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Shipping Systems


The Nef as Ship

Nef is an old term for a type of boat, originally referring a largish sort of Knarr or “Halfskip” (which was a double ended sort of canoe shape, about 2.5 to 3 times as long as wide, and used by Northern European travellers and trades for exploration and cargo).

A fully rigged medieval sailing merchantman and warship. Developed in France, the nef had a broad beam, rounded ends, and a carvel-planked (flush rather than overlapping) hull. Similar in design and purpose to the cog, this type of ship was normally single masted with a more rounded stern than the cog. Fore and after castles were part of the hull structure. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the vessel had grown to almost 400 tons and carried three masts. Its basic purpose as a naval vessel was to serve as a fighting platform.

Nef: 1.Also called a roundship, a single-masted clinker-built ship used in Europe during the middle-ages until the 14th century, for example as transportation for the crusades. Descendant of the Viking longship a Nef still had a side-rudder and was used in Northern regions a century or two longer with a sternpost-rudder. 2.A French word for ship.

Variegated Reference for ‘nef’ as ship, from
Lewis, A.R. and Runyan, T.J.  European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500.  Indiana University Press.  Bloomington.  1985.

p.66  “… the so-called _naves_ or _nefs_, which were large round-ships, lateen-rigged, with two masts …”

p.73  has a line-drawing of a Genoese nef based on the best available evidence.

p.74  “They may have been cheaper to build or to operate than a_nef_.”  The word _nef_ is used two more times on this page.

p.82  “Already by 1400, as we have noted, the older Mediterraneanround-ships such as _nefs_ and _taurides_ had been replaced by more efficient northern European _cogs_.”

p.83  “Often built as large as 700 or 1,000 tons, _carracks_,which were sometimes also called _nefs_ in the fifteenth century, carried most of the heavy bulk cargoes, such as salt, wheat, cotton, and timber, throughout the Mediterranean.”

Roundships Redux

The round ships of the Mediterranean came from Roman ships with a 3:1 ratio of width to length. They were constructed with caravel-built hulls and no oars, but instead 1-3 masts often with lateen sails. They were used for transport and trade, and were know in the later 12th and 13th centuries to add castles, for and aft, to the ship, which later became part of the hull design. These were more decorative and helped hold more cargo and passengers; the aft castle often held the captain’s quarters.

Marshall, Michal. Ocean Traders. Facts of File, NY: 1990. VM15.M368

Medieval ship type popular in the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries and the Christian Crusaders’ transport of choice. Unlike the swift, more comfortable galleys that transported the wealthiest crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land, the round ship was ungainly and slow. Because of the need for large amounts of cargo space for retainers, equipment, and horses, it was, however, ideal.

Round ships had a length-to-beam ratio of three or even two to one, giving them a round appearance and their name. Most were single-masted and square-rigged vessels. The cog of northern Europe was a typical round ship.

Slow because of their hull shape, round ships had to await favorable winds before sailing from each port of call. However, the increase in carrying capacity made a slower passage economically feasible. In traveling to and from the Holy Land, round ships moved along the coasts, rarely venturing offshore. In their inevitable stops along the way, these ships opened up markets for the Italian merchants whose goods they carried. Over time these markets became regular trading ports for the maritime republics. The round ship began to disappear in the fifteenth century, replaced by the carrack and other ship designs.

Battles of the Azores, (1582–1583)

Naval battles between Spain and France, the first in the Central Atlantic. Although the death of King Sebastian of Portugal in 1578 had made Philip II of Spain the clear heir to the Portuguese throne, eight of Portugal’s nine strategic Azores islands opted to recognize as king Sebastian’s illegitimate son, Dom Antonio de Crato. Forced into exile as the Spanish occupied Portugal, Antonio nonetheless managed to secure aid for his cause from England and France, which were keen to disrupt the powerful Hispano-Portuguese union and saw the Azores as a prime base for attacks on Spanish treasure fleets returning from America. French regent Catherine de’ Medici also had laid claim to the Portuguese throne and had been promised Brazil by Dom Antonio in return for aid. She sent a fleet of 63 ships and some 5,800 troops under the command of her cousin, former army general Filippo Strozzi, to seize the only Azorean island loyal to Spain, São Miguel, and to protect the other islands from a large Spanish fleet that had sailed from Cádiz.

