Maritime solidarities report

28 December 2023 - 16:01

The Maritime Solidarities Past and Present Conference was hosted at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam on 22-23 September 2023, supported by the IISH, the University of Pittsburgh, and VU/CLUE+. The organizing Committee consisted of Marcus Rediker, Niklas Frykman, Pepijn Brandon, and Nandita Sharma.

The conference sought to investigate concretely how, under what conditions, and with what lasting effects maritime solidarity comes about. To this end, the conference brought together a wide range of participants, including both scholars and present-day solidarity activists. The conference took place over two days. Each day started with a keynote speaker followed by thematic panels. Both days ended with a public roundtable during which practitioners of maritime solidarity in the present shared their work and experiences, and reflected on connections to maritime solidarity in the past.


The conference was opened by Niklas Frykman with his keynote “Hydrarchy and the history of global capitalism.” Frykman started his keynote with a coal heavers' riot on the London docks in 1798. From there, he traced the struggles of dockworkers against increasing state-control and securitization of the docks throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. Frykman drew on the work of Linebaugh and Rediker by invoking two forms of hydrarchy. ‘The organization of the maritime state from above, and the self-organization of sailors from below’. Frykman commented on this concept in two ways that would become important for the conference. He emphasized that hydrarchy from above, the system of capital-state power is designed in response to hydarchy from below and not the other way around. There is unity in the struggle against hydrarchy, also across time. Present-day struggles are not separate from history.

The refusal to separate the struggles of the present-day and historical struggle was crucial to bringing together the conference. The lessons that might learned from historical struggles were the central theme of Marcus Rediker's Saturday keynote ‘Escaping slavery by Sea in 19th-century America: Lessons for the Present”. Starting from the experience of enslaved workers escaping the US South by sea, he ended on eight rousing lessons that current-day solidarity movements can learn from the past:

  1. Be ready and willing to break the law.
  2. Explain why you are breaking the law.
  3. Work with those who occupy strategic positions in the global division of labor.
  4. Be ready to respond to, and assist, the initiatives of fugitives and the struggles from below.
  5. Listen to the fugitives and learn from them.
  6. Document the conditions the fugitives were escaping.
  7. Humanize the fugitive.
  8. Amplify the voice of the fugitive.

This wide-ranging sense of solidarity that connects different struggles across time and place so that support and lessons can be drawn from them was an essential element of the conference.

Solidarity and the sea

The theme of the first panel of the conference was solidarity and the sea. Joe Redmayne’s paper ‘“This is the fight of all Seamen, no matter what their Creed or Colour”: Interracial Solidarity on Britain’s North-East Coast, 1919-30.’ Introduced the theme of race and solidarity to this panel. Redmayne argues that there has been a tendency to reduce the phenomenon of popular race riots to identity and obscure notions of interracial solidarity as well as conceal corporate racial management of segmented labour markets. Instead, Redmayne uses his case study to explore pragmatic interracialism in labour unions. Daniel Tödt’s ‘Striking Differences in the Age of Steam: Racialized Division of Maritime Solidarity in the Belgian Empire’ contributed another perspective on race and solidarity. Tödt argues that the racialized division of labour on Belgian steamships and the separation of Congolese workers from white Belgians fostered a sense of solidarity among the ethnically and linguistically diverse Congolese. Samia Dinkelaker’s “Strategies of self-protection: an ethnography among Indonesian migrant workers in Taiwan’s fishing industry” connects the discussion of ethnic divisions of labour and solidarity to the present day. Dinkelaker emphasizes the different forms of agency that Indonesian migrant workers have on small and large Taiwanese fishing vessels.

