Bills of Lading

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A short history of the bill of lading

(A) The Origins of the Bill of Lading

1.1 For the purpose of our consideration, it is safe to say that in the eleventh century the bill of lading was unknown.1 It was at this time that trade between the ports of the Mediterranean began to grow significantly. Some record of the goods shipped was required, and the most natural way of meeting this need was by means of a ship’s register, compiled by the ship’s mate. Although use of such a register probably began informally, it was soon, in some ports at least, placed upon a statutory footing.2 Its accuracy was paramount and, around 1350, a “statute was enacted, which provided that if the register had been in the possession of anyone but the clerk, nothing that it contained should be believed, and that if the clerk stated false matters therein he should lose his right hand, be marked on the forehead with a branding iron, and all his goods be confiscated, whether the entry was made by him or by another”.3 By the fourteenth century, what was later to be accomplished by the receipt function of the bill of lading was being accomplished by an on-board record.4 As yet there was no separate record of the goods loaded as it seems that shippers still travelled with their goods and there was accordingly no need for one.5 This changed only when trading practices altered and merchants sent goods to their correspondents at the port of destination, informing them by letters of advice of the cargo shipped and how to deal with it. Merchants also began to require from the carrier, and to send to their correspondents, copies of the ship’s register.6

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