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Interview with Dr Ricardo Roque: ‘Scientific Occupation’ and the Timor Anthropological Mission in the Late Portuguese Colonial Empire

This past May, Dr Ricardo Roque presented on his research project concerned with the Timor Anthropological Mission in the late Portuguese colonial empire. Dr Roque’s lecture revolved around the concept of “scientific occupation”, a prominent approach in Portuguese late imperial policy, and considered the histories of the anthropometric and racialized projects undertaken by Portuguese imperial expeditions in East Timor, including their enduring legacies today.

Dr Ricardo Roque is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon and an Honorary Associate in the Department of History, University of Sydney. Dr Roque’s research focuses on the history and ethnography of the human sciences, colonialism, race, and cross-cultural contact in the Portuguese-speaking world, from 1800 to the twentieth century.

SEBESTIAN KROUPA: Your research examines the history of human sciences and race in the modern Portuguese colonial empire. In your talk, you focused on the twentieth-century Portuguese anthropological mission in the colonial dominion of East Timor. You showed very convincingly the ties between scientific research, imperialism, and the Portuguese fascist state of Estado Novo. Central to your argument is the concept of “scientific occupation”. Can you describe its place in Portuguese late imperial policy?

RICARDO ROQUE: During the late period of Western overseas imperialisms, there was a shared belief in the colonizing powers of science. Portuguese late imperialism is no exception. In the late nineteenth century, modernizing and regenerating the Portugal’s age-old empire involved appeals for science-based colonialism. Paradigmatic realizations of this ideal were the geographical expeditions launched ardently by the Portuguese government in the 1870s-80s in Africa. After the Berlin Conference of 1885, however, the focus was on another kind of expeditionary movement: military campaigns. Thus, between the 1890s and the 1910s, numerous military expeditions devastated many Indigenous dominions in Portuguese colonies. In this context, asserting colonial sovereignty meant primarily “effective occupation” of territories by the force of arms. Yet in the 1920s-30s there was a renewed emphasis on scientific expeditionary dimensions of colonial sovereignty. The perception was that the work of military conquest had been triumphantly completed; it was time now to continue the Portuguese work of conquest through epistemic means. Portuguese nationalist intellectuals, academics, and politicians were envisaging a new age of imperial domination in African and Asian colonies based on a vast governmental program of field sciences; they claimed it was a national duty of the state to actively promote scientific fieldwork led by Portuguese nationals in the colonies. Field scientists, not the military, were presented as the new expeditionary armies of empire.

The term ocupação científica (literally “scientific occupation”), I hypothesize, was forged in this period to convey this colonial policy vision. The term was deliberately modeled on the notion of military occupation and gained momentum in the political context when nationalist and fascist right-wing ideologies took control of Portugal’s government. In 1926, a military coup in Lisbon led to the fall of the parliamentary Republic and the establishment of Military Dictatorship, which developed into a nationalist-imperialist fascist regime. Headed by António de Oliveira Salazar, the Estado Novo (“New State”) was formally instituted in 1933. The notion of ocupação científica gained traction above all during the first two decades of the regime, when it became the cornerstone of the policies of the Ministry of the Colonies (re-named Ministry of the Overseas after 1951). The program involved the creation of a special governmental department – the Colonial/Overseas Science Board – dedicated solely to fostering scientific research in the colonies, mainly (though not exclusively) through fieldwork expeditions (so-called missões científicas), including on anthropology. Even after the demise of the Portuguese empire in 1974-75, although under a different name, the Board survived as a state scientific institution. Addressing the issue of the longevity of the expeditions and the notion of “scientific occupation” that they originally embodied is a challenging aspect of this history and of my research. Beyond the specific facets of the Portuguese story, these developments prompt wider reflections on the durability and temporality of colonial sciences. Thus, in my research project on the history of ‘Colonial Anthropological Missions’, I am interested in examining their significance in the period of the Portuguese dictatorship – but I am also interested in following their legacies, traces, and ramifications in the democratic age, thus considering how the past of colonial “scientific occupation” might intrude into the present.

