Quito Swan’s forthcoming book Pasifika Black: Oceania, Anti-colonialism, and the African World (NYU Press, March 2022) beautifully encompasses the type of internationalist solidarity this issue would like to convey. As such, this interview about the struggles of liberation in Melanesia (in particular West Papua, Kanaky, and Vanuatu) constitutes a cornerstone of the issue, for which we are deeply grateful to Quito.
Léopold Lambert: Before we address your third book, which will come out in March 2022, could you please tell us about the two first ones and what you were trying to achieve through them?
Quito Swan: I’m a scholar of Black internationalism. My earlier concerns with the Black world were centered around Black power as a global phenomenon. I’m also from the island of Bermuda, and so I grew up interested in learning more about Black power’s impact on the island, where it was an anti colonial youth movement that really pushed back against British imperialism that emerged in the late 1960s. The island is still a British colony. At the apex of the movement, the British Governor to Bermuda British governor, his Aide-De-Camp and also the island’s British Police Commissioner were all assassinated between 1972-1973. A young activist named Erskine Buck Burrows was eventually caught and hung in 1977 for the assassinations. Uprisings occurred across the island in response. I was born in the 1970s. But given the British government’s attacks on and anti propaganda about Black Power, this entire intense Movement was relegated to “a crazed gunman shot the governor one night,” as opposed to it being an intersection of a global push for Black power that was impacting the entire world.
So I was trying to capture that story in the first book, Black Power in Bermuda: The Struggle for Decolonization (2009). One of the key architects of the movement was a young Roosevelt Brown, also known as Pauulu Kamarafego, who organized the first international Black Power conference in Bermuda in 1969. The Conference was attacked by the British, French, Canadian, and local white Bermuda governments. During the talks, Kamarakafego was invited to Australia by Black Power advocates in a group called the Aboriginal Advancement League, which was based in Melbourne. He traveled to Australia, and in that process, he got involved in Black liberation struggles for freedom in Oceania, largely Vanuatu.
And so in the second book, Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice (2020), I was attempting to trace his international travels, political work, and networks of activist women and men; he also spent time in Cuba, he was in Liberia, Kenya working in sustainable development. With your background in architecture, I feel that you’d appreciate his intersections with ecological engineering and pan-Africanism. He was the catalyst for the Sixth Pan-African Congress, which took place in Tanzania in 1974, and he invited leaders from Vanuatu’s struggle to that meeting. So his lifework had this interesting intersection with the Black Pacific. But in documenting his travels across Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, I became really interested in Oceania’s liberation struggles, which produced Pasifika Black (2022), which is centered on Black political movements across Australia, Fiji, Kanaky-New Caledonia, Vanuatu, West Papua, and also Papua New Guinea.
LL: Your book is entitled Pasifika Black, which suggests — Pasifika as an adjective and Black as a noun — that your primary goal might have been to make Melanesia surge into a global discourse (which tend to be quite Atlantic-centric) on Blackness, even more than to make Blackness surge into the political history of Oceania. Is it a correct assumption and if so, could you speak to this necessity to multiply the sites from where Blackness is articulated?
QS: Yeah, it’s a great question, and it is a pretty accurate assumption. I was thinking a lot about what does or did Blackness and race look like from the perspective of Oceania, and the Pacific? If you center the Pacific in this discussion, what does Blackness look like? And I was interested in going beyond the Atlantic formations, because I think, all too many times, Atlantic formations problematically have encouraged us — at least mainstream history — to look at African history as something that starts with the Atlantic slave trade. And as African history clearly does not begin with slavery, the African diaspora does not start or end with the trade as well. Architects of African Diaspora Studies, like Joseph E. Harris out of Howard University, were really keen about also looking east of Africa, and at Black populations that also left Africa voluntarily, as opposed to involuntary, who may have gone east, by land or by sea.
