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  • Expanding Terra Nullius
  • Sarah Keenan (bio)

In an essay challenging characterizations of Pacific nations as “small” and “isolated,” Epeli Hau‘ofa described precolonial Oceania as “a large world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers” (1994, 154). Summoning the vision of an oceanic world in which the seas connected rather than separated people and cultures, movement was integral to life, and boundaries were negotiated points of entry rather than imaginary dividing lines, Hau‘ofa wrote that “the sea was open to anyone who could navigate a way through” (1994, 155), and he famously put forward a worldview radically different from the one Anglo-European colonialism violently imposed on Oceania, including ideas of territorial sovereignty, possessive individualism, and white supremacy (Mar 2016). It was through these ideological lenses that Oceania was seen not as a vast region of interconnected and vibrant cultures but rather as an isolated group of essentially empty islands suitable for use as prisons.

In this essay, I consider the Australian regime of imprisoning maritime refugees in “offshore” detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, as part of the ongoing imperial project of establishing white supremacy in Oceania. Though this project arguably began with the arrival of European explorers in the seventeenth century, it solidified into its contemporary form in 1770, when British naval Lieutenant James Cook landed on the east coast of the island continent now known as Australia and claimed possession of it on behalf of King George III. First as a British colony and then as an empire-building project of its own, “Australia” has always relied on and reproduced two racist fictions: terra nullius (empty land) and lawless sea. Terra nullius has rightly received significant academic attention, but I build on these discussions by considering how this racist legal fiction has always operated beyond the bounds of the land it treats as empty, expanding out into the sea. Specifically, terra nullius is [End Page 449] connected to Australia’s hyperdefensive policies against nonwhite maritime migration and to its historical and ongoing exploitation of Manus and Nauru. I draw on Renisa Mawani’s work, which observes how the European philosophy of law assumed that juridico-political order is rooted in “firm land” while the “free sea” is a lawless void to be mastered in the service of territorial empire building (2019, 51–55).

Offshore Refugee Detention

Australia’s current offshore refugee detention regime was initiated in September 2001 in response to what is now known as “the Tampa affair.” The mv Tampa, a Norwegian container ship making its way to Singapore, had rescued 438 people from an overcrowded fishing boat that had been attempting the voyage from Indonesia to Australia. Almost all of the passengers were Hazara Afghani refugees. Although Australia was the closest port, the Australian government refused to allow the Tampa to dock. As the situation on board deteriorated, the Tampa captain feared some of the refugees were near death, so he defied Australian orders and entered its territorial waters. Australia responded by sending armed military officers to forcefully board the Tampa and prevent it from sailing further. As human rights lawyers in Melbourne filed emergency applications seeking orders that the refugees be brought to Australia, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, announced that he had reached an agreement with Papua New Guinea and Nauru for the refugees to be processed there. Thanking all governments involved, Howard declared, “This is a truly Pacific solution” (quoted in Federal Court of Australia 2001, sec 40). Still at sea, the refugees were transferred to Australian navy troopship hms Manoora, which began the sixteen-day voyage across the northern coast of the Australian continent, from the Indian Ocean, through the Timor Sea, and to its ultimate destination of Nauru, an eight-square-mile island nation in the central Pacific.

From its inception, the purpose of detaining refugees in locations that are off Australian shores has been to “stop the boats,” a slogan that has become a rallying cry on both sides of Australian electoral politics. Detention on Manus and Nauru is used as a spectacle of cruelty...


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pp. 449-460
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