Drowned Empires: Oceanic Studies and the Anglophone Literary World


ACLS Fellowship Program


Unterberg Poetry Center


“Drowned Empires” explores how the history of the novel chronicles the contested construction of imperial citizenship in the wake of abolition across the British imperial world. This book project claims that novelistic realism and geological science’s conjoined reactions to the abolition of the slave trade turned terrestrial realism away from the oceanic world to preserve the British Empire’s moral standing across the globe. As the novel’s associations with empire became increasingly intertwined over the high era of the British Empire, the project of novelistic realism led a retreat from the unmappable horrors of the ocean’s material and ideological histories and toward the provincial interior—a space depicted as geodetically and geologically knowable and, in its racial homogeneity, the primary geography from which agents of empire issued. This disjuncture in the way cultural forms see the territorialized continent and the abstracted ocean underwrote imperial conceptions of race that we still live with in contemporary eras, in debates over colonial independence movements, and in the environmental racism that makes those parts of the world living in the wake of abolition and decolonization uniquely vulnerable to climate change.