merchant navy

views updated May 21 2018

merchant navy. In the medieval period there was no absolute distinction between merchant ships and warships. In time of war ships were commandeered from ports, particularly on the south coast. When commandeered, they were largely floating platforms for archers and men-at-arms and tactics consisted of little more than grappling and boarding. Their routine employment was in exporting cloth, lead, tin, and coal, fishing, and conveying passengers. The stern rudder had been introduced by the 13th cent. and a few of the vessels were of 200 tons, though most were much smaller. They were clinker built, with a single square sail. They were vulnerable not only to the elements, but to pirates and privateers, and to the hostility of sailors from rival ports. The poor state of the roads meant a considerable amount of river and coastal traffic, mainly in barges or cogs.

In 1545, when Henry VIII assembled a fleet against the French, 56 of the 181 ships were royal. The Great Harry, built at Deptford in 1513, was of over 1,000 tons, others of 400 tons, but most smaller. Drake's Golden Hind, which circumnavigated the globe, was 160 tons, and the Squirrel of 8 tons crossed the Atlantic in 1580. Of the 177 ships called to give battle to the Armada, 34 were naval vessels: the remainder included craft only fit to make up the numbers.

The 17th cent. saw a considerable increase in the size of ships, particularly those belonging to the East India Company, founded in 1600. The Trades Increase, the Company's first vessel, was almost 1,000 tons and was wrecked in Java on its first voyage, and though its size was exceptional, 800-ton Indiamen were not. The great expansion of empire made enormous calls on shipping, the Navigation Act of 1651 helped to fight off the challenge of the Dutch, and the total tonnage of English merchant shipping increased fivefold between 1586 and 1686. Many of the vessels were engaged in the slave trade, which brought prosperity to Bristol, Liverpool, and, along with the tobacco trade, to Glasgow. Newcastle, Sunderland, Whitby, and Hull grew in importance as shipbuilding ports.

The 19th cent. saw the British merchant navy at its strongest before international competition had bitten deep. Steamships came in during the 1820s, at first for short-haul ferry services, where the problems of storing coal were not so acute. Brunel's Great Western, a paddle steamer, crossed the Atlantic in 1838 and inaugurated a regular service. His second vessel, the Great Britain, launched in 1843, was made of iron, and screw-propelled. By 1847 the P. & O. line was running a regular steamship service to India. The great tea clipper races of the 1860s were between vessels of a dying breed. By 1890 over half the tonnage of the merchant fleet were steamers, most of the remaining sailing ships being small coastal vessels. At that time Britain owned half of the world's tonnage.

From then onwards, the impetus faltered. Though the total British tonnage continued to increase, as a proportion of the world's shipping it fell steadily. By 1914 it was down to 39 per cent, with Germany, the USA, Norway, France, and Japan coming up fast. The size of ships had again increased enormously. The Mauretania, launched on the Tyne for Cunard in 1907 and built by Swan Hunter, was 31,938 tons; the Olympic, built in Belfast for White Star in 1911, was 45,324 tons; its sister ship the Titanic in 1912 was 46,392 tons.

The effect of two world wars accelerated Britain's decline. Between 1914 and 1918, 9 million tons of British shipping were lost, mainly to German U-boats, and building could not keep pace. Britain's share of world tonnage continued to slide, from 33 per cent in 1921 to 26 per cent in 1939. The Second World War repeated the pattern, 2,426 ships totalling 11 million tons being sunk, with the loss of 28,000 seamen.

After a pause in the immediate post-war period, the decline was resumed. Great passenger liners gave way to oil tankers of more than 200,000 tons, and cargo vessels to roll-on roll-off container ships. New countries put British shipbuilding yards out of business; flags of convenience, particularly from Liberia or Panama, took away registrations; over-fishing in the coastal waters produced unpleasant confrontations with Iceland, Denmark, and Spain, and cut fishing fleets drastically. In 1948 Britain still retained 22 per cent of the world's registered tonnage: by 1970 it was down to 8 per cent, and by 1986 to less than 3 per cent. Only some 30,000 are now employed as seamen, many of them on short-distance ferries.

J. A. Cannon

merchant navy

views updated Jun 11 2018

merchant navy Section of a nation's fleet concerned with international commercial shipping. Today, ‘flag-of-convenience’ fleets carry most international cargo. These lines register ships in low-tax countries, such as Liberia or Panama.