In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ships and Shipping

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Characteristics of Ships
  • Shipping Productivity
  • Shipping Regulation
  • Shipping Protection
  • Shipping and the Slave Trade
  • Piracy
  • Privateering

Atlantic History Ships and Shipping
Kenneth Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0050


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.

General Overviews

There is no available study of ships and shipping that covers the early modern Atlantic world. Davis 1973 is a general treatment of the growth of transatlantic commerce from Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Though each chapter has references to ships and shipping, the book deliberately eschews statistical tables (in order to accommodate the “general” reader) and it is largely Eurocentric in its focus and organization. However, it is still a good overview of the way in which shipping formed a vital part of European maritime expansion. French 1995 is a helpful introduction to the English merchant fleet. Cipolla 1965 is a pioneering and influential study of European maritime superiority in guns and sails. Johansen 1998 offers a brief overview for those wanting to gain their initial bearings on ships and oceanic navigation. Usher 1928 is still the only publication to trace the growth of English shipping tonnage over several centuries. Shepherd and Walton 1972 is the main book on shipping in relation to colonial North American development. Steele has written an influential study of transatlantic voyages and communications (Steele 1986). His argument that the 18th-century Atlantic became increasingly integrated in the dissemination of shipping and commercial knowledge is widely accepted by historians. McCusker and Menard 1985 relates shipping to the colonial North American economy.

  • Cipolla, Carlo M. Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400–1700. New York: Pantheon, 1965.

    A classic study, with a global outlook, on European superiority in shipping technology. Argues that European maritime strength was linked to the deployment of sails, guns, and floating platforms to support heavy guns.

  • Davis, Ralph. The Rise of the Atlantic Economies. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

    Discusses European economic expansion in the Atlantic world in the period from c. 1500 to c. 1776. Covers Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Americas, but with only limited reference to Africa. Most chapters consider the role of shipping in this expansion, though no chapter deals exclusively with ships and shipping.

  • French, Christopher J. “Merchant Shipping of the British Empire.” In The Heyday of Sail: The Merchant Sailing Ship, 1650–1830. Edited by Robert Gardiner, 10–33. London: Conway Maritime, 1995.

    A good brief overview of the characteristics of vessels in the English merchant fleet in the period covered by the book.

  • Johansen, Hans Christian. “Shipping and Navigation on the Oceans, 1300–1800.” In Prodotti e Techniche D’Oltremare Nelle Economie Europee Secc. XIII–XVIII, Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”. Vol. 29. Edited by Simonetta Cavaciocchi and Settimane di Studi, 905–926. Prato, Italy: Le Monnier, 1998.

    Helpful overview of shipping characteristics and navigational practices for European nations trading across the oceans over the half millennium covered. Deals with ship construction and rigging, navigation methods, health conditions aboard vessels, and the organization of trade and shipping.

  • McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

    Important survey of the economic history of British America from the origins of the Jamestown settlement until the American Revolution. Considers the historiography of the subject and emphasizes a “staples” approach to early North American economic development. Ships and ship owning are discussed in several chapters. An extensive bibliography is appended.

  • Shepherd, James F., and Gary M. Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

    Estimates the quantitative contribution of shipping and maritime trade to colonial North American economic development, with emphasis on the 1760s and 1770s. Argues that colonial shipowners increased profits by more efficient use of ports, trade items, and port time, and that a reduction in distribution costs was more important than technological change.

  • Steele, Ian K. The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    An influential study that considers shipping, trade routes, and mercantile and postal communications as central features of the commercial integration of the Atlantic maritime world. It points to improvements in speed, frequency, and safety among diverse Atlantic shipping routes. Use of the book is somewhat impeded by the lack of a bibliography.

  • Usher, Abbot Payson. “The Growth of English Shipping, 1572–1922.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 42 (1928): 465–478.

    DOI: 10.2307/1884787

    Includes tables and graphs to show that the general expansion of English commerce and shipping dates from the Restoration rather than the Elizabethan period. Argues that two factors affected vessel size: the total volume of trade and the length of the continuous voyage.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.