Murat Josée-Valérie (2005) “Pratiques et succès du cabotageen Méditerranée nord-occidentale au XIVe siècle”, Rives nord-méditerranéennes, Cabotage et réseaux portuaires en Méditerranée, 7 p.
Cabotage is often defined as a lesser form of maritime traffic. But it can also come to be regarded as a any type of coastal seafaring without preconception about the size of the ships or of the trade they are involved in. During the middle ages this type of traffic was common in the Mediterranean (1). The ships of fourteenth-century Marseille appear to be commonly leapfrogging, even the large ones that could easily use the long haul routes.
Coastal traffic as safety
Despite the lack of sources, we can often document ships travelling stuck to the coast, ready to enter a port at the first sight of danger. The coast had its own dangers: many wrecks happened along the shores during the tempests and there were countless pirates’ nests from Barcelona to Genoa (2). The coastal routes may have been particularly in favour during the winter (3).
The only evidence available relates to cabotage, long haul traffic must have been present but it has left no traces. Despite the preconception, cabotage was not simple and required a competent pilot (a ship heading to Pisa from Marseille got lost around Corsica for 4 months and ultimately went back to Marseille without ever reaching Pisa).
But if coast traffic was neither significantly safer nor simpler than long haul navigation why was it so successful (4)? First of all, the open sea is rare in the Mediterranean, ports are close one from another and islands are numerous. Besides, staying next to the coast where everyone else dwelled as well was a good way to interact with other merchants, acquire information about the markets or the climate. A captain could change his destination if he learned that the weather was bad, a pirate was around or the price for the commodities he was carrying was not good enough at the original destination (5).
Another reason one may want to change his destination was the practice of marque et représaille (mark and retaliation) which consisted in making any compatriot of anyone committing a crime against someone of another nationality a fair target for the privateers of the victim’s nation (7).
This article may not be the most important on the Mediterranean seafaring, but it explains well the day to day traffic of a period rarely discussed. Ultimately, cabotage fitted the environment and the practice of the Mediterranean trade; it was not a lesser form of seafaring, it was a rational business option.