History of shipping

Approximately, 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide is today transported by container ships of which the hugest can carry up to almost 24,000 TEU.  Container ships now rival crude oil tankers and bulk carriers as the largest commercial seaborne vessels.

 April, 2020 saw the launch of HMM Algeciras, the biggest container ship built and thereby Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM), received this year’s award. The ceremony was held at Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering shipyard and was attended by the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in.  It made its maiden voyage in June to Rotterdam.

Today via commercial vessels we are provided with almost everything, BUT HOW DID WE ARRIVE HERE?

The first mode of shipping was the use of single logs.  ‘Cargo’ was attached to them and floated down rivers for trade.  In due course, larger cargo was transported using several logs tied together.

Roughly 4000 years ago, the basics of navigation were understood.  The Egyptians had trade routes through the Red Sea, principally for importing spices from East Africa and Arabia.

The earliest evidence of maritime trade networks was in Asia from at least 3000 year’s back. This made possible Chinese goods and Southeast Asian spices to spread to the west, known as the Maritime Silk Road.  The Romans began using the same route for bulk commodity trade 2200 years ago.  A Roman ship could cross the Mediterranean in a month at a fraction of the cost of an over-land method.  Eventually having developed fleets, they then expanded their trade to the Indian Ocean.  

The Arab Empire from 600 through to the middle ages, began trade routes through Africa, Asia and Europe.  As some rivers were difficult to navigate, sea travel became an easier option.

With 15th century advances in navigation and vast improvements in shipbuilding, it made it possible for Europeans to travers the Atlantic, for tobacco and to Mexico and Peru for silver.

As trade companies evolved, one of the most famous was The Dutch East India Company.  Its main purpose was trade, exploration and colonization.  It was created in 1602 and lasted until 1800.


Containerization originated in the then coal mining regions of England.  James Brindley in 1766 designed the box boat which he called the ‘Starvationer’ with 10 wooden containers, to transport coal along the Bridgewater Canal.

By the 1830’s railroads on several continents were carrying containers that could be transferred to other modes of transports.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly benefited shipping between Europe and Asia, cutting out the extended time and cost of going around Cape of Good Hope.   


The American-built Panama Canal linking the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean was opened in 1914.  The impetus for constructing this was initially due to the rush of settlers in the mid -19th century, to California and Oregon.  It was meant as an improvement on the time-consuming railway system at the time.  


In 2006, modern container shipping celebrated its 50th anniversary.  In just five decades, containerships would carry 60% of the value of goods shipped via sea, which has since increased to 90%.

Malcom P. McLean, an American trucking entrepreneur in 1955 bought a steamship company to transport truck trailers with their cargo.  He then realized it would be much simpler and quicker to have one container that could be lifted from a vehicle directly onto the ship.  His theory was that efficiency could be vastly improved through a system of ‘Intermodalism’.  This signified one container, with the same cargo could be transported with the minimum of interruption via different modes of transport during its journey.  Containers could be moved between ships, trucks and trains.  By simplifying the whole logistical process, led to a revolution in cargo transportation and international trade.

Buyers and sellers of goods soon recognized the potential of container shipping.  The international standards for container size was agreed in 1961.