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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Taming Poseidon: The Law of the Sea goes on display in the library lobby.

by Heather Kushnerick, Special Collections Librarian

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the sea in the development of civilization. If there is an oldest profession, it may well be that of sailor. There were sailors before there were farmers and boats before there were cities. While written evidence is scarce, artifacts found at archaeological sites tell the story of maritime trade between the earliest civilizations. The Sumerians traded with the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, and goods from Crete, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan all found their way to Egypt thanks to early international trade. “The whole period between the Late Bronze Age and the founding of the Hellenic states saw extensive maritime activity in the Mediterranean area” (Gold 3). The growth of cities increased the need for communication and trade, and as civilization moved west that need increased. By the 5th century BC, the entire coast of the Mediterranean was dotted with cities and it was in the Mediterranean where the Law of the Sea began. Because no one nation or people owned the sea, international trade regulations evolved from customs that date back to the earliest times. “Empires rose and fell, states were in one kind of political or legal chaos after another, but the sea law appeared to continue as a growing, maturing body of law throughout these vicissitudes. It did so because no king or chieftain exercised continuous control” (Gold 4).

While early evidence of maritime laws can be found in the Code of Hammurabi, which included rules on collisions, bottomry and reimbursement for leased watercraft, the “first comprehensive maritime code, which not only regulated Greek commerce for a very long time but also supplied the basis for all sea law for the next 1,000 years was complied by the Rhodians…” (Gold 7). Dating from the 3rd or 2nd century BC, its principles were accepted by the Greeks and Romans and it is widely accepted that the “Rhodian code was actually a codification of very ancient legal principles developed over a long period of time… .” (ibid) Romans accepted the Rhodian law most likely out of practicality: they were an agrarian society whose interest in the sea began for defensive reasons during the Punic Wars. Following Rome’s success in the wars, they developed a “very capable maritime legal system covering all aspects of ocean transportation starting with sea as a medium; then the ship as a vehicle with the crew to operate it; the cargo as the purpose of the whole operation; the responsibilities relating to the operation; and finally, the method to settle disputes arising out of it” (Gold 15). By the 13th century competitive world trading centers with large fleets and wealthy cities had developed, and “Roman law and customary maritime rules were no longer adequate; consequently, maritime law was quickly codified and maritime courts sprang up in most of the cities. We witness here the real beginning of modern maritime shipping law” (Gold 18).

For Europe and England, the most important of these cities was Oleron. Oleron is an island off the coast of France, and in the 12th century it became a major trading center used by Crusaders heading to the Holy Land. It was the first non-Mediterranean city to codify maritime law. The code, known as the Rolls of Oleron, included the judgments of the maritime court and eventually became the canon for Europe, and was adopted by England, probably by Richard the Lionheart, in the late 12th century. The office of the Admiral was established in England in the 13th century and the Admiralty Court was established in the 14th century. When England began to colonize North America vice-admiralty courts were established in the main port cities. Following the American Revolution, the vice-admiralty courts were replaced with state courts, under the Articles of Confederation. Finally, Article III section 2 of the Constitution gives original jurisdiction in admiralty matters to the federal court, and the federal courts have jurisdiction over most admiralty and maritime claims.

On display now in the library lobby is Taming Poseidon: Select Admiralty and Maritime Sources from Special Collections. This exhibit includes works by Hugo Grotius, John Selden, and Charles Molloy. These materials will be on display August 18 through December 3, 2010.


Sources: Gold, Edgar. Maritime Transport: The Evolution of International Marine Policy and Shipping Law. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1981.

Runyan, Timothy. “The Rolls of Oleron and the Admiralty Court in Fourteenth Century England.” 19 Am. J. Legal Hist. 95 1975

Castro, William. “The Origins of Federal Admiralty Jurisdiction in an Age of Privateers, Smugglers, and Pirates.” 37 Am. J. Legal Hist. 117 1993.