Prof. Moses Amweelo
An understanding of history is required to grasp the significance of the origins of maritime law.
Maritime law is not the product of a single legal system; instead, it is the result of an evolution of codes, customs, and usages of seafarers and seafaring nations since time immemorial.
The earliest reference to sea law is in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi around 2000 to 1600 B.C. But it is from the Mediterranean seafarers that maritime law as it is today seems to have evolved.
Maritime law developed alongside maritime commerce. From 1000 A.D. there was a growth in navigation and commerce in the Mediterranean, in and about the English Channel, and in the North Sea. At first, in each of these areas, the laws of the sea and merchants were exercised and practised by sundry judicial bodies in each seaport.
There was no recognition of a uniform body of laws, and there existed a tendency under this practice for the individual tribunals to decide controverted points according to some peculiar law or principle. This tendency was recognized in various areas and several compilations of maritime law were promulgated which were more commercial dispute settlement rather than actual legal codes.
The history of maritime law may be divided, for convenience, into five periods: the first being to the year 1000, from pre-history to the early Mediterranean period; the second including the years 1000 to 1400, when the codifications began to appear; the third including the years 1400 to 1700, the time of European dominance: Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, the Hansa and England; the fourth including the years 1700 to 1840, saw the concentration of maritime power in England, the Netherlands, and France; and the century from 1840 to 1940, from Victorian England to World War II when England was the preeminent maritime superpower.
Today, maritime power is more diverse as the ocean is increasingly seen as a resource base rather than a method of transportation.
Maritime law consists of rules designed to coordinate the orderly conduct of international maritime commerce, safe navigation (to protect lives and property), maritime infrastructures (i.e., harbours, ports, maritime labour, etc.).
These rules are found in international conventions (which codify custom, usage and need), national laws and legislation, functional regulations at the local and regional levels that facilitate operation, and decisions of courts, arbitrators, tribunals and boards. Enforcement of these rules generally takes place at the national level.
That is every state is responsible for the ships that fly its flag. It is important though to recognise that maritime law is an international system of law.
This is particularly essential for developing countries that must ensure that their maritime laws are in concord with international maritime law.
Namibia parliament has ratified the IMO conventions such as International Convention on Prevention of the Maritime Pollution from Ships, MARPOL 73/78, and International Convention on Intervention for Oil Pollution on the High Seas, 1969, International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage (CLC), Protocol of 1992 etc.
Founded in 1948 and effective since 1958, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is now the major U.N. agency specialising in the field of shipping.
It deals largely with technical aspects of shipping and the legal implications that flow from them.
The basic principle of ‘’Safe Ships and Clean Seas’’ explains IMO’s aims.
The main committees of the IMO are the Maritime Safety Committee and the Maritime Environment Protection Committee.
It has been successful in developing a large group of important maritime conventions on safety, liability and pollution prevention and compensation, training, etc.
In maritime law, there is a great potential for damage claims due to the great value of modern ships, the size and nature of the cargo they transport, and the tremendous impact a maritime disaster may have, particularly in relation to third parties in the area of maritime pollution.
The overall characteristic of maritime law is to protect a wide variety of interests at many levels without undue interference in the essential aspects of maritime commerce.