The Old Scots Navy I

If the three pillars of the medieval state comprised God, Pope and King, the Renaissance prince was a subtly different character from his forebears. Cunning and ruthlessness were expected, inspiration coming more from Machiavelli than Malory. James IV (1488–1513) was, in some ways, the mirror of the Renaissance ruler. He was cultured and learned, his interests eclectic: building and the arts, medicine and science (he was known to practise dentistry upon his courtiers). At the same time, he was romantically attached to the cult of chivalry. The founding of a Scots Royal Navy became one of his grandest passions. He was married to Henry VII of England’s daughter Margaret, thus Henry VIII became his brother-in-law. Both men had a yearning to strut upon the European stage, and tension escalated in 1513 when Henry was contemplating an expedition against France in support of the Holy See and the Emperor Maximilian.

James was placed in the invidious position of having to choose an ally, to continue sitting on the fence was politically unsustainable. The King of Scots chose to support the traditional friendship with France, and a series of ultimata delivered to Henry earned nothing but derision. This created the strategic backdrop to the Scots campaign in North Northumberland, one which was succeeding admirably in its key objective of diverting English forces from the Continent, till James took the fatal decision to fight at Flodden. This battle, fought on 9 September, was an unparalleled disaster. The Scottish army was outfought and suffered grievous loss, the cull falling heaviest on magnates and gentry. Slashed and hacked by bills, an arrow shot through his jaw, one hand virtually severed, James IV lay unnoticed among the piles of corpses.


In the course of the sixteenth century, warship design and construction underwent a significant revolution. Northern round ships or carracks, with a length twice the beam, were being built up to a weight of 1,000 tons. The fact that these ships were constructed as floating gun platforms brought out the final transition from converted merchantman to purpose-built man-of-war. They were multi-masted, multi-sailed and had sufficient weight to carry soaring timber castles, bearing an increased weight of ordnance. Both James IV and Henry VIII competed in a naval arms race in the early years of the sixteenth century. The ship which was to become most closely identified with Tudor navies was the race-built galleon. Sleeker and swifter than the carrack, two or two and a half times as long as it was broad, the height of the superstructures was reduced to produce a faster and more seaworthy vessel.

A passionate debate as to the best suited of these types for naval use raged throughout most of the century. More conservative-minded captains favoured the solid bulk of the grand-carrack. In close combat these enjoyed significant advantages. The castles provided excellent and lofty gun platforms, light pivot guns, hand guns and bows could shoot directly down onto the enemy deck and shooters enjoyed good protection. Even if she were boarded, the carrack’s defenders could maintain their position in the castles, making life distinctly uncomfortable for attackers. The crucial advantage enjoyed by the galleon was her superior sailing qualities. She could stand off and use her guns to batter the heavy carrack at a distance. The Spanish, whose ships were effectively floating forts, favoured the carrack, a castle on the waves.

By the end of the century, Revenge was regarded as a fine example of the race-built galleon. Her gun deck was around 100 feet, with a total length of about 120 feet. She was 32 foot across the beam, and her main ordnance was a score of truck-mounted culverins. Fixed firing platforms had now given way to a two-wheeled timber frame carrying guns with a barrel length of some 12 feet. As yet there was still no standardisation of calibres but the gun threw an 18-pound ball. The ships were all twin-deckers, and these heavier pieces were carried on the lower level while, on the upper, was mounted a further battery of smaller guns firing 10-pound shot. Ships of this period were crammed with ordnance, and the vessel could also house a dozen or more small muzzle-loaders (‘murderers’) throwing a 2-pound ball, earlier breech-loaders having now been phased out.

This general lack of standardisation was the curse of naval gunnery. Several times, during intense bouts of fighting in the course of the Armada battles in 1588, the English were rendered impotent for want of shot. Bruising and effective as the galleons’ fire proved against cumbersome carracks, the capital ships survived, though not without loss and considerable damage. Galleons, in order to keep the weight as low as possible, were built with the lower gun deck stepped down at rear to create a mezzanine type effect. This housed the two hindmost guns, which could be swung around as stern-chasers should circumstances dictate. Officers enjoyed elevated quarters, while the mariners were accommodated on the gun deck. Ships were also fitted with an ‘orlop’ deck: a further mezzanine, a couple of yards or so above the planking, which formed the quarters for the specialists on board, carpenter, surgeon and purser. In all, the vessel would require a crew of around 150, of whom 70 might be marines with 30-odd gunners.

