In the beginning …

Recognising this country’s long association with the sea

The tea clipper Thermopylae

Captain John Sail MNM MNI, National Chairman of the Merchant Navy Association, places the work of the MNA in its historical context

Photo: 19th-century chromolithograph by M Reilly. Jojan / Wikimedia Commons

From as early as the fifteenth century the prosperity of the English nation was seen as being chiefly dependent on its balance of trade – sea trade. Control of the sea by ships became the determining factor in the nation’s wealth. Crown-backed enterprises controlled trade, and tariffs were imposed, resulting in trade wars to control volumes of gold. Much of the activity of the state in those early years revolved around control of the sea.

In 1407 a royal charter was granted to the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, a loosely organised grouping of merchants from businesses based in the major English ports selling cloth to continental Europe. They became a dominant force in England’s foreign trade, later ousting their rivals in the German Hanseatic League. Those adventurous trading pioneers sailed further and further to discover new lands and new opportunities when seeking to expand their trade and influence. They founded the colonies that eventually became the British Empire, including dominions, dependencies, trust territories and protectorates. The wealth and technical innovation of the British nation was built on trade in ships, and on the seafarers who constantly risked their lives in times of both peace and conflict.

An influential innovation

Although the launching of the first sailing craft is lost in obscurity, there is no doubt that the ship has had a greater influence on mankind than any other single innovation and has been integral to the development of many other advancements in science and technology.

The discovery of the sail was probably almost as revolutionary as the idea of floating on water at all. The great ships, of both war and peace, grew a nation, nourished an island and developed links that survive until the present day. It is part of who we are as an island nation.

The great oak-built warships, from the Mary Rose to the Victory, the graceful clippers such as the Cutty Sark, the first great iron ships with engines – all had their beginnings in that first dug-out log. It may all seem so simple now, but those first and no doubt tentative innovators are among the greatest benefactors of humanity. Exploration and trade, development and understanding of the world as we see it, and much more, came about as a result of progress in travel by sea. Ships enabled the Romans to spread their system of law and order, from which much of our social life originates. Ships enabled the great explorers and navigators, such as Columbus and Magellan, Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama, Cook and Flinders, to venture into uncharted seas and oceans whose existence had previously been no more certain than the far side of the moon. Ships have made it possible to access the teeming resources of the world and verify scientific theories. The world’s great passenger liners are among the finest examples of technological progress and unsurpassed style. These great ‘cities of the sea’ also had their beginnings thousands of years ago with those first maritime adventurers.

Continuing evolution

Ships and seafarers have played a part in every chapter of our country’s development. In the second half of the twentieth century, containerisation changed the dynamics of distribution and led to globalisation and huge cost savings. Before containers were introduced the cost of shipping accounted for as much as 30% of the price of some goods in our shops; now it may be as low as 1%. International seaborne trade, which is driven by the emerging and transition economies, has now surpassed 8 billion tonnes annually. In the UK our shops are full of merchandise transported by sea, the result of over 140,000 individual ship movements in our ports.

Service and sacrifice

In two world wars, and in every conflict since, the merchant service and its seafarers have provided an unbroken line of support for our country and the armed forces. In acknowledgement of that service and sacrifice during the war of 1914 to 1918, King George V decreed that the service should be called the Merchant Navy. Some 35,000 Merchant Navy seafarers lost their lives in World War II – a death rate higher than in any of the armed forces. This is an appalling figure that for many years has been unacknowledged; the dedication and commitment of those seafarers has remained undervalued.

Many survived, and need our help today, and many remain uncommemorated because they had the temerity to die ashore from their wounds, burns and exposure to the elements in lifeboats. Even members of the armed services who died in UK prisons were still commemorated as war dead – but not the merchant seafarers and fishermen: they had to die at sea.

The names of many who died at sea are recorded on memorials and plaques in Trinity Square Gardens at Tower Hill in London. That garden resonates with their past endeavours, and with the sacrifice of seafarers from across the British Empire who chose to work aboard ships in the Allied Merchant Navy.

The Maritime Foundation also helps to commemorate those who lost their lives at sea, whether in wartime or peacetime, in a wonderful book held in the Mariners’ Chapel at All Hallows, just across from the memorials in Trinity Square Gardens. This book deserves much wider publicity, and the Maritime Media Awards ceremony is just one occasion that allows us all to think a little more about those men and women in those times. Much more needs to done to raise awareness of their part in our maritime heritage, and much more needs to be done for our community of seafarers, both afloat and ashore.

A charity for seafarers

The Merchant Navy Association was founded twenty-two years ago by two wartime Merchant Navy veterans, with just such aims in mind. The association is the only national member organisation, with a regional and branch structure, that supports the needs of seafarers both afloat and ashore. Before obtaining registration as a charity, nearly two years ago, we had been working in the voluntary sector with other charities and marine organisations. We received many calls for help and advice.

This work continues, but we have now initiated a programme of fundraising with a searching agenda looking towards helping our veterans and less able seafarers and their dependants towards independent living in their own homes. This is part of a unified programme that has been agreed by the Maritime Charities Funding Group. It will present many with the options for better quality of life when they are in failing health and vulnerable situations.

The enduring dependence that Britain has on the sea and its seafarers should receive far greater recognition, and should encourage more people to support our campaign for those who need our help and support. The MNA’s Sea-Reason campaign is fundraising for that care in the community for all seafarers, and we hope you will find your way to promote what so many have achieved for so many years to permit all of us to enjoy the relative peace and security we have today.

For more information about the Merchant Navy Association, visit