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  • Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire by Tracey Banivanua Mar
  • David Chappell
Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire. By tracey banivanua mar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xii + 265 pp. $82.79 (hardcover).

Decolonization is a word that sounds rather passive, like depopulation (actually mass death or relocation). Given the power inequalities inherent in colonialism, the United Nations in 1960 proposed "integration" into the colonizing country, with equal rights, as one form of decolonization. But for many indigenous or other minorities, full assimilation risks erasing their cultural identities. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana warned against economic "neo-colonialism" after formal political independence.1 For the ruling power simply to "let go" of overt mechanisms of dominance (or transfer them to a client elite) can thus be problematic without a concerted struggle by the local people to free themselves, perhaps by syncretizing introduced innovations that might help their self-determination quest. The most challenging aspect of decolonization is often intellectual, as choices of official languages and inherited educational systems have lingering impacts on the "ex-colonized." Moreover, how should we frame the time and space of decolonization? The UN insists on maintaining "territorial integrity," which has usually meant retaining artificial colonial borders as well as Western-derived structures of the [End Page 239] "nation-state" model (including rather belated forms of democracy). Yet critics have called that "the imperialism of decolonization."2

Dr. Tracey Banivanua Mar of La Trobe University in Australia has produced important studies that have challenged categories of "natives" and diasporas, national bordering and imperial transnationalisms, in her first book, Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australia-Pacific Indentured Labor Trade,3 and in her articles. In this new well-researched analysis, she expands the time frame for decolonizing efforts in the Pacific islands and in settler-dominated rimlands back into the nineteenth century, even before formal colonization. She also deconstructs the discourses of colonizers by resurrecting the voices and actions of indigenous people, including their use of subversive mobilities and "imperial literacy" to contest outsider empire-building. In my first book,4 I re-examined indigenous agency in modern Pacific maritime history. What I called "kanakadom," a fragmentary but palpable circuit of Oceanian seamen on foreign vessels, was evident in colonial archives and oral traditions, so I encouraged further research into local accounts. The trend toward interactive histories of translocal circulation in the Pacific region is apparent in recent works.5 In short, the old anthropological fantasies of Pacific island societies as neatly bounded scholarly laboratories have become as contingent as cadastral "national" dreamscapes. The cultural perspectives of indigenous peoples should not be eclipsed by their mobilities beyond the beach, as Epeli Hau'ofa of Tonga argued in his visionary essay on continuing holistic voyaging.6

One challenge for world historians who undertake comparisons or pursue transnational themes is to be sensitive to local understandings and heritages. Banivanua Mar, with her Australian and Oceanian background, has demonstrated an impressive command of both British archival sources and individual stories from a variety of sources about traveling and communicating islanders. She narrates a long, complex growth process of anti-colonial thinking and strategies, even when foreign powers began their "paper partitions" of the sea and increasing [End Page 240] confinement of "subjects" in colonial territories regardless of the diversity and fluidity of indigenous peoples and cultures. Diasporic transcultural intermediaries (whether by choice or not) have often played prominent roles in local, regional, and world history.7 Banivanua Mar weaves together the mobilities and voices of islanders to document their counter-intelligence gathering that did not accept the arbitrary domination of either colonialism or its auxiliaries, the Eurocentric League of Nations and the UN. She uses her data to challenge the early notion of decolonization (a term coined in Europe in 1938) as simply a weakening of empire due to metropolitan crises or changes. Instead, she demonstrates a rising tide of local "thought rebellions," movements, and protests that called into question the illusory system of imposed territoriality, alien country names, and enduring power structures. And she shows cross-fertilization by subaltern activists across world regions, as comparable struggles became globalized...


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