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  • The Midnight Ride of Kwame Nkrumah and Other Fables of Bandung (Ban-doong)
  • Robert Vitalis (bio)

The battle against colonialism has been a long one, and do you know that today is a famous anniversary in that battle? On the eighteenth day of April, one thousand seven hundred and seventy five, just one hundred and eighty years ago, Paul Revere rode at midnight through the New England countryside, warning of the approach of British troops and of the opening of the American War of Independence, the first successful anti-colonial war in history. About this midnight ride the poet Longfellow wrote:

A cry of defiance, and not of fear,A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,And a word that shall echo for evermore!1

Two conferences were held at Bandung in April 1955. One was the real conference, about which not very much is known, about which people care even less, and which has faded away like a bad dream. The other was a quite different conference, a crystallization of what people wanted to believe had happened which, as a myth, took on reality in the Bandung Principles and, later, in the Bandung Spirit. The real conference aroused interest mainly because it contributed towards the solution of a crisis then much in the news but which history scarcely troubles to record.2

Myths or the identity stories a group tells about itself are found not just in grade-school primers or nationalist tracts but also in advanced scholarship, in professional journals, and in conference papers. Consider the case of the Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia. It turns out that Bandung is the imagined birthplace of not one but two global “solidarities” that some scholars continue to confuse with (for lack of a better term) the historical process, and that in many cases they elide into one. The first is routinely referred to as “non-alignment” or the non-aligned movement. The second is a bit more unwieldy, an emerging “global racial consciousness” or a movement of the “darker nations.” This essay challenges both these ways of thinking about the politics of Bandung and its aftermath. The problem is that these myths are no more firmly rooted in reality than the belief—reproduced by two generations of journalists, bloggers, and scholars—that Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia were there.3

They continue to exist not least because so little scholarship has sought to explore them. No historians have published studies based on research in the archives of the actually existing international organization, the Non-Aligned Movement (or NAM), [End Page 261 ] founded in Belgrade in 1961 at the First Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries, not at Bandung in 1955.4 It is headquartered in New York with a rotating chairmanship held at this writing by the Egyptian foreign minister Amr Mohammad Kamal, who took over following the overthrow of the country’s president Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. The major scholarship on the NAM is now a few decades old, produced mostly by journalists and political scientists specializing in international relations, and is still worth reading—not least for the routine warnings to avoid what the political scientist Peter Willetts in 1978 called the “distortions of history” that solidarities produce. He was referring to speeches by the Nigerian and Sri Lankan ambassadors at a 1976 Howard University conference marking the fifteenth anniversary of the NAM. Both diplomats recalled that the road to Belgrade had passed through Bandung. The Cuban and Yugoslavian ambassadors, from key states in the NAM’s founding that were neither Asian nor African, disagreed, on grounds broader than those of identity or their own leaderships’ legitimization strategies. As Willetts put it, and this is a key point, “Bandung in its composition and its decisions was the antithesis of non-alignment.”5 Willetts was updating an already existing, well-documented and argued interpretation, one which the political scientist Itty Abraham sustains in his 2009 account of Indian foreign policy change.6 Through the mid-1960s the rival Asian-African and non-aligned frameworks reflected ongoing divisions and competing hegemonic ambitions of, to take...


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