Though Sir Richard Grenville’s epic stand on the shot-torn decks of Revenge is not a Scottish fight, Sir Walter Raleigh, in his subsequent report, gives a vivid impression of the conditions which obtained in sea-battles of this era:

All the powder of the ‘Revenge’ to the last barrel was now spent, all her pikes broken, forty of her best men slain, and the most part of the rest hurt. In the beginning of the fight she had but one hundred free from sickness, and fourscore and ten sick, laid in hold upon the ballast. A small troop to man such a ship, and a weak garrison to resist so mighty an Army. By those hundred all was sustained, the volleys, boardings, and enterings of fifteen ships of war, besides those which beat her at large. On the contrary the Spanish were always supplied with soldiers brought from every squadron: all manner of arms and powder at will. To ours there remained no comfort at all, no hope, no supply either of ships, men or weapons; the masts all beaten overboard, all her tackle cut asunder, her upper work altogether razed, and in effect she was evened with the water, only the very foundation or bottom of a ship, nothing being left over head either for flight of defence.


When James IV finally embarked upon the abolition of the Lordship in 1493, he doubtless contemplated the move as enabling him to cement royal power in the west. In this he was mistaken. The fall of Clan Donald ushered in an age, not of centralised authority but of murderous, internecine strife, the Lin na Creach (‘Age of Forays’). In the same year he kicked away the last supports of the tottering Macdonald hegemony in the west, James’s Parliament enacted that all coastal burghs should provide a well-founded vessel of not less than 20 tons with able-bodied mariners for her crew. To reinforce awareness that the ending of Clan Donald’s sway was but the beginning of a new extension of the business of the state, James led a fleet to the Isles in August, accompanied by Chancellor Angus and a fine train of magnates. At Dunstaffnage, where he stayed a mere 11 days, he may have accepted the surrender of some chiefs, reaffirming their holdings by royal charter. The Macdonalds were not completely over-reached; both Alexander of Lochalsh and John of Islay received knighthoods.

In 1495, accompanied by Andrew Wood and commanding Yellow Carvel and Flower, James cruised down the Firth of Lorn, through the Sound of Mull to MacIan of Ardnamurchan’s seat, Mingary Castle, where a quartet of powerful magnates bent their collective knee. These included such noted seafarers and pirates as MacNeil of Barra and Maclean of Duart. While James was diverted by his flirtation with the posturing Perkin Warbeck, this policy of treating with the chiefs was undone, largely by the avarice of Argyll, who preferred force to reason. Inevitably, this merely served to alienate the Islesmen, whose galleys conferred both force and mobility. In 1496, Bute had been taken up and disorders reached a level where the king felt obliged, once again, to assert his authority by launching a naval expedition. Indeed this was the only means whereby the chiefs could effectively be brought into line. A land-based expedition would accomplish nothing; Islesmen counted wealth and power in the number of their keels.

The king’s expedition of 1498 proceeded by way of Arran to his royal castles of Kilkerran, where he spent two months, and Tarbert. James, though he wished to impress his authority on the west, did not necessarily have much enthusiasm for the chore. For the royal writ to run in the west and to fill the gap in authority left by the collapse of the Lordship, power needed to be exercised by loyal and respected subordinates. Argyll had succeeded in alienating a number of the chiefs, including his own brother-in-law, Torquil MacLeod of Lewis, who was to become a fierce opponent. MacLeod had secured, by uncertain means, the keeping of the boy, Donald Dubh, would-be claimant to the defunct Lordship. Argyll was no more loved by Huntly, his successor as Lieutenant in the north-west and one who proved equally hungry for personal gain.

James was briefly diverted in 1501 by the near-fiasco of his Danish adventure and did not turn his gaze westwards again until the following year. That Torquil MacLeod should control the person of Donald Dubh was fraught with risk. MacLeod was summoned to appear, failed to do so and was outlawed as a consequence. Huntly was commissioned to take up Torquil’s confiscated estates, doubtless to Argyll’s fury, he being sidelined for failing to keep a grip on his own kinsman. Both Mackintosh and Mackenzie managed to escape from confinement, though the first was soon recaptured and the second killed. By 1503, disturbances had become widespread, and Huntly was engaged in wholesale dispossession of those who refused to submit. With Donald Dubh lending legitimacy to their cause (old John of the Isles died in January 1504), the rebels under Torquil struck back. Bute was again extensively despoiled.

Parliament, sitting in March 1504, commissioned Huntly to retrieve Eilean Donan and Strome castles, while a naval command, assembled under the ever vigilant eye of Sir Andrew Wood, was entrusted to Arran. The fleet was to reduce the rebels’ stronghold of Cairn na Burgh, west of Mull in the Isles of Treshnish. The capital ships, with a full complement of ordnance, soon proved their worth; naval gunnery swiftly reduced Cairn na Burgh. Few details of the siege have survived, but the operation would clearly have been a difficult one. The ships would come in as close as the waters permitted and deliver regular broadsides, essentially floating batteries. What weight of shot the rebels possessed is unclear; most likely it was not very great. Several rebel chiefs – Maclean of Lochbuie, MacQuarrie of Ulva and MacNeil of Barra – presently found themselves in irons. Gradually the power and authority of the crown was restored. These captured chiefs saw little prospect in continued defiance. Argyll was fully abetted by MacIan of Ardnamurchan, a ruthlessly effective pairing.