This fleet consisted of 28 ships under Spain’s greatest sailor, Álvaro de Bazán, Marqués de Santa Cruz, with some 6,700 veteran soldiers aboard. Strozzi arrived in the islands six days before Santa Cruz and, despite a successful amphibious landing on São Miguel, failed to carry the crucial fort of Ponta Delgada. The French were in the process of re-embarking their infantry when the Spanish fleet appeared. The ensuing battle on 26 June 1582 lasted some five hours, with the French trying to stand off and cannonade, and the Spaniards seeking to grapple and board.

The French tactic failed for lack of a sufficient number of heavy guns and the early departure of 30 ships. Santa Cruz’s fleet sank six French ships. Some 2,000 French soldiers and sailors died, including their commander, Filippo Strozzi; another 390 were taken prisoner. The Spaniards lost 224 dead and 533 wounded. Five days later, Santa Cruz had all the prisoners executed, a much-decried act he tried to justify by claiming that the victims were lawless pirates.

But Santa Cruz sailed back to Spain without forcing the surrender of the main rebel island of Terceira, and a second French expedition to safeguard the island was mounted in May 1583 under the command of Aymar de Chastes, governor of Dieppe. Eager to crush the Azores rebellion once and for all, Philip II ordered Santa Cruz to return to the islands in 1583 with an even larger armada of 98 ships carrying over 15,000 men. After defeating the French fleet, the marquis, in one of the early modern world’s classic amphibious landings, overwhelmed the rebel stronghold and put most of its French, English, and Portuguese garrison to the sword.

Santa Cruz’s victory was hugely acclaimed in Spain, since it sealed the union of two great world empires. He himself saw the Azores victory as the prologue to an invasion of England, which he thought might take place as early as 1584. He seems to have believed that the fleets he had so easily defeated were partly English and thus reckoned that defeating England would be less difficult than heretofore believed. Chosen to lead Spain’s Enterprise of England, Santa Cruz died before it set sail. The battles off the Azores also underlined for the powers concerned the necessity of maintaining fleets that could operate efficiently in the Atlantic, which meant accelerating construction of galleons.

Fernandez Duro, Cesáreo. La conquista de las Azores en 1583: Descrita por el capitan de navio Cesareo Fernandez Duro. Madrid: Sucessore de Rivadeneyra, 1886.
Ibanez de Ibero, Carlos. Santa Cruz: Primer Marino de Espana. N.p., 1946.
Mariejol, Jean. Philip II: The First Modern King. Trans. Warre B. Wells. New York: Harper & Bros., 1933.


During the past 5,000 years the expansion of the Austronesians from Taiwan into Southeast Asia, and from there into the Pacific and to Madagascar, has always been carried out, out of necessity, across the seas and upstream along the rivers of the major islands. At the turn of the first millennium C.E., local and regional maritime exchange networks had expanded into long-distance overseas commerce that brought local ships and traders to harbors of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Linguistic, ethnographic, archaeological, and historical research has all contributed to a considerable body of knowledge on Austronesian shipbuilding traditions. Other peoples of Southeast Asia, particularly the Mon, appear in time to have developed their own shipbuilding industries. However, for lack of proper studies, it is not clear how much of it was indigenous, or how much they owed to borrowings during interaction with the neighboring Austronesians (Austronesian nautical terms appear in Old Mon inscriptions).

