Robbie Shilliam on Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern

logo95x95Article written in relation to The Black Pacific by the book’s author, Robbie Shilliam, Queen Mary University of London


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Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern

May 1979. A Black theatre troupe from London called Keskidee, along with a RasTafari band called Ras Messengers, land at Auckland airport, Aotearoa New Zealand. They have been invited by activists to undertake a consciousness-raising arts tour of predominantly Māori and Pasifika communities. They are driven almost immediately to the very tip of the North Island. There, at a small hamlet called Te Hāpua, Keskidee and Ras Messengers are greeted by Ngati Kuri, the local people of the land. An elder introduces his guests to the significance of the place where they now stand. Cape Reinga is nearby, where departing souls leap into the waters to find their way back to Hawaiki, the sublime homeland. The elder wants to explain to the visitors that, although they hold an auspicious provenance – the Queen of England lives amongst them in London – Ngāti Kuri live at ‘the spiritual departure place throughout the world’. The elder concludes with the traditional greeting of tātou tātou – ‘everyone being one people’. Rufus Collins, director of Keskidee, then responds on behalf of the visitors:

You talked of your ancestors, how they had taken part in our meeting, and I do agree with you because if it was not for them you would not be here. You talked of our ancestors, taking part and making a meeting some place and somewhere; the ancestors are meeting because we have met. I do agree with you.

But Collins also recalls the association made between the visitors and English royalty, and there he begs to differ: ‘we are here despite the Queen’. Then the Ras Messengers begin the chant that reroutes their provenance from the halls of Buckingham Palace to the highlands of Ethiopia: “Rastafari come from Mount Zion.”

This meeting is emblematic of the story that I tell of The Black Pacific wherein Maori and Pasifika struggles against land dispossession, settler colonialism and racism connect with the struggles of African peoples against slavery, (settler) colonialism and racism. Sociologically, historically and geographically speaking, these connections between colonized and postcolonized peoples appear to be extremely thin, almost ephemeral. But those who critically cultivate these connections know otherwise. How do they know?

 The issue of colonized and postcolonial peoples knowing other-wise has recently garnered attention (again) with the impact of the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality project (see for example Mignolo and Escobar 2009; Mignolo and Vazquez 2013; Quijano 2000; Grosfoguel 2010; Lugones 2010; Dussel 2008). Emanating principally from scholars in/from Latin America, the project’s conceptual architecture is becoming increasingly engaged with across disciplines and geographies (for example Bhambra 2014; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2012). There are a number of concerns that the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality project engages with, which include the after-lives of colonialism, the resituating of modernity in time and space (to the European conquest of the Americas), and, despite colonisation, the continued existence of modes of being and thinking that are other-wise to the pretensions of modernity. What I believe is also provoked by this project at this point in time, at least with specific regards to academia, is the need for critical theory to account in good faith for its reproduction of colonial knowledge structures.

Key, in this regard, is the pursuit of epistemic justice, a concern that is not peculiar to the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality project but which is nonetheless significantly bolstered by its aims and purposes. Epistemic justice calls for a reckoning with the racialized inequalities of knowledge production that have historically accompanied the European colonial project (see for example de Sousa Santos 2014; Icaza and Vázquez 2013; Restrepo 2014; Gordon 2007). Complicit in this form of injustice is the cognitive framework of modernity itself which categorically segregates humanity into different meta-groups: the moderns, who deem themselves competent to rule over self and others, and the sub-moderns – or traditionals – whom moderns deem incompetent to rule themselves. Epistemologically, this segregation creates the knowers and the known, that is, those groups who are racialized as competent to produce adequate and generalisable knowledge of the contemporary world and those who are racialized as incompetent to do so.

This segregation gives rise to quotidian representations of colonized communities and/or their postcolonial descendants as collective entities whose cultures variously lack epistemic authority in contrast to the norms and procedures of the civilized colonizers and their descendent societies. Alternatively, the pursuit of epistemic justice affirms that the living knowledge traditions of (post)colonized communities are resources that, in principle, hold epistemic authority when it comes to identifying what counts as a problem, what constitutes the problem and what are the means of redress. Epistemic justice is therefore a crucial dimension of the wider struggle for reparation of colonial injustice, and it is a concern that my work has increasingly turned to.

In this respect, I find myself working besides and not through or against the “subaltern”. Here I am talking specifically of the way in which this figure has become a vernacular of postcolonial studies. It is important to remember that members of the Subaltern Studies collective were fundamentally concerned with the epistemic dimension of the colonial struggles in and over India. With regards to the nature of its postcolonial democracy, Ranajit Gupta (1996), for example, asked whether it was now possible to narrate the Indian past through the “small voices” of, for example, the peasantry rather than through the dominant conceptual frameworks of colonial or native elites (see also Ludden 2002). However, the figure of the Indian subaltern was progressively translated into a more abstract category such that, as Gayatri Spivak (1985, 340) once reflected, it could be conceived as “an allegory of the predicament of all thought, all deliberative consciousness”. The abstraction of the subaltern in some ways marks the arrival of postcolonial studies (see in general Prakash 1994). But in this movement the subaltern has become a category that marks primarily the limits of knowing under modernity. Hence the intimate relationship which is nowadays shared between poststructural and postcolonial thought.

