Responsibility and Accountability in Maritime Law

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The risk business

The Master and their accountability

To understand the anatomy of criminalisation, it is essential to see how the phenomenon evolved. The background history of the modern ship's Master offers a convenient starting point in the Middle Ages, when Sir Francis Drake was Master Under God. In 1577, he famously sailed from England to circumnavigate the globe. Such adventures were in their infancy, defining a new era in maritime trade which was moving away from coastal trading to deep sea merchant ventures, requiring the Master to protect the investor's interests in risks for rewards which, in the sixteenth century, were so uncertain that only the Crown really had the means to justify such risk on a cost-benefit analysis. With his diminutive Golden Hind as flagship, Drake's small fleet successfully crossed the Atlantic; but the venture then was plagued by vicissitudes from the time of his arrival in the River Plate estuary in South America, when he was forced to abandon two of the ships and proceed to circumnavigate the continent. Of course, once he had sailed beyond England's horizon, the key stakeholders, the Queen and her Privy Council, had no knowledge, and no control, over the progress of the marine adventure; although this would not change for another 250 years. So, with only his flagship left, which had been blown badly off course, a depleted crew to man her, and laughably inaccurate charts, Drake had nobody else with whom to consult; he could not share the burden of responsibility for the success or doom of the venture but had to decide, by his own judgment, how best to protect the voyage's commercial prospects, in balance with the safety of what life remained among the crew. The risk culture on board ship was very severe indeed.

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