Shipping went through a radical transformation between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, a transformation that eventually had extensive influence on most aspects of the lives of Europeans. Shipping was the economic activity of the period with the greatest potential for growth. The merchant marine experienced a rise in tonnage per capita of more than 400 percent from 1500 to 1800. The productivity of sailors manning that tonnage rose dramatically, faster than in virtually all other major occupations. The range of government efforts to promote shipping, a bundle of policies often lumped together under the omnibus term ‘‘mercantilism,’’ indicates that Europeans realized the possibilities created by improvements in water, especially ocean, transport. It was not just the increasing scale but also the scope of shipping that made it so important to early modern Europe. Adam Smith (1723–1790) in the late eighteenth century attributed some of the greatest strides in improving the wealth of nations to shipping, both over short distances and across the Atlantic. Even in art and literature there was recognition that shipping was a part of life going through dramatic changes and thus worthy of consideration. Seascapes became standard fare for painters, and by around 1800 the romance of ships and sea travel had made its way into fiction.
VESSELS, ROUTES, AND CARGOES
Beginning in the late thirteenth century Europeans were at last able to connect the shipping regions of the Mediterranean on the one hand and the North and Baltic Seas on the other. The contrary currents and winds of the Strait of Gibraltar had made sailing out into the Atlantic from the Mediterranean all but impossible before around 1270. It was then that ships from Italy made regular voyages back and forth between the north and the south. Great galleys with two or three triangular lateen sails were the vehicles for the scheduled trips by Venetians and later by Florentines. Large tubby two-masted carracks, principally from Genoa, soon joined the galleys. This new type combined the hull form of the northern cog with the abutting hull planking of Mediterranean ships. It also combined the large square sail on the mainmast with a lateen sail on a second or mizzenmast. The carrack was more maneuverable, and the addition of a small square sail on a foremast to balance the lateen mizzen created an even more versatile vessel. The new full-rigged ship, also called a carrack in its largest version, made possible the efficient carriage of luxury goods in ever-increasing volume between northern and southern Europe.
The development of the full-rigged ship also made possible the opening of new all-sea routes outside of Europe at the end of the fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) had intended to open direct trade with Asia by sea but instead found lands to colonize. In the New World, he quickly adopted the model of settlement and exploitation already established on Atlantic islands like the Canaries and Azores, which Iberian sailors had opened to shipping over the previous 150 years. As in those cases, trade with the New World soon developed in colonial agricultural goods. They were followed by shipment to Europe of the products of mining. The direct sea route to India, first exploited by Portuguese sailors making trips contemporaneous with Columbus’s voyages, proved to be extremely long. The distances involved and the routes chosen meant that shipping around the Cape of Good Hope was slow to develop in the sixteenth century. Alternative routes overland in Asia and then by water from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe proved to be as effective in getting such oriental goods as spices to Europe.
While the fifteenth century was characterized by revolutionary changes in ships and routes, the sixteenth century was a period of gradual exploitation of those revolutionary changes. The tonnage deployed and volume of goods transported along internal European routes expanded in the wake of growth in population and in the production of goods. Contributing the most to increased tonnage and the increase in the average size of cargo ships during this time was the rise in the carriage of bulk goods, that is, those with low value for each unit of volume. The most obvious case was the rising trade in grain. While the shipping of wheat from Crimea to Italy, a route in place in the High Middle Ages, might have decreased because of wars generated by Turkish expansion, the carriage of grain from the Baltic to northwest Europe grew dramatically as the century went on. Supplies were large enough and shipping efficient enough that by around 1600 Dutch shippers carried Baltic grain to Italian ports in years of shortage in the Mediterranean. The carriage of other bulk goods, like fish, cured and packed in barrels, salt, and wood for building, also contributed substantially to the growth in shipping through the sixteenth century. The result within Europe was an increase in the volume of shipping and an even greater increase in the exchange of knowledge. Avenues for the transfer of commercial information became more plentiful and, along with the rise in the volume of trade, led to the more efficient exploitation of ships. Those valuable capital goods could be kept at sea for a greater part of the year if captains knew when and where they could find cargoes. That knowledge generated a greater return on the sizable investment that was the cargo ship. To meet the need to carry bulk goods in northern Europe, shipbuilders developed new types of vessels, often elaborating on existing designs. The most obvious case was the fluyt, a relatively long three-masted ship with a boxlike cross section, first built in the Netherlands at the close of the sixteenth century. It was well suited to shipping cargoes back and forth between the Baltic and western Europe; variants soon emerged that were designed for moving wood from Norway or traveling to the Mediterranean from the Low Countries.
European shipbuilders designed special vessels to deal with the various distances and dangers involved. The giant carracks of Portuguese trade to India were the largest wooden ships ever built. The galleons, originally warships for battles in European waters, were adapted to handle the carriage of silver from the New World to Spain. While emphasis within Europe was on shipping bulk goods, in extra- European trade the cargoes were typically luxury items. Among the luxuries shipped were tropical goods that could not be produced in Europe. Human beings as settlers or slaves were taken to the New World, and soldiers, merchants, and officials were taken to Asia. The volumes of goods shipped were small compared with those carried over much shorter distances in and around Europe. Trade outside of Europe tended to be controlled and regulated by governments, which directed investment and routes used. Shippers had to sacrifice flexibility but received in exchange security and some predictability of profits in trade that involved high levels of risk.