SK: How did the fascist orientation of the Portuguese Estado Novo affect the nature of the scientific research conducted in its empire (e.g. in terms of international collaboration)?

RR: Political historians and social scientists have long debated how, or even if, Salazar’s fascist regime of Estado Novo should be positioned comparatively in the taxonomy of twentieth-century fascisms. Some scholars contrast Salazar’s ruralist, secluded, and conservative ideologies with the histrionic and warlike inclinations of its contemporary fascist counterparts, such as Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. This taxonomic debate, however, should not divert attention from the fact that Salazar’s fascism – as Tiago Saraiva’s brilliant book Fascist Pigs has demonstrated – was likewise a deeply modernistic and scientifically minded undertaking, obsessed with nationalist autarchy and science, both at home and in the colonies. I make this point also because for some time, there was a scholarly tendency to disconnect concerns with internationalization and science from Salazarism and to see the fascist period as a dark age of intellectual “backwardness”, extreme isolation, and ruralist immobility. And yet the Estado Novo government also made unprecedented investments into scientific and laboratory research, while also boosting international networking and the international mobility of scientists.

In my work on the Anthropological Missions, I reflect on how the conceptual opposition between foreign and autochthonous, or national, lay at the basis of international collaborations in colonial anthropological sciences. My suggestion is that, on the one hand, foreign scientists were distrusted, and there was a strong nationalist emphasis on nativist and autarkic ideals of science production. It was believed that ethnically white Portuguese nationals alone should command and conduct field research in and on Portugal and Portuguese colonies. On the other hand, foreign scientists were highly regarded as a source of authority, and Portuguese nationalist colonial anthropologists nurtured strategic international connections with a view to self-empowerment. Thus, Portuguese scientists experienced a tension between avoiding and distrusting foreign scientists, while at the same time increasing the internationalization of their scientific activities. In a recent essay (Roque 2022), I examine this tensional relationship between transnationalism and isolationism.

SK: I found especially thought-provoking the parallels you drew between scientific missions and earlier military conquests, between scientific data and imperial spoils of war. In East Timor, the scientific research was highly anthropometric and racialized in its nature. Could you tell us more about the Portuguese scientific mission?

RR: I approach the Anthropological Mission in East Timor as an analytical window through which to explore the history of anthropo(bio)logy as a racial science in the late imperial period – and even beyond it.  The Colonial Anthropological Missions launched in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and East Timor were arguably the largest and most ambitious fieldwork projects in Portuguese human sciences until the 1960s. These were field expeditions aimed to study the so-called “native tribes” of the Empire, mainly from a racial point of view. The definition of “anthropological” encompassed physical anthropology, archaeology, blood group studies, linguistics, and ethnography – but the core program was racial anthropological science, also designated as “anthropobiology”. Yet this research program, as mentioned above, went hand in hand with a political agenda. It is important to bear in mind that the project of “anthropological missions” was designed also with the purpose of establishing sovereignty in the colonies by means of scientific field expeditions. As I have already mentioned, this political notion of “scientific occupation” was in conceptual continuity, or correspondence, with the idea of military occupation. And it is in line with this colonialist correspondence between “scientific” and “military” that I provocatively suggest that it is legitimate to read the field data, objects, ethnographic, linguistic, and biomaterials collected by Portuguese anthropological expeditions in the African and Asian colonies as spoils of colonial occupation. For, if colonial anthropologists were so keen on developing “scientific occupation” as an activity homologous to war campaigns, shouldn’t we also see scientific collections and data through a military lens, as a kind of war plunder? The anthropological expedition to East Timor launched in 1953-54 by the Portuguese Overseas Science Board prompts this broader question.

SK: Indigenous bodies lay at the core of the Portuguese project. How do Indigenous agency and resistance feature in your story?

