Sea History - Merchant vessels

Cargo has been shpped on every kind of boat. Historical pictures show fur traders traveling with pelts piled high on French-Canadian bateaux or Native American canoes. Rafts are pictured floating passengers and goods down rivers. Outriggers carried fish and fruit between Pacific islands. Sailing-ships dominate maritime history pictures.

Ancient boats of all types were used interchangeably for cargo or military purposes, but merchant ships eventually became distinct from warships. Merchantmen needed more cargo space and fewer crew. Stability was also required, an achievement of the galleon design. Most merchant ships were armed against pirates, but they were usually no match in a sea battle. Cargo ships also needed sturdy docks in protected harbors and a ready supply of labor for employment as stevedores in the seaports.

Historical pictures show that fishing boats are specialty commercial vessels, including dories and other rowboats carried on larger ships. Commercial fishermen might work together in a fishing fleet to net or surround schools of fish. The catch was often dried and preserved as salted fish to avoid rot before arriving at a fish market. Whaling ships also processed their catch at sea, boiling tons of blubber into smaller amounts of whale oil. Other seafaring occupations shown in historical pictures are deep-sea divers and lobstermen, oystermen, and other shellfish harvesters.

Some commercial ships carried passengers, whether Roman soldiers on their way to outposts of the Roman Empire, or colonists sailing to the New World. Historical pictures of slave ships remind us of how miserable shipboard conditions could be when passengers were considered cargo, not humans. Immigrants who were poor were crowded into steerage, the lowest decks on a ship. In the 19th century, wealthy steamship passengers enjoyed their voyage, and passenger liners became luxury vacation venues for paying guests who enjoyed the journey as much as the destination.

Types of cargo pictured in maritime history have included trade goods like furs or tobacco, passengers such as colonists, fresh produce like tropical fruit for markets in colder northern climates, grain that could be cheaply transported by riverboat and canal barge, and slaves to labor on plantations in the Americas.


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