Age of Exploration – Vessels


Portuguese Galleon The Frol De La Mar

Among the technological advances of the Age of Exploration, one stands out from all the others in the literature of the subject, and everyone tends to agree: there occurred a remarkably fast innovation in ship design and construction that enabled Iberian mariners-and by extension those other Europeans who followed, such as the English, Dutch, and French-to establish a mastery at sea. From Africa to the Malacca Straits, to China, to the Americas, European ships overpowered their competitors-native maritime cultures–and set up a maritime and naval supremacy that pushed Europe to dominate much of the world.

Concomitant with ship design was the adaptation of the gun to naval warfare, a transition so important that Parker noted it constituted a “revolution in naval warfare. . . in early modern Europe which.. . opened the way to the exercise of European hegemony over most of the world’s oceans for much of the modern period.”

The history of ship design and evolution is an immensely varied subject, complicated by the many terms and languages employed, the parallel evolution of ship types in some instances, the various claims of different nationalities that sometimes obscure fact from nationalist myth. For our purposes, the principal breakthroughs came in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when Iberians, for all practical purposes, adapted existing ships and sails to produce two vessels, the caravel and the nao, or ship, that carried the explorers far beyond the confines of European and Mediterranean waters.

By way of background, seagoing vessels had evolved into two general types, the long ship and the round ship. The longship, a descendant of both Mediterranean and Scandinavian forerunners, was propelled most often by oars, was quite maneuverable, and was employed for the most part as a warship. Generically termed “longship,” in Spanish literature it appears most often as a galera. Galeras and variations of the type formed the backbone of the Christian fleet that defeated the Turks at Lepanto on 7 October 1571.

The round ships in the Iberian fleets were relative newcomers compared with the galeras which traced their lineage to the ancient Phoenicians and Vikings. The roundship, or nao, sometimes called nauio by the Spanish, was driven solely by sails, tended to be quite broad in relation to its length, rode fairly deeply in the water, and, compared to the galeras, maneuvered sluggishly in adverse conditions. It was preferred by merchants who could ship large amounts of cargo at a low operating cost, since the crews necessary to man these vessels were a fraction of the sailors and soldiers a galera required. The galleys that fought at Lepanto each carried almost 400 men, prompting one observer to note that “when every man is at his post, only heads can be seen from prow to stern.” The origin of the roundship were probably Mediterranean, although the Arabian maritime culture of the Indian Ocean also produced vessels with similar characteristics.

The breakthrough for the eventual supremacy of the roundship over the longship came some time in -the late Middle Ages. Until then, square sails, set on one or two masts, had been the common means of propulsion. With a following or quarterly wind the vessels moved a decent clip and answered the helm reasonably well. However, winds forward of the beam left these wide, deep merchantmen with little alternative but to wait patiently for fairer breezes and better days. The solution to the problem was the adoption of probably an Arabic invention, the lateen sail, which was added to the after or rnizzenmast. The lateen sad had long been in use in the Mediterranean and its evolution is associated with that area, just as the square sail is thought to have evolved in Northern Europe.

The lateen sail, roughly triangular, could be worked into a variety of positions to catch the wind coming from virtually any direction except dead on. The Portuguese were the first successfully to utilize lateen-rigged caravels that carried explorers slowly down the African coast in the fifteenth century, discovering and colonizing some of the Atlantic island chains as well, such as the Azores and Madeiras. But the lateen-rigged caravels also had some disadvantages. They were hard to come about when tacking and their awkwardness in this respect limited their size, and thus the power they provided. Thus, when lateen sails were combined with square sails, a configuration was achieved which combined power-square sails with maneuverability-lateen sails. Here terms get confusing, for we have various descriptions-carrack, full-rigged ship, nao, nauio, galleon-all which represent various stages in the improvement in this new ship design that came about in the fifteenth century.

Other improvements in hull construction further facilitated the Iberian advantage. Sometime around 1000 AD “. . . instead of putting together the external skin of the ship first. . . shipbuilders put up the internal ribs and then tacked the hull planking to the external framework.” This method of ship construction allowed for a number of clear advantages: larger ships; more flexible hull designs and shapes; and it was less demanding in shipwrights’ time and skills.

This experimentation in hull design and sail configurations was a dynamic process, combining the various traditions to produce the caravels, carracks, and galleons of the age of exploration. All the while this phase of technological improvement was occurring in hull and sails, Iberians and other Europeans were also experimenting with what proved to be a most lethal combination and, indeed, perhaps a “revolution” in naval warfare, by adapting guns on ships.

As we consider the rise of European superiority at sea in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, we need to maintain some perspective. It was not an unqualified, meteoric rise, marked by shell-shocked Muslims in the Indian Ocean and Chinese junks drifting to oblivion as Iberian, and later Dutch and English, warships and traders swept the oceans of their competitors. There were setbacks. But there was the near inexorable rise of Iberian superiority at sea, and the ease with which the Spanish conquered much of the Americas. Although disease played as much, if not a greater role, than technology in that part of the world, the role of cannon and technology employed are worth considering in some detail.

It has been fashionable now for some time to emphasize weapons, and specifically, guns, as preerninent factors in the rise of the European dominance, and not without some just cause.” A sampling of the literature is clearly unambiguous on this subject. “Non-European countries never succeeded in filling the vast technological gap [referring to guns and artillery] that separated them from Europe. On the contrary, in the course of time the gap grew conspicuously larger.” “. . . Between 1450 and 1650, the emergence of the heavily armed [with artillery] sailing ship transformed the situation.” And, “. . . one of the most important technological innovations during the fifteenth century was the introduction of artillery at sea.”

While the literature on guns and ships is large, and still growing, we can abstract it for the purposes of this essay. Beginning with small, breech-loading, cast or wrought iron guns, and capable of firing about a 4-pound shot, seagoing cannons evolved in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries into effective weapons. As early as the 1430s, Portuguese caravels carried small guns, some mounted on swivels for aiming, most of them delivering missiles as diverse as stone, iron, and lead projectiles. The names of the various guns are myriad, representing not only an industry or art in rapid transition, but national variances.

One of the earliest technological breakthroughs came with the introduction of the muzzle-loading bronze cannons in the fifteenth century. Here we have to pause in an essay that is not technical, but devoted in some ways to the technological improvements in ships and guns that drove the Iberian advantage. Breech-loaded cannons, or those loaded by opening them at the breech end, were cheaper and easier to fabricate, but had some intrinsic weaknesses: they were prone to bursting the barrel or blowing the breechblock out and could only be built for relatively small charges of powder. Muzzle-loading bronze cannon, on the other hand, possessed increased strength because of the fabrication process (casting them in a single piece) and could deliver a much heavier projectile over a longer distance. Bronze muzzle-loaders were, however, expensive to build and demanded a much higher degree of technical skill. As a result, the usual Iberian ship of exploration was equipped often with a combination of muzzle- and breech-loaders, of different calibers and types.