Shipping, Coastal

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Shipping, Coastal

The phrase coastal shipping has a number of definitions and translations, but the most common usage is to indicate trade totally within a country, to distinguish it from overseas or foreign trade. The word cabotage is also widely used. An alternative meaning might be ships staying within sight of the coast. Some European countries placed geographical limits on their coastal trade, and some, such as Belgium with its forty-mile coastline, did not recognize the concept. Some states included voyages to their colonies, since these were seen as an extension of the homeland. Portugal in the late nineteenth century included voyages to Madeira, the Azores, and other Atlantic possessions. What counted as coastal varied over time, as boundaries changed. Some countries emerged as independent from old empires, such as Finland, and others, such as Italy and Germany, unified a number of smaller states into a larger whole. However, for the majority of countries, for most of this period, coastal shipping meant ships plying between two ports in the same country, and for the purposes of this article coastal shipping will mean domestic trade (Armstrong and Kunz 2002).


Many countries protected their coastal trade, in that they did not allow foreign companies or foreign-registered ships to participate. In addition some states insisted that the crews of coastal ships be nationals. The protection was sometimes justified using "the nursery of seamen" argument, namely that coastal shipping trained landlubbers to become skilled seamen, who could then graduate to deep-sea shipping, and even onto warships. It was also felt that the country needed a minimum level of shipping, even if much of the overseas trade was carried in foreign ships. The United States protected its coastal trade in both goods and passengers, as did many European countries.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, opened up its coastal trade to all in 1854, but before the Great War this had little effect. It was not until the interwar period that the Dutch motor barge made inroads into the British coastal trade. So wholehearted was British adherence to free coastal trade that before 1914 it allowed open access to Indian coasting trade, to the advantage of Nippon Yusen Kaisha and the discomfort of the British India Company.


From 1450, for four hundred years, the coastal ship was a ubiquitous provider of transport for both passengers and goods. Ships were wooden-hulled and wind-propelled, and the technology changed slowly in this period. The coastal ship had a particular advantage over contemporary land transport for bulk transport. Land transport could carry between a few hundredweight on a string of packhorses and three or four tons on a four-wheel wagon with a team of heavy horses. Compare this to the average coaster, which carried thirty or forty tons, while brigs, by the mid-eighteenth century in some trades, such as in coal down the English east coast, could load about two hundred tons. The wind came free—though sails tore and yards broke—whereas the horse used in land transport was expensive to feed and had a short working life compared to the longevity of the coastal ship. Carriage by road required more labor than by sea, for a consignment of forty tons would fit on one ship but needed ten sets of wagons, plus horses and a wagoner for each—many more people than were on the coaster's crew.

Of course the coaster had drawbacks compared to road transport. It was less predictable. It could make fast voyages but might spend weeks in harbor because the wind was too light, or too strong, or blowing from the wrong direction. Also, wagons did not sink or blow ashore, though they did occasionally overturn or were pilfered, and we should not overstate the relatively low maritime accident rate. It looked worse, because losses were concentrated in periods of bad weather, such as the storm of 1704. Periods of war, when the coastal ship was at risk of capture, also tilted the balance in favor of land carriage as insurance costs escalated.

Industrialization depended on the sailing coaster, for the former involved the exploitation of large quantities of intrinsically low-value bulk products, such as coal, iron and copper ore, china clay, salt, and grain. These commodities could not withstand the high price of land carriage for any distance, so coastal traffic was essential. In addition, canal construction complemented the coaster, unlocking resources that previously could not be exploited, and created trade for the coaster. The ability to carry large cargoes at low unit cost was equally crucial in the United States. One regular coastal trade was between New York and southern ports such as Savannah, Charles-town, and Georgetown, carrying lumber and cotton to the north and coal to the south. As San Francisco grew, it needed coal, and the Saginaw Steamship Company ran from Puget Sound regularly in the 1890s and 1900s, carrying coal cargoes of four thousand tons on each trip. The company was also heavily engaged in freighting lumber from the Pacific northwest. The coaster played a similar role in urbanization, bringing in bulky, low-value goods such as bricks, stone, slates, and timber to build the physical infrastructure and grains, cattle, dairy produce, and fish to feed the population.


Coastal shipping played a part in encouraging overseas trade. Its main role was to act as a feeder to the large ocean-going ships. The coaster collected small parcels of goods for export from a number of shallow-draught ports. Similarly, the coaster distributed exotic foreign imports to the various small ports where they were to be consumed or processed. For instance, in the 1840s copper ore was brought in from abroad to Swansea and Liverpool, and there it was transshipped into coastal vessels, to be taken to Llanelli, where it was smelted. An example of goods marshaled for export by the coaster was the output of a tin-plate works at Carmarthen in south Wales, which in the 1840s shipped nearly its entire production by sea, most of it to Liverpool where it was transshipped into deep-sea vessels principally destined for the American market.

With the burgeoning European empires of the nineteenth century, firms were established abroad to act as feeders to the large, well-appointed, glamorous ocean liners. Operating smaller steamers to distribute the mail and European-made manufactured goods, these ships also gathered up smaller parcels of locally originated goods to be taken to the main ports served by the liners, and from there to Europe. The strict schedules and fast turnaround times required by liners were facilitated by small coasters scurrying between the head port and a multitude of minor ports. A good example is the British India Steam Navigation Company, formed in 1862 to operate from Calcutta and Bombay. It won seven mail contracts for local delivery. Exports from Calcutta included rice brought in from Burma, raw cotton brought in from the Coromandel Coast, and gunny sacks from the emerging Calcutta jute mills. Small coasters penetrated river systems seeking suitable cargoes. Their draught was shallow enough, and the river was an extension of the ocean, and much cheaper for long-distance bulk transport.

The coaster served similar functions in Australia, perhaps heightened by the population living mostly around the coastal fringe rather than in the interior. In New South Wales in the 1850s, two companies were formed to offer steam coastal services—the Grafton Steam Navigation Company from 1857 and the Illawara and South Coast Steam Navigation Company from 1858. Both ran from Sydney and collected agricultural surpluses such as butter, cheese, wool, timber, and maize, some of which was for export. In return they brought tools, equipment, coal, and kerosene back from Sydney, some of which had been imported from Europe. These companies were not atypical of others around Australia and survived into the post-1945 period.

In most countries the coastal trade went into relative decline in the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, it was hit by the railways, which took some of the higher-value-goods traffic. The coaster responded in part by concentrating on bulk trades, such as coal, timber, and bricks, but Coast Lines still ran a liner service between all the major ports of the United Kingdom until World War II. Another factor in the diminution of the role of the coaster was the increasing size, speed, and economy of trucks. Trucks started to compete for short-distance traffic and then extended their capabilities to larger consignments and longer routes. The coaster, larger in size to squeeze out economies of scale, outgrew many small ports and specialized in bulk cargoes on long-distance hauls and oil-rig support.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Baltic Exchange; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Containerization; EntrepÔt System;Hanseatic League (Hansa or Hanse);Indian Ocean; Jardine Matheson;Mediterranean;Shipbuilding;Shipping, Aids to;Shipping, Inland Waterways, Europe;Shipping, Inland Waterways, North America;Shipping Lanes;Shipping, Merchant;Shipping, Technological Change;Ships and Shipping;Ship Types;South China Sea.


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John Armstrong