RR: Access to Indigenous perspectives and agency in colonial archives is a difficult methodological challenge for historians. Yet Indigenous agency – including, but not exclusively, activities of resistance – remains one important lens through which to consider and analyze the development and impact of these scientific expeditions. As primarily an archival researcher, I am particularly interested in retrieving and analyzing archival traces of such perspectives. To begin with, Indigenous agency is a slippery and challenging objective to pursue in the colonial archives of these expeditions because the surviving documentation is often silent, evasive, or biased about Indigenous actions and purposes. In case of the ‘Timor Anthropological Mission’, one interesting dimension is the apparent archival absence of open Indigenous opposition. Archives in Lisbon do not reveal visible traces of East Timorese resistance to the activities of measuring and bleeding their bodies, for example. Fieldwork apparently went smoothly, without open confrontation. Of course, there was a great deal of coercion involved in mobilizing Indigenous bodies for anthropological work, which colonial documents tend to dismiss. Sometimes the documents even point to the contrary, suggesting the expeditionary team was well received and welcomed across the territory. This may have partly been related to old local viewpoints and customs associated with deference owed to the Portuguese outsider authority. In any case, Timorese actions, submissive in appearance, could in reality entail subtle Timorese counter meanings – “hidden scripts” in James Scott’s words – that perhaps were not visible, accessible to, or understood by the Portuguese.

SK: Your research offers unique perspectives by bringing historical methodologies into conversation with historical anthropological evidence. How do you navigate the methodological challenges involved and how can such approaches open up new avenues for thinking about cross-cultural encounters?

RR: I believe reading the expedition archives ethnographically, either along or against the grain, do help us in the task of retrieving Indigenous agency and perspectives. However, in many cases archival work is not sufficient. Twentieth-century expeditions, such as the Timor Anthropological Mission, probably left traces and marks in the memories of Indigenous communities that one should try to investigate and learn about. Hence, I also aim at blending field and archival methods, or moving between fieldwork in Timor and archival research in Portugal. Looking for such traces in the field is a difficult task, almost like looking for a needle in a haystack. But it can prove fruitful. I followed this approach with my colleague, anthropologist Lúcio Sousa, in studying the case of the Indigenous sacred stone artifacts, displayed by the locals to the Portuguese anthrobiopologist António de Almeida in 1957 in the village of Afaloicai (Roque – Sousa 2019). This case shows that the Timorese could avoid or deny providing information to the colonial anthropologist. But Indigenous agency, of course, is not merely synonymous to resistance and opposition. We suggest that the enforced display of sacred artifacts to colonial officials was also a way to assert Timorese notions of power, identity, and sovereignty – perhaps without the Portuguese anthropologist even taking notice of such purposes. The analysis of the Afaloicai events therefore reveals cases of Indigenous tactics of appropriation of colonial projects for Indigenous ends.  

SK: I was especially struck by the remarkable longevity of the colonial institutions and collections, which were renamed and rebranded after the fall of the fascist Estado Novo and remained active long thereafter, even to the present day. The East Timor collections are now housed in the Museum of Natural History and Sciences in Lisbon. Can you tell us about the legacies of the collection, its potential for future historical and scientific research, and possibilities for decolonization?

RR: The collections assembled by the colonial anthropological mission to East Timor were sent to Lisbon and held by the Centre of Overseas Ethnology/Centre of Anthropobiology from 1955 until the late disappearance of this institution in the 2000s – long after the formal end of Estado Novo and the demise of the colonial empire in 1974-75. Subsequently, they moved to the Tropical Research Institute (an offshoot of the Colonial/Overseas Research Board) until 2015, when this institute was dissolved and fused with the University of Lisbon. These collections are numerous and varied. They include archaeological artifacts, audio and film recordings, photographs, anthropometric data, blood group cards, and much more. All this diverse data was collected with the aim of studying the “natives” of the colonies. It is remarkable that in spite of the changes of political regime, historical awareness of the violent and racist dimensions of these colonial collections (including its embeddedness in “scientific occupation”) has rarely been addressed critically or put at the forefront of discussions and policies of how this data should be curated, discussed, remembered – or even forgotten, or given away.

