Liquid Empire

Project Leader:  Prof. Dr. Corey Ross

Liquid Empire is a project that has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust (2018-22) and the National Endowment of the Humanities (2018). It offers a new and original interpretation of European imperialism through the history of water. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a handful of European states presided over the largest trans-continental empires the world had ever known, together covering well over a third of the global land surface. Yet this epoch-making land-grab encompassed not only magnificent rainforests, parched deserts, and teeming savannahs, but also many of the world’s largest lakes, mightiest rivers, greatest wetlands, and most prolific coastal seas.  

The purpose of this project is to reconstruct how the waters of the colonial world (primarily in Asia and Africa) shaped the history of European imperialism, along with the stories of the people scientists, engineers, officials, fisher-folk, farmers – who sought to exploit them. Spanning the major European empires of the period, it examines how new ideas, technologies, and institutions transformed human engagements with water, and how aquatic nature was reshaped in the process. Water was a realm of imperial power: who got to control, distribute, or pollute it was closely bound up with colonial claims, hierarchies, and inequalities. It was also a challenge to imperial power: for all the rhetoric of ‘mastering’ water, it was never fully tamed. 

By re-considering the imperial past from an aquatic standpoint, Liquid Empire highlights the crucial role of water in the making and unmaking of the colonial order. It flowed throughout the entire imperial enterprise, and the legacies persisted long after these empires had ebbed away. Today, as billions of people in the developing world are faced with mounting water shortages, rising flood risks, and the relentless depletion of life in the seas, this project seeks to understand the deeper history of the various crises engulfing the world’s waters. The resulting monograph authored by Corey Ross will appear in 2024 with Princeton University Press.