Ships and Shipping

views updated

Ships and Shipping

In the years around 1400 shipbuilders in southwestern Europe, probably in Iberia, developed a new design which over the following five centuries in ever more sophisticated and specialized forms transformed shipping and the world economy. The new design had three masts, with a small sail on the foremast, a triangular or lateen sail on the mizzen at the stern, and a large square sail on the mainmast near the middle of the vessel. The hull was built with a strong internal skeleton and hull planks abutting each other. The new type could be built larger without having to increase the quantities of wood used, and it could also sail in a desired direction more easily than earlier types. The greater maneuverability meant greater safety and reliability. The greater carrying capacity per crewman meant lower labor costs.

This full-rigged ship established the form of sea-going sailing ships until well into the nineteenth century. While Iberian shipbuilders had produced different types for the first fifteenth-century voyages of exploration, the full-rigged ship very quickly took over the task of traveling to unknown waters. It was such vessels that made the first all-ocean trips from Portugal to India and the first transatlantic return voyages.


In the sixteenth century, Europeans in their new ship type sailed to many different parts of the globe for a combination of economic, political, religious, and even scientific reasons. They found local entrenched ships and shipping patterns. Canoes large and small carried goods along the American coasts. Lateen-rigged single-masted ships traded in the Arabian Sea and along the eastern coast of Africa. Junks from China, vessels capable of competing in every category with ships of European design, continued to dominate trades in the China Seas. Europeans typically tried and often succeeded in integrating those routes and trades into their own growing intercontinental network. Over time their ships supplanted those in other parts of the world, relegating other shipping to a minor and at most supplementary role. The process was a slow one, in many cases not completed until the twentieth century. On long-distance routes over the open ocean, European ships always dominated.

The more versatile and efficient ships of the sixteenth century made it possible to lower transport costs. They made the movement of goods within Europe easier because of falling price differentials between sites of production and consumption. Regular commercial connections between northern and southern Europe, strongly restricted up to that time, became possible.

The seventeenth century saw continuing experimentation and refinement in the design of ships, which created greater potential gains from shipping. While much of bulk shipping up to the seventeenth century served as a safety valve, a source of relief from short-term shortages of food, by the mid seventeenth century there were signs of continuing and sustained reliance on distant supplies within Europe. Farmers could concentrate on certain products, whether in southern Italy, the Netherlands, or the eastern Baltic, because of effectiveness in shipping. Dutch shippers had the greatest success—through the development of purpose-built cargo vessels, such as the fluyt with a box-like hull, small crews, and few guns—in establishing regular exchange of foodstuffs. Other states in western Europe, jealous of Dutch success, followed the example and used regulation, restrictions, taxes, and even force to attack Dutch shipping and to promote and protect their own shipping. Recognized as an engine of growth and as the most promising sector of the economy, shipping became a central consideration in government policy.

Shipping allowed for and promoted specialization of production on intercontinental routes as well, and with even greater long-run effects. Sporadic shipment by sea of spices from Asia gave way to much greater volumes, carried regularly in specially designed East Indiamen built for and by specialist monopoly companies set up by European governments. In shipping to the West Indies, vessels brought rising volumes of sugar to Europe. It was the beginning of a pattern of import of tropical goods to Europe and of extreme agricultural specialization to meet European demand for goods. Monoculture on some of the islands in the Caribbean was only made possible by the lower cost of shipping.


The eighteenth century saw even greater success for shipping. Ship design was by no means stagnant, and shipbuilders offered an increasing variety of options, some moving beyond the established three-masted design. The standard vessel for voyages across oceans, the packet boat, typically in the range of 400 to 600 tons, was a direct descendent of the full-rigged ship. It dominated most obviously in Atlantic Ocean trades. The production of tobacco, rice, coffee, and even grain for the European market grew in the New World as ships proved more efficient. The rising volume of trade introduced economies of scale, and standardization of packaging reduced costs, as in earlier cases within Europe. Exports to Europe made possible the expansion of European settlement in the New World and thus the transfer of people across the Atlantic, typically voluntarily in the case of Europeans and always involuntarily in the case of Africans. While packet boats dominated most sea routes, East Indiamen performed the same services in exchange between Europe and Asia. Coffee, tea, and cocoa became common goods on European markets. Shipping served to aid the diversification of European diets in addition to the established function of relieving food shortages.

Within Europe, more and more two-masted ships came to supplant three-masted vessels. Two-masters, like brigs and snows, became larger and still remained less costly to build and operate than three-masters. Trades such as carrying timber from the Baltic to western Europe or carrying coal along the coast of Britain, short-distance carriage of bulk goods, was where such vessels excelled and proved effective in relieving constraints created by European population increases starting in the mid-eighteenth century. In the Mediterranean, two-masted ships took on different forms, often having triangular sails, but they were able to improve carriage there as well. Conditions, including the protection by governments that ships and shipping enjoyed, led to a dramatic increase in total tonnage within Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ownership of seagoing vessels spread across ever more of Europe and even to colonies in Asia and the New World, where local residents built and operated more ships. England's North American colonies even came to add new ship types, including the schooner and later the clipper, to the options available for carrying goods.


