Of Uncolonized, Spiritual Hinterlands

The second commentary in our forum on Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific. Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa and can be reached at this email. He would like to thank Jairus Grove, Jonathan Goldberg-Hiller and Akta Kaushal for their comments; the usual disclaimers apply.


Robbie Shilliam’s The Black Pacific: Anti-Colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections is an unusual work in many ways. Not too many, if any at all, in the field of international relations have a sentence like this one as their impetus: “Let the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the ancients protected and the infants cared for” (p. 185). Shilliam centers colonialism – the legacy of Columbus and Cook- as the event that broke the world. In a sentence of startling brevity and insight, he demolishes the self-contained history of European rise to dominance as he notes, “The whakapapa (a Maori word which can be glossed here as ‘genealogy’- SK) 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). The making of the west, of industrialization, capitalism, modernity, science and rationality, is coeval with – or more accurately, is preceded and produced by- the unmaking of the rest of the world through colonial conquest: Africa and Oceania, Natives and Negroes, Shem and Ham, Maui (a god within Hawaiian and Oceanic mythic history) and Legba (from West African Fon cosmologies).

This fractured and alienated world of ours is produced and reproduced through what Shilliam describes as a ‘colonial science’ that cuts, divides, opposes and exploits. It’s a world in which the modal being is one who runs for cover when it begins to rain without sparing a thought for others who may be getting drenched. To this epistemology of colonial science, Shilliam posits an alternative, ‘decolonial science’ that emerges from the deep solidarities that always have and continue to bind together those who were colonized, and the many victims of the rapacious drive of global capital.

Shilliam defines the purpose of his book as excavating “the deep, global infrastructure of anti-colonial connectivity” and to nourish the “spiritual, ethical, intellectual and political sensibilities required to critically support, renew and extend this infrastructure” (p. 3.) This is a task in which the academic or the scientist or the intellectual has no special position or privilege, nor do disciplinary protocols count for much. Instead, what beckons is a “plural register of argumentation spanning the social scientific, narrational, poetic, and personal” (p. 11). Shilliam is especially concerned with showing the ways in which Black legacies of resistance– both African and diasporic- to colonialism, slavery, and racism, have served as a worldwide resource for the colonized in their own efforts at self-determination, and much of the book traces this in the context of Aotearoa and Oceania.

The ultimate resource for Shilliam’s resistant and liberatory ‘decolonial science’ of deep relations comes from his idea that across colonized contexts and peoples “…there exist spiritual domains or hinterlands that were never colonized by Cook and Columbus, and therein lie the supports for a global infrastructure of anti-colonial connectivity” (p. 13). Indeed, the phrase “uncolonized, spiritual hinterlands” runs like a shining thread throughout the book and that imagined continuity constitutes the grounds of his hope for a decolonial science and a decolonized world. These spiritual hinterlands – at the edge of the colonial frontier but never colonized- “provid(e) the compass and energy store for anti-colonial self-determination” (p. 20).

In one of the very few lengthy glosses on what these uncolonized, spiritual hinterlands look like, Shilliam avers:

the key task of decolonial science (is) the repair of relations hacked by colonial practices of segregation. For this task, binding skills are required that can reach deep into the spiritual domain, all the way to its uncolonized hinterlands. Grounding seeks to discover the depth of this relation. It is contentious and comprised of many moments – comparison, identification, inhabitation and enfolding – that are not organized along sequential lines but along degrees of intensity. The moment of enfolding requires a journey into the hinterlands to be made, there to retrieve seminal relations, in our case between the children of Tane/Maui and Legba in their biblical manifestations as Shem and Ham. Relationality in the spiritual hinterlands is governed neither by existential (colonial) ‘encounters’ between discretely and pre-defined self and other, nor by an imperial desire to destroy relation for the sake of homogeneity (genocide). What we recover is rather a relation that is seminal, i.e. already a part of oneself – tatou tatou – I and I. This has been the latent relation present in all the groundings we have witnessed, but it is now manifest”. (p. 166: emphasis mine)

