The Transnational Struggle Against Nuclear Colonialism in the “Sea of Islands”


In this conversation, Talei Luscia Mangioni contextualizes the historical transnational struggle against nuclear colonialism in the Pacific Ocean by providing helpful details on the conceptualization of Oceania by Epeli Hau’ofa and by dismantling the Western neocolonial framing of the immense region.

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Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific collage by Talei Luscia Mangioni for this interview (2021).

Léopold Lambert: In “Our Sea of Islands” (1993), Epeli Hau’ofa makes a clear distinction between the notions of “islands in a distant sea” and “sea of islands,” as well as between the Pacific and Oceania; may I ask you to remind our readers about the crucial difference between them? And what may be other names of the Ocean?

TALEI LUSCIA MANGIONI: “Our Sea of Islands” speaks to me as someone who is currently doing, as Epeli Hau’ofa has done, their PhD at the Australian National University on unceded Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands. His reenvisioning of Oceania as a “sea of islands” is directly speaking back to White Australian scholars, diplomats and bureaucrats in the 1990s who have historically belittled the Pacific as isolated “islands in a distant sea.” This was after what people describe as the “golden age” of independence of the 1970s and 1980s for most Pacific islands. They were pejoratively framed as if their “attempts” at independence were utterly fruitless. Those in Canberra, the heartland of Australian policy, viewed the Pacific Islands as aid-dependent and failed states. The Pacific was seen as Australia’s “patch of the world” to wield economic and political control over. Australian scholar Greg Fry described this as a “new doomsdayisim” of the 1990s and saw it as part of a longstanding Australian practice of fatalist framings of the islands as “small” within security and development doctrines throughout the Cold War period requiring Western salvation. So the divided and inept Pacific of the 1990s was just the latest iteration of that historical framing but still rears its head in how Australia continues to undermine the Pacific on issues like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hau’ofa couldn’t stand teaching these types of neo-colonial views to his students in the islands, so he reimagined the Pacific as a “Sea of Islands” to reinstate an empowering sense of regionalism and pride in Oceania. He draws on Pacific peoples’ shared heritage and histories of connections through practices of wayfinding where we crisscrossed the region back and forth through traditional navigation for thousands of years. He underscores the kinships between islands before colonial lines were drawn in the Ocean to prevent the movement of our peoples, and Dumont D’Urville’s separation into subregions like Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia were taken up. Hau’ofa also importantly suggests that beyond Oceania’s vastness, it is expanding with new diasporic networks throughout the world, so these islands are on the move.

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Map created by Léopold Lambert for this issue (2021).

Here, Hau’ofa uses Oceania instead of the Pacific to remind us that our Ocean is our spiritual, cultural, economic and political base for our collective identity. He goes into further detail on this in his essay “The Ocean In Us” (1998). Here, the Pacific, the term given by the English, denotes a space that has been “pacified,” which taps into that colonial framing of the Ocean as void or just a crossing between two land powers. I note the crucial differences between them but still use them both interchangeably. Sometimes for me, the term Oceania harks back to the French L’Océanie, so I’m conscious of that too.

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It kills me how the French are bombing this place” collage by Talei Luscia Mangioni for this interview (2021).

Besides that, there are many words for our Ocean. Our region has tremendous linguistic diversity. There are about 850 languages in Papua New Guinea alone. Melanesians often use the pidgin term Solwara, Polynesians
mostly use Moana. In Fijian, we say wasawasa. It depends on what language you speak. Damon Salesa reminds us that some names of “native seas” recall our ancient empires, exchange routes and seamarks. These include those like Sawei (across the Yapese empire), the Kula ring (across the Massim archipelago), Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (across Aitutaki and Aotearoa) and Vaha Loa/Vasa Loa (across many Western Pacific nations). So I guess, like everything in the Pacific, it all depends on your positionality. It is where you speak from and who you speak to, which determines what words you use.

LL: Hau’ofa, like Jean-Marie Tjibaou, invites us to think of decolonization in Oceania through the concept of interdependence rather than that of independence. Could you tell us how it takes us to a radically different paradigm? Is that at the basis of what Katerina Teaiwa and others call a “Pan-Pacific Regionalism?”

