Recently The Disorder of Things ran a forum on my book, The Black Pacific. After an initial post by myself, Heloise Weber (University of Queensland), Sankaran Krishna (University of Hawai’i), Ajay Parasram (Carleton University), and Olivia Rutazibwa (University of Portsmouth) provided commentary and critique, and then I finished the forum with my response.
Since then, I’ve been very fortunate to receive an extremely valuable critique from Ponipate Rokolekutu (University of Hawai’i). Below is Ponipate’s critique, followed by my response.
Heterogeneity, Race and Genealogical Connection of Spiritual Hinterlands
My issue with Shilliam’s book is first, the disingenuous nature of the book title: The Black Pacific – which not only erases the issue of race and its dynamics in Oceania, but ignores the heterogeneous nature of the region. And second, Shilliam predicates his theory – “anti-colonial science with deep relation” – on an encounter between two colonized groups (the Māori and Africa as represented by Keskidee and Ras Messenger) with questionable authentic genealogical connection, or genealogical links between their respective “uncolonized spiritual hinterlands” (p31).
Let me elaborate.
Polynesians, in Oceanian epistemologies, are considered brown or red. Such categorization articulates superiority over other Pacific Islanders, namely the Melanesians and Micronesians who do not exhibit the physical built and skin color that those in Polynesia display. Polynesians include, but are not limited to, the Māori of Aotearoa, the Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii, the Maohi of Tahiti, Tongans, Samoans, and Pacific Islanders who are articulated under the Freely Associated States of New Zealand, which includes the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. As such, the title of the book The Black Pacific is misleading simply because the Māori who are the focus of attention in the book (and of course Africa) are considered either brown or red but certainly not black.
Aotearoa, as a site of Shilliam’s intellectual engagement, is a brown or red space. Despite experiences of dispossession and marginalization the Māori are still held in high regard purely on the basis of their skin color and socio-political organization, as opposed to Black skinned people-inhabiting egalitarian structures that are “represented” as socio-politically deformed, and hence inferior. While Shilliam acknowledges the mapping of the Pacific Islands as a racialized project, he overlooks, or perhaps underestimates, the ways in which such a racist project shapes the epistemologies and race dynamics in Oceania. A such, to represent the Māori as Black is to be oblivious to the colonially constructed superiority of Māori as Polynesian, while at the same time ignoring Melanesians as the black people of the Pacific.
The Māori, undoubtedly, exploit the opportunity to use the ideology of “Blackness” as a political tool and a forum to articulate resistance against colonial dispossession and institutional racism, in view of the fact that race, in the global institutional context, is defined as black or white. One needs to demarcate the line between “identifying with Blackness” as a political forum; and “inhabiting Blackness” as a state of being (p107). There is a significant difference between notions of Blackness in the context of Africans/African Americans/British Americans and Melanesians on the one hand, and brown skinned Polynesians on the other. The former were characterized by Dumont d’Urville in his paper On the Islands of Great Ocean (1832) as the black people of Africa, and in the case of Melanesia – the Oceanic negroes. As black-skinned people they were categorized at the lowest in the racial hierarchy and the most primitive people of the human race.
The Polynesians on the other hand, were constructed as pale olive-yellow complexion that “displays almost as much variety as the white race of Europe”. Given the institutionalization, or the colonial construct of race, I am unsure if Māori or Polynesians for that matter would prefer to inhabit blackness. Polynesians have undoubtedly internalized the racial and colonial construction of their superiority. Therefore, and to assume that Māori embraces beyond its political utility, is questionable.
Further, the title conjures notions of homogeneity or uniformity. There is a fundamental obliviousness, and perhaps, the absence of reverence particularly by Western academia with regard to the complexities of the region. Oceania (excluding white colonial settlers and non- Pacific Islanders in Australia, New Zealand and French settler colonies in the Pacific) encompasses a population of approximately 12 million people that are culturally, linguistically, epistemologically, cosmologically and physically heterogeneous. Melanesian countries, for instance, feature more than one thousand languages. There are 700 different languages that are spoken in Papua New Guinea, 112 in Vanuatu and 87 in the Solomon Islands. Linguistic diversity is also reflected in Micronesia. Oceania is also characterized with socio-political fragmentations. Melanesia for instance, is featured with egalitarian structure, while Polynesia exhibits social stratification with centralized authorities.