Argyll, now restored to his Lieutenancy, was prepared to be more diplomatic and, from 1506, there was a return to a more conciliatory policy, rewarding those chiefs prepared to submit, even some of those who’d been implicated or involved in the recent disturbances. MacIan too did well enough, though he had few friends in the Isles and his own advancement had to be checked to avoid the greater alienation of others, especially the Macleans. Torquil Macleod kept the rebel flame firmly alight, and his example helped to inspire dissidents. The Parliament summoned for early 1506 convicted him of treason. An expedition sent against him was to be led by Huntly and involved the hire of captains such as John Smollett and William Brownhill, with ordnance supplied from the royal train. The king and his advisors had planned on a campaign of two months’ duration to wrest Lewis from Macleod. In September, the king paid a sum of £30 to Thomas Hathowy as a fee for the hire of Raven, which had been engaged for service in the campaign. By September, it also seems likely that Huntly had succeeded in reducing Stornoway Castle and capturing Donald Dubh, though the wily MacLeod slipped the net and remained a fugitive until his death in 1511.

By now James IV was losing interest in the Isles. Control was best exercised through local magnates like Argyll, even if the Campbells, for all their avarice, were not possessed of an effective fleet of galleys. This deficiency was partly corrected by the cordial relations the earl enjoyed with the Macleans, anxious to see the ruin of Clan Donald fully accomplished in order that they might assume the mantle of a naval power among the clans. James had by now set his heart upon, and his mind towards, the creation of a Scottish national navy. In August 1506, he’d written to the King of France intimating that this naval project was a key objective. Scotland was a small kingdom, disturbed by the fissiparous tendencies of the Islesmen and magnatial factions. It was also a poor nation, lacking the resources of England. Nonetheless, during his reign, James bought, built or acquired as prizes taken by his buccaneering captains, nearly two score of capital ships, a very considerable total for the day.


This proposed Scottish Navy was not a complete innovation. The king’s predecessors had been possessed of ships; as early as 1457 Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews owned the impressive Salvator – at 500 tons a very large vessel. Developments in naval architecture, influenced by advances in the science of gunnery, had necessitated the final differentiation between ships of war and merchantmen. The crown could no longer count upon assembling an effective fleet by hiring in merchant vessels and converting them to temporary service as men-of-war. Nations that sought to strut upon the wider stage required a navy as a tool of aggressive policy and a statement of intent. The fifteenth century had not witnessed any serious English interference before 1481–1482, and the prime consideration, in terms of sea power, was to protect Scottish ships against the unwelcome attention of privateers, for the most part English, who infested the North Sea like hungry sharks.

Richard of Gloucester’s campaigns showed how exposed the Firth of Forth and indeed the whole of the east coast were to a planned attack from the sea. Here, in the east, the problem was wholly different from that of the west. No Hebridean galleys disturbed the peace, but the Forth and Edinburgh were horribly exposed to English hostility. While Henry VII proved less inclined to attack Scotland than his despised predecessor and actually ran down the navy he’d acquired, the Perkin Warbeck crisis of 1497 highlighted the continuing exposure. Even when a more cordial atmosphere prevailed, the activities of privateers continued regardless; Andrew Wood and the Bartons persisted in their piratical activities as did their English opposites.

In 1491, the Scots Parliament empowered John Dundas to erect a fort on the strategically sited rock of Inchgarvie. Wood had already thrown up a defensive work at Largo. Conversely, the legislature had previously ordered the slighting of Dunbar Castle, the English occupation being the requisite spur (later, after 1497, the ubiquitous Wood was to oversee its rebuilding). Such defensive measures and the encouragement of privateers like Sir Andrew and the Bartons were entirely sound but, of themselves, insufficient to undertake coastal defence and the wider protection of the sea lanes. For this greater task, only a fleet would suffice. With James the creation of a navy rapidly rose to become a near-obsession; policy was overlaid with prestige. For the first ten years of his quarter-century reign, James spent under £1,500 Scots in total on his ships, a very modest outlay. This climbed to something in the order of £5,000 per annum after 1505, and by the end of the reign he was spending over £8,000 per annum on his new navy. To give a comparison, during the years he was on the throne, the king’s income roughly trebled but his expenditure on the navy increased sixty fold!

