A Brief History of Shipping

The history of shipping is nearly as old as recorded history itself. For thousands of years curiosity or a drive for trade has got the better of us, and we’ve sailed around the world many times over. Yet, it’s safe to say that the containerized industry of today is a far cry from what the shipping industry once was.

Nearly 5000 years ago, one of the earliest major marine trading routes was established between modern day India and Pakistan. At the same time the Roman empire was starting to stretch itself across the Mediterranean sea as well as forming trading routes with South Asia. With fairly primitive wooden vessels, traders stayed close to shore navigating mainly by the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars. Yet, with the dawn of maritime trading, the dawn of piracy was also inevitable. The commercial success of the Romans came only through an accompanying escort of warships, the same ships responsible for their increased overseas conquests.

International trade was already showing its opportunity for economy and empire expansion. In the 15th Century, Europe found its age of discovery, destined for trade and invasion via ships with the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. James Cheshire of Spatial Analysis recently took historical records between 1750 and 1800 for British, Dutch and Spanish ships and plotted them using modern mapping techniques. The results were interesting; while the British and Dutch trading routes encompassed the globe, particularly across the Atlantic and towards India, the Spanish were far more focused on Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. This could perhaps be explained by the prominence of the Dutch and English East India Trading Companies. Commodities such as tobacco, cotton, silk, tea and spices were transported around the globe at an increasing rate. Yet, while most East India Companies were bankrupt by the mid-nineteenth century, the Greeks were on the rise.

The Greeks are renowned for being the shipping magnates of the world and have defined modern day shipping from the end of WWII. Most notable of all is without a doubt Aristotle Onassis. Building his wealth first from his brand of cigarettes, Onassis soon realized that the shipping companies transporting his cigarettes were making more money than he was. So, at the height of the Great Depression, when most were escaping from the shipping industry, Onassis purchased a small fleet for less than half the price they were worth. Leasing his cargo ships to the Allies during WWII, Onassis was soon raking it in. This was the time of the Greeks; Niarchos, Livanos, Lyras, Lemos, Goulandris, Epeirikos, Kavounidis, Nomikos and Typaldos, together with Onassis, led the way for the Greek shipping magnates. Today their legacy still lives on with the likes of Fargos, Latsis and Angelopoulos.

Although, it’s not just the Greeks that have shaped modern day shipping – that has been done mainly by the introduction of containers. Container shipping celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006, and only five years after its introduction, containers carried nearly 60% of all ocean shipped goods. While goods have always been packaged – boxes, barrels, bottles, bags – containers were a revolution. Now with modern day shipping we have intermodalism, allowing the same container to be transported on a variety of vehicles that could seamlessly move from one to the other. Speed and efficiency is the name of the game now – who knows where the next fifty years will take us?

Posted in categories: Shipping