect, the spiritual mission of the twelve tribes can be said to be underpinned by a Black Power ethos of economic self sufficiency arising out of Marcus and Amy Ashwood Garvey’s Negro Improvement association (UNIA).(p. 123)

As Shilliam notes, the Polynesian Panthers ‘from the Ponsonby area of Auckland’ were members of this house of the Twelve Tribes, in addition to other ‘politicized youth’ (124).  The extent of (economic) deprivation of racial segregation is notable in that ‘following its inauguration the unemployed composed 80 per cent of the Twelve Tribes membership’. A key objective of the Twelve Tribes was to facilitate the conditions for learning of crafts, pre-school education and trade related knowledge (p.124). All of these initiatives were aimed to facilitate living ‘the correct way’ (p. 122), and to ‘retrieve a dread love of one’s people’ (p. 122). The core principles of such relations are ‘of manaaki (care) and aroha (sympathy, love)’ (p.122).

The Black Pacific cultivates a whakapapa through a unique approach that relationally (in the idiom articulated above) brings together rich knowledge, including that drawn from some sixty interviews with amazing folk all engaged in the decolonial struggles for restitutive justice – this is itself an amazing and invaluable retrieval of ‘living knowledge traditions of colonized peoples’ (p.7). The insights retrieved through the interviews are discussed in relation to critical engagements with policy related to Maori in Aotearoa NZ (especially on Maori rights and struggles for justice) but also policies and strategies around colonial and racial governance more broadly, thus connecting a global colonial project to a global decolonial project.  Through the political project of The Black Pacific Shilliam captures the nuances and internal tensions (which are an inevitable aspect of decolonial struggles; I am reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) but it also demonstrates how these differences are negotiated and navigated, and reminds us of the significance of ‘appreciating difference without being indifferent’. Tātou tātou – by cultivating knowledge through deep relations there is real possibility of realising a decolonial project with restitutive justice at its core; it is inclusive and goes beyond the ‘colour line’. As Shilliam notes, ‘Blackness was a mode of being that Black Power activists in the USA sought to recover and sanctify in order to confront a viscerally and institutionally racist settler state’ (p.51).  What matters more is the cultivation of deep relations with all peoples — of and in — the world.

Relationality/“Deep Relations”: Significance of The Black Pacific

‘Relationality in the spiritual hinterland is governed neither by existential (colonial) ‘encounters’ between discretely and pre-defined self and other, nor by an imperial desire to destroy relations for the sake of homogeneity (genocide). What we recover is rather a relation that is seminal, i.e. already part of oneself  – tātou tātou, I and I. (p. 149)

As Shilliam notes connecting through deep relations to the ‘hinterlands of the spiritual domains’ is important because therein ‘colonial logic and lore is certainly an intrusion, although only an intrusion, and not a foundation’. It is a ‘space’ that ‘has not been colonized yet faces the colonial frontier’. As Shilliam states:

Most importantly the spiritual hinterlands provide the expanded agency to redress colonial fates in the manifest domain by providing the compass and energy store for anti-colonial self-determination (p. 20).

This decolonial sensibility shines in Rastafari faith including in Bob Marley’s powerful lyrics and politics (see esp. 109-129). Shilliam’s project, premised on an approach based on what he calls ‘deep relations’ explicitly adds an important — and socially and politically under-appreciated dimension — to what has recently being emerging as relationally oriented analysis. Through deep relations Shilliam centres the spiritual realm within which relations oriented to towards love, sympathy and empathy are enfolded. The project focuses on deep relations not only but also in relation to Rastafari and indigenous interpretations of the bible to heal colonial wounds but also to connect with the world –including and especially by going deep into the spiritual hinterland (the space through and in which anti-colonial self-determination can be cultivated).

