A bill of lading is a document issued by a carrier acknowledging that specified goods have been received on board as cargo for conveyance to a named place for delivery to the consignee who is usually identified.
Bills of lading originated are no more than documents issued to merchants by carriers to evidence receipt by the carriers, in good condition, of cargoes shipped on board their vessels.
The words "shipped on board in apparent good order and condition" remain, the most common form of words used to evidence receipt on board a vessel, in good condition, of a shipper's cargo.
The manner in which bills of lading are issued has dictated their characterisation, generally, as documents that contain or evidence, rather than constitute, contracts of carriage.
In practice, because bills of lading often are transferred, a bill of lading will be the only evidence of the terms of the contract for carriage of the cargo that it covers that is available to a consignee or other transferee of the bill of lading.
Thus, bills of lading in the hands of consignees or other, intermediate or subsequent, transferees often have to be assumed to contain all of the terms of the contract of carriage.
By mercantile custom, both "received for shipment" and "shipped on board" bills of lading have come to be treated as documents of title to cargo.
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