Indonesian President Sukarno and Indian President Jawaharlal Nehru; Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser; delegate procession at the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia.

The Afro-Asian Moment

Before I became a professional historian, I was lucky enough to visit Bandung — a cool, green city in the hills of Java, and a welcome respite from the humidity and heat of polluted Jakarta. It was a work trip; I was working for an international development organisation and my Indonesian colleagues — fellow history buffs — had arranged for us to stay at the old Savoy Homann hotel, one of the host sites of the 1955 Asia-Africa Conference. The long lines and curved corners of the hotel’s façade and dark wood interiors, studded with stained glass lighting, were a throwback to the era of Indies Art Deco. A brochure on the hotel’s history gave me a first glimpse of what the conference meant for previously colonised nations: a moment of immense optimism about the future of Asia and Africa.

The Bandung conference welcomed 29 countries and was hosted by Indonesia, India, Burma, Pakistan, and Ceylon, which had secured their independence from their colonial masters in the immediate wake of the Second World War. Only 4 countries from Sub-Saharan Africa were represented at the conference: Ethiopia, the Gold Coast, Liberia, and the Sudan. Such was Africa’s symbolic importance, and the familiarity of new post-colonial leaders to a global audience, that some Indonesian intellectuals still recalled with nostalgia the presence of Kwame Nkrumah, who was in fact never there. The popularity of Egypt’s revolutionary hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser, also lent the gathering legitimacy beyond Asia’s borders.

This was a theatrical performance staged before the world. Life magazine photographs show Sukarno laughing with Nehru, the Cheshire cat grin of Chou En Lai, the processions of gleaming motorcars and flags. We have a trove of written, audio and visual material about Bandung. We have a number of differing accounts of the conference, including that of an idealistic and sympathetic outsider by the African-American intellectual Richard Wright, and an in-depth analysis by the great Southeast Asian scholar George Kahin. Since the turn of the millennium, with the 50th and 60th anniversary of the conference, as well as independence commemorations for Asian and African nations, Bandung has taken on a new symbolic and intellectual life for historians, political scientists, and literary theorists interested in decolonisation.

With the birth of the United Nations in 1945 and the retreat of empires, the spirit of Bandung extended well beyond the city in which Sukarno had spent his formative years as a radical student and anti-colonial nationalist. The era of hope and optimism for new Asian and African nations crystallized in the 1950s, and extended into the 1960s for African nations in the years following their independence.

It was an era of diplomacy and geo-political manoeuvring among new political elites, but it was also one in which journalists, intellectuals, trade unionists, and women’s movements in Asia and Africa were able to speak and connect with each across national borders. Artists, poets, and performers travelled and experimented with new forms of cultural expression to create new visions of the nation.

Much of this happened within the shadow of the Cold War, as major superpowers vied for influence in the Global South. The US sent African-American jazz musicians to Africa and Asia, while the Soviets sent the Russian Ballet. Both funded forms of cultural propaganda — magazines, mobile cinemas, film workshops — as well as generous exchange programs, scholarships, and travel funds for trade unionists and activists to travel and tour their respective countries. China hosted a Peace Conference in 1952, providing a venue for artists and literati across Asia to meet for the first time.

A series of conversations I’ve had with other historians and scholars looking at this period has grown into a research group examining these trans-national interactions among activists, intellectuals, and artists in Asia and Africa in the early years of the Cold War. This publication is intended as a space for reflection on our findings and thoughts on the practice of doing global history as scholars of Africa and Asia. We welcome submissions from others writing and thinking about similar issues, and hope to start a wide-ranging conversation with those interested in the political, social, and cultural dimensions of decolonisation in Asia, Africa and beyond, including Latin America and the Middle East.

Part of Bandung’s appeal in the past decade and a half has been its symbolic ability to challenge the predominance of histories told from the point of view of nation-states. If global history is, at its best, a collaborative project, the historical joining of Asia and Africa gives us a starting point, and a framework, to think about connections and comparisons across nations and regions still working through the legacies of colonialism.

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