In many ways, this resonates with other relationally oriented decolonial projects at a more general level. I am thinking here of sustained indigenous struggles to defend and live also through means of ‘deep relations’, even if not through interpretations of the bible. For instance, in the Latin American context  ‘alternative development epistemes’ articulated as ‘living better’ through the recognition of ‘mother earth’ is mediated through deep relations (spiritually mediated connections) and this ‘spiritual relating’ has now come to be recognised in constitutions such as Ecuador and Bolivia. This is by no means to suggest that these achievements (such as constitutional recognition of pacha mama, for instance) have resulted in fundamentally transforming development trajectories; nevertheless, they are concrete expressions of ‘living knowledge traditions of colonized peoples’ pushing back at the heart of the dominant project. For example, Escobar, also working from a decolonial frame and working from /towards a relational analytic, notes that in places like Colombia’s southern Pacific rainforest region, inhabited largely by Afrodescendant communities such as the community living along Yurumanguí river, relations matter deeply:

The mangrove forest is intimately known by the inhabitants who traverse with great ease the fractal estuaries it creates with the rivers and the always moving sea… The mangrove forest involves many relational entities involving what we might call minerals, mollusks, nutrients, algae, microorganisms, birds, plant, and insects — an entire assemblage of underwater, surface, and a real life…This dense network of interrelations may be called a ‘relational ontology’.  The mangrove-world, to give it a short name, is enacted minute by minute, day by day, through an infinite set of practices carried out by all kinds of beings and life forms, involving a complex organic and inorganic materiality of water, minerals, degrees of salinity, forms of energy (sun, tides, moon, relations of force), and so forth.  There is a rhizome ‘logic’ to these entanglements, a ‘logic that is impossible to follow in any simple way, and very difficult to map and measure, if at all; it reveals an altogether different way of being and becoming in territory and place. These experiences constitute relational worlds or ontologies.  To put it abstractly, a relational ontology of this sort can be defined as one in which nothing preexists the relations that constitute it. Said otherwise, things and beings are their relations, they do not exist prior to them (Escobar, 2015, p. 5).

To be sure, what Escobar identifies as ways of relating and being travels beyond this specific community (a point he makes himself); indeed this is precisely what Casas and others reveal in relation to indigenous struggles in Latin America more generally. These more progressive relations are beginning to cut at the heart of the development project driven by the colonial logics of ‘accumulation through dispossession’ and denial of being otherwise. Colonial logics of ‘accumulation through dispossession’ are being intensified through dominant institutions of development so much so that even water is now explicitly conceived as a commodity (treated as any other ‘tradeable’). The Bolivian ‘water wars’ as they came to be known since the late 1990s pivoted around the privatisation of water, which consequently meant that in urban areas (e.g. the city of Cochabamba) the price of water was out of reach of many residents while in rural areas what was previously deemed as part of the commons (e.g. common water wells) was also to be privatised and governed and managed through a commercial logic.

While all poor residents were affected by this policy, indigenous communities were particularly exposed. In El Alto, for example, indigenous families have struggled to come to terms with the fact that the sacred mountains are now being tapped for water by private water companies across their backyard; while these families are denied the right /entitlement to the most basic resources of mother earth so central to life and a life sustaining need, spiritually and materially. The struggle over water in Bolivia ends (at least formally) in favour of those resisting privatisation (although poverty and entitlement to water is still an issue for many globally): after peoples successful resistance to claim back the right to their water, the water company left Cochabamba and the ‘right to the commons’ (in rural areas) was re-established, while in El Alto the local government formally declared a state of civil disobedience enabling the local indigenous communities to reconnect to water sources to which they were denied rights. The struggles over water played a key role in bringing to power the first Indigenous President in Bolivia, Evo Morales. While the struggle was materially grounded, it was also inspired by a different sensibility; water was defended as part of the commons because it is a basic life sustaining need but also because of relations and connections to water – as a fundamental element of the flows of life.

As Shilliam writes of water, ‘it is common across African cosmologies for water sites to function as ‘aquatic temples’, residencies of ancestral deities and spiritual agencies including the famous ‘water mamma’ known also in the Caribbean’ (p.134).  Struggles against attempts to profane the most fundamental flows of life are resisted not least because of the spiritual value but also by others (non-indigenous) deprived of the basic necessities of life and the human capacity to empathise and relate to others subject to suffering.