While registering a profound sympathy for the politics of Shilliam’s scholarship, and allying with him in his desire to (re)discover this grounded relationship of “we-ness” that informs colonial spaces, I cannot help but observe that there is in this and other glosses of the “uncolonized, spiritual hinterland” a whiff of a prelapsarian (as in pre-Columbus and pre-Cook) unity or common spiritual substrate that discomfits me. This “we-ness” seems to be a universalist ontology to Shilliam, one that goes back at least far as biblical times, if not farther. Presented thus, it has a metaphysical or transcendent character imputed to it that gives me pause. Let me substantiate my reservation with this idea of a transcendent common ground uniting uncolonized, spiritual hinterlands that could serve as the anchor for a decolonial science through two arguments – one empirical-historical and the other, more theoretical-political.

In a variety of formally ex-colonial spaces, the common experience of brutal colonialism has not produced any sense of conjoined or shared history of pain but has worked to actively differentiate and hierarchize ethnic fragments along a register of claimed authenticities. (This is, of course, known to Shilliam and he attributes it to both colonial science and the machinations of colonial rule itself). Thus, in contemporary Guyana, the Afro-Guyanese and the Guyanese (South Asian) Indian are frequently political adversaries with each professing a greater claim to the nation on grounds of a higher degree of sacrifice during the colonial era. These two arrivant (in the sense that Jodi Byrd uses the term in her The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, Minnesota, 2011) populations often view each other through the eyes of the erstwhile colonizer rather than as empathetic co-victims.

It’s not always easy to discern what might be a prelapsarian or seminal sense of “we”-ness that predates that encounter for the arrivants, nor does it seem politically feasible to construct one through an appeal to such an ontology. Indeed, claims about precisely such prelapsarian innocence from precolonial times often create even greater fractures in contemporary Guyana as the Indian arrivants drop anchor in a timelessly Hindu past and contrast their own putatively rich and gloried history with the ephemerality of the Afro-Guyanese whose claims to such pasts are rendered tenuous by the sheer violence of the middle passage and the brutality of slavery in the early centuries in the new world. In other words, what often emerges is not a “we-ness” from the colonial experience but a construction of a precolonial self that fractures any sense of commonality.

In Fiji and in Hawai`i, the marginal and hyper-exploited agrarian populations from the poorest regions and classes of India, Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines who came to work as plantation laborers in the late 19th century are now sometimes rendered in charged political rhetoric as highly prescient settler-colonizers who (in the case of the Japanese in Hawai`i and to a lesser extent the Indians in Fiji) may have even been intended as a bridgehead for longer term imperial designs by their home countries. In Hawai`i, the mythology of the United States as a society of immigrants has been used to disenfranchise the native Hawaiian and further dispossess her of land, while enticing each new incoming ethnic fragment into the American dream. Indigene and Settler are poised on opposed trajectories and the latter’s material interests in achieving the American dream become squarely opposed to decolonization or the recovery of Hawaiian sovereignty. In Fiji, as far as the indigenous population is concerned, the fact that the Indians may have come there as impoverished laborers long ago is an historical irrelevance given that they have now established quite a grasp on the economic, political and educational levers in postcolonial times.

In the face of such fractures produced by colonial-capitalist societies (and let’s face it, as Shilliam himself shows, there is no other kind), both the neoliberal present and the plantation past seem inhospitable to the recovery of uncontaminated and uncolonized spiritual hinterlands that Shilliam posits. Indeed, all too often claims regarding such spiritual and uncolonized hinterlands by different groups are themselves encased in discourses of national or civilizational or cultural uniqueness and exceptionalism, rather than the solidarity of the oppressed or exploited, or a primordial “we-ness” that Shilliam valorizes.

At a political-theoretical level, I would like to counterpoise to Shilliam’s a recent work that shares a lot with his but also departs from it in interesting and potentially fruitful ways. I am referring to Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minnesota, 2014) set in the context of contemporary Canada. Shilliam himself, in fact, offers the perfect overture to discussing Coulthard when he notes without further elaboration that “I do believe that what Maori should demand from Pakeha systems is not cultural ‘recognition’ but strictly legal restitution” (p. 184).