Yet in Portugal, possibilities for decolonization of these collections are yet to be imagined and put into practice – including, but not exclusively, through restitution. One important question we need to ask, I believe, is how to live with, how to coexist with what remains from these colonial expeditions. I try to reflect on this question at a modest scale, for example, in my analysis of the colonial chronotopes that endure in the biological samples of Timorese dried blood in paper cards, collected in the 1950s for racial blood group analysis (Roque 2019). In learning ‘how to live with’ these remains, a critical awareness of the difficult and violent colonial pasts of these collections is required. This past must be exposed and put at the heart of how we relate to their present significance. Critical counter-narratives of science and empire were a step in this direction; they help to dismantle self-glorifying nationalist viewpoints of science and empire. Yet – above all – I feel one needs to do much more in order to involve Indigenous African and Asian actors and perspectives. If one is to finally give up the possessive and extractive premises of “scientific occupation” that birthed these institutions and collections, the sovereignty of the present-day African and Asian communities over their destiny and management should be accepted fully. This is a difficult – but necessary – step to take.

Bulletin #48 Now Available Online

Hello Circle Readers,

Far too long in coming, we have posted Circle Bulletin #48 here (PDF). We apologize for the unprecedented delay and will take measures to avoid this in the future. As with all other past issues, you may find a permanent link under the ‘bulletin’ tab at the top of this page.

Interview with Dr Mary X. Mitchell: Nuclear Weapons and the Unsettling of Sovereignty in the Marshall Islands, 1944-1963

This past January, Dr Mary X. Mitchell gave the Pacific Circle Annual Lecture. Dr Mitchell presented on her in-progress manuscript, “Unsettling Sovereignty,” which traces the sociolegal history of US nuclear blasting in the Marshall Islands. The lecture explored several key episodes in which Islanders and others used legal claims to challenge US blasting, reshaping US power in the process.

Trained as both an attorney and a historian of science and technology, Dr Mitchell is Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

SEBESTIAN KROUPA: Your research traces how US nuclear imperialism unfolded in the Marshall Islands. After World War II, the US exercised near complete control over the islands, yet the archipelago was not part of US territory. You argued convincingly that the US deployed the islands as a military technology by turning them into an “offshore sacrifice zone”. How did that happen?

MARY X MITCHELL: At the core, my project is really about sovereignty—how US blasting changed the form and practices of US sovereignty, affected the forms and practices of ri-Aelōn̄-Kein (Marshallese) sovereignty, and touched and interfered with many other kinds of sovereignty. In the early part of the manuscript, I examine how the United States worked through the United Nations in the 1940s to create a novel status under international law, called “strategic trusteeship.” I show how the US creation of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) and its use for nuclear blasting represented a new entanglement of US extraterritorial material politics and legal politics. It blended racialized international legal forms of dependency with US militarism, and especially US military technology. Within the TTPI, the Marshall Islands became a sacrifice zone where the risks and harms of large-scale blasting could be located in Native lands and waters far outside of the United States’ North American territory.

The process entailed compromises between US military and civilian interests and agencies. The legal documents creating the TTPI were very complicated and contained seemingly conflicting provisions. US government lawyers did not agree on what US legal rights and obligations the US held in the TTPI, or even on what sources of law might apply there. US, UN, and Native sovereignties layered and intercalated in ambiguous ways in an area that was jurisdictionally legally plural. Because of this, Islanders’ and others’ challenges to US power often focused on law and legalities.

I discuss part of the origin story of strategic trusteeship in a short chapter called “The Nuclear Charter,” which is part of the volume Living in a Nuclear World: From Fukushima to Hiroshima (Routledge 2022), edited by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Kyoko Sato, and Soraya Boudia.

