Geography Ports and Maritime Trade
Jean-Paul Rodrigue
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0039


Maritime transportation is the main support of global trade, with its ability to move large quantities of cargo over long distances. The notion of maritime transportation rests on two major elements: ports and shipping networks. Ports are locations where cargo and passengers can be transshipped to and from maritime modes. Shipping networks are regular itineraries that draw arcs on the Earth’s water surface as intercontinental maritime transportation tries to follow the great circle distance. There is a long history of the use of the oceans for commercial navigation, a process linked to the establishment of global trade, particularly with the founding and expansion of civilizations and empires. Maritime transportation is a commercial activity requiring an extensive array of modes and infrastructures and is shaped by the maritime geography of the world, mainly the configuration of oceans, coasts, seas, lakes, and rivers. Where possible, dredging and the construction of canals such as Panama and Suez, channels, and locks have been attempted to shorten distances, to facilitate maritime circulation, and to improve access to ports. This has reduced the discontinuity imposed by geography on global trade. Maritime shipping is one of the most globalized industries in terms of ownership and operations. It operates within its own space, which is at the same time geographical by its physical attributes, strategic by its control, and commercial by its usage. The relationships between human activities in terms of their use of the oceans are thus complex and multidimensional because they relate to a unique geography.

General Overviews

Maritime transportation is an important commercial activity; as of 2006, seaborne trade accounted for 89.6 percent of global trade in terms of volume and 70.1 percent in terms of value. This importance has been enduring and amply documented throughout history. Bernstein 2008 provides an accessible overview of trade in human history and of the facilitating role that maritime transport played. A more specific approach is undertaken in Zumerchik and Danver 2010 in a series of short encyclopedic essays about the most-significant dimensions of maritime studies, which include physical, historical, political, and commercial considerations. Geographical perspectives about the oceans remain relatively scarce, but Steinberg 2001 effectively draws linkages between the oceans as a physical space and as a social space. Commercial aspects of maritime transport have received more attention in geography, with Rodrigue, et al. 2009 focusing on its role as an element of the global transport system. It is, however, for the field of maritime economics that the most-comprehensive overviews have been provided, notably in Stopford 2009, Cullinane 2011, and Talley 2012, which can be considered the most-salient sources on the matter.

  • Bernstein, William J. A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2008.

    Provides a comprehensive and easy-to-read overview of the historical, geopolitical, and economic foundations of global trade, from ancient trade routes to modern container and bulk shipping. It effectively links trade with its context.

  • Cullinane, Kevin, ed. International Handbook of Maritime Economics. London: Edward Elgar, 2011.

    An edited handbook from leading maritime economists, offering a cross-perspective of the field and covering port economies, shipping management, and inland transportation. It offers an array of perspectives on this industry, including its stakeholders, managers, and markets.

  • Rodrigue, Jean-Paul, Claude Comtois, and Brian Slack. The Geography of Transport Systems. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    An introduction to the field of transport geography, including modes and terminals as well as their spatial structure. The issue of ports, maritime transportation, and trade is covered in several sections of the textbook.

  • Steinberg, Philip E. The Social Construction of the Ocean. Cambridge Studies in International Relations 78. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Looks at the relationships between nations and societies and the oceans, particularly from a political perspective. It is argued that in addition to the conventional use of the oceans as resources, political and economic factors are also at play.

  • Stopford, Martin. Maritime Economics. 3d ed. London: Routledge, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203891742

    This is considered the standard reference textbook on maritime transport issues, with an extensive array of topics discussed in more than 750 pages. Every relevant aspect of the shipping industry is covered, including history, finance, trade, and shipbuilding.

  • Talley, Wayne K., ed. The Blackwell Companion to Maritime Economics. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444345667

    This edited handbook gathers contributions providing a comprehensive overview of shipping, ports, logistics, maritime security, and environmental issues.

  • Zumerchik, John, and Steven L. Danver, eds. Seas and Waterways of the World: An Encyclopedia of History, Uses, and Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

    Introduction to the historical reliance on the world’s seas and waterways and how that reliance continues to evolve, particularly in light of global trade. As an encyclopedia, it discusses 126 related maritime themes, such as the Caribbean Sea, coastal urban development, tidal energy, port operations, and trade.

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