Shilliam’s obliviousness of the complexity of Oceania is illustrated for instance, by his claim of Maui’s familiarity in the region – “Maui is well known throughout Oceania, although he is always integrated in particular ways into particular cultural constellations” (16). Maui is a Polynesian god who is unknown to millions of Melanesians in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, West Papua, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji, let alone in the scattered islands of Micronesia. In fact, I only learnt of Maui during my undergraduate years in college. Melanesia and Micronesia also have their own spiritual deities which ranges from seven headed snakes, to sharks, to eels, and to some of the most exotic birds in the world, of which little is known to Polynesians.
In addition, to envision the Polynesian Panthers as a broader forum that will include Micronesians and Melanesians or “indigenous peoples generally considered not to be Polynesians” is to assume that the people of Oceania share similar colonial experiences of dispossession and institutional racism. While land dispossession and institutional racism are featured in settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia for that matter, they are not necessarily reflected in other parts of Oceania. In Fiji for instance, the British colonial government created policies that “protected” indigenous rights to land and the preservation of their culture. It was the indentured Indian workers and Fijian of Indian ancestries, and not iTaukeis that experienced institutional racism. In fact, an overwhelming majority of ordinary iTaukei still romanticize the ‘benevolence’ of British colonial rule. In many villages today, portraits of British monarchs still adorn the living rooms of iTaukei homes. While I take issues with such assumptions, the fact is – iTaukei appear to have experienced colonialism differently from the Māori of Aotearoa, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Kanaks of New Caledonia. Despite colonization iTaukeis maintain customary rights of access to their native land in the post-colonial, and so is the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) and Papua New Guinea. The people of Tonga pride themselves in the fact they were not colonized, in ways that other Pacific Islands were dominated – in terms of the imposition of a colonial state or direct foreign domination. As such, it is important that the establishment of anti-colonial forums such as the Polynesian Panther be sensitive to the vast diversity of the Oceania region.
Further, The Black Pacific pays inadequate attention to the issue of race and its dynamic amongst the people of Oceania with particular reference to Melanesia and Polynesia. While Shilliam acknowledges the race factor as instrumental in the “super-exploitation of labor and super of dispossession of land” he ignores the ways in which race shapes and perpetuates the racialized epistemologies and race dynamics in Oceania. Oceanian epistemologies are deeply racialized.
Race in Oceania and elsewhere is a European construction. In Oceania it had its origin in the European mapping and naming of Oceania as Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. The French botanist and explorer Dumont d’ Urville calls it the tripartite division in his 1832 paper, Sur le iles du Grand Ocean (On the Islands of the Great Ocean). D’Urville’s tripartite division was both a geographical mapping, and a racialized division as well. While Polynesia and Micronesia were named on the basis of its geographical configuration, Melanesia on the other hand, was named on the basis its skin color.
Melanesia means black-skinned people that according to D’ Urville exhibits very dark, often sooty skins with curly and fuzzy hair. The Polynesians on the other hand are seen as having brown complexion and proportionally built. In his paper Climate to Crania: Science and the Racialization of Human Difference (2008) Bronwen Douglas argues that the term Melanesia reflected the discourse on race which existed in Europe – where human beings were categorized in a racial hierarchy, with white or Caucasian at the top, and black people at the bottom. These ideas about skin color dates back to the 16th century.
Tcherkezoff in his paper a Long and Unfortunate Voyage towards the “Invention” of the Melanesia/ Polynesia Distinction 1595 -1832 (2003) asserts that the invention of the tripartite division of Oceania:
…..was not a simple matter of geography and map making, but of race…..long before Dumont d’ Urville ‘s invention, the black races were already labelled in the most disparaging terms…..The history of contrast between Polynesia and Melanesia is not the story of the 19th– century French navigator, but the history of European ideas about “skin colors” between the 16th and the 19th centuries”.
The European discourse on race has subsequently informed racialized epistemologies and racial categorization in Oceania. Melanesia are represented as inferior while a degree of deference is accorded to Polynesians. Both Melanesians and Polynesians have internalized such perceptions which subsequently dictates race dynamics in Oceania.