SK: Your story is one of the extraterritorial reach of US power as much as that of Islander agency and resistance. You emphasized the importance of Marshallese knowledges, experiences, and relationality to their ancestral atolls in this process. How were Marshallese notions shaped by their involvement in Western legal and scientific contexts – and how did Marshallese agency shape Western practices in return?

MXM: I want to start by positioning myself. I am a ri-pālle scholar and lawyer—a white US citizen who has never made a home in Aelōn̄-Kein-Ad (the Marshall Islands). I do not speak or read Marshallese. Rather, I work in extensive English-language records emanating from colonial, US national, and international law and institutions. Most of this source base is written in English. The records quite often include Marshallese actors and perspectives. Many Islanders were fluent in English and engaged with the TTPI, the US, and the UN in that language. But obviously, my standpoint is defined and limited in important ways by my identity, language skills, and focus.

With that in mind, there are two things I want to underline. First, in the time period I examine, Islanders had robust, non-state Native legal orders. These non-state legal orders were living and flexible. They changed with changing circumstances as almost all legal orders do. They were important sources of law in a legally plural area. Second, Marshallese ways of being-in-relation, including their legal orders, were (and are), I think, in very important senses incorporative. Monica LaBriola has some wonderful work that talks about this. Islanders adopted and adapted knowledges, religions, laws, technologies, techniques, even people and, in many cases, essentially made them Marshallese.

Like many legal historians who work on Native claims, I’m most interested in how Islanders articulated Native laws, practices, ontologies, knowledges and so forth in their claims-making. Even if a legal form, instrument, or forum is supplied by western law, the contents can be uniquely Marshallese. I try to trace how Islanders made their claims Marshallese. I’m not particularly interested in parsing. There’s a temporal politics to that. Colonial ideas about time and Indigeneity that remain in circulation today too often deny Native peoples the possibility of change by associating their “authentic” ways of being with a pastness that must be preserved or salvaged. I’m interested in recognizing Islanders as legal creators, innovators, and agents of change. Of course, there were and still are very real power asymmetries in play. Many of the legal rules, forms, and institutions arose in the west and favor western epistemologies and interests. But I think it is possible to value and evaluate Marshallese legal creation while attending to power relations.

I think it is especially important to denaturalize the assumption that international law and institutions are inalterably Euro-American in character. That is one origin. But Islanders, similar to other Native peoples before and after, and similar to other decolonized and decolonizing states, have treated these spaces as belonging equally to them. I am interested in examining how Islanders saw and still see Marshallese presence in these institutions as creating possibilities for transformative change. I find it important to leave open in my work the question of whether transformation is possible or likely. Marshall Islanders have worked very hard to be seen, heard, and heeded on the international stage. Today, they stand at the vanguard of international efforts to address climate change. I want to honor their work and the hope they hold out that a different future is possible.

SK: Your research brings a unique perspective and methodology by cutting across the fields of legal history and history of science. How do you navigate your research across the two fields – or how do you conceptualize the scientific dimensions of your story vis-à-vis the legal context?

MXM: The actors that historians of science and technology center in our work says something about whom we regard as important. I think it is essential for our fields to move beyond the traditional focus on scientists, technical workers, diplomats, and even users or consumers. I see my work as contributing to rich traditions of anthropological and historical work on nuclear colonialism and imperialism that have foregrounded communities and places affected by science and technology.

My approach uses legal conflict, mobilization, and claims-making as a lens, and folds legal and other knowledges into the mix. Legal knowledge istechnical knowledge. Legal work is epistemological (and even ontological) work. Law is a powerful site of meaning-making and politics. Lay people and communities make and contest legal claims. Synthesizing legal history with history of science and technology enables me to show how Marshall Islanders especially, but also other litigants and claimants, shaped and constrained US power.

