Cargo carriers on the world’s seas

Gymnastics and play on a sailing ship. First-voyage boys were young, often confirmation age, 14-15 years old. Photo: Gift from Per Arne Olaussen. Norwegian Maritime Museum.
Gymnastics and play on a sailing ship. First-voyage boys were young, often confirmation age, 14-15 years old. Photo: Gift from Per Arne Olaussen. Norwegian Maritime Museum.

From the 17th century the age-old coastal trading with traditional small boats and the new export trade in timber, herring, and other new fish products joined forces to generate the development of an internationally oriented merchant fleet under Norwegian ownership. The fleet expanded expecially rapidly in times of war when the kingdom of Denmark-Norway was neutral. However, prevailing mercantilist legislation limited foreign shipping to the larger towns.

The liberalization of international trade around 1850 gave Norwegian shipping a powerful boost. In the course of the next 30 years Norway built up an enormous merchant marine of sailing ships based on traditional domestic technology. A large proportion of the ships were built at hundreds of small and large shipyards in the coastal towns and country areas with easy access to suitable timber.

In addition, much cheap tonnage was bought from richer maritime nations, which were shifting from wooden sailing ships to steel steamships. Around 1880 Norway owned the world’s third largest merchant marine according to tonnage. Operations were no longer dependent on carrying goods to and from Norwegian ports. By far the largest number of ships now travelled between foreign ports, usually in distant waters such as the Atlantic, the Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Norwegians became known as "cargo carriers on the world’s seas".

This shipping boom was concentrated on the southwestern and southern coast between Bergen and the Oslo Fjord, with Arendal and Stavanger as the two largest shipping towns. Fleets of significant size were also to be found in other towns such as Bergen, Haugesund, Tønsberg, and Kristiania as well as in a number of smaller towns and villages along the Skagerrak opposite Denmark. In Agder county the shipping boom mobilized a great deal of the natural resources, manpower, and competence found on the county’s coast.

Even the inland forest districts were involved. Like the spring herring fishery, this boom brought a comprehensive mobilization of resources and contributed to the modernization and urbanization of all of Western Norway. The significance of shipping for the local economy in Stavanger is demonstrated by the fact that the town’s merchant fleet of 600 large and small sailing ships in 1880 had an insurance value 40 per cent greater than that of all the buildings in the town, including homes, industrial buildings, and both public and private buildings.

In Bergen the proportion of the city’s total estimated income generated by shipping in 1913 was nearly 30 per cent, and in Haugesund the proportion was probably even greater. The shipping boom of the 19th century thus had a material basis in Norwegian natural resources: fish and timber processed to be export commodities. Another precondition was of course the country’s rich and age-old competence in the building and navigating of vessels and the associated seamanship, which was in itself the natural result of the life and work of countless generations who had inhabited the fjords, sounds and islands.

The rowing boat and the small sailboat were the cars, buses, and lorries of their time. Norwegian forefathers rowed and sailed in open boats to the Western Isles and Iceland in the 9th century, to Greenland a couple of decades before 1000, and to Newfoundland in around 1000. The Norwegian shipping industry, however, did lag behind in the transition from sail to steam in the decades up to 1914. For many shipowners it was natural to hold on to what they knew best, namely a wooden hull and sails for propulsion, as long as there were possibilities for remuneration from that type of freight transport.

In most places, iron/ steel bodies and steam engines represented a completely new technology. In addition, the capital required for the purchase or building of new steamships exceeded the economic means of many shipowners and dockyards in the smaller sailing ship towns. In the large and medium-sized towns where the transition was successful, it brought with it the development of a modern shipbuilding industry.

In Bergen the two largest builders of ironhulled ships produced 170 steamships in the 25 years after 1890, the majority of them for the town’s own shipowners. The transition from steam to diesel went much more smoothly, and the Norwegian merchant fleet grew strongly in the difficult years of the 1930s, a time when shipping tonnage elsewhere in the world stagnated.

By the outbreak of the Second World War Norway again had one of the world’s largest merchant navies, and probably the most modern, with a large component of diesel-driven tankers and liners as well as a number of smaller groups of specialized ships.
<= Previous page Next page =>