So, you know, if we look at the migration patterns of Indigenous peoples into Oceania, this happens long before racialized terms like Black or White are even created. It occurred before there was a “Europe” and an “Africa” by name. How do you conceptualize those experiences? And how do we give some agency, or at least some recognition around these Atlantic formations of race were codified as part of global conversations and systems of enslavement, colonialism, and white patriarchy. In other words, the creation of the “Negro” of Africa and the Americas, is occuring in the broad moment of the creation of the “cannibal” of Melanesia. That’s part of the same conversation, the racial and gendered hierarchies that elite European men create span the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian ocean worlds. So in that context, what does it mean to center the experience of people who are racialized and colonized as being Black in Oceania? I was also interested in some of the specific ways in which communities racialized as Black identified with Black liberation movements outside of Oceania? As opposed to “simply” saying, “phenotypically these persons look Black because this is what Black looks like,” I’m really keen about intentionality. And so how do these communities actively display the sense, or critiques, of Blackness in Oceania.
I also was concerned about how some of the major architects of Black movements like pan-Africanism, or Ethiopianism, engaged the Pacific in their conceptions of Blackness. So for example, the UNIA [Universial Negro Improvement Association] and Marcus Garvey, they had a notion of Oceania… Aimé Césaire, la Négritude… they also saw Oceania as part of this broader Black world, as well. So I was trying to say a lot in the title, and you can’t say everything in the title. But also I was finally referencing Bislama, the creolized and national language of Vanuatu, which spells Pacific as Pasifik. I was also speaking to Pasifika, which has a problematic history in the region related to Maori and Indigenous political struggles in Aotearoa. Finally, I wanted to use Pasifika as a broader frame of ethnic solidarity across the European-created boundaries of Melanesia. Polynesia, and Micronesia.
LL: Similarly to my last question, the triangular trade, in its unfathomable horror, tends to situate the enslavement of Black people to the sole Atlantic — at times, associated with the Indian Ocean and its history of slavery along the East Coast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (as well as the history of engagisme in Reunion and Mauritius). Your work brings back into focus the practice of what has been called “blackbirding” in Melanesia. Could you tell us about it?
QS: I think this is another really important theme. Obviously, when we’re talking about the Atlantic slave trade — or trade of human beings — we are discussing some 12 to 15 million people and in no circumstance we should minimize our study of slavery in the Atlantic world and its impact on modern day capitalism, its connection with colonialism and the current world we find ourselves in. And similarly, I think we should also give more focus to the experiences of slavery in the Indian Ocean, for example along the Arabian Peninsula which began before the Atlantic expereince. Once again, African diaspora studies has always been curious about these phenomena, which predates the notion of a Black Atlantic.
Still, the case of blackbirding in Melanesia is another example of how we must be vigorous when we think about Europe’s and the human capacity to exploit others. In the 19th century at least some 70,000 individuals were captured from primarily Vanuatu or more largely Melanesia by European and American traders, and forcibly taken to work on sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland, Australia, but also in Fiji. Polynesian communities were also taken into the Andes, South America, and worked in the mines of the region; this was connected with the ending of Atlantic and African enslavement. So it’s not a question of numbers, but it’s still significant. When we think about Blackness, when we think about how modern conceptions of Blackness are connected with who is defined to be enslaved, or whose labor is defined to be exploited, Black bodies are usually the most prioritized targets, hence the name blackbirding.
