In a magic, high medieval, setting what factors could contribute to governments avoiding maritime affairs with the exception of perhaps simple coast guards to prevent smuggling, given they are coastal nations.

Which is to say that long haul transport of people and cargo is done primarily by private individuals, and not even at the behest of government organizations.

For additional context This is to help prevent nations separated by sea from interacting in official capacities. As well as reducing the availability of cross-ocean/sea travel for plot purposes.

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    $\begingroup$ You have a magical world - the answer of course, is either magical force fields, magical storms, magical sea creatures/mythical huge dangerous sea creatures, or magical flying penguins that attack government ships. $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    May 1 '17 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ When and in what country did governments ever become involved in the transport of passengers and cargo by sea? Even in socialist countries merchant vessels were operated by enterprises which were not part of the government. Governments and kings have men o'war, not merchantmen. And anyway this does not solve your problem -- England and The Netherlands had diplomatic relationships since forever, although their monarchs and governments never had even one merchant vessel; diplomats can book passage on privately operated vessels just like anybody else. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 1 '17 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ To service colonies I would imagine most nations hired ships for this purpose? $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 1 '17 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ You mean like China, Japan, and Korea did? $\endgroup$ May 1 '17 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP: You probably named a difficult case there, the Netherlands. Technically most-medieval, the Dutch United East Indies Company (VOC) was for all intents and purposes a state within a state. It operated one of the largest navies of its times, not just fleets. It's not a stretch of the imagination to consider if the Dutch state could have "outsourced" the whole navy. And certainly it was the VOC which interacted in official capabilities with the local elite in East Asia. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    May 1 '17 at 21:10


If a region is generally peaceful at the macro scale, then there's less need to ramp up military might. Notice that North America didn't really develop nations OR naval armadas prior to the forming of USA. They had fishing and trade, though. They also didn't develop large armies, either, so there's that...

Materials or Skills?

If your nation doesn't have access to the raw materials necessary to build a navy, they may not have a maritime affairs focus. If you can't build ships, then you don't need a navy. This could be because you lack the lumber, or because you lack the know-how to build a competitive naval force.

Low population density

If your population density is low, you're less likely to need to expand. It takes land to support a growing population, and sometimes it's easier to take someone else's land than to continue clearing and maintaining your own.

Religious/superstitious pressure

A local religion may have strictures against oceanic travel, or against the concept of "big government" that would meddle in naval affairs. Or there could be some sort of perceived rule against the sea, so only a few people are brave/foolish enough to attempt oceanic interactions beyond near-shore fishing. If that taboo extends throughout the nobility, then they wouldn't even consider forming a naval affairs group.


There are various reasons your nation might have a treaty-based ban on naval affairs. Maybe they lost a major naval war and the treaty was all that preventing them being wiped out. Or maybe they and another powerful nation signed some mutual protection pact that said they would have no naval powers as their part of that agreement (Cold War type bans on naval warfare, or maybe your nation supplies ground troops and theirs supplies naval forces...)


Maybe your nation is so advanced, relative to their neighbors, that they don't need naval affairs. Or so far behind their neighbors that having a naval affairs division would be utterly pointless. Maybe, via technology or magic, they skipped ocean travel entirely and went "straight" to planes or dirigibles. After all, a floating/flying aerial vehicle is more useful than one trapped on the water.


Perhaps your nobility is too busy stabbing each other in the back (literally and/or figuratively) to form a cohesive naval power. Maybe they're too clanish to focus their energy together towards building a navy.


Here there be dragons. Or Kraken. Or some other beast that has a taste for anything large enough to represent ships of the line.


Building a naval affairs requires money. Maybe your nation simply cannot afford to do so.


If the oceans are too shallow or there aren't enough natural harbors, you may never develop the larger ships like we see during the height of the Age of Sail. Likewise, if wind patterns are wrong, your nation may not be positioned to launch a strong naval vessel — winds too week, or to strong but blowing inland off the sea for example. Or maybe the nation is too far north or too equatorial — people just don't have the temperature range they need to handle ocean voyages on a major scale.

Type of government

If they are a corporatocracy or ruled by guilds, the guild factions may prefer to keep the naval powers to themselves and away from rival corporations/guilds.

