Skip to main content
European Commission logo

Travelling by sea in modern and contemporary age: economic and social aspects of passenger transport

Italy Flag
Complete with results
Geo-spatial type
STRIA Roadmaps
Transport mode
Waterborne icon
Transport sectors
Passenger transport,
Freight transport


Background & Policy context

Traditionally ignored by the historiography that has always been interested in the landed and industrial production processes, the sea is now attracting researchers in economic history again, given the spur of suggestions of the French historiography, especially Fernand Braudel’s ones. It is necessary to lay stress on that most researches have studied the sea as a communication route and productive resource, starting from the economic development and enhancement of the nation-state. 

Maritime historiography is a developing research field as several recent Italian studies collections show and, moreover, referring to international studies, those collected from the International Maritime Economic History Association (IMEHA). Instead, other studies give us a large number of data concerning ships both in modern and contemporary periods; moreover, there are several papers concerning maritime commerce, that can be useful to define a complete picture of the main international routes. 

Considering the historiography production above mentioned, the following analysis fields seem to be already investigated enough:

  • navigation techniques and the influence of the evolution from sailing to steamship on maritime traffic hierarchy, commercial hegemony, economic development and enhancement of the nation-state;
  • evolution of shipping companies from the sailing system to the greatest steamers;
  • the routes of the goods traffic, their evolution in relation with the development of the merchant marine on one hand, with the evolution of the production systems and the regional and international work division on the other;
  • the harbour organisation, from the harbour structures to the work organisation, its impact and role in the urban and hinterland economies. 

Though rich in numerous economic and social details, the examined literature does not focus specifically on sea travel by people. The same sources used for studies regarding sea-expeditions were often ignored for scholarly work on people’s voyage on the sea. Starting from this appraisal, and thinking of new sources recently available for scholars, we think that it is now possible to reach some appreciable results investigating a less well known issue. Our research project concerns both modern and contemporary periods. These ages are divided by the great break caused by the transition from sail to steam navigation. This


The aim of this research project was to realise a deep investigation on voyages by sea of people in modern and contemporary periods, considering social and economic aspects of the voyage. By comparison with the studies, that are quite few, about such a theme, the main new element of the approach suggested is the choice of focusing on the moment of the navigation, even if examined in relation to a broader social and economic framework.

With respect to the specific topic, Genoa and Naples represent two significant observation points because they are two important centres of the Mediterranean maritime economy both in modern and contemporary periods. Analysing the issue in a long-term perspective, it is possible to stress the aspects of continuity and, on the other side, the factors of change that characterise the voyage on sea, which is influenced by technological, organisational and economic transformations. Starting from the archive sources and the literature founded by the research units, the work ran in parallel with analysis related to the two specific contexts (Genoa and Liguria, Naples and Campania) in order to compare, in a second period, the different experiences to point out their specific or common features.

Among the various investigations which are possible on the general theme of the voyage, the research units gave a socio-economic picture of the people who travel and to describe the life conditions on board. In this respect it is important to underline the changes which occurred between the modern and the contemporary period, when a growing demand of maritime transport of people determined the substitution of ships used to transport both people and goods (and usually more goods than people) with more modern ships, designed and built just to transport people.

Secondly, the research units studied the seamen, looking at the composition of the crews, the salary and the life conditions of the workers, the organisation of labour on board. Even in this respect, the adoption of a long-term perspective allowed us to point out the changes that were introduced with the success of the steam navigation. Then, with ships moved exploiting new energetic sources that replaced the old sailing or oared ships, there was the need of more qualified seamen, with specific technical skills (for instance, in mechanical and later electrical technology).

For the contemporary period a larger amount of statistical data were available; it was therefore possib


The voyage by sea of people is the central topic of the investigation and it is considered in a long term perspective, looking at its economic and social dimensions. As to the modern age, we have defined the economic and social characters of sea travellers (merchants, pilgrims, diplomats, soldiers, aristocrats). To this aim, contracts between ship owners and passengers were used to obtain information on several aspects of the journey, such as the technical characters of the ship used.