A switch of emphasis from west to east characterised James’s policy towards ships and shipbuilding. Dumbarton remained both as a base and a shipyard, but he considerably improved the facilities of Leith’s existing dockyards, constructed a new yard at the New Haven (Newhaven) and, latterly, another at the Pool of Airth. Not only did Scotland lack adequate facilities for the construction of larger men-o’-war, but she lacked the requisite craftsmen and these had to be imported, primarily from France. In November 1502, the Treasurer’s accounts reveal the hire of a French shipwright, John Lorans, working at Leith under the direction of Robert Barton. This first importation was soon complemented by others. Jennen Diew and then Jacques Terrell were engaged and, due to a shortage of hardwood, obliged to source timber for their new keels abroad. In June 1506, the great ship Margaret (named after the king’s Tudor consort) slid into the placid waters of the Forth. This vessel was a source of great pride to the king – as indeed she might be, the cost of her construction had gobbled up a quarter of a whole year’s royal revenue. She was four-masted, weighed some 600 or 700 tons and bristled with ordnance. James’s chivalric obsession with the panoply of war found a natural outlet in the building of his great ships. He appointed himself Grand Admiral of the Fleet and dined aboard the Margaret, wearing the gold chain and whistle of his new office.

The fiasco of the Danish expedition in 1502 acted as a further spur towards creating a purpose-built navy. This botched intermeddling represented an attempt by James, at least in part, to establish himself and his realm as a player on the wider European stage. The result was scarcely encouraging and, despite the ‘spin’ placed upon the outcome, the affair proved something of a debacle. In 1501–1502, King Hans of Denmark found he was confronted by rebellious subjects in his client territories of Norway and Sweden and had lost control of a swathe of key bastions, including the strategically significant hold of Askerhus near Oslo. James was bound to the Danes by earlier treaty, and the situation raised possibilities for a decisive intervention by the Scots. The king hurried to make preparations for an expedition: Eagle and Towaich were made ready, together with Douglas and Christopher. The total cost of the fleet and accompanying troops was a whopping £12,000, and the burden fell on the Scottish taxpayers. From the start there were difficulties. Lord George Seton had been paid to make ready his vessel Eagle, but his part ended in acrimonious litigation and impounding of the ship, which does not ever appear to have weighed anchor. Raising the requisite number of infantry, ready to serve in the proposed campaign, proved arduous; far from the number of 10,000 postulated, it seems unlikely that the force amounted to more than a fifth of that total.

When the truncated fleet finally sailed towards the latter part of May, 1502 it comprised Douglas, Towaich, Christopher, together (possibly) with Jacat and Trinity, under the flag of Alexander, Lord Hume, wily borderer and chamberlain. In the two months of campaigning, little was in reality, achieved. The Scots likely suffered loss in an abortive escalade of Askerhus. Others sat down before Bahus and Elvsborg. A significant number simply deserted. For James, who’d had equal difficulties in securing payment of the taxes due to fund the business, there was nothing but frustration, tinged with humiliation. This was not at all what he’d envisaged.

Construction of Margaret was followed by the commissioning of Treasurer, built by Martin le Nault of Le Conquet at a further cost of £1,085 Scots. More vessels were purchased including Robert Barton’s Colomb, which was quickly engaged in the west, cruising from Dumbarton under the capable John Merchamestone to recover Brodick Castle, seat of the Earl of Arran, seized by Walter Stewart. When King James wrote to Hans of Denmark in August 1505, he had to concede that he had no capital ships available, such were the demands of home service, making good storm damage, wear and tear, with other vessels detached on convoy duty. In part, this deficiency could and had to be made up by hire or joint venture agreements with merchants/privateers such as the Bartons, but it was clear more capital ships were needed. By 1507, work on the construction of the New Haven was already far advanced and the king was considering the possibilities of Pool of Airth, well to the west of the fort at Invergarvie and thus far more sheltered from attack. By the autumn of 1511, three new docks had been built under the direction of Robert Callendar, Constable of Stirling Castle, who had received £240 Scots to meet the costs involved.

Impressive as the construction of the great ship Margaret had been and as much as she represented the best in contemporary warship design, she was insufficient to satisfy James’s obsession with capital ships. As early as 1506, the king had engaged James Wilson of Dieppe, a Scottish shipwright working in France, to begin sourcing suitable timbers for a yet larger project. This new vessel, Michael, was to define the Scots Navy of James IV. A later chronicler estimates its cost as not less than £30,000 Scots, a truly vast outlay. Finding adequate supplies of timber to build her hull and furnish the planking gobbled up much of Scotland’s natural resource with much else imported besides. She would have weighed at least 1,000 tons with a length of 150–180 feet. Her main armament probably totalled 27 great guns with a host of smaller pieces, swivels and handguns. Henry VIII, not to be outdone in what was developing into a naval arms race, commissioned Great Harry, which went into the water a year later. For James this was imitation as flattery; the fact that Michael was afloat, moved Scotland into the first rank of maritime powers. A Scots Navy had now fully ‘arrived’. The new ship took to the water for the first time on 12 October 1511. She had been nearly five years in the making and carried a full complement of around 300 of whom 120 were required to serve the great guns.

