Though there is a very interesting body of work on access to water as a “human right,” on the racialized and gendered politics of water, the absence of a decolonial theory of bodies of water raises question. They have been so central to the history of colonial conquest, slavery, capitalism, and imperialism, instrumental to the construction of European powers, to global trade and its inequalities, to the creation of borders on water, to notions of sovereignty, genders and race. Despite a growing body of rules and laws that have historically drawn spaces of exception, and more recently offshore holding areas, despite the growing privatization of seacoast, despite increasing militarization of the seas, decolonial theories remain land-based. “Cargo imperialism” is neglected as well as the idea of a continuum between land, rivers, and seas (present in Malagasy and various indigenous thought). Water was present in many slaves rituals, it is still present among communities of descendants of slaves and native coastal communities across the globe, female and male deities protect water, water in songs of freedom, there is a vast library on water but my effort here is to bring it into antiracist and anti-imperialist politics.
Water – drinking water and seawater – have been both defined in international conventions as “common heritage of humankind” which raises a series of questions: Who are the All in common to all? What is heritage? Is it the same heritage for those who wrote laws governing mobility over water and those who, as Aimé Césaire wrote, were the “vomit of slaves ships”? Those who were transported as cargo? From those who are today crossing seas and oceans, tracing new maritime routes, new modes of sea traveling? From communities expelled to build resorts, ports, marinas? How are genders being constructed on water? What would be a feminist decolonial theory of water?
Françoise Vergès, who grew up in an anti-colonialist feminist family in Reunion Island, is currently Chair Global South(s), Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris. An antiracist feminist activist and scholar, she has written race and feminism, memories of slavery, Aimé Césaire, colonial psychiatry, Frantz Fanon and femo-imperialism. She is the author of films (Maryse Condé and Aimé Césaire) who works with antiracist artists and activists in Paris.
Presented in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar.