LaborOnline New Book Interviews

William D. Riddell On the Waves of Empire U.S. Imperialism and Merchant Sailors, 1872-1924

Ian Rocksborough-Smith interviewed William D. Riddell about his new book On the Waves of Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Merchant Sailors, 1872-1924, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2023. Set mainly in the years preceding and following the Spanish-American War (1898) through World War I (1914-1918) and its aftermath, the book looks especially at the experiences of merchant sailors, their unions, and their labor leaders to indicate how class conflict impacted America’s emergent 20th Century empire.

Focused on organizations like the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific and International Seaman’s Union of America, On the Waves of Empire charts a fascinating, yet ultimately tragic tale of the ways white working-class American sailors tried to reimagine themselves as “agents of empire,” beholden to restrictive notions of American citizenship that ultimately relied on what W.E.B. DuBois and David Roediger might have called the psychological “wage of whiteness” in an age of extreme racial exclusions and shifting imperial boundaries. It is a dramatic, yet ultimately tragic tale of paths not taken for a strategic industry in the history of American capitalism. It should interest any students of American empire, capitalism, labor, and race.

Will provided a copy of the excerpt available here:Riddell Waves of Empire excerpt

Video segments (viewable once you press play)
0:00 Intro
1:29 – Approaches & Inspiration
12:45 – Class Conflict and U.S. Empire
17:30 – On White Settler Colonialism
20:50 – Paths Not Taken
25:10 – A Tragic Tale & World War I
29:20 – Agents of Empire
39:00 – Future Plans

William Riddell bio:

Will is an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in History at the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto-Scarborough. His research areas include Post-Civil War to mid-twentieth century U.S. history, Labor and Working-Class history, the history of capitalism, and the history of empire. In addition to On the Waves of Empire: U.S. Imperialism and Merchant Sailors, 1872-1924, his latest article, “Does Exclusion Follow the Flag: Merchant Sailors and U.S. Imperial Expansion, 1895-1906,” was published in The International Review of Social History. His next project, tentatively titled, Moving the Empire: Workers and the Imperial Geography of Lend-Lease, 1940-1973,  is a social and labor history of Lend Lease.

The Arago Four. Credit: University of Washington Libraries