James took an enormous pride in his flagship. At that moment, she was likely the most powerful and advanced warship that had ever sailed. Her very existence heralded Scotland as a European power. His nascent navy now comprised in addition to Michael and Margaret, the capital ships Treasurer and James with smaller but still potent men-of-war in Christopher and Colomb, plus a couple of substantial row-barges and lesser craft. This royal squadron could be further up-gunned by the private vessels of the Bartons and seafarers such as Brownhill, Chalmers, Falconer and, of course, Sir Andrew Wood. Not only had the king created a navy, but the sea was his passion to a far greater extent than appears to have been the case with any of his forebears. It was thus the crowning irony of his reign that this fine instrument of war was never really tested in battle. For James, the great trial came on land, in the rain, at the end of a wet summer in September 1513, not on some great field of European destiny but the habitual graveyard of North Northumberland. The catastrophe of Flodden cast a perpetual dark shadow over the king’s memory, his creation of a Scottish navy a mere footnote by comparison. In the final, dolorous act, the regency council sold Michael to their French allies for something less than half of what she’d cost to construct. It was an ignominious and inglorious ending to so great an enterprise.

What then did James achieve, if anything? For a brief and untried moment he projected the image of Scotland as a power of the first rank, or very close, a status she had not enjoyed before and would not resume. The cost in treasure to the nation had been very considerable, though the yards provided much employment and created a more sophisticated shipbuilding industry. It is true that, during his reign, no successful attacks were launched against the Forth. Lack of a naval presence would bear bitter fruit during the harrying of the Rough Wooing in the 1540s. To that extent, James’s policy of aggressive defence was a success, and his victories over the dissident clans and Islesmen in the west should not be overlooked. In spite of these very real achievements, it is impossible to escape the fact that this fledgling navy did not survive his violent death. The construction of the fleet had been due in no small part to the French alliance and the king’s ability to source skilled men and sound materials from French ports and forests. Had the disaster at Flodden not occurred, the naval history of Scotland might have followed a different course. In those few hours of frenzied, doomed carnage James and his realm lost all he had created.

Muslims in the Indian Ocean I

The Dhow is not an Arab ship, it is a veritable family of vessels sharing common characteristics, such as the hull, large (about 4 to 1), with straight cut lines, with three masterpieces whose bow, long and the keel, and the stern, less inclined, and one or two masts carrying sails Latin-setie.

The smallest ones are only eight meters for 50 tons. The larger ones, like the Baghala, up to 500 tons and more. Their construction has not varied since their appearance, presumably in the late Middle Ages. Dams were rarely decked to maximize load carrying. It was a coaster, which could be stranded on the shore, and resume the sea with the tide every day, like the cargo ships of antiquity.

Indian Sailing Boats. New mount. Produced by Thomas Daniell (artist).

The rise of Islam in the Hijaz in the early seventh century affected the Indian Ocean in several important ways. Describing these changes will be the main concern of this chapter, which uses material from the period up to the end of the fifteenth century. In this period there was both continuity and change. It would certainly be incorrect to write of an Islamic period or ocean. Many others traded and travelled, and coastal routes remained relatively unchanged. However, over a few centuries most of the population of the coasts of the Indian Ocean became Muslims, so that a large share of both coastal and oceanic trade was handled by the adherents of this new religion. It was much more centralised than was either Hinduism or Buddhism. This was especially manifested in the requirement, one of the most basic tenets of the faith, that if at all possible Muslims should perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in a lifetime. A Muslim community developed around the shores of the Indian Ocean, linked by religion, whose commonality, while this must not be exaggerated, was created and reinforced by travelling scholars. Yet Islam’s success was to a large extent a result of its tolerance of local traditions, so that scholars distinguish between prayers and other religious activities in the mosque, and those performed outside it. Rather than the coastal populations converting to Islam, they accepted it.

