maritime law

maritime law

maritime law, system of law concerning navigation and overseas commerce. Because ships sail from nation to nation over seas no nation owns, nations need to seek agreement over customs related to shipping. From such agreements between nations has grown a body of customs and usages that is the basis for maritime law. It was, in origin, based on customs only, but it felt the influence of the Roman civil law. In the later Middle Ages, when traders were more and more venturous in crossing the waters, the rules of the sea were compiled into widely recognized collections such as the Consolato del mare [consulate of the sea], The Rolls of Oléron or The Laws of Oléron, and the English Black Book of the Admiralty. In England, special courts were set up to administer the law under the high court of admiralty. The Judicature Act of 1873 abolished these courts and assigned their functions to the high court of justice. In the United States the Constitution gives the federal courts authority in "all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." This jurisdiction covers all maritime contracts, torts, injuries or offenses, and questions of prize. In cases of collision at sea, the parties may under the Judiciary Act of 1789 bring suits at common law; otherwise all maritime cases come to the federal courts. The jurisdiction extends to all navigable waters of the United States, and much of the law is now governed by federal statutes. Though maritime law is general in character, only those parts that determine the relations among nations—particularly those that deal with problems arising on the seas in wartime, such as questions of belligerency and neutrality—are part of the international law proper. See admiralty; blockade; piracy; privateering; seas, freedom of the; London, Declaration of; Paris, Declaration of.

See H. Reiff, The United States and the Treaty Law of the Sea (1959); R. P. Anand, The Origin and Development of the Law of the Sea (1983); R. R. Churchill and A. V. Lowe, The Law of the Sea (2d ed. 1988).

The Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law of 16 April 1856 was issued to abolish privateering. It regulated the relationship between neutral and belligerent and shipping on the high seas introducing new prize rules.

Major points

The major points in the declaration were:


On the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on 30 March 1856, putting an end to the Crimean War (1853-1856), the plenipotentiaries also signed this declaration at the suggestion of Count Walewski, the French plenipotentiary. The declaration is the outcome of a modus vivendi signed between France and the United Kingdom in 1854, originally intended for the Crimean War. These two powers had agreed that they would not seize enemy goods on neutral vessels nor neutral goods on enemy vessels. The belligerents had also agreed that they would not issue letters of marque, which they had not done during the war. At the close of this war the principal states of Europe concluded that private armed ships, maintained at private cost for private gain, and often necessarily for a long time beyond the reach of the regular naval force of the state, could not be kept under proper control. The Declaration of Paris confirmed these rules and added to them the principle that blockades, in order to be obligatory, must be effective.

The Declaration did not as such make privateers into a new category of international criminals, but rather made it a treaty obligation of states that they refrain from commissioning privateers in the first place. Most states normally treated foreign privateers as pirates in any case.

Numerous states ratified this declaration, including the United Kingdom, Austria-Hungary, France, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire. This treaty established maritime law among the major powers of Europe. It represented the first multilateral attempt to codify in times of peace rules which were to be applicable in the event of war. This declaration bound only its signatories when at war with each other, and lets them free to use privateers when at war with other states.

The United States, which aimed at a complete exemption of non-contraband private property from capture at sea, withheld its formal adherence in 1857 when its "Marcy" amendment was not accepted by all powers, chiefly as a result of British influence. The US was also keen on maintaining privateers. It argued that, not possessing a great navy, it would be obliged in time of war to rely largely upon merchant ships commissioned as war vessels, and that therefore the abolition of privateering would be entirely in favour of European powers, whose large navies rendered them practically independent of such aid. All other maritime states acceded to the declaration except Spain, Mexico and Venezuela.

In 1861, during the American Civil War, the United States declared that it would respect the principles of the declaration during hostilities. The same was done during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States Government affirmed its policy of conducting hostilities in conformity with the dispositions of the declaration. Spain too, though not a party, declared its intention to abide by the declaration, but it expressly gave notice that it reserved its right to issue letters of marque. At the same time both belligerents organized services of auxiliary cruisers composed of merchant ships under the command of naval officers.

Some of the questions raised by this declaration were clarified by the 1907 Hague Convention.

See also



Further reading

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