The typical Austronesian vessel appears to have been developed from a dugout canoe. As its size grew, side-planks were added to the dugout hull, which progressively turned into a keel. In the early stages of seafaring, as in historical and modern smaller and narrower boats, outriggers were necessary stabilizing devices. As these smaller vessels grew into bulkier, high seas trading ships with rounded hulls, however, it appears that outriggers were not used: the earliest descriptions of Austronesian ships, in third- to eighth-century Chinese texts, do not mention stabilizing devices. What they do describe are very large ships, carrying hundreds of tons of cargo and passengers, propelled by multiple sails rigged on several masts. According to these early witnesses, no iron was ever used in fastening the planks of these ships, only strings made of vegetal fibers. Archaeological work carried out in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and the Philippines has indeed brought to light an indigenous tradition of shipbuilding that fully confirms these early texts. Sites from the third to the twelfth centuries C.E. have yielded remains of hulls made of planks fastened together by wooden dowels and stitches of palm-sugar fiber strings. Some of these shipwrecks were as much as 30 meters in length. These sites also yielded some side rudders, a feature described in later ships that survived in twentieth century Javanese and Bugis traders. Their sails and masts were reconstructed from iconography, as depicted on a few early seals and on the famous eighth-century relief of the Borobudur temple: they carried multiple tripod masts and canted square sails made of matting. This early stitched technique partly survived in seventeenth- century Philippines and Moluccan boats and in modern whaling boats of Lomblen.

By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, much of the local large-scale trade was carried out in ships known in Malay or Javanese as jong, a local term that gave birth to the word “junk” in European languages (later to be used only for Chinese ships). Their hulls were still being assembled without any iron fastenings: wooden dowels had by then completely replaced the earlier fiber lashings to keep the planks fastened together, and the shell was in turn dowelled to the sturdy frames. These were huge sailing vessels, even by European standards of the times: Malay and Javanese jong that hauled 500 tons of merchandise and a few hundred people were regularly described in Portuguese sources. Like earlier vessels, they were steered with a pair of side rudders and carried multiple masts, and as many lug sails of fiber matting, including a typical bowsprit sail.

The fleets of large indigenous jong were to disappear in the second half of the sixteenth century because of a combination of economic and political factors that laid considerable strain on the capacities of local powers to maintain their own trading fleets. As a result of increased warfare at sea, much of the local capital and energy was then spent on building and maintaining profusely armed war fleets of long craft. The largest were new ships for the region, galley-type craft built according to Mediterranean standards learned from Portuguese renegades and Turkish shipwrights, built in such a way as to allow them to carry and shoot the large cannon necessary for battles at sea.

Shipwreck archaeology has also proved that, by the fifteenth century, indigenous Malay and Javanese jong were no longer the only large trading ships built locally. Southern Chinese vessels had conquered their own share of the local shipping. However, the ban on shipbuilding and overseas shipping imposed by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appears to have prompted many Chinese to settle in Southeast Asia and to build their ships locally. This contributed to the birth of the so-called South China Sea shipbuilding tradition, a blend of two nautical traditions, Austronesian and southern Chinese.

In Indonesian seas, a significant fleet of lesser coasters (under 100 tons) survived the disappearance of the large oceangoing jong. The building of these vessels kept the local shipbuilding traditions alive until modern times. Together with the fishing boats, these fleets of small to medium-size Madurese, Butonese, and Bugis ships were the last to bear witness to the earlier grandeur of Malay world shippers.

References: Green, Jeremy, and Rosemary Harper. 1987. The Maritime Archaeology of Shipwrecks and Ceramics in Southeast Asia. Special Publication no. 4.Albert Park: Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology. Horridge, G.Adrian. 1982. The Lashed-lug Boat of the Eastern Archipelagoes. Monographs and Reports, no. 54. London: National Maritime Museum. Manguin, Pierre-Yves. 1980.“The Southeast Asian Ship: An Historical Approach.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 11, no. 2: 266–276. ———.1989.“The Trading Ships of Insular Southeast Asia: New Evidence from Indonesian Archaeological Sites.” Vol. I, pp. 200–220 in Proceedings Pertemuan Ilmiah Arkeologi V, Yogyakarta 1989. Jakarta: Ikatan Ahli Arkeologi Indonesia. ———.1993.“Trading Ships of the South China Sea: Shipbuilding Techniques and Their Role in the Development of Asian Trade Networks.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 36: 253–280. ———.1996.“Southeast Asian Shipping in the Indian Ocean during the 1st Millennium AD.” Pp. 181–198 in Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean. Edited by H. P. Ray and J.-F. Salles. Lyon and New Delhi: Manohar (Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen/NISTADS). Scott, William Henry. 1982.“Boatbuilding and Seamanship in Classic Philippine Society.” Philippine Studies 30: 335–376.

