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

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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.