In Tonga for instance black is “uliuli” and is associated with dirt, darkness and paganism such as witchcraft. Hence, Tongans view Melanesia, the black people of Oceania as dirty and undesirable. Interestingly despite the close association with Fiji and Tonga which dated back in the pre-colonial days, Tongans have stereotyped notions of iTaukei or indigenous Fijians. Virtually everything that is derogatory such as, thieving, fornication, adultery, etc. is considered “fakafisi” or Fijian way. Such view is articulated under the notion of “uliuli” that enunciates the derogatory nature and undesirability of Black in Tongan epistemology. In fact, to stay in an adulterous relationship is called “fakasuva”. Suva is the capital of Fiji. One can argue, that in this sense, Suva epitomizes a space and place of human depravity and not Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.
The other sticky issue that I find about Shilliam’s book, is that the author takes an ordinary encounter between two disenfranchised or colonized groups to develop a theory that is intended to “retrieve the relationship between Africa and Māori anti-colonial struggles as a space that supports spiritual, intellectual, and political commitments to mana motuhake” or self- determination” (p11).
The first problematic aspect of this encounter is that the author did not name the kaumātua that welcomed them, neither did he quote what he said.
What he quoted was Rufus Collins response to the welcome:
“……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”.
I view the above response with suspicion simply because one cannot ascertain Collins’ claim with regard to what the kāumatua actually said. The fact that Shilliam did not name the kāumatua is quite offensive, because it gives a sense of disregard, or rendering him as unimportant and invisible in this encounter. This, in my view, compromises the author’s attempt to establish deep relations between the Māori and Africans.
The second sticky issue about this encounter is Shilliam’s claim of a connection in the realm of the spiritual hinterlands. The Māori and Africans undoubtedly share similar colonial experiences of dispossession, marginalization and shared histories of institutional racism. However, the claim of genealogical connection in the realm of the spiritual space, or in the context of their respective spiritual hinterlands is questionable. What Shilliam seems to overlook is that, the concept of tātou tātou is articulated under the language of relationships that entails metaphorical expressions. Shilliam unfortunately takes the notion of tātou tātou “everyone being one people” – literally to articulate colonial, genealogical and spiritual connection between Māori and Africans. Simply put, the author took a metaphorical expression and interpreted it literally.
This piece is not intended to discredit Shilliam’s work- far from it – but instead, to create conversation about Oceania – its complexities, its disconnection, its racial categorization and metaphorical element that is embedded in indigenous cultures of Oceania.
Response by Robbie Shilliam
What is especially important about your critique, Ponipate, is that, unlike my other interlocutors, yours is situated in Oceania. You claim that my book “not only erases the issue of race and its dynamics in Oceania, but ignores the heterogeneous nature of the region”.
I wish to say, unequivocally: you are entirely right and entirely wrong.
In addressing this seemingly contradictory assertion, I hope to be able to excavate from the book some crucial elements to do with race and resistance, and so I want to thank you deeply for providing a crucial and fundamental critique that impells the development of a conversation aroud these issues.
But first, I want to clear the way in terms of some of your misapprehensions with regards to the meeting at Te Hāpua, from which I present the trope: “the ancestors are meeting because we have met”.
The meeting at Te Hāpua is recorded in a documentary called Keskidee Aroha. The final cut of the documentary does not relay the entire welcome of the Ngāti Kuri elder, only parts. I presume that the selection of Rufus Collin’s rehearsal of the “ancestors are meeting because we have met” rather than the actual utterance of the elder is an editorial decision: both parties are given voice, while there is no repetition for the viewer.
I want to explain to you that the documentary was co-directed by award-winning indigenous documentary film maker Merata Mita. Having conversed with Merata about Keskidee, and knowing (as many do better than I) her clear principles on the representation of indigenous peoples, I am confident that Merata would not have undertaken that edit and cut if she was not happy that Collins represented in good faith and adequate fidelity what the elder had said – in Te Reo, first, and then translated by his whanaunga (family member) into English for the visitors.
The name of the elder is not given in the documentary and I was not told it. But Ponipate, you are right to ask of his name, and I have made further inquiries.