Alamannic raiders

When assessing the overall effectiveness of Roman frontier defense, therefore, it is necessary to factor into the equation that substantial economic losses to outside raiding were also part of the picture, since it took a fair amount of raiding to trigger a response. How substantial that raiding might have been has emerged from an exciting archaeological find made while dredging in the Rhine near the old Roman frontier town of Speyer. Late in the third century, some Alamannic raiders had been trying to get their booty back home across the Rhine when their boats were ambushed and sunk by Roman river patrol ships. This booty consisted of an extraordinary 700 kg of goods packed into three or four carts, the entire looted contents of probably a single Roman villa, and the raiders were interested in every piece of metalwork they could find. The only items missing from the hoard were rich solid silver ware and high-value personal jewelry. Either the lord or lady of the house got away before the attack or else the very high-value loot was transported separately. In the carts, however, was a vast mound of silverplate from the dining room, the equipment from an entire kitchen (fifty-one cauldrons, twenty-five bowls and basins, and twenty iron ladles), enough agricultural implements to run a substantial farm, votive objects from the villa’s shrine, and thirty-nine good-quality silver coins. If this haul represents the proceeds of just one localized raid, the magnitude of the more sustained disturbances required to trigger an imperial campaign should not be underestimated. Nonetheless, the overall pattern of the evidence is unmistakable. Late Roman emperors did not leave their troops passively behind the frontier merely waiting for trouble. Periodically, the field armies were trundled out in force to establish an overwhelming level of immediate military dominance, which was then used to dictate an overall diplomatic settlement for the region that was in line with the empire’s priorities, to maximize the cost-value ratio of the original campaign.

The Athenian Empire

The Athenian Empire, like all its predecessors, had been achieved by war, and many people could not conceive of one without the other. The problem was intensified by the character of the Athenian empire, a power based not on a great army dominating vast stretches of land but on a navy that dominated the sea. This unusual empire dazzled perceptive contemporaries. The Old Oligarch pointed out some of its special advantages:

It is possible for small subject cities on the mainland to unite and form a single army, but in a sea empire it is not possible for islanders to combine their forces, for the sea divides them, and their rulers control the sea. Even if it is possible for islanders to assemble unnoticed on one island, they will die of starvation. Of the main land cities which Athens controls, the large ones are ruled by fear, the small by sheer necessity; there is no city which does not need to import or export something, but this will not be possible unless they submit to those who control the sea.

Naval powers, moreover, can make hit-and-run raids on enemy territory, doing damage without many casualties; they can travel distances impossible for armies; they can sail past hostile territory safely, while armies must fight their way through; they need not fear crop failure, for they can import what they need. In the Greek world, besides, all their enemies were vulnerable: “every mainland state has either a projecting headland or an offshore island or a narrow strait where it is possible for those who control the sea to put in and harm those who dwell there.”

Thucydides admired sea power no less and depicted its importance more profoundly. His reconstruction of early Greek history, describing the ascent of civilization, makes naval power the dynamic, vital element. First comes a navy, then suppression of piracy and safety for commerce. The resulting security permits the accumulation of wealth, which allows the emergence of walled cities. This in turn allows the acquisition of greater wealth and the growth of empire, as the weaker cities trade independence for security and prosperity. The wealth and power so obtained permit the expansion of the imperial city’s power. This paradigm perfectly describes the rise of the Athenian Empire. Yet Thucydides presents it as a natural development, inherent in the character of naval power and realized for the first time in the Athens of his day.

Pericles himself fully understood the unique character of the naval empire as the instrument of Athenian greatness, and on the eve of the great Peloponnesian War he encouraged the Athenians with an analysis of its advantages. The war would be won by reserves of money and control of the sea, where the empire gave Athens unquestioned superiority.