Shipboard struggles

The second panel focused on various histories of shipboard struggles. Justine Cousin continued the discussion of colonial racialization and solidarity in trade Unions in her paper ‘Maritime Solidarity among Colonial Seamen working for British companies (1925-1946)’. Alexis Dudden and Benjamin Barson shared the history of a particular instance of shipboard struggle: ‘The Robert Bowne mutiny’ of 1852. Chinese indentured labourers rebelled against their American captors. By visualizing their research in a graphic novel and animation they hope to bring more attention

to the history of Chinese indenture. Barson adds a musicological perspective on Chinese indenture through music history from below, finding aural remnants of Afro-Asiatic solidarity through Chinese influence on early Jazz. Kevin Dawson’s ‘Maritime Marronage: Multi-Ethnic Voyages to Communities of Belonging.’ shows how the sea is not just a place of struggle but also of meaning-making. Dawson insists that the study of maritime marronage demands an understanding of African aquatic culture. In this culture, the sea and canoes have a spiritual significance which Dawson argues was important to those escaping slavery by sea. To Dawson, maritime marronage was not just about escaping from slavery but also about sailing towards a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging was already created on board. A shared destination added to a sense of solidarity on these multi-ethnic voyages.

Solidarity between shore and ship

The subject of the first panel of the second day was solidarity between shore and ship, with a focus on dockworker unions' involvement in social movements. Peter Cole draws examples of collective action from the history of labour internationalism in his paper ‘The Dockers Who Fought Authoritarianism with solidarity’. The International Longshoremen and Warehousing Union Local 10 in particular stopped work in solidarity with Chinese, Chileans, and South Africans to oppose Imperialism Militarism fascism and racism. In ‘International Solidarity and Apartheid: Port Elizabeth’s Dockworkers’, Ncebakazi Makwetu explores the political activism of the SACTU dockworkers Union and their leader Vuyisile Mini. Makwetu argues that the 1957 SACTU strike serves as a powerful testament to collective action by dockworkers and solidarity in the face of injustice. Rafeef Ziadah discusses a more recent example of such collective action in ‘Block the boat for Palestine! A comparative study of Organizing Efficacy in ‘Labour Union Social Movementism on the U.S. Docks, 2014-2021’. Ziadah specifically studies what allowed the collaboration between the Union and the social movement to succeed in some cases and not others. Hassan Ould Moctar connects ship and shore through ethnographic fieldwork among people on the move to Europe in the Sahel in his paper: ‘Connecting Maritime and Terrestrial Solidarity between the Mediterranean and the Sahara’.  

Violence and resistance at sea

Shifting the emphasis from the shore back to the sea, the theme of the following panel was violence and resistance at sea. The sea itself can be violent. The shared danger of death by drowning can be a source of solidarity for those at sea or in proximity to the water. Lochlann Jain presented the paper ‘The history and present of drowning: intimacy and solidarity at sea’ showing how methods of resuscitation to save the drowned developed historically. Travis van Isacker and Thom Tyerman show that the relation between rescue from the sea and solidarity is made more complex by European migration policies. This ambivalence is expressed in the title of their paper ‘Channel crossings: Always search and rescue; sometimes solidarity and resistance?’ Van Isacker and Thyerman argue that British and French search and rescue arrivals serve four purposes: to prevent loss of life at sea; but also, to prevent autonomous arrivals; to funnel people into asylum detention and deportation and to gather evidence for criminalization. On the Mediterranean border of fortress Europe the basic solidarity of rescue from the sea is not a given, it is often denied. The role of the law in this situation is explored by Lucia Gennari and Maurice Stierl in their paper ‘The ambivalent role of the law in mobility conflicts: Contesting border violence at sea through legal action?’. The law might be employed by states to criminalize migrants and those who try to help them in solidarity. Furthermore, states might hide behind the law and policy to avoid responsibilities towards people on the move. However, Gennari and Stierl also explore the ways in which legal action might be used to hold governments and ships accountable to save those at sea who are being denied aid.