TLM: I think Hau’ofa and Tjibaou are speaking about two different but interrelated things. Hau’ofa is debunking how Western economists misinterpret and obsess over the idea of “remittance” economies in the Pacific. It is premised on the idea of the “lazy Native” and ties into the notion of a failed state I mentioned earlier. Again, mobility doesn’t mean we abandon an attachment to homelands. He speaks about interdependence in terms of relationality and the sense of duty the diaspora has to their kinfolk in the islands and vice-versa. In opposition to the “fixed” Indigenous person tethered their place, he instead views Pacific peoples as mobile agents part of large transnational networks. The Pacific diaspora continues to tend to their families in a series of orbits and returns between the islands and the Pacific rim and even further beyond.

Whereas, I think Tjibaou spoke about interdependence in terms of the practice of politics. He talks about the difference between sovereignty and independence. He says: “sovereignty is the right to choose partners, independence is the power to manage all the needs that colonization, the present system has created.” He then refers to the Cold War context where the Western world was scared of Kanak and other Indigenous groups being linked to communism or becoming satellites for the USSR, Libya, or Cuba. He asserts: “Sovereignty means the right to choose one’s partners. For a small country like ours, independence means working out interdependency.”

Both ideas overlap and maintain each other differently when we think about decolonization. Self-determination is all the heart of what Katerina Teaiwa, my supervisor, describes as “pan-Pacific regionalism,” built and upheld by solidarity and consensus between Pacific peoples in resistance to colonial extractivism of the Pacific, whether it is articulated as the Pacific Way of the 1970s, or as the Blue Pacific which links back to “Our Sea of Islands.” This coalitional regionalism is not without many tensions and heartache. Still, I think the aspiration based on solidarity based on our shared heritage, cultures, values and histories is meaningful in imagining our futures.

LL: Your work engages particularly with the history of the struggle for a denuclearized Oceania. Between 1946 and 1996, U.S., U.K., and French colonial militaries have detonated 318 nuclear bombs in the Ocean, in particular in the Marshall Islands, the Kalama Atoll (so-called “Johnston Atoll”), Amchitka Island, Kiribati, so-called “Australia,” and Ma’ohi Nui (so-called “French Polynesia”), having noxious and at times deadly effects in many other archipelagos and countries. Can you describe the ways through which Oceanian activists — in particular women — won together and in solidarity some of the battles against the colonial powers’ nuclear bombings?

TLM: The Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP)movement I study at is very vast and all-encompassing of the region. It had activists from East Timor to French-occupied Polynesia. It’s regularly evoked by Hau’ofa and others like the region’s first grassroots political movement that included those from throughout the Greater Pacific region and created what Tracey Banivanua-Mar calls critical “counter networks of empire.” In terms of nuclear colonialism, it started in 1975 with the Against Testing On Moruroa (ATOM) Conference in Fiji and the movement was then known as the Nuclear Free Pacific movement. It was held in May when France had a brief pause in nuclear tests. It was in part a legacy project as nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands (then the US-occupied Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands) and in Kiribati (which very few people knew about, in then the U.K.-occupied Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony) had already occurred in the Pacific. It was a crucial time because it was the first time activists from the South Pacific encountered those from the North Pacific, especially Micronesia, because of the colonial limitations of travel. It was also obviously about preventing any further testing undertaken by France in Ma’ohi Nui, noting that the nuclear fallout and pollution were causing immense transboundary harm to their neighboring islands in the Pacific Ocean. Overall, while this conference was initially focused on creating a Nuclear Free Pacific Zone, many other conversations were able to take place, especially on decolonization for those still under occupation — which was most of the Pacific at the time.

As a Pacific person, I really appreciate how innovative this movement was in generating a grammar around nuclear colonialism, disarmament, and militarism.

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The Against Testing on Mururoa (ATOM) committee protests on the streets of Suva, Fiji, in the 1970s. / Photo by Graham Baines.

As a Pacific person, I really appreciate how innovative this movement was in generating a grammar around nuclear colonialism, disarmament, and militarism. These grassroots Pacific grammars were influential, trickling into Pacific government rhetoric, and employed by the more mainstream “anti-nuclear” and peace movements. Overall, together in their trans-Indigenous and multicultural solidarities around nuclear-free and independence struggles, the NFIP really made a dent in the colonial project to the point where they were conceived of as a reasonably significant threat. Of course, women have always been the backbone of Pacific movements as they were often marginalized from political and economic power. Pacific youth have always brought passion and zeal to this work across generations. I think it’s also crucial for Pacific peoples to remember these histories because more and more you see an NGO-ization of our history, where organizations like Greenpeace represent the primary challenge, which is just not true.