In the forum on my book at DisorderofThings I have explained in some detail (as I do in the book) the cosmological, philosophical and ethical architecture that frames the concept tātou tātou and so will not repeat this here, except to say that my usage is far from a naïve “literal” as opposed to “metaphorical” interpretation.
Now, onto – what is for me – the cutting edge of your critique: race and Oceania.
Despite your focus on heterogeneity, I think that you conflate the colonially induced and policed racial formation of Oceania (expressed by d’Urville) with the diverse lived experiences of race held by peoples of the region. Both are real, but they are not necessarily homologous. Or at least, when it comes to Māori, you seem to balk at the possibility that they might have experienced their colonial oppression as Black, because the regional colonial racial formation of Oceania delineates them as red/brown/olive etc. In this sense, I feel that you treat Māori almost like “privileged subalterns”; relatively privileged, but unable to speak for themselves about what this privilege might mean, or the degree to which it is actually felt at all.
I’m going to come back to this. But first I want to dwell on that regional racial formation you so powerfully focus upon in order to also suggest that its lines of delineation, although real enough, are not as sharp as you state.
I feel it important to point out that travellers, scientists, artists, anthropologists and soldiers do not always stay true to the classic and stark racial divisions articulated most famously by d’Urville. This racial division speaks to the adjudication of savagery or civility and thereby legitimises extra-ordinary violence upon those categorised as black (who d’Urville associates with Kaffirs, an Arabic term that colonial sojourners pick up, which denotes unbeliever, but especially African unbelievers). In truth, though, all peoples of Oceania are treated with suspicion of being savage – or of lapsing back into savagery – and thus all are in danger of being blackened. This even includes so-called “Polynesians”.
For example, the colonial sensibility that you report of Polynesian’s being of “brown complexion” and “proportionally built” is not always evident in European travelogues. Charles Darwin, for instance, differentiates within “Polynesians” such that some start to take on characteristics supposedly reserved for “Melanesians”:
Looking at the New Zealander, one naturally compares him with the Tahitian; both belonging to the same family of mankind. The comparison, however, tells heavily against the New Zealander. He may, perhaps be superior in energy, but in every other respect his character is of a much lower order. One glance at their respective expressions, brings conviction to the mind that one is a savage, the other a civilized man .. Their [Māori] figures are tall and bulky; but not comparable in elegance with those of the working- classes in Tahiti.
Such a distinction is also gestured to by d’Urville (Darwin’s contemporary) albeit not as strongly. In any case, the basis of Darwin’s ruthless comparison is simple: in his estimation, Tahitians have become the faithful tutees of Christian missionaries whereas Māori have not. It is difficult to find in Darwin’s observations a “degree of deference” as you put it Ponipate, accorded to Polynesians per se.
What about colour? As part of the last chapter of my book I reach into the colonial archive of travelogues and directly engage with the Melanesian/Polynesian colonial distinction. And one thing I want to say forcefully is that in the 19th century the attribution of relative lightness to Polynesians does not necessarily detach them from their Melanesian kin in the eyes of European sojourners.
For instance, many European commentators argue that Māori are borne historically from a mix – to use a race science term – of Negro, Malay and other bloodlines. Māori are not “pure” brown. They are under suspicion: while “Asiatic”, they “nonetheless betray evident marks of a Negro extraction” as Tyrone Power put it in 1849. Some European commentators explicitly surmise that the Māori “race” are genealogically composed of a Melanesian and Polynesian mix. (d’Urville also suggests such “interbreeding” in general).
In short, brown blood is also contaminated with blackness.
Therefore the colonial gift of lightness, that is, the gift of superiority accorded to lighter colour, although clearly promised, is nonetheless a provisional one, and is easily and often taken away by Europeans. All are under suspicion. No discussion is required; no court needs to be convened.
Just one example from my book will hint at this complex phenomenon and is provided by William Swainson, a mid-19th century adventurer. Swainson considers that Māori have “nothing of the gentle, loving nature, the affectionate disposition, and the child-like docility of the negro race”. Swainson differentiates Māori from Negros– at least, docile Negro “slaves”. But the savage temperament that he attributes to Māori in making this distinction is, in the d’Urville schema, associated stringently with Melanesians which, in turn, is intimately associated with African traits. (The chiefs of Melanesia, for d’Urville, apparently exercise authority “just as tyrannically as any African despot”). Despite not being categorised distinctly as “Negroid”, Māori are nonetheless blackened by Swainson.
