The history of maritime law is closely linked with the development of trade between nations. As a result, a body of international regulations governing navigational rights and other issues that are common to all nations has developed. Each nation, however, establishes its own laws based upon these general regulations with any modifications and qualifications that are appropriate for its own needs. This body of law is commonly referred to as admiralty law.
The ancient Egyptians engaged in significant seaborne commerce and the Phoenicians also shipped goods, so it is likely that there was a basic system of resolving conflicts between merchants at an early date. The Rhodians are credited with the first documented sea law, called the Nomos Rhodion Nautikos or the Rhodian Sea Law, which was subsequently adopted by many other Mediterranean nations.
In the seventeenth century, the great Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius argued that there was an inherent right to freedom of the seas. This idea helped fuel a debate that continues today between the advocates of natural law and those who argue that a nation should claim arbitrary territorial control over the seas.
In the United States, federal courts have original jurisdiction in admiralty cases arising on the high seas and in navigable waters within the country’s borders. This authority is derived from Article III, Section 2, of the Constitution and a number of treaties prepared by the International Maritime Organization, which individual nations sign to become a party to.