Transportation of goods and passengers by water is one of the most ancient channels of commerce on record.This mode of transportation was and still is indispensable for international trade since ships are capable of carrying bulky goods which otherwise would not be carried. Rules governing relationships among participants of sea-transport have also been known since c.1st millennium BC.
Ancient maritime rules derived from the customs of the early Egyptians, Phoenicians and the Greeks who carried an extensive commerce in the Mediterranean Sea. The earliest maritime code is credited to the island of Rhodes which is said to have influenced Roman law. It is generally accepted that the earliest maritime laws were the Rhodian Sea Laws, which have been claimed to date from 900 B.C., but which more likely appeared in the form recognized today during the period from 500 to 300 B.C. These laws were recognized in the Mediterranean world as a method of providing predictable treatment of merchants and their vessels. The complexity and attention to detail found in the Rhodian Sea Laws demonstrated the sophistication of commerce and trade of Ancient Greece – a world of commerce, the center of which, Rhodes, was in a position to dictate terms for trade.
Although the decline of Greece and the rise of the Roman Empire did alter the influence of the Rhodian Sea Law, a uniform code based on the Rhodian Law remained and was recognized as essential to peaceful and profitable Mediterranean trade: the Mediterranean Sea was for more than one thousand years [300 B.C. to 1200 A.D.] only ruled by the Rhodian Law, although augmented with some additions by the Romans. Thus, the Digest of Justinian, dated 533 A.D., states the following regarding any controversy arising in the Mediterranean Sea: "This matter must be decided by the maritime law of the Rhodians, provided that no law of ours is opposed to it."
These laws which derived their essential elements from Rhodian customs were afterwards leveled up by Romans. There was a great enlargement of the application of the principles of the Roman law in the revival of commerce consequent upon the growth of the Italian republics and the great free cities of the Rhine and the Baltic Sea. Special tribunals were set up in the Mediterranean port towns to judge disputes arising among seafarers. This activity eventually led to the recording of individual judgments and the codification of customary rules by which courts become bound. Three noted codes of maritime law –whose principles were found in the Roman law, were formulated in Europe during the three centuries between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1300. One, Libre del Consolat de mar of Barcellona was adopted by the cities on the Mediterranean; the second, the Laws of Oleron prevailed in France and England; and the third, Laws of Wisby governed the great free cities of the Hanseatic League on the Baltic.
The oldest of these codes was Consolato del Mare, or Regulation of the Sea, prepared at Barcelona. It was a compilation of comprehensive rules for all maritime subjects. It, for example, dealt with ownership of vessels, the duties and responsibilities of the masters or captains thereof, duties of seamen and their wages, freight, salvage, jettison, average contribution, and the like. Libre del Consolat de mar of Barcellona and the Tablets of Amalfi, one prepared at the famous of Italian seaports, enjoyed authority far beyond the ports where they were promulgated. In essence, until the rise of modern nations, maritime law did not derive its force from territorial sovereigns but represented what was already conceived to be the customary law of the sea.
Eventually, as commerce from the Mediterranean moved northward and westward, sea codes developed in northern European ports. Among the important medieval sea codes were the Laws of Wisby (a Baltic port), the Laws of Hansa Towns (a Germanic league), and the Laws of Oleron (a French island). The Consolato del Mare was inspirational in the preparation of these later codes. In particular, the Laws of Oleron, the second great code of maritime regulation, was inspired by the Consolato del Mare. These three codes are called the three arches upon which rests modern admiralty structure.
As could be understood from the discussion above, the earliest developments relating to maritime law occurred in areas belonging to what is now known as the Continental legal tradition. These developments contributed to the early admiralty law of England –the origin of the common law legal tradition and one of the major maritime states with rich tradition in shipping. The European admiralty doctrines were carried to the USA –another important shipping nation – through the English system of admiralty law, which initially was inspired by what have been termed the three arches of modern admiralty law –the Laws of Wisby, the Laws of Hansa Towns, and the Laws of Oleron.
Contemporary maritime law is a mixture of ancient doctrines and new at laws both national and international. Among the traditional principles of admiralty still in use are marine insurance, general average and salvage. The welfare of the seaman, the ancient concept of "maintenance and cure" are also still in use today. The main reason for the continuous use of ancient principles of law is the unchanging nature of basic hazards of seafaring. Since at least the end of the 19th century, however, naval architecture and cargo handling have changed in significant ways. The extensive use of crude oil carriers as well as carriers of liquefied natural gas has, for example, posed new hazards and questions of liability for oil pollution and damage to the marine ecology and the shorelines. As a result of this, modern maritime law consists of laws that are of historic origin and of recent development. Note also that not all of the original principles of maritime law still apply.
The earliest known maritime laws were uniform. According to one historian, the great value of the rules which had been developed for maritime trade lay in the fact that they had been "found by practice to be suitable to the needs of a community which knows no national boundaries –the international community of seafarers." This historical uniformity of early maritime laws declined with the growth of nationalism. However, maritime transactions have always been international in nature which most of the time involve individuals from different jurisdictions. International shipping is “a complex business, and its activities are conducted in a manner that often implicates the interest of several countries.” The complex international aspect of the transaction, on the one hand, and the fact that maritime law is national (than international), on the other, present different problems. The difference in domestic maritime legislations may, for example, make the outcome of the “international” transaction unpredictable to participants. Moreover, jurisdictional, choice-of-law, and forum non conveniens issues would be there.
Making the rules of maritime law universally uniform, once again understood, would alleviate most of the problems related to unpredictability and conflict of laws. This understanding has led to the revival in the nineteenth century of the ancient tendency to make rules relating to maritime transaction uniform globally. This effort was first started at the instigation of lawyers and commercial men such as those who founded the Comité Maritime International (CMI) and the national maritime law associations; and continues to grow under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Maritime Organization (IMO) and other United Nations affiliated organizations with the cooperation of experts in the private sector.
Founded in 1897, the International Maritime Committee or CMI initiated uniformity among national maritime legislations of member countries. Among the conventions drafted by CMI were the Hague Rules (International Convention on Bill of Lading), and the Visby Amendments (amending the Hague Rules), the Salvage Convention and many others. Since 1958, many of CMI’s functions have been taken by the International Maritime Organization of the UNO. This organization has also continued the move towards uniform maritime laws. Many states adhered to this rules either by incorporation of the provisions in domestic laws or by implication of treaty obligations. Thus, now, we can speak of the relative uniformity of national maritime laws of different shipping states which may not be matched by the degree of uniformity attained in some other areas of law. The degree of harmonisation so far attained is not, however, satisfactory in so far as some areas are concerned. For example, there still exists differences in assessment of maritime claims.
The history of maritime law in Ethiopia had not been clear until the enactment of the 1960 Maritime Code. Though Ethiopia‘s maritime history dates as far back as the times of Axum, a parallel development of the laws relating to maritime trade was absent. It is only since 1960’s that Ethiopia witnessed a development of a comprehensive maritime legislation coupled with the resurgence of shipping trade after the establishment of the Ethiopian Shipping Lines SC (ESLSC). The 1960 Maritime Code is still the most important piece of legislation in the area.