“Xebec,” “zebec,” and “chebeck” or “chebec” are all variations on one term, whose ultimate origins are Arabic. W.H. Smyth, Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, rev. E. Belcher (1867; repr. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1996), defines “Xebec, or Zebec,” as follows:
A small three-masted vessel of the Mediterranean, distinguished from all other European vessels by the great projection of her bow and overhanging of her stern. Being generally equipped as a corsair, the xebec was constructed with a narrow floor, for speed, and of great breadth, to enable her to carry a great press of sail. On the Barbary coast the xebec rig was deemed to vary from the felucca, which in hull is the same, by having the foremast square-rigged.
The xebec, or chebeck, originated in the western Mediterranean during the seventeenth century. The name stems from the Arabic sabak. This suggests that the Barbary pirates, who were closely associated with this type of vessel, may have developed it. Xebecs were designed to emerge from shallow harbours, using their great speed to intercept merchantmen, few of which would be able to outrun or outmanoeuvre the freebooters. The original North African designers of the xebec borrowed from both the galley and the caravel traditions. The Spanish and French. were quick to follow, if only to have a ship that could match the line sailing qualities of the xebeck. Three-masted, and originally with full lateen-rig, it carried 18 oars to assure mobility during calms, and had a distinctive built-out stem platform to stay the mizzen. Although of shallow draught, the xebeck was far from being tub-like, having fine underwater lines. It carried 12 to 15 guns, including four 12pdr guns mounted on the bow.
Length: 31m (103ft 9in)
Beam: 6.7m (22ft)
Depth: 2.5m (8ft 2in)
RIgging: three masts; lateen-rigged
Armament: 12-15 guns
Complement: 24, plus fighting men
The xebec, as in most ship types, possesses origins difficult to trace. It probably began with the Mediterranean Galley, the type used by Italian city-states, Barbary Corsairs, and other Muslim empires since the middle ages. These ships had long, narrow hulls with a bank of oars. They were meant to be fast and manoueverable under oarpower. These ships also carried two or three lateen-rigged masts.
The foremast of the xebec was traditionally raked (bent) forward while the main was straight. There were no topmasts. The immense lateen yards were actually two spars lashed together at the thicker ends to form one. The hull had considerable overhang at the bow and stern. A ram was located at the bow, much above the waterline to form a prow. There was usually no bowsprit.
Although both galleys and xebecs were warships, some of the features of a xebec are also found in the Felucca, the Pink and the Polacre.
The Felucca is closer to the xebec than the galley. It was a smaller version of a galley, but still lateen rigged. In no way was a xebec ever bigger than a galley, so the felucca is a more likely ancestor.
The Pink and the Polacre are more likely derivatives of the xebec. The pink carried a similar rig, while retaining the rake in the foremast and the narrow beak. However, it possessed a characteristic stern to which it gave its name to. According to Culver, “the upper portion of the pink’s stern was drawn out more or less behind the body of the vessel proper and usually terminated in a much restricted quadrilateral transom.” (152). The pink was more than anything a merchant ship so it had a more full hull and much less overhang at the bow and stern. At a glance, the xebec and the pink might be similar if it were not, at a closer inspection, for the unique shape of the xebec’s hull.
In the late 18th century, there are accounts of xebec-frigates, ship-rigged ships with hulls similar to that of a xebec. Such designs can be yielded to the name Polacre. These ships operated in the Mediterranean as frigates would anywhere in the world. They were owned by almost any nation with influence in the middle sea. They had three to four square sails on the main and fore masts, while the mizzen would have a large lateen sail. The hull otherwise was very similar to the xebec. The overhang, the prow, and the narrowness are all present.
From Galley to Xebec
The transition was very simple. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Barbary pirates were a menace to Christian shipping, but if a Christian warship could come to blows with the galleys of the Muslim corsairs, the broadsides could eliminate the oar-driven vessels quickly.
One theory is that in order to be able to run away or even stand up to a fight, galleys needed to be upgraded. The result was a sailing ship with the capacity to carry guns. Rowers had to be removed to fit the guns, so the dependency for speed in a corsair vessel fell to sail. To accomplish this, a hull similar to a galley, long and narrow, was used, but widened to achieve greater stability to mount guns. The graceful lines were maintained, and so a xebec is formed.
