A Brief History of Maritime Shipping

The history of maritime shipping stretches back thousands of years to the times of the earliest humans, for as long as there have been people they have wanted to explore what was beyond the seas. Today, maritime shipping is just as important as it has ever been, although the countries benefiting from these trade routes have shifted throughout history.

Circa 45,000 BCE

It’s believed that as many as 45,000 years ago people living in modern day Australia would have used boats for travelling and to find food resources. While we know very little about how they sailed, it’s fascinating to think that even before the rise of civilisations people were using boats.

3rd century BCE – 2nd century CE – Early trade routes established

The Arabian Sea, with modern day India to its west and Pakistan to the north, became one of the first major marine trade routes for early coastal sailing vessels around 4-5,000 years ago. The primitive vessels that sailed during this period would not have strayed too far from the coast. The need to transport these goods over desert country and the potential risk of bandits attacking the travelling caravans meant that travelling by land was potentially as dangerous as travelling by water.

This area was instrumental in early navigation – in fact, it’s believed that the science of navigation started around the river Indus, which has its basin in Pakistan. In these early days of maritime travel ships were able to find their way across the seas using a mariner’s astrolabe. This instrument could predict the position of the sun, moon, planets and stars – the compass wouldn’t be invented until the 11th century in China.

During this same period Romans were also taking advantage of the opportunities that sailing presented. The Romans had large commercial fleets and the best of these vessels were capable of crossing the Mediterranean by sea in around a month. In fact, transporting low-value goods such as grain and construction materials could be achieved at a sixtieth of the price of doing so by land.

The Romans expanded their trade routes in the 1st and 2nd century CE by travelling over the Indian Ocean to South Asia where they were able to trade with the rich Tamil dynasties. The success of these commercial ships was only made possible by the fact that galleys and triremes were on hand to stop any potential ambushes by the hands of pirates – throughout history the importance of protecting commercial vessels could not be underestimated.

7th-13th century CE – The Arab Age of Discovery

During this period the Arab Empire began developing trade routes throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. Because only a few rivers in the Islamic regions of the Empire were navigable travelling by sea was especially important. Rather than keeping close to the coast these advanced Arab vessels, known as qaribs, could cross oceans thanks to a greater understanding of celestial navigation, drastically reducing the time needed to transport goods.

15th-19th century CE – Age of Discovery

Several centuries later it was time for Europe’s Age of Discovery, as advances in navigation and shipbuilding in north-western Europe allowed an increasing number of voyages across the Atlantic to the Americas. Here new commodities such as tobacco from Virginia and Maryl and gold and silver from Mexico and Peru were discovered and brought back to Europe.

In turn many of these goods were brought to Asia to be traded. In fact, in the early 1600s many European countries such as England, France, Denmark and Portugal created East India Companies. The most successful by far, however, was the Dutch East India Company, which is considered the first truly multinational company.

The Dutch East India Company had a virtual monopoly on spices in the region with a busy port in Batavia (modern day Jakarta). However, much more important than the transportation of spices was the movement of Europeans – around a million of them between 1602 and 1796 by the Dutch company alone – into Asia.

The English East India Company meanwhile focused its attention on India, trading in goods such as cotton, silk, and tea. The power of the East India Companies and the infrastructure they put in place was a precursor to the colonisation that occurred throughout much of the continent.

Despite the massive success of the East India Companies by the mid-19th century they had all been dissolved, many of them because of bankruptcy.

19th-21st century – modern maritime shipping

In 1869 the Suez Canal was opened, allowing transportation between Europe and Asia without having to sail around Africa. 45 years later the Panama Canal was opened, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and having the time it took for ships to travel between the two options.

These man-made waterways transformed the trade opportunities for many countries and in doing so reduced trade in others. The Panama Canal for example enabled the West Coast of America and nations along the Pacific Ocean to increase their trade. Almost 15,000 vessels sailed through the canal in 2008, up from 1,000 when it first opened, showing that maritime is increasingly relevant in the 21st century.

Simon Markland

Simon works for VOOVit Excess Baggage and Shipping. VOOVit specialise in shipping excess baggage and small boxes worldwide.