What was the attitude of the new religion to sea matters and to merchants? As to the latter, the normative position was well set out by the great fourteenth century social scientist Ibn Khaldun. He claimed countrymen were morally superior to townsmen, with merchants lower again: ‘traders must buy and sell and seek profits. This necessitates flattery and evasiveness, litigation and disputation, all of which are characteristic of this profession. And these qualities lead to a decrease and weakening in virtue and manliness.’ Some claim that normative Islam had a similarly negative attitude to sea travel. The Arabs as men of the desert used to be the prevalent western stereotype: they rode camels, not ships. Today we realise that Muslims had an early and very successful interest in sea trade. The first Arab sea migration was to Abyssinia, in the time of the prophet. On several occasions in the previous chapter we described Arabs engaging in extensive sea voyages. This continued when Arabs became Muslims.

Authentic Islamic sources display a positive attitude to the sea. The Quran itself has several passages which speak approvingly of sea trade and maritime matters. As the Holy Book says, ‘And of His signs is this: He sendeth herald winds to make you taste His mercy, and that the ships may sail at His command, and that ye may seek His favour, and that haply ye may be thankful.’ And again: ‘your Lord is He who driveth for you the ship upon the sea that ye may seek of His bounty’ or ‘Allah it is Who hath made the sea of service unto you that the ships may run thereon by His command, and that ye may seek of His bounty.’ And again: ‘It is He who subjected to you the sea, that you may eat of it fresh flesh, and being forth out of it ornaments for you to wear, and thou may best see the ships cleaving through it, and that you may seek of His bounty, and so haply you will be thankful.’ Similarly, the Caliph Umar II was quoted as saying ‘Dry land and sea belong alike to God; He hath subdued them to His servants to seek of his bounty for themselves in both of them.’

We have seen that the Indian Ocean was already a place of movement, circulation, contacts and travel over great distances. It could be that Islam fits well into this sort of environment. Later Malay literature powerfully links notions of the sea, God, man and the transitory nature of the world. The sea is a trope for Islam. ‘O Seeker, this world is like a wave. God’s condition is like the sea. Even though the wave is different from the sea, it is in reality nothing but the sea.’

We now have much more detail on the ships venturing out over our ocean. At the most humble level, even today one sees coastal fishers, some merely astride a log, rising and falling, vanishing and appearing, in the swell. Coastal craft, used by fisherfolk, and as lighters to take people and goods to larger ships standing off shore where no harbour or estuary was available, were described in the previous chapter. These accounts related mostly to the east coast of India, where the lack of good harbours necessitated lighters. Over much of the rest of the littoral there were estuaries or harbours, and it was here that the famous dhows were found. These larger ships however had many of the characteristics of the coastal craft we have previously described.

The term ‘dhow’ is used by westerners for a variety of craft, large and small, which dominated most trade and navigation in the western Indian Ocean for centuries. There are many different types, depending on size and location, yet they did share enough common characteristics for us to use a generic term for them. The actual word is not Arabic. It probably comes from the Persian word dawh. They have attracted much attention from a truly international array of scholars. These ‘traditional’ dhows were found all over the western Indian Ocean, that is from east Africa around to south India, and at times much further east. This type of ship long-predates the arrival of Islam. It presumably has Gulf or Red Sea origins, but we know little about ships before Islam.

Marco Polo, writing about Hurmuz, left a detailed, accurate, and rather negative account:

Their ships are wretched affairs, and many of them get lost; for they have no iron fastenings, and are only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut [coconut]. They beat this husk until it becomes like horse-hair, and from that they spin twine, and with this stitch the planks of the ship together. It keeps well, and is not corroded by the sea-water, but it will not stand well in a storm. The ships are not pitched, but are rubbed with fish oil. They have one mast, one sail, and one rudder, and have no deck, but only a cover spread over the cargo when loaded. This cover consists of hides, and on the top of these hides they put the horses which they take to India for sale. They have no iron to make nails of, and for this reason they use only wooden trenails in their shipbuilding, and then stitch the planks with twine as I have told you. Hence ’tis a perilous business to go a voyage in one of those ships, and many of them are lost, for in that Sea of India the storms are often terrible.

A Muslim pilgrim in the Red Sea in the late twelfth century left a rather similar account. Ibn Jubayr wrote:

The jilab that ply on this Pharaonic sea [that is, the Red Sea from Aydhab to Jiddah] are sewn together, no nails at all being used on them. They are sewn with cord made from… the fibre of the coconut and which the makers thrash until it takes the form of thread, which then they twist into a cord with which they sew the ships. These they then caulk with shavings of the wood of palm-trees. When they have finished making a jilabah in this fashion, they smear it with grease, or castor oil, or the oil of the shark, which is best. This shark is a huge fish which swallows drowning men. Their purpose in greasing the boat is to soften and supple it against the many reefs that are met with in that sea, and because of which nailed ships do not sail through it. The wood for these parts is brought from India and the Yemen, as is the coconut fibre. A singular feature of these jilab is that their sails are woven from the leaves of the muql tree [a kind of gum-tree], and their parts are conformably weak and unsound in structure. Glory to God who contrives them in this fashion and who entrusts men to them. There is no God but He.’