But for me, my focus on blackbirding was also around its troubling creation of new diasporas, as it produced the community now known as the South Sea Islanders. It occurred along Australia’s path to becoming a nation. And it was a very vicious practice. Young girls were sexually abused by traders. Sometimes these traders were American Southern Confederates, who were concerned about the impact of the U.S. Civil War on their cotton enterprises. So it was a very transnational process. Captains sometimes utilized ships that were formerly used in the Atlantic slave trade. Indigenous persons also fought back: there were a number of payback killings, where European missionaries were killed in response to community members disappearing from places like Tanna in Vanuatu. But just how Europe used the ending of the Atlantic slave trade to justify colonizing Africa, Australia used the notion that they were going to protect the lives of white missionaries to further colonize Papua New Guinea, or Vanuatu for the British and the French…
Australia created itself as a White nation on the lines of Terra Nullius, which suggested that there were no human communities in Australia before the British showed up. This White Australia policy included laws to deport thousands of Melanesian laborers who now had founded families and lived in Australia. And they deported thousands at the turn of 1900, but many protested and stayed. I was interested in how their conceptions of diasporas and Blackness and this experience — which intersects with an Aboriginal experience of Indigenous Australians — how did this impact Black internationalism and Black Power? I was interested in its impact on civil rights leaders in Australia like Faith Bandler, whose father’s experiences of being blackbirded politicized her. He was adamant that he was enslaved, even though Australia claimed the contrary, that this was not story of slavery, that these laborers were paid…
South Sea Islander activists have really vividly stated otherwise, such as Bandler, who talked a lot about how this sparked her political consciousness. South Sea Islander Patricia Korowa was one of the Black Power activists of the Aboriginal Advancement League who invited Kamarakafego to Australia. He invited her and a Black Australian delegation to Atlanta’s 1970 Congress of African peoples, which is a really major moment of Black power. And on our return, instead of going straight back to Australia, she decided to go back to Vanuatu first, she wanted to go home. So in a pan-African space like CAP, which highlighted themes of Africa as home — for Korowa returning home was going back to Vanuatu because that’s where her family was blackbirded from. But while she was there, she was surveilled by the British and French governments, who were concerned that she was talking to Black communities about Black Power, and giving out red, black, and green badges and material culture from CAP. They knew that she attended a Black Power conference. And so she’s put on an immigration stop list, and years later she was denied entry into the country. So for me, the notion of blackbirding is not simply just a 19th century experience. It has a lot of relevance in terms of citizenship, in terms of colonialism, and Black political thought, in the era that I’m looking at, which is really the 1960s and 1970s.
LL: My very first encounter with your work was with the text you wrote about the 1955 Bandung Conference and how our romanticization of it with regard to Third World solidarities erase the fact that the Conference was organized by the Indonesian State that was actively colonizing the Melanesian lands of East Timor and West Papua, which were thus invisibilized as anticolonial struggle. Can you talk about this, as well as the forms of solidarities that have been extended to them from the African Continent — in particular Senegal with West Papua and Mozambique with East Timor?
QS: Yeah, this, for me, was something else. That was an article called “Blinded by Bandung?: Illumining West Papua, Senegal, and the Black Pacific,” published in the Radical History Review (2018). I do think there’s significant relevance to the notion of Afro Asian solidarity in regards to anti-colonial struggles. But I have to reconcile that with the problematic space of Bandung, which is still used as a critical rallying point for conversations around Afro Asian solidarity, from Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, etc… This goes back to the second question: if you look at Black movements from the perspective of the Pacific, how does the world look? If you look at Bandung from the perspective of the Black Pacific, does it challenge how we see the meeting? And if we raise the question from the perspective of West Papua, which has identified with the Black world, Bandung is also a place of colonialism, you know? Indonesia uses Bandung as a platform to legitimize its claims to West Papua which borders Papua New Guinea. We say Papua New Guinea, but you know at one point, it was Papua and New Guinea during German colonization. Germany’s first overseas colony was New Guinea. New Guinea itself was called New Guinea by European explorers who perceived its indigenous persons as looking similar to African people from West Africa’s Guinea coast.
But this is also why we should look beyond the Atlantic. When we think of systems like slavery, colonialism and global capitalism, this includes Dutch, French, Portuguese, and British imperialism in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific worlds — the Dutch colonized West Papua and Indonesia and in the moment of decolonization, Indonesia wins its independence. But there would be no calls for Indonesia to occupy West Papua if it wasn’t for Dutch colonialism: it was Dutch colonialism that put Indonesia and West Papua in the same political conversations. West Papuans have consistently argued that they are not ethnically, historically, or racially Indonesian. Their movements identified as being Melanesian or Black, and this suggested a connection with Africa and the Black world. And so in the post-World War II era, when they sought support in the struggle for independence against Indonesia, some West Papuan activists stated that they were having issues in gaining the support from some sectors of the Black because these individuals were “blinded by Bandung.” I found this to be profound.
