History: The origins of maritime navigation law

Sea Laws

Today we will review the beginnings of Maritime Law, through the first mentions of a regulation referring to the sea. As it could not be otherwise in this visit to the most remote past of Law, we will focus on the rules concerning the sea that we can find in one of the most important legal codes of antiquity, both for its date, approximately 1760 B.C. and for its state of preservation, as it is possibly the best preserved legal text of the time: the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi.

This Code is a collection of mostly legal rules based on the application of the Law of Talion. But it introduces a novel legal concept: the laws are engraved in stone and are immutable, and not even the will of the king can change them, thus subjecting the sovereign to the fundamental laws.

Focusing on the subject that concerns us, in this code we find direct legal references related to the sea, such as the price of hiring a shipowner as well as the price of renting different types of vessels. It also establishes the obligation to pay for the merchandise in the event that a rowing boat going up the current of a river collides with and sinks a boat going downstream, the owner of the sunken boat must swear before the gods the merchandise it was carrying so that the other boatman pays for it (we must bear in mind the importance given to the oath in ancient societies, which, as in this case, was considered a definitive means of proof).

In this Code of Hammurabi we find the first definition of the Law of General Average, which is a principle of maritime principle according to which all stakeholders in a sea venture proportionately share any losses resulting from a voluntary sacrifice of part of the ship or cargo to save the whole in an emergency (jettison or jetsam). For instance, should the crew abandon some cargo overboard to lighten the ship in a storm, the loss would be shared pro rata by both the carrier and the cargo-owners.

The second most important normative provision affecting the law of maritime navigation is the Greek Lex Rhodia de Iactu (from the Latin, literally: “the law of Rhodes on goods thrown from a ship”). It is a set of rules that was created around 475 BC and is considered to be the first maritime code in the strict sense of the word in history. Thus, this law is a codification regulating numerous matters in maritime law. This law stipulated that the loss caused by the throwing of goods into the sea should be borne proportionally by all concerned. Thus, the shipowner and the owners of the salvaged goods had to compensate the owners of the goods that the master had ordered to be thrown into the sea.

The Lex Rhodia spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean and inspired Rome and Byzantium in their future maritime legislation. In the 1st century BC, the accumulation of capital and the introduction of better commercial and industrial methods led to great progress in Greek cities, phenomena which included the creation of rules to regulate maritime trade and which remained in force during the Roman Empire.

The model of the lex Rhodia was later introduced in Justinian’s Digest, the compendium or digest of juristic writings on Roman law compiled by order of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 530–533 AD. In Book XIV of  the Digest the  precepts concerning the jettison or jetsam, that is,  cargo intentionally discarded from a ship or wreckage, are reproduced.

Is quite interesting to note that other important seafarer civilizations and cultures like the Phoenicians and Carthaginians did not left any written legal maritime regulations, or at least they have not arrived to our days.

Carlos Espinosa

Solicitor & Tax Adviser

+34 627 413 201


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