But there is something else that happens in the 19th century. It forms a central point of investigation for my book. And it is all about the lived experience of Māori under colonial rule and how, regardless of and in opposition to colonial race schemas, some of them know themselves to be Black.
By mid-century Māori are increasingly taking on the missionaries’ religion. Nonetheless, many have acculturated this religion to their own cosmologies. Missionary Christianity damns Ham – the Black – and raises Japheth – the white – to be God’s emissary. At this juncture, Māori have the opportunity to identify with Shem (the “brown”), in whose tents an “enlarged” Japheth shall dwell (Gen 9:27): a cosy colonial relationship. Some Māori accept this gift of association.
But some Māori do not wish to associate.
And they make common cause with Ham – the damned – not Japheth. They argue that their redemption, as Shem, is dependent upon the redemption of Ham. One of – if not the most – influential Māori prophets of the 19th century, Te Ua, testifies to this solidarity, as does the chant of those who fight under his banner: “Shem, Ham, Father Glory, verily, Hau.” Hau can be glossed as “breath”, Hauora is the spiritual agent of reciprocity. Divine restitution for the crimes of European colonialism requires Ham and Shem to walk together.
Some of those who at this time resist settler encroachment with force of arms proclaim their Blackness in no uncertain terms: “my skin is black skin, my canoe is a Māori canoe”. At the height of the wars over land, one Māori newspaper even looks to the Haitian Revolution for positive instruction, hoping that “God will protect his black skinned children who are living in Aotearoa”.
Forward to post-war 20th century. Urban migrations from rural lands and islands. Now Māori are the “niggers”, as are Pasifika peoples albeit in slightly different ways. I mean this in terms of the place that Māori and Pasifika urban youth are made to occupy in racialized structures of exclusion, discrimination and oppression. I am not being flippant. One of the gangs out of which emerge the Polynesian Panthers is called “The Nigs”. Who did they learn that term from?! Who called them that?!
And what is one of the (very contested) responses by young Māori and Pasifika to the racism they have experienced as mainly urban youth in the 1970s?: to do what their ancestors have done and reclaim their Blackness. Only “the blanket of black skin” can act as “a whāriki – a cloak of dignity”. It is the women who reclaim Blackness the most. They categorically refuse to know themselves as a comfortable “brown”.
This is more than strategic identification. Although at times, it is this too. It is, as I develop in the book, an inhabitation – even enfolding – of Blackness borne of, firstly, being blackened, (despite being categorized as “Polynesian”), and secondly, finding redemption and liberation in and through Blackness.
As you note, Ponipate, in the 1970s the Polynesian Panthers, as I report it, hope for an Australasia–Pacific common front, a Black Power collectivity that also includes indigenous peoples generally considered not to be Polynesian (i.e. the peoples of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the New Hebrides etc.). I want to point out that this hope does not necessarily rest on the expectation that all colonial situations are the same everywhere. In fact, the project of a “common front” speaks precisely to the requirement to find solidarity across difference. Perhaps some of the Panthers already have resources to begin to understand the heterogeneity of Oceania. You mention that the peoples of Tonga, “pride themselves in the fact they were not colonized, in ways that other Pacific Islands were dominated”. I want to let you know that, although the main chairperson of the Polynesian Panthers grows up mostly in Auckland, his family is Tongan with close genealogical links to royalty.
Meanwhile some of the Māori activists who have come to know themselves as Māori again through their Blackness subsequently form the Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Action Committee, who make more common cause with all Oceanians, not just “Polynesians”.
Regional and global racial formations, as depicted by d’Urville are real. Ponipate: I agree absolutely. But at the same time, race happens and is experienced and lived in micro-cosms. I want to make this point very clearly and resolutely: it makes no discernible difference to downpressed, socio-economically impoverished Māori and Pasifika youth living in Aotearoa NZ that they might be viewed, if they were to ever permanently join the ranks of global travellers, as preferable in polite company to brethren and sistren from Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea etc.
It is the same as the issue I have with the dominance of African-American studies of slavery.