What then are the main characteristics of these craft? As these contemporaries pointed out, teak from Malabar in southwest India was used almost universally, for this was highly resistant to decay, and provided it was treated properly, along the lines suggested by Ibn Jubayr, it would not split, crack or shrink in salt water. This wood was used to make a hull using the carvel method: that is, the wooden planks of the hull were laid edge to edge, not overlapping as in western ships. They were held together by coir fibre stitching which passed through holes in the planks. There was no iron or bolts, and no ribbing or framework. However, wooden dowels were used, at least on the bigger boats, for strength. The hull was made watertight by inserting resin or other materials between the planks. This has to be differentiated from the European practice of caulking, which was done after the ship was assembled. They had no keels, but instead used either sandbags, or heavy parts of the cargo, as ballast in the bottom of the hold. These dhows had stern post rudders, with ropes attached, not a tiller. One pulled on ropes to steer the vessel. Most had only one mast, and a sail made of matting, though late in our period cloth was also beginning to be used.

The hulls were double ended rather than having square, transom, sterns. On the largest dhows there may have been a raised poop deck, with cabins underneath, but most often the holds were open and there was no deck. As Correia observed in Cannanor around 1500:

in lieu of decks, the hold was built up with huts and compartments for merchandise, covered with plaited palm-leaf thatch, acting as a roof; the water would flow down to their sides, then along the hull and gather at the bottom of the hold where it could be bailed out, thus not wetting the merchandise which was kept well packed into these compartments. On top of these thatched roofs, they would dispose strong cane lattice-work, on which one could walk without damaging the huts below…. People have their lodgings on top, for nobody stays below, where the merchandise is found.

Remarkably heavy cargo, camels, horses, even elephants, could be carried.

The lack of metal in the construction excited much comment, most of it negative, from European observers, such as Marco Polo who we quoted above. The fabulist Sir John Mandeville claimed they did not use nails as there were magnetic islands which would draw to them any ship which contained metal. At first glance the lack of metal condemns dhows as primitive craft indeed, yet their method of construction was well suited to conditions in the Indian Ocean. As Ibn Battuta wrote, ‘The Indian and Yemenite ships are sewn together with them, for that sea is full of reefs, and if a ship is nailed with iron nails it breaks up on striking the rocks, whereas if it is sewn together with cords, it is given a certain resilience and does not fall to pieces.’ In Cambay he wrote of the Gulf that ‘it is navigable for ships and its waters ebb and flow. I myself saw the ships lying on the mud at ebb-tide and floating on the water at high tide.’ Their flexibility, thanks to the coir, meant that they were well adapted to the sandy shores of large parts of the Indian Ocean littoral. They could be driven ashore by storms, or deliberately to unload cargo or undergo repairs or careening, and even in the breakers off the Coromandel coast their flexibility enabled them to ‘give’ and survive, where a more rigidly built ship would have shattered.

A considerable quantity of coir thread or rope was needed: Tim Severin built a quite small replica dhow, yet it used up about 400 miles of rope! The coir had to be kept in salt water to prevent deterioration, as Bowrey noted:

The Cables, Strapps, &c. are made of Cayre, vizt. the Rhine of Coco nuts very fine Spun, the best Sort of which is brought from the Maldiva Isles. They are as Stronge as any hempen Cables whatever, and much more durable in these hott climates, with this provisor, that if they chance to be wet with fresh water, either by raine or rideinge in a fresh River, they doe not let them drye before they wett them well in Salt water, which doth much preserve them, and the Other as much rott them.

The coconut tree was a great provider of useful products. Indeed, in the Maldive and Laccadive islands ships were built entirely from this tree: the hull, masts, stitches, ropes, and sails. As noted, most other areas used teak for the hulls, but the sails were usually woven from the leaves of palm or coconut trees; cotton sailcloth apparently came in later, though possibly before 1500.

These sails were the famous triangular lateen sails so evident even today in the Indian Ocean. The name is a misnomer, as it comes from the time of the Crusades, when western Europeans first saw them, and called them the Latin sail, from the French une voile latine. They had been used by the Arabs for some centuries before the Common Era, and were the first sails which allowed a ship to beat into the wind. As compared with European square sails, a lateen rigged ship can sail well with the wind abeam, that is 90° against the direction of travel, and even reasonably well with the wind forward of the beam, at 50° or even 60° off the bow. Some authorities say dhows tack straight across the wind as a modern yacht does, but in fact they changed course by wearing around, stern to wind, instead of tacking.

