Ships and Shipping

Kenneth Morgan

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
Ships and Shipping

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
  • History
  • Regional and National History



The scattered nature of colonial settlements across three thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean placed ships at the heart of early modern European overseas expansion. Some vessels carried people and commodities on bilateral crossings between European ports and destinations in North and South America or the Caribbean. Others traversed triangular or multilateral routes either between Britain, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands and transatlantic colonies or on voyages, particularly slave ventures, encompassing the west coast of Africa. In the early modern era, Atlantic shipping lanes were dominated by merchant vessels taking European manufactured exports for sale in the colonies and bringing back raw materials and tropical produce. Passengers, either voluntary or involuntary, sometimes sailed on these ships: indentured servants, convicts, free passengers, and slaves were all accommodated on merchant ships carrying commodities. Ships were constructed at ports and dockyards throughout coastal Europe. Shipbuilding formed a thriving subsector of transatlantic maritime economies. By the early 18th century it was beginning to flourish in Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina, but relatively few ships crossing the Atlantic were built in the Caribbean. Most vessels sailing from Britain on bilateral Atlantic routes were built and owned in British ports, but by 1750 ship owning had become significant in Charleston, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Naval squadrons were active in major international wars to protect merchant vessels from piracy and depredations by enemy ships. Privateering vessels—men of war with armaments and sizable crews—were also common. In Britain the Admiralty dispatched convoys to protect sugar fleets sailing home in wartime from the Caribbean to Britain, but there was often little or no convoy protection in some oceanic trades, such as the slave trade. All these features of ships and shipping in the early modern Atlantic world have attracted scholarly treatments, but the coverage is uneven and, for some aspects of the topic, older studies are still the standard source. There are more good accounts of shipping in relation to particular ports and regions than well-researched overviews of the totality of a nation’s shipping history.

Article.  8156 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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