To put it a different way, I regard US assertions that the problems of nuclear proliferation were narrowly technoscientific or technopolitical (and not legal) as one strategy US diplomats used to arrogate power to the United States and its allies. In fact, I show in my book project that the US was incredibly anxious about actual and threatened legal claims. Defining the field of play as science and technology was part of US strategies to limit the institutions and actors who could weigh in on its nuclear program. As a historian, I work to find out who challenged US power in different venues, trace how the US responded, and understand why the US treated particular claims or arguments as threatening. I think that offers an important viewpoint onto how US power was co-constituted and actually worked in practice. Certainly, it brings a much more heterogeneous range of actors and institutions into the narrative.

Let me explain this in the context of US work in the natural sciences done at the blast sites of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. Scientists sited many kinds of studies there—environmental, biological, physical, geological etc. If a historian were to begin from the common assumption that bodies and environments are separate entities, then the moment a person or community is physically removed they are no longer in the story. A more traditional approach to twentieth-century science and technology history might note with regret that certain communities were removed and then go on to study what scientists were doing in those places. The archival collections consulted would probably mainly consist of scientists’ papers and technoscientific institutions’ records. In that scenario, Islanders basically get evacuated from the history just as they were removed from their ancestral places. I worry that those methods—even if voiced in the register of critique—may amplify the United States’ marginalization of Islanders. The production of scientific knowledge and technology is certainly important, but I think there is room and need for other kinds of work to be done under the mantle of history of science and technology.

I am interested in writing a history that accounts for Islanders’ importance and keeps them present. Islanders have repeatedly explained that their atolls and bodies are inextricably connected. Islanders are always already there. I use legal historical methods and sources to try to keep the Marshall Islands and Marshall Islanders in view because they and their places were at the very heart of major transformations I trace. To show connections between scales from local actions all the way to international institutions, I cast a very wide archival net into technoscientific, but also colonial, diplomatic, and legal collections. Colonial and legal sources often show how Islanders were involved in discussions about nuclear blasting and scientific studies, for example, even when they might not have had access to scientists or AEC officials or appeared in their records. So while I certainly examine scientists and scientific knowledges as they weave in and out of the story, I channel my narrative through legal claims and conflicts. My narrative begins with, and repeatedly returns to the Marshall Islands and Marshall Islanders.  

SK: Finally, could you tell us about your experience of conducting research in the Marshall Islands? How do you communicate your research to the Marshallese?

MXM: I think that question kind of inverts my experiences. Marshall Islanders and long-term residents of the Marshall Islands have mentored me and supported me immeasurably in writing this history. They have very patiently oriented me, helped me to identify my own ethnocentric assumptions, put me in contact with knowledgeable people and communities, and even taken care of me when I’ve travelled to Majuro Atoll. They have not asked for much in return, except that I portray Islanders fairly and show their centrality within this history. That very much comports with how my academic mentors taught me to do history in the first place.

Many institutions and individuals in the Marshall Islands are working very hard to understand and educate about the nuclear legacy. In thinking about how my work might be of relevance, I try to listen carefully to what my Marshallese mentors, colleagues, and friends desire. As I have grown as a person and a scholar, it has become very important to me to prioritize and boost Islanders’ initiatives rather than dreaming up my own. Those initiatives are tremendously important. This isn’t about me. Folks know what I work on and my door is always open. I’ve collaborated in various small ways when invited.

I’ll talk just a bit about one issue I think is really pressing. From time to time, I have had the opportunity to share some archival records—things like photos, letters, recorded stories and so on—with descendants. Because my project focuses, in part, on Islanders’ mobilization, a lot of those records reflect powerful moments of leadership—an important meeting, the words of a speech, a letter demanding justice. Many people in the Islands value and want to access those kinds of records. There is real injustice at work in where archival records are located (mainly in lands of former colonizers) and how much craft knowledge and money it takes to visit and use them. Those archives relate to (maybe even constitute) loved ones, ancestors, and ancestral places. At a bare minimum, Islanders deserve better access. I want to conclude by noting that there’s a long history of Western journalists, scholars, and activists using the islands to make a big point and then moving on. That’s actually a part of the story I tell in the book. Some alliances faded when atmospheric blasting stopped entirely in 1963. Numerous American activists moved on to other causes while Islanders were left with the long-term problems of contamination and colonization. I don’t mirror those moves in my manuscript and I certainly don’t want to reproduce them through my actions. I will remain committed to collaborating long after the ink in the book is dry.