The NFIP doesn’t have a secretariat anymore, but its legacy exists in different iterations. Pacific peoples, especially those from survivor states, continue to place great importance on addressing the nuclear legacy and articulating new ways forward in nuclear justice, including compensation and environmental remediation. They continue to resist nuclear colonialism on several fronts, including military pacts like AUKUS, Japan’s plans to dump 1.2 million tons of radioactive wastewater from Fukushima in 2023, the continued expansion and modernization of nuclear weapons state arsenals, and the ongoing militarization and occupation of their lands.

[Pacific peoples] continue to resist nuclear colonialism on several fronts, including military pacts like AUKUS, Japan’s plans to dump 1.2 million tons of radioactive wastewater from Fukushima in 2023, the continued expansion and modernization of nuclear weapons state arsenals, and the ongoing militarization and occupation of their lands.

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Atom Free Embassy on the Australian parliament House lawns in June 1981. / Photo by John Englart.

LL: Nuclear fallout is tragically not the only threat on Oceanian (both earthly and oceanic) ecosystems. Do you think that the narrative that presents as inevitable the disappearance of entire countries such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, because of the climate-change-induced rise of the waters — or in the case of Banaba, the extractivism of the island’s practically entire soil — need to be reframed to insist instead on the resistance of their people?

TLM: I definitely would situate nuclear and climate within the same colonial narrative trope of the Pacific as places believed to be emptied, vacant, unimportant on the periphery of metropolitan sites of power deemed to be worthy. I think that when the Pacific is imagined through a set of narrow representational practices which centers their inevitable disappearance, then all of a sudden it becomes very convenient to blow them up or otherwise plunder them for their resources whether it be the case of phosphate mining in Banaba or now deep-sea mining on our ocean floor.

The only problem is that Pacific and Indigenous peoples have consistently disrupted these singular visions with a plethora of creative arts (films, songs, poems, storytelling, etc.) and re-represent Oceania in multiscopic ways. This asserts what Jolene Rickard describes as “visual sovereignty” in response to colonial belittlement. I think this is what the NFIP did really well, and so it’s why my research focuses on its art-story. The Pacific arts are the primary vehicle for critique, resistance, and mobilization of regionalism in times of ecological crisis. These articulations of Oceanic stewardship and fierce environmental attachments have been core and universal themes across Pacific arts. In the decolonization era of the 1970s, Marjorie Crocombe called this a “creative revolution,” and it’s what I attempt to map and honor in my work.

Remembering and recalling what Katerina Teaiwa calls our shared “genealogy of resistance” through the visual, sonic and other sensory registers is really important overall to undo this pervasive idea in the West that our islands will inevitably sink or otherwise be destroyed.

LL: Staying with the question of time: history, both within colonial and anticolonial framings tends to make
colonialism the alpha and omega of time. As we had tried to show in our issue on time (July-August 2021) They Have Clocks, We Have Time, if we take a step back, at the scale of Peoples’ existence, in particular in Oceania, we have to consider millenia of histories, rather than the sole past 200 years. Do you think that such a reframing can help us to think of Oceanian futures.

TLM: I think this brings us back to the scholarship of Epeli Hau’ofa really well, who critiques the obsession with histories of “contact” in the Pacific in his essay “Pasts To Remember” (2000). The discipline of history depends on documentary sources in what they verify as a historical fact, and it often only tells us a very particular European experience (unless you read along the archival grain). Here, time is linear, teleological or “progressive.” Either way, it only accounts for about a couple of hundred or so years in history. Meanwhile, anything before is considered “pre-contact” or worse “pre-history,” which is an erasure of thousands of years.

This brings us back to the scholarship of Epeli Hau’ofa really well, who critiques the obsession with histories of “contact” in the Pacific…

It’s important to remember that Pacific peoples have a completely different historical constitution. We are oral and aural cultures. History is transmitted through performance and present in all aspects of Pacific life. Pacific names recall genealogies, Pacific landscapes are saturated with history. Pacific peoples place immense importance on our pasts, and Hau’ofa refers to this with the famous adage “we face the future with our backs,” allowing us to walk backwards into our futures.

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Monument dedicated to the Victims of the French Nuclear bombings in Pape’ete, Ma’ohi Nui. / Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy (2014).

When we start recalling and relearning these millenia of histories of resistance and survival that still exist in our own bodies and surroundings, we can retire that insidious notion of a vanishing Pacific. Oceanian time that is place-based and circular recalls that Pacific peoples have survived for thousands of years and will continue to do so despite every colonial attempt to curtail any sort of future we might imagine. ■