The great modern merchant marines (national fleets of commercial ships) first appeared in the commercial revolution. Leaders in shipping included the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Venetians. The activities of mariners of SW Europe included discovery and conquest in the New World. In the 13th and 14th cent. the Hanseatic League built up a great trading and fishing fleet, while the Italian city-republics developed marine insurance on modern lines. England's shipping industry was associated with colonization, with the development of manufacturing, and especially with leadership in the Industrial Revolution. The greatest competitors of the British were the French and the Dutch. Both were vanquished in war and strangled in peace by the British Navigation Acts.
The introduction of slave labor into the American colonies made the slave trade one of the most profitable branches of shipping for two centuries. America's vast resources in timber provided an advantage in building wooden ships, and swift sailing vessels of American design, such as the schooner and the clipper, dominated shipping until the mid-19th cent. The introduction of steel steamships enabled Great Britain to reassume the chief place in shipbuilding and shipping.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.