  • $\begingroup$ The religious point would fit well perhaps into what JBiggs said earlier, and may serve as a good excuse for a number of coastal nations. I also like the low population density idea as the world as it is currently being conceived has a fairly low population density, and so that point may help justify it! $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 1 '17 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ Release the Kraken! $\endgroup$
    – Ghanima
    May 1 '17 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ For a realistic example of the last one -- look at Russia. Their navy is extremely constrained by Russia's relative lack of ice-free ports even compared to say Canada. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    May 1 '17 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay Global warning is helping with that, though. ;) $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 2 '17 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ I can't resist the temptation to mention shipworms under "monsters". Real-world ones are a serious problem for wooden ships. Make them a bit more voracious, and it will be well-known that ships simply don't last long enough to be useful. Krakens not needed. $\endgroup$
    – nigel222
    May 2 '17 at 14:06

Water acts as a magic energy "ground". Magical energy flows over the surface of the world and "pools up" in living beings. Water (for some reason) acts as a ground. It dissipates pools of magical energy, radically lowering the ability of magic users to function. This is the reason for ancient myths about evil spirits not being able to cross streams of running water, etc.

A small stream will cause a "hiccup" with spellcasting, but nothing major. A large body of water like a lake or an ocean can completely drain the "pool" of magic energy, leaving everyone reliant only on mundane skills, technology, and tools alone. This SHOULD not be a huge problem, except that unlike our real world, people are USED to being able to fall back on a little bit of magic when things get really hairy. Middle Ages technology makes oceanic travel risky at any time, with a need for highly skilled mariners and very high tech (for the time) and expensive ships which might be lost at any time in a storm. Without being able to bring along a couple magic users "just in case", large organizations tend not to put a lot of importance on (or risk the royal treasury making fleets for) ocean going adventures. This is the realm of small groups willing to take on the larger risk of operating in an effectively "magic null" environment.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's an interesting idea, and actually, albeit with some other lore friendly modifications, might fit really well into my world! I especially like that last line highlighting the risk aversion on part of the governments: 'This is the realm of small groups willing to take on the larger risk of operating in an effectively "magic null" environment.' $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 1 '17 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ This was more or less my first idea as well. Alternative twist: In a magical system somehow derived from the elements, oceanic mana and continental mana might be different and incompatible. Now add some people who live in the ocean (fey, djinni, whatever), and you get a set up where a continental power trying to project any power over the ocean would get slapped down hard. Polite traders known for generations paying tribute and acting with respect would still be fine. Downside would be having to add "sea spirits" to the setting, but except for the traders nobody would interact with them. $\endgroup$ May 1 '17 at 19:45

Hinted by AlexP: a commercial shipping guild (modelled after the Dutch United East Indies Company) which out-evolved the growing state. Kings may have established their power by establishing feudal control over the local nobility, but this takes time and effort. In the mean time, the shipping guild simply became wealthy through trade, founded their own navy for pirate protection, and became the de facto national navy. The King would recognise their independence, while the shipping guild in exchange would support the King's reign on dry land.

Now, the King could of course buy transport on board these ships, but he's not entirely happy about that shipping guild showing off their independence. Having to pay for transport is beneath him, not paying is an issue for the shipping guild. But as long as the King doesn't want to use the ships, the question of payment can safely be skipped.

If this happens in a few countries, their shipping guilds may become wealthy by exclusively trading with each other. Such an alliance might also explain why no King dares to ban the national shipping guild. He might find himself embargoed by the other shipping guilds, who might want to make clear to their Kings how bad an idea it is to interfere with international trade. And since the shipping guilds are in contact, and the Kings aren't, the guilds have the upper hand in joint operations.

Magic isn't really needed, although it can be used to add flavor. Magic is going to be a source of wealth, but are the required exotic ingredients provided by the shipping guilds?

  • $\begingroup$ I like the intrigue that your answer provides. The notion of powerful multinational players that block government out of the waters may be an interesting one to play with. There will definitely be materials aimed to aiding magic use that will be pedaled by international trade groups! $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 2 '17 at 0:17

There is one nation in history that had a massive coast line, and apart from a short stint in the 1400s it almost completely ignored the sea trade until the 1800s. That would be China.