That being said, West Papua’s revolutionary struggle was able to garner a ton of support from people like Léopold Sedar Senghor — your namesake — one of the architects of Négritude, who was also President of Senegal. During that presidency, he allowed West Papua’s Revolutionary Provisional Government of West Papua New Guinea (RPG) to establish a political base/mission in Dakar. This was also critical for me, as someone who studies Black internationalism, I’m interested in how there are other nodes or hubs of Black internationalism beyond our familiar Harlem, London, or even Paris, there’s also Dakar, there’s also Sydney or these other major cities of Black international exchange. And Dakar was one of these spaces.
In 1976, Dakar hosted Wole Soyinka’s Seminar for African World Alternatives in Dakar, which brought scholars, artists, and writers from across the Black world to convene, such as CLR James, Cheikh Anta Diop, Harold Cruse, Shwana Maglanbayan, and Carlos Moore. There they met one of the international voices of West Papua, RPG’s Foreign Minister Ben Tanggahma, who directed the Senegal mission and spoke at the conference. The Seminar made this really powerful declaration of the need for support, not only West Papua, but also East Timor, which was being colonized by the Portuguese. Some of these relations, as you mentioned, include Mozambique’s support of East Timor, also defined as a Melanesian space. Its Fretilin [Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor], identified with Mozambique’s FRELIMO [Frente de Libertação de Moçambique]. The book is much more about Senegal and West Papua than about East Timor and Mozambique, but that’s another really critical relationship to explore, because I was very much interested in this direct connection between Africa and Oceania. Tanzania is also really important in this discussion, but we may talk about it when we talk about Vanuatu.
But so yes the struggle of West Papa as a colony of Indonesia is still ongoing. There are consistent protests taking place in Indonesia, which is a critical issue, because the Melanesian Spearhead Group, which was created out of Vanuatu, was established to address these issues of colonialism. Indonesia is now a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group through West Papua. And so that’s just intensified these really critical dynamics. What activists said then, as they do now, is that there was some distinction between Indonesia as a state and citizens in Indonesia, who may or may not be politicized around this issue. So I think the question and the project of Afro Asian solidarity is still critical. But the case of Indonesia is a problematic, sore point that we shouldn’t just ignore.
LL: One of the many things I am deeply appreciative of your book is bringing the Kanak struggle for liberation at the core of your book, as anglophone descriptions are scarce and, as a result, internationalist solidarity with Kanaky is also limited. Could you address our own anglophone readership and argue about the crucial dimension of this 168-year-old fight against French settler colonialism?
QS: Yeah, I would admit that when I was researching the second book, Pauulu’s Diaspora, I had the fortune of being in Vanuatu, which is a really an amazing place for a ton of reasons, particularly for those who are interested in Oceanic liberation struggles, and also Black liberation struggles, because of Vanuatu’s positionality, being a hub of Black internationalism, and Vanuatu’s stance, which is that its independence wasn’t enough if its brother and sister struggles, or sister communities were also not free. This specifically included the Kanak struggle in New Caledonia, and other struggles in Tahiti, and West Papua. So Vanuatu’s national archives, for example, are full of depictions of these relationships and intense movements. And also, just as in the case of Senegal, Vanuatu opened its doors for these liberation struggles to have missions there. So I was fortunate to meet various Kanak leaders in the same space as West Papuan activists. As you and I talked about before this conversation, this struggle is really emotionally moving. Particularly also for someone like myself from a small island that is still colonized by this bigger power. And you look back, and you see how the other small states have also achieved independence, but you are still stuck in this moment, a time. There was a lot that I saw in the Kanak struggle that I also saw in Bermuda.
