Response:‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’ (Sofia Aatkar)

Response to research seminar by Dr Robbie Shilliam, QMUL, ‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’

by Sofia Aatkar, MRes English Literary Research

8 December 2015


This fortnight’s postcolonial speaker was Dr. Robbie Shilliam from Queen Mary, University of London. He delivered a powerful seminar, which was described afterwards by a fellow student as ‘poetic’, regarding the reparation of colonial injustice through anti-colonial connectivity among colonised and formally colonised peoples in the context of the South Pacific and the African diaspora, and queried the usefulness of the subaltern figure in accomplishing this.

Dr. Shilliam suggested that retrieving networks between colonised and formally colonised peoples can be achieved by connecting to the places that were left untouched by Cook and Columbus; namely, the spiritual domain. Shilliam argues that, because colonisation did not (and never could) breech this spiritual domain, these hinterlands could be used as a ground for re-establishing connectivity, and subsequently can actively repair the wounds of colonialism, reconnect black individuals and decolonise lands, ancestors and agencies. Shilliam exemplified this phenomenon in his discussion of the Māori people in New Zealand. He stated that the conception of time in Māori culture differs from that of modern, linear time, in which a future-centric view is adopted and the past is forgotten. Instead, Māori people believe that the past is a source of knowledge which should be remembered and drawn upon, which is typified by the phrase ‘the ancestors are meeting because we have met’.[1] In this light, it makes sense that the Māori word ‘muri’ connotes ‘future’ (verb) and ‘behind’ (location).[2] And thus, one way in which Māori people could forge connections across the African diaspora and adopt a decolonising ethos is by looking to the future through their shared past.

The term ‘subaltern’ commonly refers to specific struggles in colonial India. However, it has been noted that:

subaltern is not just a category that affects given sectors of the population of one single nation-state, but a category of the imperial and modern/colonial world that affects people and regions in a global distribution of wealth and meaning.[3]
Accordingly, ‘subaltern’ can also be used as an intellectual category to describe individuals or groups who exist outside the hegemonic framework of colonial power. Consequently, Shilliam suggests that in order for colonial and formally colonised peoples, or the subalterns, to connect through the spiritual domain, they need to cast ‘sideways glances’[4] instead of reflecting Western epistemology and thought production. In other words, they need to look backwards at their pre-colonial pasts in order to establish a decolonised future.

Personally, I found Dr. Shilliam’s seminar refreshing as he did not simply promote a specific collective national identity in an attempt at decolonisation, but instead suggests that a transnational identity is forged between colonised and formally colonised individuals through profound metaphysical connections, irrespective of an individual’s nationality. This view, in my opinion, promotes a more productive and empowering lens through which to examine postcolonial identities as such a global infrastructure invests a deeper connection among colonised and formally colonised peoples because it transcends geographical and historical boundaries.

Shilliam - coffee


Māori Dictionary, ‘Muri’, <  > [accessed             03.12.2015]

Mignolo, Walter D. ‘On Subalterns and Other Agencies’, Postcolonial Studies, 8.4 (2005),             381-407

Shilliam, Robbie, ‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’, <               besides-the-subaltern/ > [accessed 03.12.2015]


[1] Robbie Shilliam, ‘Africa in Oceania: Thinking Besides the Subaltern’, < > [accessed 03.12.2015] (para. 1 of 14).

[2] Māori Dictionary, ‘Muri’, <  > [accessed 03.12.2015].

[3] Walter D. Mignolo, ‘On Subalterns and Other Agencies’, Postcolonial Studies, 8.4 (2005), 381-407 (p.386).

[4] Robbie Shilliam, ‘Africa in Oceania’ (para. 9 of 14).

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