A little over 4% of Africans who are trafficked across the Atlantic end up enslaved in the colonies of what will become the United States. The dominant experience of slavery in the Americas, by far, is to be found in Brazil. The US colonies distinguish themselves as amongst the very few places where a policy emerges to reproduce the populations of enslaved peoples via “breeding” projects etc. For most other enslaved peoples, it’s work to the death while massa imports fresh meat in lieu of reproduction.
We know that the dominance of the African-American experience in academia when it comes to slavery and Blackness is due to the economic, political, military and partially cultural dominance of the United States in global affairs. None of this is representative. It’s not right. Yet, does any of this mean and should any of this mean everything to those who experience – and/or try to explain – the downpression of mainly poor Black peoples within the United States?
Perhaps I am sensitive to these issues due to my own experiences, especially in Aotearoa NZ. In my time there, aside from the usual airport dramas, I rarely felt any consequence for that element of my heritage that is African diasporic. What was more important than anything else in peoples’ initial apprehension of me was that (aside from being a man, still) I was “English”. This was all disarming, especially due to the consequences I have always received back in England. It was also a great lesson in humility when it came to the cultivation of my relationship with Māori and Pasifika, who are firmly on the receiving end. (This humility also extended to Pākehā allies).
But above all, I am making these points because I must bear witness to the longstanding, exemplary and beautiful resistance of Māori and Pasifika peoples to their colonial damnation and their principled relation with Blackness. Tāne/Maui-Legba; Shem-Ham.
Despite your critique, Ponipate, you reproduce some of the easy homogenisations of colonial-Pacific anthropology: “Melanesia for instance, is featured with egalitarian structure, while Polynesia exhibits social stratification with centralized authorities”. Really? With such certainty? According to what sources and from whom? I think many Māori I know would take issue with your claim that their authority evidences no egalitarian structure. And, likewise, some “Polynesians” I have known, heard and read about, know themselves to be Black… despite and because of the race science of d’Urville.
Still, let me repeat another element of your critique: “There is a fundamental obliviousness, and perhaps, the absence of reverence particularly by Western academia with regard to the complexities of the region.”
You are absolutely right. And I think your inclusion of the term “reverence” is crucial.
Alongside – and enwrapping the micro-cosms of race – lie larger regional and global racial formations. They are real enough. They are especially reflected and refracted through academic knowledge production, as they are in all those circuits of expropriation, accumulation and exchange that are immediately more global in their constitution and circulation.
I don’t believe in being paralysed by power. Those of us who, in (an important) part of our lives, inhabit Western academia, and who wish to cultivate knowledge in a decolonial manner, are accountable to our necessary complicity despite other discriminations and exclusions that might be marked by our bodies (with different intensities). This recognition must not slide into an opportunity to be narcissistic. The academy does not define our very existence neither is it the energy source for all our intellectual work. But we must be accountable.
My book, Black Pacific, focuses mainly (albeit not entirely) on Aotearoa New Zealand. Here, I am an author in the Foucauldian sense, and whether I intend it or not, whether I like it or not, this book enters into a broader racial circulation that historically and presently demonizes – or at best ignores – those in Oceania who have been and/or are delineated as Melanesian. That the politics and methods of my book, on their own terms, are antithetical to this onerous regional racial formation in no way arrests its unavoidable complicity when situated at this particular level.
Moreover, for some Oceanians this level is also constitutive of the micro-cosm of race that they reside in. I must acknowledge that.
Ponipate, you claim that my book “erases the issue of race and its dynamic amongst the people of Oceania with particular reference to Melanesia and Polynesia.” I think concern over this erasure is what is behind your raising of the issue of heterogeneity. So perhaps, with my reply, you might understand why I think that on this point you are both entirely wrong and entirely right.
When I presented my work at the University of Hawai’i last November I was drawn into a discussion with you, Lee Kava and Joy Enomoto amongst others, about Blackness in Oceania. And I learnt greatly from our grounding. It confirmed to me the utility and integrity of the journey I had taken with and in the Black Pacific. And it taught me that I would have to journey more in order to contribute to the healing of the colonial wound that I am concerned with.
How might I appropriately undertake this work, and what might it consist of? These questions will occupy me as the book forum closes.