MLA 2024: Empire at Sea

deadline for submissions: 
March 23, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
Alexander Sherman
contact email: 

Special Session at MLA 2024 in Philadelphia, January 4-7, 2024


How might we better understand colonialism, and ways of being and knowing against or outside of it, by foregrounding the maritime: oceans, sailing, ports, cargo, navigation, crews, shoals, shipwreck, piracy? “Water is the first thing in my imagination,” writes Dionne Brand in A Map to the Door of No Return: “I knew that everyone here was unhappy and haunted in some way” that “had something to do with the Door of No Return and the sea.” Following Brand’s method, the gambit of this roundtable is that approaching colonialism via the sea can help us see it better and imagine paths past it.


Even as many creative, critical, and theoretical texts about empire and decolonization invoke the sea, it sometimes becomes merely metaphorical or tangential rather than a primary site for thinking about empire. But can keeping the “maritime factor” in sight, as in Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás’s Capitalism and the Sea, make the cultural/material logics of colonialism easier for us to discern? Conversely, can work, community, and stories at sea, or even the marine environment itself, provide models for anti-colonial resistance, knowledge, and living? In short, how can studying empire at sea, conceiving it as a principally maritime phenomenon, help us put empire at sea, setting it adrift and breaking it apart?


Contributions from all disciplines, contexts, archives, and approaches are welcome. Our goal is to have a broad discussion of the many possible ways that we could pay more attention to the maritime in relation to empire, including ways that it can reshape our understanding of seemingly land-bound questions or texts. Possible topics might include and connect:

  • Transatlantic slavery and Black diaspora
  • Indigenous lifeways by and on the sea
  • Linking British and United States naval empires; United States maritime hegemony
  • The Indian Ocean World
  • Maritime creative texts: sea fiction and nonfiction; poetry; theater, on or about the sea; film; music; visual art; the yarn
  • Collectives: mutiny; racial divisions of labor in shipboard work; dockworkers; diaspora
  • Capitalism: cargos and containerization; insurance; ledgers; state protection and chartering; weights and measures; offshoring; free trade
  • Imperial law: Indigenous rights; property at sea; territorializing; citizenship; freedom of the seas; customs houses; piracy
  • Science: “voyages of discovery”; celestial navigation; longitude; charting; collecting; weapons testing; robotic sensors
  • Marine environments: properties of water, especially in relation to artistic media; marine ecosystems and organisms; saltwater, freshwater, estuaries; rivers, bays, harbors, beaches; the human body at sea; weather
  • Empire and the ocean of the Anthropocene: global heating and acidification; debris and pollution; fishery collapse; sea level rise


Please submit 100-200 word abstracts and short bios to Alex Sherman ( by March 23rd, 2023 for consideration.