Below is an excerpt from an email I sent to a writing friend last night. It then occurred to me that this might interest my various readers on this blog…
As part of my worldbuilding for my fantasy novel, I’m trying to wrap my mind around river freight traffic in an inland area prior to steam power. (By “inland” I mean not near coastlines, outside the influence of tides and estuaries, etc.)
So far, I’ve worked out that barges are probably the central means of transportation, which will work only when rivers are relatively flat. Obviously, locks are important. While boats might float down a river, when going upriver some means of propulsion will be needed: e.g., towpaths. Sources mentioned use of poles and oars as well, but the former doesn’t seem powerful enough for upriver traffic, and the latter seems too manpower-intensive to be economical. Sails seem right out as a source of power in most river travel circumstances.
I’ve also been thinking about how all this would impact trade patterns, regulation, etc. Obviously, you will always have commerce of some kind. It seems to me though that it would be much more supervised, if that makes sense. River travel is, in a sense, a partnership between those on the boat and those on the shore — and thus much more easily regulated by local officials. For that matter, I wonder how many people will be on the boat versus those on the shore. I also read something about the need to stop each night. So inns along the way? Or at least periodic slips and landings. (And anytime you have a landing you have the potential for a service, and a fee…)
Overall, river commerce seems much more like a business and less like a venture, compared to ocean travel.
I’m used to thinking of ships’ captains as important figures in commerce, even if they are hauling cargo for other merchants. I’m not sure that pattern holds for river traffic. Is there even a need for a “captain” in the traditional sense, or just a pilot? Crew of 2? Whatever?
Smuggling, I’m going to assume, is a universal human constant. But it seems to me that it would be trickier in a situation where you can’t just slip away to a secluded landing somewhere. Smuggling would be a matter of unauthorized cargo rather than unauthorized routes or ports.
And of course there is the question of just what the boats/barges/whatever would look like, how much they could haul, what traffic they could take.
Thoughts? Sources I could/should consult?
(On other topics: I have finally bitten the bullet and joined Facebook. Only about 10 years behind the times… I kept thinking that if I just dragged my feet long enough, Facebook would go the way of Myspace. But alas…)