The greatest contribution of ships and shipping to international exchange, specialization in production, and economic growth came in the period after 1820. The introduction of steam engines on board ships at first was of little value because of high energy costs. Needing to refuel frequently, steamboats served only as riverboats and ferries and, most importantly, as tugs in harbors. Getting sailing ships in and out of port quickly made them significantly more efficient. If that was not enough, sailing ships enjoyed continuing and highly effective refinement in the nineteenth century. Builders made better use of sails and of labor-saving devices on board. The standard three-masted packet boats found themselves in many cases replaced by barks and schooners with multiple masts, vessels able to make long hauls in favorable winds. Those types opened or intensified trade along certain routes, such as the one between Europe and the west coast of South America.

Clipper ships with their sleek hulls and masses of canvas offered unprecedented speed to go with greater size. They famously carried tea from China but also emigrants to Australia and mails across the Atlantic and around the world. They were the ultimate in sailing ships. They were, however, rather quickly replaced from the 1860s on by steam ships. The development of the compound engine, which reused steam in a second and a third and even a fourth cylinder and so cut energy costs, and its being deployed on seagoing ships combined with the construction of canals connecting seas, most notably the Suez Canal, to lead to much greater use of steam as the motive force at sea. Steam dominated where trades were predictable, winds unpredictable, speed critical, and navigation along narrow waterways required. The change led to greater use of fossil fuels and so created a need for refueling sites both in existing harbors and in isolated ones along sea lanes.

Steamships could be built larger and carry more cargo than sailing ships. They were products of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution created the equipment for changes in shipping, the steam engines and later steam turbines and then diesel engines to power the ships, and the iron and then steel for the hulls. It also created goods in rapidly increasing quantities to fill the holds of the increasing number of bigger ships.

The nineteenth and even more the twentieth century saw a rapid increase in international and intercontinental exchange. Not only did ships get bigger but ships also became more specialized. Bulk carriers and oil tankers are the most obvious examples, reaching unprecedented tonnages. They removed constraints from the expansion of industrial economies and opened opportunities for increased production in virtually any part of the world. Container ships in the second half of the twentieth century offered a revolution in packaging goods for shipment and, just as in the high Middle Ages and in the eighteenth century, standardization made it possible to change the design of ships and to make shipping more efficient and faster.

Standards of living throughout the world from 1450 and even before depended on shipping. Specialization in production—the effective exploitation of resources—always depended on shipping. The optimal use of resource endowments, especially in agriculture but also in mining, always depended on shipping. Exchange has not just been in goods. Communication of differences in culture as well has depended for much of the period since 1450 on ships and shipping. The quality and character of ships, improvements in their design, and the better organization of shipping on shore and at sea played a signifi-cant role in permitting and promoting the economic growth enjoyed by much of the world since 1450.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Baltic Exchange; Board of Trade, British; Board of Trade, Spanish; Canada; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Climate; Columbus, Christopher; Containerization; Ethnic Groups, Cantonese; Ethnic Groups, Fujianese; Ethnic Groups, Irish; Ethnic Groups, Jews; Free Ports; Gama, Vasco Da; Gilbert, Humphrey; Hakluyt, Richard, the Younger;Hanseatic League (Hansa or Hanse);Magellan, Ferdinand;Mediterranean;Navigation Acts;Packet Boats;Panama Canal;Piracy;Privateering;Shipbuilding;Shipping, Aids to;Shipping, Coastal;Shipping, Inland Waterways, Europe;Shipping, Inland Waterways, North America;Shipping Lanes;Shipping, Merchant;Shipping, Technological Change;Ship Types;Russia;Suez Canal;United Kingdom;United States.


Davis, Ralph. The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Gardiner, Robert, ed. History of the Ship. 12 vols. London, Conway Maritime Press, 1992–1995.

Lucassen, Jan, and Unger, Richard. "Labour Productivity in Ocean Shipping, 1500–1850." International Journal of Maritime History 12 (2000): 127–141.

Shepherd, James F., and Walton, Gary M. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Tracy, James D., ed. The Rise of Merchant Empires Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World 1350–1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tracy, James D., ed. The Political Economy of Merchant Empires State Power and World Trade 1350–1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Unger, Richard W. Ships and Shipping in the North Sea and Atlantic, 1400–1800. Basingstoke: Ashgate, 1998.

Wray, William. Mitsubishi and the N. Y. K., 1870–1914. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1984.

Richard W. Unger