There are several reasons why they didn't go to sea. The first is the rivers: river transport was safer (easier to eliminate pirates on a river). They also dug canals which meant that you could go anywhere on the rivers. Rivers were also easier to tax, you just stick a tax post on a choke point in the river.

The second is policy. For centuries the government was focused on landward expansion and agriculture. The amount of land they had available meant that there was no real push to expand overseas. This combined with the prevailing doctrine that China was the Middle Kingdom and everyone would come to them and pay them tribute meant the land was China's main concern.

The third and possibly most applicable to the question is wood. Up until until you start seeing coal burning stoves wood was in massive demand for heating and cooking. If you add to that the need for charcoal for industrial forests (which caused the deforestation of several areas) and at least wood framing for buildings wood is in massive demand. Only the very wealthy are going to be able to pay for the wood to build boats. If the government is interested then you're likely to see only a few wealthy traders making high risk, high reward journeys.

  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate the real world comparison, it may serve as a good example of how the could have started policy started and evolved. I will be sure to look into it further. :) $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 2 '17 at 0:19
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    $\begingroup$ Also add that one chinese emperor made a law that made the construction of large ocean ships illegal, because he needed the resources for inland problems. Then that law got forgotten and due to cultural restraints, nobody removed or questioned it for a century or two. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    May 2 '17 at 7:08

Answer in list form below, problems with scenario up front.

During the time period you speak of, historically, there wasn't much in the way of government involvement in maritime affairs, particularly trade.

Until the advent of guns, Naval Warfare consisted of shipping troops mainly with occasional battles and protecting coastal settlements from raids.

Most countries only cared about keeping their villages from being raided, that's what they used the ships for. They did police their harbors, and tax things coming in, as one would.

Even in more modern periods waters are considered NOBODY's territory. They are called international waters for a reason, and that's because no government seeks to police the oceans closely.

You're asking why a government might not have interest in maritime affairs while still saying they have a coast guard and trade, which I would count as interest. If they have a coast guard, sorry, they are now officially MORE interested in maritime affairs than most coastal Medieval Governments The coast guard, as an entity, for example, did not exist in England until about 1800. Prior to that the NAVY fulfilled the functions you might think the coast guard would. Patrolling the waters, making sure things were not being smuggled, keeping people from attacking coastal villages.

Post Medieval, well...that's when things get fun. East India Company, the city states of Renaissance Italy. But still, the actual governments were primarily interested in a) WAR and b) taxing stuff on their land/egress to them, and eventually c) exploration to get more land and stuff!

If the nations trade and have a pirate problem (that is, goods are either not getting to other countries or they aren't getting to collect taxes on theirs) they may declare a bounty on pirates through the government.

As long as governments get plenty of money from the resulting trade, they won't care who runs the sea. But that doesn't mean that the trade organizations won't want to try to get in on the ground floor of the government and skew things towards themselves.

Here's how that might not happen.

  • two or three equally powerful trade orgs, all they can do is ensure the others don't get influence.
  • the government developed a "hands off" policy where anything goes on the high seas because it's best for the country, and any internal struggles can get solved on the seas (this actually, could create a whole culture OR not, as you please.
  • governments don't care to explore because it's too dangerous.
  • government backing of a sea voyage or trade resulted in economic collapse in the past. so it's now verboten. what this means is that there are not any of the old-timey equivalent of government grants for anything on the high seas--so no ruler can give over $$ for any research, exploration, or trade.

I see mundane reasons like not having the wood resources, and in-fighting such have been covered. Here's how a Navy might not get formed, using weird magic stuff. There can't be pirates or raiders. Or any attack from the sea on them by another country. (By that I mean that they won't ship soldiers over to attack the land).

