People have been using boats to transport trade for longer than is probably imagined. The UK has a long maritime history, with physical evidence pointing to overseas trade taking place as long ago as the Iron Age, and popular belief pointing to boats being used to transport goods, animals and people for far longer. Great Britain was separated from the continent around 6500BC, with Ireland becoming its own island 2,500 years before that – that’s a lot of years for maritime trade to build and the Dover Bronze Age Boat, the oldest known ocean-going boat found to date, proves people sailed internationally in European waters from at least 1600BC.
Early Britons used hollowed out tree trunks as canoes, probably more for smaller journeys across large bodies of water within the UK itself (such as the Somerset Levels) than travelling to the continent. Rafts and coracles, a small one-passenger boat that required very little water to sail in, were in use around the time of the Romans occupation of Britain, with strong economic and cultural links already in place with Europe before the first troops landed.
It was Britain’s treacherous waters that helped keep it safe from invasion, the Romans tried several times before succeeding, due to many of their ships being wrecked on the approach thanks to hidden sandbars and deadly currents. But as ship building improved, so did the success of invaders. Britain was a productive land, and tin was a necessary ingredient for iron, making it rich for the taking.
England’s first navy was established by Alfred the Great to help fight off invading Vikings. It was good enough to win a battle in the Wantsum Channel, which is why it may be surprising to learn that it fell in to disuse afterwards and wasn’t really revived until Æthelstan came into power, bringing it up to 400 ships in 937. Trade, during these periods of invasion, would have continued, albeit perhaps a little more cautiously. Ships were made of wood, powered by oar and sail, and the seas around the British Isles were still treacherous to those who didn’t know them. Shipping routes and ports, sometimes much different to the locations of modern day counterparts, dotted the coastline but weather and the time of year played a much bigger part in when the ships sailed than they do today.
Shipbuilding changed over the years, moving from the tying or sewing of planks together into a raft, through the period most associated with Viking boats that had overlapping planks of wood form the hull, to the introduction of rudders that replaced the steering oar. Outside Medieval Europe, the Chinese began building commercial ships to transport goods, creating ships bigger and far more sophisticated than anything Europe could create. And as trade grew, not to mention the amount of freight a single ship could hold, sea trading got a little more dangerous.
Pirates have long held their place in history, differing from Privateers by operating without Governmental approval, and have a habit of getting involved in various different wars from kidnapping Julius Caeser to getting involved in a battle to invade England during Æthelstan’s reign. But it wasn’t until the 1700s that piracy really became a wide-scale issue, particularly in the Caribbean waters, where their conflict with authorities mimicked the issues over trade and colonisation. This was the time of Tortuga, Blackbead and Bartholemew Roberts. Piracy in the Caribbean started around the mid 1500s until the late 1700s when the Royal Navy captured or killed most operating in the area.
By this time, ships had become faster, more resilient, and loaded with weaponry, as cargos became larger, more expensive and greater fortunes became involved (or were lost). But the actual ship design had changed very little by the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s to those of the Spanish Armada two centuries previous. In fact, for the Europeans, shipbuilding didn’t really change until the Industrial Revolution.
As iron became introduced into the ship building process, the design, size and strength of ships began to morph into something a little more familiar to today’s vessels. Wind power gave way to steam power, which in turn gave way to modern engines. Iron became steel, bulkheads to form completely watertight compartments were introduced (lesson learned after the tragedy of the Titanic), and ships got bigger and better at navigating the wide oceans, became safer.
Today, South Korea is the world’s largest shipbuilding country, and is the leading producer of large vessels such as cruise liners, super tankers and large container ships. Prefabrication has become the norm in modern day shipbuilding, producing the term ‘block building’ to describe the process, with specialised steels being used for construction. Modern technology coupled with the durability of modern materials means that ships can travel at speed, safely navigating the globe and making it safe in to port whatever the weather.