The one thing that struck me was how significant the liberation movement was for other Oceanian struggles, largely because of Kanak High Chief Ataï, who led a major revolt against the French in 1878. And for me, this was critical, because the late 19th century is a major moment for anti-colonial struggles for the Black world. And it’s not uncommon to see in the literature, at least in Atlantic contexts, the Battle of Adwa 1896, in which Ethiopia’s Menelik II and Empress Taitu defeat Italy, the Zulu wars, Prempeh II and Yaa Asante Waa, Samory Toure, there’s a ton of depictions of these successful or these major anti-colonial wars against European colonialism. But Oceania is usually left out. I just think that’s a problem, if we’re trying to be really Diasporic when looking at Black struggles. I think this also brings up for me the need to go beyond just anglophone paradigms of thought, and to look into the Black francophone world, as a place of radical thought, radical experiences. For me, Négritude is a political movement centered on culture, it is a really political, anti-colonial movement emerging from folks like Diop, Suzanne Césaire or Aimé Césaire… So in that context, I was interested in a city like Paris, or Black Paris. Just as we can talk about how British West Indians would meet African people in London who were also colonized by the British. The question is, what did Paris do for Black people in a similar context including Oceania. Part of the book was looking at how Kanak student activists in Paris from New Caledonia would learn or study or read about Frantz Fanon, Black Power, Négritude, how would they take the ideas of Black international thought and transform them in ways that can address or speak to Black populations colonized in Kanaky — so groups like Groupe 1878, which is based upon in recognition of this 19th century struggle, Palika…
And I was just blown away by the amount of intensity in the trail and which kind of activists in the fight against the French were able to reach out to the Black world. Instead, I think we seem to tragically just forget how the United Nations floor becomes a major space for these exchanges. We have Black anthropologists like Angela Gilliams, who worked with activists like Dewé Gorodé, another Kanak leader who travels across the world, through women’s groups, literature groups, Black power, political imprisonment… There’s so much in the Kanak struggle that I think we could learn from, and also I think the struggle is in need of support. As you know, in your own work, it also was marked by some tragic, tragic assassinations, tragic deaths by the French army and French settlers kill a number of these Kanak leaders, and also violence within the Kanak political struggle that have I would say, emotionally upset the movement was for several decades. So a part of this section of the book was also about trying to draw attention to this ongoing struggle, just like West Papua, because it’s not yet free, it’s still a French territory. And so the push for liberation and self determination isn’t over by any stretch of imagination.
LL: The book ends with another crucial Melanesian (victorious) struggle: that of Vanuatu gaining its independence from the quite-remarkable British-French colonial condominium. Walter Lini may be its most known figure as the country’s first Prime Minister. Could you talk about his fight with the Vanua’aku Pati and then for Melanesian political unity, his solidarity with Kanaky and West Papua, as well as the creation of what he called a Melanesian socialism?
QS: As I mentioned earlier, Vanuatu is a fabulous space. But this section of the book also highlights the critical role that Black liberation theology plays in Black liberation. Walter Lini was an Anglican minister who had an intimate awareness of indigenous, spiritual beliefs, he was raised with an affirmation of indigenous folklore, spiritual traditions, and also his sister Hilda Lini who was a critical leader in the Vanua’aku Party women’s wing. Walter Lini, the founder of Party, was very much a pan-Africanist. If you look at the pantheon of pan-Africanism, you won’t see Walter Lini’s name, but he should be there.
As for Melanesian socialism, this is really striking. Because the party was really interested in what Julius Nyerere was doing in Tanzania. And I mentioned Pauulu Kamarakafego. He ends up in Vanuatu at the time in the mid-1970s, and he invites Barak Sope, who was a major voice of the Vanua’aku liberation struggle since being a student at University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji. The Vanua’aku Pati also had students studying at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), which was a major space for transforming Melanesia from being a really negative colonial term to a term of Black modernity. There are networks across UPNG and USP that Vanua’aku Pati benefited from, such as Vanessa Griffen, Claire Slatter, Amelia Rokotuivuna, and the Nuclear Free Pacific Movement and Pacific Women’s Movement, as well as from Pauulu Kamarakafego, who connects them to a broader Black world beyond Oceania. He organized for them to come to Tanzania. There the delegation had a chance to look firsthand and see what Nyerere is doing with Ujamaa and African socialism. The Ujamaa was a system of village development at the village level.