In the seventeenth century, shipping continued to evolve along established lines, but there were some setbacks. The grain trade from the Baltic expanded, reaching its peak in mid-century, but stabilization, or in some regions a fall, in population led to a shrinking demand for food grains and so in turn in demand for transportation. Efficiency improvements in shipping largely compensated for those pressures in the second half of the seventeenth century. There were no major changes in ship design, or the opening of any new categories of trade, factors that had been the basis for earlier growth. The use of routes through the southern Indian Ocean made possible faster and more frequent trips to the Far East, engendering increased shipping to Asia. The agents of that growth were the Dutch and English East India Companies, which made even more clear over time that ships and shipping were the foundations of European colonization. Meanwhile, within Europe, the elaboration of earlier practices, both in shipping and shipbuilding, laid the groundwork for the great expansion in shipping that was to occur in the eighteenth century.
The pattern of trade established in the Baltic and North Seas in the sixteenth century—the carriage of bulk goods and the reliance on agents to assemble cargoes and pass along commercial intelligence— spread throughout the world from the late seventeenth century on. Shipbuilders found ways to get the most from the three-masted ship, constructing a packet boat in the range of 500 to 600 tons, a size found to be the optimum for most long-distance trades. A vessel of that size and design could carry out a range of tasks and do so at lower risk. Two-masted vessels like barks and snows came to compete with the three-masted sailing ships for the carriage of bulk goods in regional trades, such as moving grain, wood, and coal around the North Sea. The rapid growth in English coal production and the rising demand for the fuel in urban centers made a significant contribution to the growth in shipping and to the use of barks and other colliers. The two-masters, larger than in the past, needed fewer sailors per ton than three-masted ships and increased flexibility in deploying shipping services. As in the north, in the Mediterranean two-masted ships or ones smaller than the sailing packet, like the polacre and the felucca, found increasing use in regional trades. The rising exchange in bulk goods like fish between northern and southern Europe, however, generally meant employment for three masted ships. Large three-masters in trade to the Far East, the East Indiamen, proved effective in carrying the increasing volume of goods imported into Europe. The volume of shipping in extra-European trades in general and to the New World in particular increased dramatically in the eighteenth century. Improvements in production as well as falling shipping costs led to a collapse in prices of sugar, followed by coffee, tea, tobacco, rice, and other agricultural products most economically grown in the New World or South and Southeast Asia. Lower prices, in turn, led to dramatic increases in demand in Europe. Both the quantity and the range of commodities shipped grew. That made possible the regular and predictable marshaling of goods to be sent out. Though such changes may have decreased the urgency of gaining commercial information, the greater frequency of travel and the development of newspapers, often created for people involved in shipping, made access to the latest news easier. The larger populations of Europe, the increasing production of goods, the greater demand for commodities, and especially the rapidly falling shipping costs of the late eighteenth century led to more rapid and dramatic growth in the shipping sector than ever before.
COMMERCE AND WARFARE
Shipping was not merely about the carriage of goods. There were always many interconnected activities that depended on and facilitated shipping. That became most obvious in the eighteenth century with the overall growth in commerce. The trading markets, the bourses for exchange of various goods, were also sites for arranging the financing and insurance of shipping. Shipbuilding and ship repair and related industries like rope and sail making were necessary to shipping. More generally, the growth in the size and wealth of port towns in early modern Europe indicated the long-term success of shipping and the interconnected nature of the shipping enterprise. In itself shipping was not the largest sector of the economy. That was always agriculture. But the contribution of shipping to the economy was sizable and growing throughout the period. Its value was not just in opening new possibilities but also in its rapid development, probably more rapid than any other sector.
By the late eighteenth century, European shipping encompassed interconnected routes around the world. There were regular sailings with something close to predictable travel and movement of what was, compared with earlier years, a mass of a broad range of goods. Governments relied heavily on the income generated by taxes on shipping and commerce. Political and economic advantages fell to states that enjoyed the most successful shipping sectors. Venice and Genoa set the pattern first in the late Middle Ages. Spain and Portugal followed in the sixteenth century and then the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth. The success of France in the eighteenth century, thanks to government promotion of shipping, and of the Scandinavian kingdoms at end of the century was eclipsed by the even greater success of Great Britain. It was no coincidence that some wars of the eighteenth century were fought by navies over the control of shipping routes. Improvements in the sailing qualities of warships in Europe paralleled those in cargo ships. The introduction of cannons on board beginning late in the thirteenth century led to the building of specialized warships by the sixteenth century. The process of division between fighting ships and cargo carriers was expedited by the falling prices of guns and their increasing reliability in the second half of the sixteenth century. The protection of shipping with warships built for that purpose became a proper function of government. By the end of the eighteenth century, the quality of one’s navy could mean the difference between winning and losing a war. The ability of a state to protect its shipping was vital to its ability to wage war, if for no other reason than that government needed the income from shipping to sustain any military effort.
Shipping changed probably more than any other sector of the early modern European economy. Technical changes improved the ships. Organizational changes on shore in the assembling, handling, and distribution of cargoes created greater efficiencies. Developments in shipping made significant contributions, most obviously to the economy in increased production, but also in lowering costs of supplies to producers as well as opening new markets for their goods. Improvements in shipping expanded the scope of goods available to consumers and allowed governments to extend their authority. Much of the transformation of the economy and many aspects of politics and to a lesser extent society in Europe can be traced to changes in shipping between 1450 and 1789.
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