Coulthard, like Shilliam here, attacks precisely this obsession with ‘recognition’ from the allegedly multicultural (but in reality settler-colonial) Canadian state that has animated all too much of indigenous politics in his country. Coulthard points out that any politics that engages in claims for ‘recognition’ of indigenous identity by a settler-colonial regime can only be: (a) a reinforcement of the fact and permanence of settler-colonialism, (b) a giving up on the recovery of native self-determination and ownership of their land, and (c) a disavowal of the idea that native or indigenous identity, consciousness, indeed their ontology, is inseparable from ownership and material interactions with the land.

Most importantly, Coulthard argues, a politics of seeking recognition suggests that the theft of indigenous land was something that happened in the past, a historical ‘fact’ that is irrevocable. Coulthard argues that land theft should be seen as ongoing, contested, contemporary, alive, and still very much an open matter subject to reversal. His work is a critical engagement with both Marx and Fanon. He commends Marx for recognizing that the ‘primitive accumulation’ that triggered the rise of capitalism was a process inextricable from colonial theft of indigenous lands – but criticizes him for suggesting primitive accumulation was a historical stage that ended with the coming of full-blown capitalism. Rather, Coulthard argues, primitive accumulation in the sense of the theft of indigenous lands never ends, it never stopped. Full-blown capitalism never emerges – it’s always in media res, a chimera to redeem the continued theft and expropriation of indigenous lands.

For Coulthard then, indigenous politics is all about recovery, reparations, restitution and refusal to accept the legitimacy of the settler-colonial state’s expropriation of indigenous lands. Because land for the indigenous community is not property or something that can be owned and alienated, for Coulthard it is what Shilliam calls the very groundation of indigenous identity or ontology.

In similar vein, Coulthard learns much from Fanon but departs from him where he is not adequately sensitive to the fact that one cannot and should not transcend the pitfalls of nationalist consciousness and move to a larger and supranationalist consciousness until the originary and ongoing violence and theft of one’s land has been redressed. In other words, colonialism will not have ended until lands are recovered- and any critique of indigenous nationalisms for their lack of cosmopolitanism or universalism, or even their bitter and provincial resentments, as Fanon sometimes argues, is premature and unwarranted. The native’s anger and refusal of an easy cosmopolitanism is an index of his continued expropriation, not of his lack of worldliness.

To sum it up, Coulthard’s empathetic critique of both Marx and Fanon center on their lack of recognition regarding the contemporaneity and the unceasing character of settler-colonial violence and expropriation of the indigenous. His politics therefore centers squarely on a project of reversal, rejection, reparation and restitution. And it is drawn from and within the ongoing materiality of dispossession. While there are many affinities with Shilliam, Coulthard’s staying within the contemporary materiality of dispossession and articulating a politics of unceasing resistance to it seems to me to offer a necessary complement – if not alternative – to Shilliam’s groundation in a spiritual hinterland that is prelapsarian in having never been colonized. I like the appeal to an innate non-colonized spirituality that is common to all humankind as invoked by Shilliam, and find his own tapping into that through music, poetry, and the relational encounters that uncannily echo the past and anticipate the future compelling to say the least. Yet, Coulthard’s resolute privileging of the contemporaneity of indigenous dispossession seems to me to be politically a better wager than Shilliam’s invoking of a prelapsarian groundation.

I do not wish to overdraw the contrast or the difference between Shilliam and Coulthard, and it’s easy to see how they can work in complementarity. Yet, the unreconstituted historical materialist in me is wary of the move towards a seminal “we-ness” that inform the consciousness of colonized peoples everywhere (and even predates colonialism itself.) Tempting as they are, such claims have all-too often also been vehicles for forms of nativism, essentialism and mysticism (or for that matter universalisms that claim to speak for all through the experience of the few) that divide and fracture us, besides sometimes launching us on utopic politics. Coulthard’s refusal to accept the past-ness of the past and his anchoring of his politics on the recovery of indigenous lands and sovereignty in the here and the now is a bracing counterpoint to Shilliam. There is much there worth thinking with and thinking through.

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