If they march against our land with an army, we shall sail against theirs; and the damage we do to the Peloponnesus will be something very different from their devastation of Attica. For they cannot get other land in its place without fighting, while we have plenty of land on the islands and the mainland; yes, command of the sea is a great thing.

In the second year of the war, Pericles made the point even more strongly, as he tried to restore the fighting spirit of the discouraged Athenians:

I want to explain this point to you, which I think you have never yet thought about; it is about the greatness of your empire. I have not mentioned it in my previous speeches, nor would I speak of it now, since it sounds rather like boasting, if I did not see that you are discouraged beyond reason. You think you rule only over your allies, but I assert that of the two spheres that are open to man’s use, the land and the sea, you are the absolute master of all of one, not only of as much as you now control but of as much more as you like. And there is no one who can prevent you from sailing where you like with the naval force you now have, neither the Great King, nor any nation on earth.

This unprecedented power, however, could be threatened by two weaknesses. The first resulted from an intractable geographic fact: the home of this great naval empire was a city located on the mainland and subject to attacks from land armies. Since they were not islanders, their location was a point of vulnerability, for the landed classes are reluctant to see their houses and estates destroyed.

Pericles made the same point: “Command of the sea is a great thing,” he said. “Just think; if we were islanders, who could be less exposed to conquest?” But Pericles was not one to allow problems presented by nature to stand in the way of his goals. Since the Athenians would be invulnerable as islanders, they must become islanders. Accordingly, he asked the Athenians to abandon their fields and homes in the country and move into the city. In the space between the Long Walls they could be fed and supplied from the empire, and could deny a land battle to the enemy. In a particularly stirring speech, Pericles said, “We must not grieve for our homes and land, but for human lives, for they do not make men, but men make them. And if I thought I could persuade you I would ask you to go out and lay waste to them yourselves and show the Peloponnesians that you will not yield to them because of such things.”

But not even Pericles could persuade the Athenians to do that in mid-century. The employment of such a strategy based on cold intelligence and reason, flying in the face of tradition and the normal passions of human beings, would require the kind of extraordinary leadership that only he could hope to exercise, and even in the face of a Spartan invasion in 465–446, Pericles was not able to persuade the Athenians to abandon their farms. In 431 he imposed his strategy, and held to it only with great difficulty. But by then he had become strong enough to make it the strategy of Athens.

The corvus

To compensate for their lack of nautical expertise, however, the Romans introduced a technical innovation that exploited their legionaries’ aptitude for close-quarter fighting. A 12-foot pillar of wood with a pulley on the top was fitted to the prow of every vessel. To this pillar a boarding bridge was attached which could be hoisted up and swung around in the required direction. At the end of the bridge there was a large pointed spike called a COITUS which, when released, drove itself into the deck of the opposing vessel, locking the two ships together. Then the legionaries could storm aboard and slaughter the near-defenceless crews. As an example of a technical innovation which led to a precipitous reversal of battlefield superiority that had endured for centuries, the corvus outclassed all subsequent developments such as gunpowder, the tank, radar, submarines, air power and electronic warfare.

Like the Rhodians, the Carthaginians had a long tradition of naval warfare, and their experience in this area meant that in the First Punic War their main tactic was ramming, whereas the Romans preferred to grapple and board.152 Early in the First Punic War, the Romans introduced a new form of boarding involving the use of a special piece of equipment, a boarding-bridge called the ‘crow’(Latin corvus). The circumstances of this development are sketchy. The Romans had built a fleet in the latter part of 260, based on a captured Carthaginian vessel. The first proper voyage for this new fleet took it the along western coast of Italy towards the Straits of Messina. An advance force of seventeen ships, under the command of Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio, one of the consuls of 260/59, headed directly to Messana. Its aim was to arrange for supplies and other facilities for the main fleet (Polyb. 1.21.4). Scipio was diverted to the Lipari Islands, possibly by the promise that they would be betrayed to him, but he was captured by Boodes, a Carthaginian commander who sailed out with a large naval force from Panormus and caught Scipio off guard. He abandoned his small squadron of ships and surrendered, earning the nick-name ‘Asina’ (she-ass). It is most likely that the new Roman ships did not have the corvus fitted to them, otherwise the Carthaginians would have been better prepared for it in the battle at Mylae, which occurred soon afterwards. Similarly, when the Carthaginian admiral Hannibal went out to reconnoitre the approaching Roman fleet with fifty ships and lost most of them, having come upon the Romans unexpectedly, it was a straightforward naval encounter, again not featuring the corvus (Polyb. 1.21.9–11).