Perhaps what has been lost in this movement, then, is the consideration of epistemic justice as a first-order problem of intellectual inquiry into the (post)colonial world. I would even suggest that the subaltern has become part of an academic disposition – postcolonial studies, broadly conceived – that shares much with the narcissistic “gaze” of the imperial world map, famously illustrated by John Charles Ready Colomb in 1886.


The map features an array of peripheral others – subalterns – looking only towards Britannica, the masterful self who occupies the centre. Universal knowledge is dispensed at the point of Britannica’s centred perspective, and from there all are named and defined. Upon closer inspection, none of the peripheral figures (not even white settlers) are making sideways glances; all roads lead to Rome: crop, mineral, goods, bodies, value, narrative, concept, Jesus. Hawaiki and Ethiopia-Zion could never connect. This disposition of “critical thought” that I am describing situates the Western self as the only entity that is critically knowable. The peripheral others, even if considered morally worthy, nevertheless serve only to reflect and refine the Western self.

But if the subaltern has become a philosophical category of limitation it cannot be, at the same time, a lived experience. For when a lived experience is auto-ethnographically named as subaltern (“I am a subaltern”) it does not complete the philosophical category of the same name (“the subaltern marks the limit of modern knowledge”); it runs beside that category instead, on a distinctly different track. Concerned with epistemic justice rather than a modernist – and I would argue narcissistic – philosophy of limits, my book travels these tracks besides the subaltern. The book’s arguments dwell in living knowledge traditions that address global injustices in ways other-wise to the colonial science of the gaze, living knowledge traditions that make the task of relating seminal to their cosmologies. Philosophies of limit defer the moment of relating. My book works with deep relation in the pursuit of epistemic justice.

Relation – from the Latin, meaning, to bind back. The depth of relation that I am retrieving exists underneath the wounds of coloniality: coloniality being the cutting logic that tries its best to segregate peoples from their lands, their pasts, their ancestors, spirits and agencies. Deep relation is a decolonizing ethos of repair: repairing wounds, binding back peoples, lands, pasts, ancestors, spirits, agencies. The depth or relating is marked primarily by the challenge of binding back the manifest and spiritual domains. For there, in the spiritual domain, there exist hinterlands that were never colonized by Cook and Columbus. Therein lie the supports of a global infrastructure of anti-colonial connectivity. Deep relation confirms Rufus Collins’ reply to the elder at Te Hāpua that ‘the ancestors are meeting because we have met’.

All intellectual dispositions have premises. Deep relation grants, in principle, epistemic authority to ways of knowing that do not respect the colonial-modern division between profane analysis|critical acuity (i.e. a modern sensibility), and sublime dogma|blind belief (the supposed “traditional”). This division forms the foundational premise of social-scientific thought and thereby grants epistemic supremacy to sociological analysis, modern historiography and other such profane pursuits (see Nandy 1983, 80; Seth 2013). I am committed to working with and through the living knowledge traditions that are not premised upon such colonial-modern divisions. We know: just as complexly, critically, multi-vocally, and fractiously as those whose tradition is, in fact, modernity. Indeed, because we do not start with the premise of colonial-modern division we do not outlaw profane analysis at all; we simply do not grant it providential status, that is, we do not consider profanity to be the telos of human understanding. Hence our knowledge cultivation – how we know – works besides the dispositives of self/other, master/slave, manculture/spiritnature that define the epistemic limits of modern thought in social science.

The provocations I have made here are principally directed towards the academic community. And I make them considering the audience of this fora. My book, however, while not antithetical at all to such conversations, is not written principally to, for or about academics, but with the peoples who, in various ways, are all-at-once protagonists, theorists and guardians of the Black Pacific, past and present. In other words, I hope that my book widens the sites of intellectual work across the divide of academic/”lay” knowledge. This, I would argue, is a crucial task for those who wish to pursue epistemic justice. Indeed, much of the research for this book was cultivated through collaborative projects that sought to retrieve and rethink the presence of Africa in Oceania: not simply for antiquarian purposes, but for what decolonizing possibilities this presence might open up for a still-colonial present.

And so the key purpose of my book is to retrieve the relationship between African and Māori anti-colonial struggles signalled by the meeting at Te Hāpua between Keskidee, Ras Messengers and Ngati Kuri. In doing so I want to argue that spiritual, intellectual and political commitments to mana motuhake (a Māori term that can be glossed as ‘self-determination’)[1] are not solely cultivated by the native/settler relationship. In fact, such commitments are also – and might be more insightfully – cultivated between the “wretched of the earth”. Such a provocation is especially important for a settler-colony – Aotearoa New Zealand – which currently professes its cosmopolitanism on the world stage while its neoliberal governance structures desecrate the spirit of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty signed in 1840 between many rangatira (chiefs) and Queen Victoria) and whitewash New Zealand’s imperial legacies in Oceania. Not all roads lead back to Rome. The exorcism of contemporary global racial inequality requires criss-crossing paths to be retrieved and repaired.



Robbie Shilliam is Reader in International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. His book The Black Pacific was published in 2015 by Bloosmbury. He is co-editor of the book series, Kilombo: International Relations and the Colonial Question (Rowman & Littlefield International) and co-convener of the British International Studies Association’s Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial working group.




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[1] On the histories of self-determination see variously Patete 2007, Henare 2003, Bargh 2007, and Durie 1998.