Freedom of the Seas, Part 1

Michael Widener

Freedom of the Seas, 1609: Grotius and the Emergence of International Law
An exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum
Part 1

Grotius, Hugo (1583-1645). Mare liberum (Leiden, 1609).
Grotius launched his illustrious career in international law with this little book that initially did not bear his name.
Special Collections, Harvard Law School Library.

This exhibit marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Hugo Grotius’s Mare liberum, a short work, originally published as a pamphlet, which produced the first effective argument for the freedom of the seas and, with Grotius’s more mature work, De jure belli ac pacis (1625), lent substance and prestige to the idea of an international law in the service of the common good.

In principle, the Roman Civil Law had already established that navigation on the high seas was open to all. But in practice the principle was frequently disregarded  – even by Rome itself, when its naval power was at its height, and by others after its decline. With the growth of maritime commerce, especially in the later Middle Ages, maritime powers asserted dominion over wide areas of ocean space: Venice to dominion over the Adriatic Sea (Guido Pace, De dominio maris Adriatico, 1619); Genoa the Ligurian (Pietro Battista Borgo, De dominio serenessimae Genuinsis Reipublica in mari Liguria, 1641); Sweden, Denmark and Poland to all or parts of the Baltic.

Early efforts to codify maritime law, such as the 12th century Laws of Oleron and the Consolat de Mar (ca. 1484) had codified admiralty law on a range of subjects, including, for example, ship ownership, discipline and punishment of crews, and salvage.

– Notes by Edward Gordon

Pace, Giulio (1550-1635). De dominio maris Hadriatici desceptatio (Lyons, 1619).
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Libro llamado Consulado de mar (Valencia, 1539).
A translation from the original Catalan into Spanish of “The Book of the Consulate of the Sea,” the basis for much of Europe’s maritime law.
Rare Book Collection, Lillian Goldman Law Library.

“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.

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