Merchant Marines


shipping, transportation of passengers and goods on waterways. From prehistoric times shipping has had a major influence on human social development. Water routes, unlike roads, did not need building, and the difficulties and dangers were less than those offered by mountains, marshes, and enemy tribes. Therefore many early civilizations developed on navigable rivers or on the coasts of warm seas.

Shipping in Ancient Times

Ancient peoples famous for their shipping enterprises include the Phoenicians, the Cretans, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. The shipping routes of those highly civilized peoples were chiefly in the Mediterranean, but their voyages extended to India, along the Atlantic coast of Africa, and to Britain, where tin was secured. The goods shipped consisted largely of luxuries, including spices, perfumes, and such fine pottery as the famous Athenian ware; but shipments of grain became important as cities grew in size.

Shipping in the Commercial Revolution

The great modern merchant marines (national fleets of commercial ships) first appeared in the commercial revolution. Leaders in shipping included the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Venetians. The activities of mariners of SW Europe included discovery and conquest in the New World. In the 13th and 14th cent. the Hanseatic League built up a great trading and fishing fleet, while the Italian city-republics developed marine insurance on modern lines. England's shipping industry was associated with colonization, with the development of manufacturing, and especially with leadership in the Industrial Revolution. The greatest competitors of the British were the French and the Dutch. Both were vanquished in war and strangled in peace by the British Navigation Acts.

The introduction of slave labor into the American colonies made the slave trade one of the most profitable branches of shipping for two centuries. America's vast resources in timber provided an advantage in building wooden ships, and swift sailing vessels of American design, such as the schooner and the clipper, dominated shipping until the mid-19th cent. The introduction of steel steamships enabled Great Britain to reassume the chief place in shipbuilding and shipping.

Shipping in the Twentieth Century

From about 1900 until World War I, Germany held second place in the world in both navy and merchant marine, and its challenge to Great Britain's domination of the sea was an important cause of the war. In the period between the two world wars the principal maritime nations were Great Britain and its dominions, the United States, Japan, Norway, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and France. The United States merchant marine steadily declined, and in order to stimulate shipbuilding the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 created the U.S. Maritime Commission. At the beginning of World War II in Europe, U.S. shipping, handicapped by the Neutrality Act, again declined. American vessels were diverted to trade outside the war zones and many were transferred to other flags, mainly the Panamanian.

After the entry of the United States into the war (Dec., 1941), a huge shipbuilding program rapidly got under way, and standardized vessels were turned out by assembly-line methods. A brief period of United States dominance in world shipping followed the war. Subsequently, however, the U.S. merchant marine again declined steadily; as the expense of American labor and ship construction increased, the cost of operation went beyond competitive levels, despite the fact that the American shipping industry was receiving a large subsidy from the federal government.

Since the 1960s, U.S. ports have modernized their facilities by automating operations, installing computerized tracking systems, and handling containers ( "intermodal shipping" ) that can be transferred directly to truck trailers or rail cars. Older facilities that do not have the room to handle containerized shipping have declined. These changes have greatly reduced the number of jobs in the shipping industry.

Much of the cargo formerly carried in American vessels and in those of other major nations is now carried by so-called flag of convenience fleets. Such lines arose with the tendency of large shippers, especially those of Greece and the United States, to avoid the high taxes of their home countries by registering their ships in low-tax nations such as Panama and Liberia. In 1998 about 1.08 trillion tons of goods were imported to or exported from the United States by ship, but vessels flying the U.S. flag handled only 3% of that shipping.

See also ship; maritime law.


See J. Hornell, Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution (1946, repr. 1970); B. Landstrom, The Ship: An Illustrated History (1983); R. George, Ninety Percent of Everything (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Merchant Marines: Selected full-text books and articles

Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present
Leon Fink.
University of North Carolina Press, 2011
A Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Merchant Marine and Shipping Industry: Since the Introduction of Steam
René De La Pedraja.
Greenwood Press, 1994
Sail On: The Story of the American Merchant Marine
Allan Nevins.
United States Lines Company, 1946
Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War
Martha S. Putney.
Greenwood Press, 1987
Ships and Memories: Merchant Seafarers in Canada's Age of Steam
Eric W. Sager.
University of British Columbia Press, 1993
FREE! The Old Merchant Marine: A Chronicle of American Ships and Sailers
Ralph D. Paine.
Yale University Press, 1919
The Merchant Marine and World Frontiers
Robert Earle Anderson.
Cornell Maritime Press, 1945
Latin American Merchant Shipping in the Age of Global Competition
René De La Pedraja.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Studies in British Privateering, Trading Enterprise, and Seamen's Welfare, 1775-1900
Stephen Fisher.
University of Exeter Press, 1987
English Merchant Shipping, 1460-1540
Dorothy Burwash.
Univ. of Toronto Press, 1947
Trade in the Eastern Seas, 1793-1813
C. Northcote Parkinson.
The University Press, 1937
Oil and Coffee: Latin American Merchant Shipping from the Imperial Era to the 1950s
René De La Pedraja Tomaan.
Greenwood Press, 1998
Facing West: Americans and the Opening of the Pacific
John Curtis Perry.
Praeger, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Part Three "Whitening the Seas, 1844-1869" and Chap. Twenty-Seven "The Collapse of the American Merchant Marine"
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.