What Walter Lini was actually trying to do in Vanuatu is that same idea around a paradigm of Melanesia. And once again, Melanesia was being recodified academically, politically, from UPNG through a number of Waigani seminars. This is really important, because if you’re going to have a nation, one of the first questions is what development means? As the Vanua’aku struggle was primarily happening in the mid 1970s, it had the advantage of seeing what was taking place in Africa in terms of decolonization, neocolonialism, and the pitfalls of nationalism. So they try to avoid Africa’s route in large.
They were not able to achieve independence until 1980, because as you mentioned, they had a vicious fight against French and British colonialism — they were colonized by both nations at the same time. There were different sets of laws, and four different courts in Vanuatu: one for French citizens, one for British citizens, a native court and a mixed court administered by a Dutch and Spanish judge. Activists called the political condominium a pandemonium. The British acted as if the French were holding back independence, while the French claimed that it was the British who were slowing the pace of self-determination in Vanuatu.
For the New Hebrides National Party, which Lini founded in 1971, they had to look internationally for broad support. And for them, this included the Black world. Kamarakafego was a really critical figure in this dynamic. He had extensive connections at the United Nations, as I mentioned, he is a cornerstone Black Power activist pan-Africanist. And he was actually deported from Vanuatu in the mid 1970s, by the British, who had considered flying in troops from Fiji, Hong Kong, or Britain to extract him, and also to prepare for a potential uprising by members of Vanua’aku Pati who had no idea that this was even taking place. And I’ll end by saying, there was one critical moment when Kamarakafego was arrested by the police and taken to the main airport to be deported. This is 1975. The party had his members drive to the airport. They drove into the tarmac, they parked their cars in front of the plane. Barak Sope, for example, shouted “Black Power!” at the pilot, clashes broke out, folks were arrested and eventually Pauulu was deported.
The British built a fence around the airport after that. I mentioned Patricia Korowa (Black Power activist from Australia) a few questions earlier… She had been put on a stop list from her visit to Vanuatu in 1970. She returned several years later, while working with the Pacific Women’s Movement, and she was not allowed to enter the country. Hilda Lini was at the airport, waiting to pick her up and there was this fence that’s been built since the Pauulu incident. And she asked Patricia to just hop over the fence. But Patricia was pregnant at the time so she didn’t do it. For me, this metaphor and moment was really so striking because the image of the airport, a Black woman who was a descendant of Ni-Vans blackbirded to Australia, now has returned to Vanuatu to do work with a women’s group, but she can’t return home because the British and the French have colonized the space and have built a fence in response to a Black Power activist from Bermuda who was encouraging members of the Vanua’aku Pati to go to Africa, to connect with Tanzania. That moment itself has hundreds of years of history and links of thousands of gendered miles of global Black Power geographies within it.
After Vanuatu achieved independence in 1980, Pauulu was invited back to work in sustainable development. The Party was preparing to deport the French residents from the country because the French had not allowed Government officials like Sope to enter New Caledonia to prevent them from visiting Kanak freedom fighters. So in response, they said we’re going to expel the French residents. They had to use Pauulu’s passport to measure the dimensions for the expel stamp that they would place on the passports of the French. So I just thought that was also really striking. It’s like the Bob Marley song: “The stone that the builder refuse, will always be the head cornerstone.” There’s a lot more I could say about their struggle. But to understand oceanic liberation struggles, the potentials and pitfalls of Melanesian solidarity, questions of nuclear free Pacific, Vanuatu is the place to focus on. ■