The relational way of knowing and being – the essence of whakapapa – “provides for the ‘ultimate catalogue’ of relations between people and all other entities in the manifest and spiritual domains – flora, fauna, land, ancestors, spiritual agencies etc’ (..) All entities – tangible and intangible – are therefore related as part of creation’ (p.27).  Shilliam’s project thus intersects with – indeed deeply resonates with – the relational understanding of living and being that animates indigenous struggles in Latin America and struggles for restitutive justice in the wider world, even if articulated in similar but somewhat different idioms.  It is in this sense that the deep relations so central to Shilliam’s project travels further and connects with other struggles for restitutive justice.  This project for restitutive justice can only be furthered by developing connections – cultivating relations between/working with other knowledges – be it Ubuntu philosophy (which is relational in orientation) or other cosmological perspectives that are relational in orientation, with restitutive justice at the core. This is a pluriversal project and, to quote Dussel, is ‘necessarily transmodern, and thus also transcapitalist’ (2009, 514).

I hope that my engagement with The Black Pacific has been in the spirit of the invitation: the process is itself whakapapa. I have learnt; deep relations have always been part of my lifeworld but I am now more conscious of my/our relating. I understand a little better what exactly cultivating deep relations mean and why it is so important.

A whakapapa aimed at restitutive justice must connect to all beings subjected to colonial logics of indignity and dispossession: men, women and children of all shades. Shilliam states a ‘whakapapa of global capital starts with colonialism – a plantation on expropriated land next to a provision ground – and not in a factory next to an enclosure’ (p. 185). True.  The plantation has continued in the (post)colonial present — although not exactly in the same way as instituted as part of the early colonial and imperial project through enslavement and dispossession — and its colonial logics have recently been given an added fillip by a return with a vengeance of the ‘new landgrabs’. It has been ‘naturalised’ as part of the dominant development model. Yet, the struggles for restitutive justice continue; the government of Madasgascar was (recently) overthrown as a consequence of struggles over land and dispossession. The landless movement in Brazil persists and their struggles are animated by time travel through ‘deep relations’; their ancestors’ struggles are remembered in their struggles. The global peasant movement La Via Campesina are pushing back against colonial logics of development.

The Black Pacific discloses lifeworlds engaged in survival against the colonial logics of rule- this is a detailed exposition; to this end, it dispels the ‘fatal impact’ thesis and instead retrieves deep relations and connections based on decolonial sensibilities of love, empathy, reciprocation and sympathy. It does not suggest that decolonial struggles are easy and entail no suffering and sometimes harm (to self and others).  Importantly, Shilliam’s project is to be distinguished somewhat from the relational frames advanced in a more general sense (cf. Escobar, Casas above) because it explicitly identifies and foregrounds the ‘spiritual hinterlands’ (invisible institutions) as ‘providing the compass and energy store for anti-colonial self-determination’. This is a source of empowerment through deep relations. It teaches us about the absolute limits of colonial logics. It is a space that has the freedom to think and be otherwise; from which both the dreams and practices of better living can be cultivated. Thinking through the significance of spiritual hinterlands together with tātou tātou – ‘everyone being one people’ – (I and I) helps us to think in terms of deep relations; it would be impossible to think otherwise. It is for this reason that what Shilliam gives us is not just another project oriented towards pluriversality; it is grounded in relations of empathy, sympathy and love with restitutive justice at its core. The Black Pacific enables not just a conceptual move but discloses, indeed cultivates a decolonial political project.

I return briefly to the Introduction in which Shilliam makes reference to the 1886 map of the world published by the Graphic magazine, which was accompanied by an article on British imperialism. As Shilliam states the map depicts settlers and non–settlers

captured by the gaze of Britannica, the figure that is centrefold on the Greenwich Meridian. In this depiction the peripheral figures, especially the colonized among them, can only understand themselves in mute relation to the imperial centre. And there is certainly no possibility of the colonized relating to each other across the global spaces. (3)

Shilliam’s project is precisely on rendering how colonized peoples have continued to “cultivate knowledge ‘sideways’ so as to possibly inform a decolonial project”.

Thank you, Robbie!!!

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