  • a worldwide religious convention makes it a bad idea to do any sort of warfare from the water.
    • Because if any blood is shed it awakes the actual kraken.
    • or an impassible whirlpool, which is just bad for trade.
    • or a storm. or lightening or whatever!
  • metal cannot be transported by sea. So forget arms and armor! does not mean a more enterprising country might not use wood and arrows...
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Like the lack of involvement, perhaps It Has Always Been that the sea and those that live on/in it were of no concern/not their business. Perhaps like a no-fly zone/buffer to keep "them" away from "us", part of an agreement made hundreds of years before. $\endgroup$
    – ivanivan
    May 1 '17 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ You make a good point about a coast guard being heavy involvement,. Unfortunately I am trying to reconcile the lack of engagement in maritime affairs, and the fact that I can't imagine a nation not being concerned about who is in the local waters. :S But the idea of a hands off approach, with some self regulating third parties may be a workable angle! $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 2 '17 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenDiMarco If you're talking Medieval times, it just didn't happen as much. trade deals happened mainly between lords in different countries, not entire countries this early, anyway. The only real concern was keeping pirates/raiders from other countries from attacking villages and making sure taxes were collected in local ports. $\endgroup$ May 2 '17 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenDiMarco In other words it's not necessary for you to construct reasons, unless they are close geographically (like France is across the channel from England). You say High Medieval, and that's actually when agreements like this START, in earnest. Otherwise, a few here and there, but more often one lord to another or business to business. $\endgroup$ May 2 '17 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenDiMarco They really knew how to keep it local in those days. Everyday was small business Saturday back then. ;) $\endgroup$ May 2 '17 at 0:43

Deep sea travel is controlled by a single Navigator's Guild

Yes, adapted from Dune.

To safely travel beyond coastal waters, magic is needed. Without a specialized mage to navigate the storms/mists/kraken-infested deep, ships are not going to arrive at their destinations. These mages have united in a multi-national guild that is beyond the control of any one king.

They adopt a fairly neutral attitude but are not going to risk their members in maritime battles, so the kingdoms have no way to fight across the seas. This reduces the need and ability for official interactions, leaving the seas open to private trade.

For an additional twist, it could be that there is actually no danger in the seas other than that created by the first Navigators, but a century or two later, everyone just assumes it's impossible without them.

  • $\begingroup$ The core of this has been echoed in a few other answers, but I like your particular interpretation. Particularly the need for perhaps specialized mages, which is an easy way of making things fairly exclusive. Also false assumptions are already used fairly heavily in my world, so the idea of people just assuming the seas are unsafe sort of fits a theme! $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 2 '17 at 11:02

Rampant piracy that benefits the nation

Your coastal/island nation is host to innumerable pirates. These pirates prey primarily on trading vessels of another nearby nation. This other nation is strict about their trade with your nation, perhaps extremely high tariffs or trade limits. The pirates allows these products to enter your country without worrying about relations or tariffs. In return for the government's blind eye, the pirates mostly avoid trade vessels belonging to your nation and keep your neighboring "ally" in check.

For a loose historical example, see the Wakō, raiders based out of Japan who raided the coast of China and Korea.


The simple solution is that there is nothing (more) to gain from the seas.

The governments are usually concerned about simple things like maintaining security in the society. This includes keeping internal unrest to the minimum and also making sure no outside factions pose a threat to the society. There should be enough resources available to make this possible. If there are such resources in plenty then there is no actual need for the government to be interested in outside matters.

It may be that the ruling class or the society demands things that aren't available locally. This creates a need to push beyond borders and shores. And then the government is naturally interested in keeping its citizens safe and must expand its sphere of influence. This does not necessarily mean sending troops out. If friendly factions can guarantee safety, then there is no reason to commit manpower.

If all the necessary resources are available by land, there is no reason to put too much resources in seafaring. Occasional raids by foreign ships can be repelled by land-based fortifications to some extent.

And since China has been mentioned already, I might point out that its coastline curves outside for the most part, making inland routes shorter than sea routes. Such geographical features influence the need for ships, as well as terrain types and dangerous sea routes etc.

If separate nations are all doing fine on their own and have no need to be envious of others, then they need not be dealing with each other too often. This could change rapidly, however. As history has shown, internal turmoil can lead to expansionism. But that's a discussion for another topic.

  • $\begingroup$ I think this answer fits neatly into some of the others in giving varied and grounded reasons for government disinterest. The idea of more effective land trade routes holds true for most of geography coincidentally, and isolated regions are mostly self sufficient. I suppose there would be little incentive worth the risk. Thanks!, $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 2 '17 at 18:57

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