In one of my worlds I have a people who live almost exclusively on the surface of the ocean. Over their world's short history they quickly develop from the equivalent of island tribe tech to medieval and then, once they got access to lots of metal, most of their tech advanced to the equivalent of between 1920's to 1960's US/UK.

They have a highly stratified society which is a bit of a cross of a cast system and fiefdoms as well as quite a bit of small/local religions that all follow similar themes. They must trade with other, land-based, peoples, and gather resources from all over the ocean, transporting supplies between ships. It's a huge operation, but communication magic is extremely prevalent and easy to use; which also poses a problem.

The issue I am facing is what tactics can be used on ships, fleets, and city ships to keep order and control of the lower class when they can communicate so easily. Primarily, methods to keep them from taking over the ship and other industrial infrastructure. At the same time, I need a way that, probably due to failure to follow those methods properly, several thousand ships were taken by their lower class populous to form a nation of their own.

I've tried to look into mutinies, but haven't found much useful information there yet.

If it matters, spears, bows, and spear shaped guns are the norm for soldiers rather than swords and pistols, along with tall thin shields (usually just shorter than the intended user and about half their width). Oh, fire is everyone hated enemy and sinking ships is a HUGE taboo.

Thank you to any who can contribute.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, ThornBrier, your almost wholly maritime world is a challenging proposition. I have a question: how do they build their ships? Are there floating shipyards? or do the lands people build the ships? Welcome abroad. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ How exactly does a medieval caste-based society progress to the level of 1920's -- let alone 1960's -- USA? This would be a miracle much greater than living without agriculture. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ if communication is so easy I think the real question is why are there still fiefs $\endgroup$
    – depperm
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @a4android Thank you very much for the welcome. I've been meaning to join for quite some time and have benefited greatly from questions and answers here by others. As to how they build the ships, the first ships were created on the few islands they control, and some still are, but most are constructed 'at sea' with floating shipyards. The lumber comes from underwater forests. Until cut the outside is almost impervious to the ocean water's corrosive effects, once cut, a fish mucus is used to seal the wood again (damage must be caught fairly quickly or entire sections may need replacing). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 7:06
  • $\begingroup$ You're welcome. Historically, wooden ships were attacked by marine borers & shipworms. See here: spo.nmfs.noaa.gov/mfr358/mfr3582.pdf Glad you've benefited from other questions & answers. Now you can join in the fun. Look forward to seeing more from you in future. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 7:15

3 Answers 3


This society is run as cross between a caste society and medieval fiefdoms. It should be trivial to keep the lower classes in their place. This is a shipboard culture. Remember the lower classes are actually the crew. Anyone steps out of line, who breaks the proper lines of command will be stepped on promptly. Essentially this is Naval discipline writ large. Expect it to be brutal and unforgiving. Remember the lash and keel hauling. Walking the plank is always a choice option.

Probably, most of this is unnecessary. Ships are fragile and easily destroyed by the vicissitudes of the marine environment. The crew will stay in line for the survival of the vessel. Note well the same thing applies to the officer class. Everybody has to work together to survive.

As for thousands of ships where the crew have taken over and formed their seafaring nation, that couldn't easier. Discipline can always break down. It only takes a few bad officers and rumbles of mutiny will start quickly. Bad commanders can endanger everybody on a vessel, and it's easy enough for them to go for a walk over the ship's railing. Usually when no-one is looking. Some fool of an officer will want to make an example of some of the crew, just keep them in their place, and before you know it the rest of the officers are swinging by the yard arm. Life at sea can be unforgiving.

If this maritime society is run as a cross between a caste system and medieval fiefdoms, then revolution will always be bubbling beneath the surface. Good communications will give the crew examples of successful mutinies which, given the right circumstances, they will eagerly follow. The officer class will try hard to control the information reaching the crew. Underlings are often past masters at outwitting their so-called superiors.

  • $\begingroup$ One bad officer is more likely to be dealt with without a mutiny, methinks. (Not to say people wouldn't ever) $\endgroup$
    – The Nate
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ @TheNate It's not simply one bad officer, it's the fact that the rest go along with the bad decision. Invariably there will be a long history of discontent. This system seems fairly draconian. It only needs a trigger to blow up. My example above implies there are more than one bad officers in the vessel. Anyone who knows strong organizational structures will know how to read between the lines. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much, I had thought about this aspect a little bit earlier in my design, I suppose I must have largely forgotten about it for everyone other than the 'true slaves' among them. This will definitely work for the smaller ships I would think, but would it work for, effectively, cities on the ocean? Places where you have much more cross contact between social strata? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ThornBrier Land-based cities are more forgiving. Sea-faring cities can be easily sabotaged by malcontents. The more people the more potential for conflict. Everybody has an interest in the survival of their sea-city, but there will often be disagreement how it is achieved. There is also stronger need for social cohesion to simply survive at sea. If the upper classes betray that, they're dead in the water. If anyone else betrays that, they're equally gone. It's a tight rope. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 7:21

I like the comment by a4android, but I have one point to add.

It isn't just about officers and crew. There are junior and senior officers, junior and senior crew. It is the trust of the senior crew in the senior officers which prevents a mutiny. Those experienced crewmen realize that a ship is a fragile community, and that discipline is necessary for the benefit of all. They keep the young, inexperienced crew in check if they get silly ideas.

  • $\begingroup$ Glad you added this point. There are more factions at work between the different ship's classes. My answer dealt with the broad case of officers and crew. Since this is a ship-based community the families of officers and crew will also be on board. That will complicate matters enormously. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 1:24

You basically answered your own question. Communication. The key here is that while "magical" Communication exists, it would need to be controlled by those in power. Even to the point that it would illegal to have magical forms of communication not approved by the government.

This would also easily explain your rebellious fleet - they simply got control of some communication magic and used it to plan and carry out a successful rebellion.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the response. Unfortunately, the spell is very easy, just a couple syllables, even easier than the common detection/sensing magic which requires writing something and establishing something as the spell's anchor. Also, 'familiars' capable of carrying messages are fairly common among everyone except 'true slaves.' Detecting when the spell is used is possible, but more difficult to pinpoint who or where. By then you need the draconian solutions a4android suggested. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 7:14

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