In his classic work The Influence of Sea Power upon History, first published in 1890, the great American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan summarized the principal difference in the mode of operation between armies and navies: "Armies pass through countries more or less inhabited by a stationary population and they leave behind them traces of their march.Fleets move through a desert over which wanderers flit, but where they do not remain; and as the waters close behind them, an occasional waif from the decks may indicate their passage, but tells nothing of their course." Seventy percent of the planet is covered by the oceans and seas, and a corresponding proportion of the planet's resources lie beneath them. Ninety percent by volume of everything the world's population consumes is transported by sea, since time in memorial.

The Merchant Navy has been in existence for a significant period in British history, owing much of its growth to British Imperial expansion. As an entity in itself it can be dated back to the 17th century, where an attempt was made to register all seafarers as a source of labour for the Royal Navy during times of conflict. That registration of merchant seafarers failed, and it was not successfully implemented until 1835. The merchant fleet grew over successive years to become the world's foremost merchant fleet, benefitting considerably from trade with British possessions in India and the Far East. The lucrative trade in sugar, spices and tea helped to solidify this dominance in the 19th century.

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