Maritime Solidarity

22 September 2023 - 9:00 — 23 September 2023 - 16:30

Maritime solidarity: Past and present

Amsterdam, International Institute of Social History, 22-23 September
Organizing committee: Pepijn Brandon, Niklas Frykman, Marcus Rediker, and Nandita Sharma

Ships and oceans, shorelines and harbors historically have been the theater of dramatic social struggles. The term “hydrarchy”, introduced a quarter century ago in The Many-Headed Hydra, tried to capture the double-edged nature of these struggles. The crucial place of the oceans in the development of a capitalist world market led states and ruling classes to launch determined struggles to own or control the waters, as well as the peoples who worked on and around them. At the same time, working classes of all hues and the seaborne populations they were part of devised new ways to exchange experiences, ideas, and forms of struggles, developing wide-ranging practices of solidarity in the process.

While there is a thriving literature on the many historic examples of solidarity at sea, and between people ashore and afloat, there is still a lack of research that investigates concretely how, under what conditions, and with what lasting effects such solidarity comes about. This conference aims to bring together papers that focus on concrete histories of maritime solidarity, whether on board early modern slave ships or twentieth-century supertankers, in traditional sailortowns or contemporary container ports, and everywhere in between. Papers are invited that cover any period between roughly 1500 and the present, any group of people challenging authority from below, and all the world’s river systems, seas, and oceans. We plan to publish a select number of papers in the form of an edited book or special journal issue.

Questions that can be addressed include:

  • How does solidarity come about; under what conditions; who is involved (but also: who is excluded); what networks or organizations (formal or informal) play a role in bolstering or inhibiting cooperation from below? What forms of self-organization have maritime workers developed?
  • What structural features of life at sea or on shore play a role in the development of solidarity? How do maritime geographies, changing patterns of long-distance trade, new techniques of transportation, new instruments of communication or repression shape common struggles? What is the relationship between structure and agency at sea?
  • How did maritime solidarity challenge states and empires, disrupt capital accumulation and destabilize borders? To what extent did it manage to bridge divisions based on race, gender, identity, or status? How can maritime solidarity work in the present and future?

Please send in proposals for papers consisting of an abstract of 150-250 words plus a short academic CV by 1 December 2022 to:

While we intend this to be a scholarly conference, we also wish to make space for an active dialogue between people studying maritime solidarity in the past and practitioners of maritime solidarity in the present (including, for example, migrant rescue workers, maritime trade unionists, stop the boat campaigners, and more). We are convinced that such mutual learning can generate insights that will enrich both scholarship and activism. For this reason, we hope to include one or two round tables, open to a public audience, where activists involved in maritime solidarity today reflect on connections to maritime solidarity in the past, based on the presentations at the conference. People who would be interested in joining the conference on the basis of their involvement in present-day maritime solidarity are invited to write a short e-mail to the conference organizers explaining the nature of their work.

Limited travel support will be available, meant to support early career scholars or participants who cannot draw on institutional funding, including activists.

This conference is organized by the International Institute of Social History (IISH), VU Amsterdam’s interfaculty research institute CLUE+, and the History Department of the University of Pittsburgh.

Image: Protest action at the harbour of Zarzis, Tunisia, April 2018. Credit/Copyright: Alarm Phone.

Protest action at the harbour of Zarzis, Tunisia, April 2018.