Other sources (journey reports and log- books) are also important to describe the phase of navigation and life on board. Other sources have been useful to investigate the economic result of the administration of a ship, the tonnage, the members of the crew and their salary. Reports written by the captain on the arrival in a port are also important: they allow to obtain further information, such as his name, the name and tonnage of the ship the port of departure, the crew, which goods are charged, the number of passengers on board. Documents concerning average procedure gave data on the accidents occurred during the journey. Passengers testimonies (considered impartial) were collected by the port authorities in order to understand what really happened. We had also the chance to study several journey books; they tell us about life on board a ship during several journeys in the Mediterranean Sea.

As to the contemporary period, the primary objective of this study was to obtain a quantitative and qualitative picture of travellers. In order to do that, we used parliament and ministry documentary sources, emigrants direct reports (collected both in the ports of departure and in the ones of the arrival), sanitary sources and other documents produced by the authorities charged to check passengers on board. A wide literature with interesting descriptions of the journeys, written by sailors and travellers is also available and it’s an important source to understand every social and economic aspect of sea journeys. The project also analysed the main changes in the technical features of the ships and, strictly related to this, the evolution in maritime transportation (the new shipping companies). The study adopted a business history point of view and was based on sources from the Chamber of Commerce, the Courts, and archives of shipping companies. Other useful sources were the Parliament inquiry on the Italian merchant navy and other parliament reports.

The research project was divided in two diff


Parent Programmes
Institution Type
Public institution
Institution Name
MIUR, Ministero Istruzione, Università e Ricerca (Ministry of Education University and Research)
Type of funding
Public (national/regional/local)


Genoa research unit

A systematic survey of the documents which are kept in the archives of Genova has been realised. The researchers examined:

  • documents of the Archivio di Stato di Genova (contracts, voyage reports, testimoniali of 'avaria', which are collected in the sections Antica Finanza, Notai Antichi, Conservatori del Mare, Giunta di Marina, Magistrato delle Galee, Magistrato di Sanità, and the collectionof papers Maritimarum of the Archivio Segreto, all of great importance to study the Modern period; documents of the Fondo Prefettura Sarda and Fondo Camera di Commercio have been examined to study the XIX century’s reality);
  • documents that are kept in private archives (i.e. Brignole Sale, Durazzo, Doria Lamba);
  • the archive of Finmare, stored in Fondazione Ansaldo;
  • papers which are kept in the maritime museums of Genova, Imperia and Camogli (particularly voyage reports and navigation books of the contemporary period);

The researches dealt particularly with:

  • social and economic features of passengers and their conditions of life on the ships (in modern and contemporary periods);
  • the world of seamen (composition of the crew, wages, organization of labour), to analyse them in a labour history perspective and thinking to the service given to the passengers;
  • the shipping companies that, starting from the second half of the XIX century, specialised in transport of people.

Naples research unit

The examination of the sources regarded both the published texts and archives’ papers. With respect to the latter the researchers analysed the documents that are kept in the Archivio di Stato di Napoli (particularly in the sections related to the arguments linked to legal cases (Admiralty and Consolato di Mare for the XVIII century).

For the Contemporary period investigations were performed in the Archivio di Stato di Napoli (for the decades before the unification of Italy) and in the Archivio Centrale dello Stato (post unification period). To describe the voyage, especially in relations with the emigration movement, the archives’ sections that have to be considered are those of Ministero degli Affari Esteri, Commissariato generale per l’emigrazione, of Ministero della Sanità, Direzione Generale, and last but not least the Fondo Emigrazio


Lead Organisation
EU Contribution
Partner Organisations
EU Contribution


Contribute! Submit your project

Do you wish to submit a project or a programme? Head over to the Contribute page, login and follow the process!