Council Members and Officers, Past and Present

Dear Circle Readers,

As we continue to expand our online discourse and the Pacific Circle itself, we would like to recognize the Council members and officers who have helped to ensure the vitality of the organization over the past 30 years and more. Now and for the future, we remain focused on the abiding realization of our purpose — to promote and assist scholarship in the history and social studies of Pacific science.

Members Directory 2022 and Site Renovation

Hello Circle Readers,

We would like to share our Members Directory for 2022 (PDF) even as we make further updates and adjustments to the format. If you wish to add, edit, or remove any part of your member entry, then please email us at thepacificcircle@gmail.com or feel free to contact me directly at mpkline@hawaii.edu.

In the coming weeks, we will also be introducing a number of exciting enhancements to the web site in order to increase the visibility of content, enable better online engagement, and promote collaboration with other organizations.

Pacific Circle Online Lecture, January 20th 2022

Dear Circle Readers,

We are pleased to announce the first of an irregular series of online events of the Pacific Circle. The new council have agreed to introduce this innovation to make best use of new digital means of communication. We will aim to highlight the work of emerging scholars in the fields represented by the Circle.

Please click here to view the announcement (PDF), or see below for details.

Please click here to register in advance (link will open in a new tab). The lecture will be held via Zoom.


Nuclear Weapons and the Unsettling of Sovereignty in the Marshall Islands, 1944-1963

MX Mitchell (University of Toronto)

Abstract: Between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islands became a critical center of the United States’ nuclear weapons program. The United States detonated its largest and most powerful nuclear bombs in Indigenous lands and waters, offshoring the mass-scale violence and risk of its signal weapons system. The Marshall Islands, however, were not a part of US territory. Working through the United Nations, US diplomats engineered a sui generis international status—strategic trusteeship—into which it placed Pacific islands seized from Japan during World War II. The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands became a novel, anomalous legal zone of US empire uniquely tied to both nuclear weapons and international law and institutions. This paper explores how this new, yet indeterminate status redefined relationships between sovereignty, territory, and jurisdiction before the worldwide cessation of US atmospheric nuclear blasting in 1963. Drawing on archival research in activists’ records, court files, United Nations records, Trust Territory records, and US government agency collections, the paper traces Islanders’ legal actions across three different forums. It examines how Islanders’ claims over damage to their bodies, ancestral atolls, and ways of life exposed the emerging contours of strategic trusteeship and the boundaries of their belonging in national and international legal and political systems.

Mary X. Mitchell is assistant professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. Prior to joining the University of Toronto, Mitchell was a faculty fellow at Princeton University, an assistant professor at Purdue University, and a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. She practiced law and clerked for Judge Anthony J. Scirica of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit before earning her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Mitchell’s work focuses on the intersections between law, knowledges, and technology.

Greetings from the President

Hello Circle Readers,

Please see the Front Page for an announcement from our current Pacific Circle President, Professor Sujit Sivasundaram. There you may also find an an updated list of Officers and Council Members, including their academic interests and affiliations.

Bulletin No. 47 Now Available

Hello Circle Members,

Pacific Circle Bulletin No. 47 (October 2021) is now available and may be downloaded here (PDF). As with all other past issues, the file may also be downloaded using the permanent link in the ‘Bulletin’ section of this site. A keyword search of all past issues of the Bulletin and Newsletter may be performed using the search bar at the bottom of the page.

Bulletin No. 45 Now Available

Hello Circle Readers,

The October 2020 Bulletin (No. 45) is now available and may be downloaded here (PDF). This and all past issues may be viewed or downloaded by clicking on the ‘Bulletin’ link at the top of this page. One may also perform a keyword search of our site, including all bulletin issues, by using the toolbar at the bottom of the page.