The work of solidarity

The title of the final scholar-panel of the conference was ´The Work of Solidarity´. Luna Vives ‘contribution to this panel ‘Resistance from within: Spanish rescues workers at the sea border’ focuses on the Spanish public rescue agency known as SASEMAR or Salvamento Marítimo. Until 2018-2019 the SASEMAR Rescuers refused to distinguish between migrants and others in need of aid at sea in their rescue operations. To Vives, the CGT SASEMAR trade Union was important in fostering this sense of solidarity. As migration became a political issue in Spain the SASEMAR and its Union found themselves in a conflict with their employer the Spanish government. Vives argues that the Spanish government broke down an effective and transparent rescue system by placing SASEMAR under the military and moving rescue responsibilities to the Moroccan government. Rather than looking at states, Pat Rubio Bertran examines the role of the maritime shipping industry in sea rescues in the Mediterranean in ‘fostering solidarity at sea. The maritime shipping industry and sea rescue in the Mediterranean.’ Bertran argues that though rescues by shipping vessels occur sporadically, ultimately the system of racial capital that the shipping industry operates in rewards not rescuing as diverting from routes loses profits. Furthermore, Bertran insists that to foster solidarity we must interrogate this system through an abolitionist lens. As states and the shipping industry often avoid their responsibilities at sea, several NGOs engage in search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean. Jasmine Iozelli explores how NGO rescue vessels operate in ‘A sea perennially on the move. SAR in the central Mediterranean:

Between Search & Rescue and Solidarity and Resistance’. Iozelli argues that larger vessels have the capacity to save more people, but also operate in a more procedural and hierarchical manner. On the smaller vessels, Iozelli observed a more egalitarian approach to solidarity with the people being rescued.

Maritime workers’ solidarity

The Public Roundtables closing both conference days allowed for public engagement on the themes of the conference. The theme of the public roundtable on the first day of the conference was Maritime Workers’ solidarity and it sought to address present-day dock workers’ solidarity and trade union struggles, as well as support work for seafarers. The roundtable speakers connected their work to the themes of the conference as a starting point for a broader discussion. Charlie Thomas contributed to earlier discussions about political activities by labour unions as his work examines the political work of the Union Sindacale di Base (USB) in Livorno, Italy and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) in South Africa. Continuing this theme Luis Thielemann and Camilo Santibáñez Rebolledo discussed dockworkers’ solidarity with urban social struggles in Chile, specifically focusing on collaboration and joint striking between dockworker unions and student unions. A longshore worker in the Port of NY/NJ whose name cannot be divulged for security reasons spoke about his frustrations with the absence of a culture of solidarity in his Union and the increased surveillance of workers and the harsh repercussions that make worker action difficult. The discussion of shipboard struggle and solidarity between shore and ship was also continued in the roundtable as Miriam Matthiessen and Jacob Bolten spoke about their Abandoned Seafarer Map project. The Abandoned Seafarer Project aims to make seafarer abandonment more visible.

Solidarity and resistance at sea

The last Public Roundtable infused the lessons from the conference with a real sense of urgency by connecting it to present-day activism and rescue efforts on the borders of Fortress Europe. Imane Echhchikhi and Maurice Stierl represented the Alarm Phone Network. The Alarm Phone is a number that boat people in distress can call. The volunteers of the network will then alert the relevant Coast Guard and nearby ships and urge them to rescue those in distress. If there is no response, they will also exert public pressure. Echchikhi and Stierl explained the origins of the Alarm Phone Network and how it works today. Maria Elena and Jakob Frühmann joined the roundtable on behalf of Sea-Watch. Sea-Wach is a non-profit organization that conducts civil search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean. The final participant of the roundtable was Stefano Tria who is an activist on Search and Rescue vessels and a part of the Ermenautica-Saperi in Rotta project. The Ermenautica project combines anthropology with activism by undertaking voyages in the Mediterranean. Stefano himself recently visited Lampedusa and shared his observations of the migrant camp; the militarization and increased police presence; and the local Italian population. The common ground of a shared commitment to solidarity enabled a diverse group from different fields to come together and contribute from their own knowledge and experience. In addition to solidarity as a starting point, the refusal to compartmentalize solidarity into separate struggles across history and across the world characterized this conference. Extending solidarity as wide as possible as a common thread between different struggles fostered the connections and the learning that took place at this conference.

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