Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
For the 17th century Mare liberum and Mare clausum were the centerpieces of the debate between advocates of exclusive and inclusive uses of ocean space. In England, Mare clausum reigned supreme as the authority on all questions of sovereignty at sea, although its authority on more mundane legal issues of maritime law yielded late in that century to Charles Molloy’s De jure maritime et navali, or, A Treatise of Affaires Maritime, and of Commerce (1676), which dealt with mercantile questions such as bills of exchange, insurance and maritime loans.
Molloy, Charles (1646-1690). De jure maritimo et navali (London, 1682).
This popular work went through 12 editions between 1676 and 1778.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.
Neither Welwood nor Selden dealt decisively with the question of how far out to sea a sovereign’s territorial sea could extend: Welwood seemed to suggest one hundred miles, but left the issue open; Selden finessed it entirely. In time, British maritime power rendered such matters moot: as an old saw had it, “Britannia rules the waves – and waives the rules.”
But by the end of the century, support was growing elsewhere for some limitation to the seaward extent of territorial waters. What emerged was the so-called “cannon shot rule”, which deferred in theory to the idea that property rights could be acquired by actual occupation, and in practice to the effective range of shore-based cannon: about three nautical miles. The rule has long been associated with Cornelis van Bijnkershoek (1673-1743), a Dutch jurist who, especially in his De dominio maris (1702), advocated a middle ground between the extremes of Grotius and Selden, accepting both the freedom of states to navigate and exploit the resources the of the high seas and a right of coastal state to assert wide-ranging rights in a thus limited territorial sea.
Bijnkershoek, Cornelis van (1673-1743). De dominio maris (The Hague, 1703).
Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library.
Viewed in historical perspective, what emerged from the 17th-century debate were not just these two legal regimes, but a more inclusive one – international law – to govern humanity’s common interest in the use of shared space and shared resources, interest as to which the future may well offer exhibits of its own.
– Notes by Edward Gordon
“Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law,” curated by Edward Gordon and Michael Widener, is on display October 2009 through January 2010 in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.