Rigs of the Xebec
The basic xebec carried three lateen-rigged masts, however, two other rigs were apparently used on the same xebec hull shape. A square-rigged mainmast appears on some western xebecs, as well as square sails on the mizzen. This would create the effect seen with the ‘polacre’ rig below. However, the fore and mizzen mast retained their rake.
The other rig that has been described is that of a fully-rigged ship, known as a xebec-frigate. This entails three square-rigged masts. This design, however, arguably becomes a true polacre.
The End of the Evolution
The most common form of xebec produced was the traditional lateen-rigged xebec. It had three lateen-rigged masts, the fore sail sometimes being bigger than the main. The foremast was raked well to the bow while the mizzen was raked to the stern. The presence and size of a bowsprit depended on whether or not the xebec had a jib.
The hull was low and narrow, similar to a felucca. The bow retained a long prow and the stern was greatly extended with a grating over the narrow transom, if that was at all present. The unique shape of the hull allowed a small forecastle and an extended quarter deck. In some ships, the grated overhang at the stern would serve as a poop deck.
The Uses of a Xebec
Since the xebec was above all an excellent sailer, her speed could be used for commerce raiding, or piracy. And that it was. Corsairs, mainly out of Algiers, sailed in xebecs with up to 36 guns, and auxiliary oars.
The Spanish used xebecs to fight the Algerian pirates with their own weapon, seeing that the Corsairs would run at first sight of a warship. The French and Italian city states probably adapted the design for the same purpose.
On the Atlantic, the British were already experimenting with different kinds of techniques, and there is no doubt they tested the value to the xebec’s design. It is possible they had a fleet running out of Gibraltar containing xebecs.
The Operators of a Xebec
So far, there have been accounts of Barbary xebecs, as well as Spanish (jabeque), French (chebec), Italian (sciabecco), Russian (shebeck), and to some extents British xebecs (Dart and Arrow). It is interesting to note that the Danish (schierbek), Portuguese (xebeco), and Dutch (Schebeck) have the xebec in their vocabulary too, denoting knowledge of the vessel. As well there are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes and in North America during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). Further there is an account of 12 xebecs in the casualty list on the Danish side of the Bombardment of Copenhagen, 1801. Each mounted 4 guns. Otherwise, the majority of xebec operation appears to have occurred in the Mediterranean.
The French had built seven ships based on the xebec design and these ships even fought successfully against British ships. The Royal Navy had at that time tested with success the qualities of the xebec.
The xebec under sail was noted to be the fastest and most agile craft of the Mediterranean. However, the ship was not suited to heavy weather due to its low freeboard and shallow draught. As well, if it were a Corsair vessel loaded with armed troops, its range would be limited due to the fact that the stores required for that many men would take up a large amount of space. Being lightly built and of typical Mediterranean materials, the xebec was not a strong vessel. As Thomas Jefferson put it, Algerian xebecs were “so light as not to stand the broadside of a good frigate.”
These were the physical disadvantages of the xebec. Added to this was the fact that the gunners on most Barbary (North African) xebecs were poorly trained and very inaccurate. Calibres were not standardized like in modern navies so this also added to the xebec’s disadvantages.
What the xebec lost in weakness and poor crews, it made up for in speed and manoevreability. This ship type was famous for its speed and handling under sail. If the wind died, the xebec could also rely on a set of 10 to 20 oars. With that kind of movement and versatility, it was easy for a xebec to run circles around slower, heavily laden merchant ships. In a time of crisis, a xebec could easily escape naval warships too.
These qualities made the xebec attractive to North African Corsairs, notably Algeria. However, the Knights of Malta, their Christian opposites, did not seem to adapt the design, preferring galleys and eventually a modern Westernized navy. Nevertheless, many European states integrated the xebec into their navies, notably France, Spain, and Britain. Britain built two xebec-based ships (Dart and Arrow) in 1797 and both vessels were particularly successful. France and Spain utilized the design to fight the Corsairs with their own weapon. It is undoubtable that Portugal, Russia, the Italian city-states, and other nations did the same thing.
Two odd accounts of xebecs outside the Mediterranean occur in North America and in the Baltic. There are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). There is also a record of 12 xebecs on the Danish casualty list after the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801 by Horatio Nelson. Each of them mounted four guns. At the battle of Svensksund in 1790, ‘hemmemas’ were used as gunboats, and greatly resemble xebecs.