Merchant navy

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The merchant navy (marine marchande in French, Handelsmarine in German) does the transportation of goods and passengers by sea, for commercial and trade purpose.

To-day, its role is different of the fighting navy, of the fishing navy, of the sporting navy and of the scientific navy. In the past, one's nation navy was not that specialised, and there was no navy permanently dedicated to war or defense.

Among the most efficient merchant navy nations in the history were Phenicia, Greece, Viking countries, Arab countries, China, Italian republics as Venice and Genoa, Byzance, England, France, Portugal, Spain and Holland.

The merchant navy is financed by investors, private or public, (the shipowners), and aimed at profit. Being of strategic importance for the nation, the merchant navy is often protected by the states. In time of wars, ships and seamen can be requisitioned for military use. Each ship wears the flag of its nation as a sign of identification.

It happens that private European shipowners of the 18th century realized a triangle trade from Europe to Africa (with export trade), then from Africa to America or West Indies (with purchased slaves known as the Middle Passage) and from America back to Europe (with import trade).

A private shipowner receiving letters of marque from its king or its government for temporarily war purpose is a privateer (or corsaire in French).

Robbery committed at sea (against merchant navy ships) without letters of marque, is called piracy and is done by pirates.


To-day, merchant navy ships are specialized :

  • oil tankers
  • chemical and liquefied gas tankers
  • container ships
  • general cargo freighters
  • bulk carriers
  • roll-on / roll-off ships
  • passenger ships (liners, cruisers, ferries)