Shipping in the Holy Roman Empire and later in the German states was largely regional. Up to 1871 there was no such thing as a German merchant marine - and only recently was there a German navy. But Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and a number of small cities, such as Emden, Papenburg, Husum and Tönning had merchant fleets. That is why national statistics and research on the social history of sailors before 1870 has to focus on regional developments. Indeed, before unification we are forced to use mainly data on Hamburg ships and sailors. Although this represents only a segment of the history of German sailors, it was an important one due to Hamburg's role as the most important German harbour, a position it gained after the Thirty Years’ War when, unlike most of the Holy Roman Empire, it managed to stay at peace by making frequent loans to the neighbouring states. Hamburg's rise as a port was bolstered by two factors: first by its location on the Elbe, which gave it access to the interior of Germany and central Europe; and second by its consistent neutrality during the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it became an alternative to Amsterdam.
The data on Hamburg shipping in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suggests limited maritime development (tables 1 and 2). And the trends were negative: there was a 40.9% decline in tonnage between 1674 and 1765, although average tonnage did rise from 77.1 to 104 lasts. Not until the 1790s did Hamburg's tonnage reach 1674 levels and again provide sufficient capacity for the buoyant grain trade. This growth in the last third of the eighteenth century was stimulated by a decline in whaling, as Hamburg's Greenland whale fishery ceased to be profitable due to a decline in stocks. Hamburg shipowners thus had an incentive to concentrate on the carrying trades. Although the city's merchant fleet was expanding, it could handle no more than twenty percent of Hamburg's total trade.
Hamburg's merchant fleet declined again from 1806 due to the continental blockade and the consequent British blockade of the Elbe. After 1815 it stagnated; recovered somewhat in the 1830s and 1840s; and grew rapidly between 1850 and the end of the century. Before 1800 Hamburg merchantmen were mainly confined to European waters; only a few crossed the Atlantic.