It was apparently after these two episodes that the Romans introduced the corvus, probably as a result of appraising their tactical performance in the recent clash with the fifty Carthaginian ships under Hannibal. It would certainly seem logical for them to have introduced such a tactical innovation in order to counter a perceived weakness in their combat methods. For a description of the corvus we are reliant upon Polybius (1.22). The key details are as follows. It consisted of a pole 7.3 m (24 feet) high and 22–5 cm (9–10 inches) thick, with a pulley on top, from which was suspended the boarding bridge itself. This was 11 m (36 feet) long and 1.2 m (4 feet) wide. It had a spike on the underside at the far end to fix it into the deck of an enemy ship. A slot 3.65 m (12 feet) from the lowest end enabled it to slide up the pole (probably less than all the way to the top) and to be swung around. Rings were used to attach ropes to the far end so that it could be raised and lowered via the pulley. Polybius says it was mounted on the prows of the Roman warships, but it must have been set some way back from the very end of the prow, as it seems to have been swivelled around to grapple with ships on either side of the Roman vessel. The device was designed for a dual function: it held enemy ships fast and provided a relatively easy means for the Roman marines to board them. It also offered an alternative naval combat tactic to ramming.

Polybius implies that the corvi were a late addition to the Roman ships, a last-minute modification in anticipation of imminent naval combat. It is not unlikely, therefore, that the Romans made as much use as possible of existing fixtures and fittings. They may even have incorporated the footings or tabernacle used for masts. The fact that they are described as being on the prows of the Roman ships and swivelled around to grapple ships approaching from the sides could indicate that they were positioned where the foremast would have been.

The invention of the corvus could be characterized as a typical Roman response to a military problem by engineering a technological solution. Alternatively, it could just be seen as a desperate gamble aimed at turning sea-battles into land-battles and relying on the training and determination of the Roman legionaries turned marines to succeed in close-quarter fighting. However it is viewed, this bold tactical innovation certainly worked. The ensuing battle of Mylae in 260 was the first major naval battle of the First PunicWar (Polyb. 1.23; Diod. Sic. 33.10). About 100 Roman ships defeated about 130 Carthaginians. The Carthaginians were puzzled by their first sight of the corvi, but attacked the Roman fleet with determination. They lost their thirty lead ships immediately, all having been grappled by corvi and boarded. This included the admiral Hannibal’s flagship, a ‘seven’, but he escaped in a skiff. The remaining Carthaginian ships tried to use their superior speed and manoeuvrability to get at the Romans from better angles to avoid the corvi, but the swivel mechanism allowed the Romans to grapple some of these as well. The Carthaginians retreated after losing about fifty ships, and the victorious Roman commander, the consul Gaius Duilius, was honoured with a column in the forum, decorated with the prows of the captured ships.

Four years later, another major sea-battle at Ecnomus also ended in defeat for the Carthaginians. This battle was a deliberate attempt by one large naval expeditionary force to intercept and destroy another. It produced a sprawling, multi-part confrontation which happened within sight of the land, and may have been partly influenced by the proximity of the shoreline, but it was essentially a battle at sea between two fleets of warships heavily laden with marines. The Romans won because their various squadrons were able to defeat and drive off the Carthaginian squadrons in direct confrontations and then come to the aid of their fellows. Polybius insists that Carthaginian ships were faster (1.26.10, 1.27.10), but that does not seem to have made a great deal of difference. Most of the Roman captains were able to avoid being rammed in their vulnerable stern quarters and either grapple with the enemy or keep them at bay. For all their speed, the Carthaginians seem to have been too intimidated by the corvi to engage the Romans properly on the open sea.