Lateen sails are often described as a ‘gift of the Arabs’ to western sailors. However, Campbell claims that they developed independently in several places. Their origin may be from Persia, rather than pre-Islamic Arabia, and it could be that they reached the Mediterranean via Persia. They were found in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Common Era, and he suggests that Arabs then learnt to use them from earlier users in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Very similarly shaped sails evolved independently in eastern Indonesia and were used in the great voyages in the Pacific by Austronesian peoples which we mentioned in the previous chapter (page 60). Campbell claims that they are not particularly effective sails anyway, though this obviously raises the question of why they were used for so many centuries.

To make the dhow watertight was only one reason for treating the wood. Equally important was to deter the accumulation of barnacles and other growths on the hull. Of these, the most dangerous was teredo, or shipworm, a ravenous mollusc which wreaked havoc in tropical waters. Severin described their rapid penetration. He found that if it was not treated, the timber in his replica dhow was nearly destroyed after two months. Even after this short time wormholes as big as knitting needles appeared, and one could snap with bare hands panels 2½ inches thick.

The traditional solution was to smear the hull every two months or so with a combination of boiled animal or fish fat and crushed lime. In the absence of dry docks this required running the vessel aground, but thanks to the flexibility of the construction this could be done easily and safely. There were two processes involved. The carvel method of construction meant that resin was used to fill gaps between the planks while the boat was being built, but then the process of greasing and smearing was done routinely during the life of the vessel.

The navigator of the dhow in our period, such as the famous fifteenth century sailor Ibn Majid, was the mu’allim, who sailed the ship and was responsible for what happened on board. He checked the fitting out, stores, gear, and loading. He was in charge of the crew and passengers, looked after their safety and health and solved their quarrels. All this was laid down in the contract drawn up before the ship left. It was required to take a set number of passengers, and a set quantity of their effects. There were also bills of lading governing the cargo. His duty of care ended when he got the ship back to its home port. Ibn Majid also advised the captain to

Be quick to make a decision…. It is necessary when you sail to be clean…. Forbid all those who sail from making fun of others on the sea; it will only result in evil, hatred and enmity and he who does this continually will not be spared from grudge or hatred or contempt…. Consult other people and improve your own opinion.

Dhows of one sort or another were the dominant form all over the western Indian Ocean. Their sizes covered a wide range, from less than 50 tons up to perhaps 500. Different sizes had different names. A major variation was the ships built in Gujarat, which in the period before Europeans were the largest in this region, being up to 800 tons, and on average 300 to 600 tons. By contrast, when Magellan set off to sail around the world he had five ships, the largest of which was only 120 tons and 31 metres long. In 1577 Drake sailed out of Plymouth with three ships. One was a bit over 100 tons, the other two only 80 and 30 tons. The early Portuguese found these Gujarati ships to be formidable indeed: ‘these ships are so powerful and well armed and have so many men that they dare to sail this route [from Melaka to the Red Sea] without fear of our ships.’ While these large Gujarati ships still usually had no deck, their construction was different, as a process called rabetting, rather like tongue and groove, was used to join the planks together. An English traveller around 1750 praised these ships highly:

Surat ships last much longer than Europe ships, even a century, because they are so solidly built, the planks in their bottom and sides being let into one another in the nature of rabbet work. The knees are natural shape not warped, or forced by fire. Teak is as good as oak, and bottoms rubbed with wood oil keep planks from decay.

The ‘True Frigate’ 1748-1778 Part I

The 1745 Establishment was largely about battleships. The Admiralty’s main concern in appointing the Norris committee was to improve the ships of the battlefleet, and in particular to have the much-maligned three-decker 80-gun ships superseded by what they called ‘two and a half decked ships’ – French and Spanish style 74s. A less overt agenda was to force the retirement of the aged and autocratic Surveyor, Sir Jacob Acworth, who was virtually omnipotent in matters of design. In both they failed: the committee refused to give up the 80s, and the best that could be achieved with Acworth was to appoint a professional rival, Joseph Allin, as joint Surveyor in 1747. The Admiralty lost confidence in the 1745 ships before any had entered the water, and took steps to circumvent the provisions of the new establishment before it even came into force.

The most influential critic of current ship design was Anson, who balanced his Admiralty duties with command of the new Western Squadron, which was evolving a more aggressive strategy that involved a main fleet being kept down-Channel (effectively, to windward with the prevailing westerlies) where it could protect the incoming trade and be ready to swoop on any French squadron venturing out from Brest. This required stronger and more seaworthy ships, as it was planned to keep the fleet at sea for longer and to operate in almost any weather; equally, its success depended on good intelligence of French movements, so there was a renewed emphasis on the reconnaissance role of frigates. No existing British Fifth or Sixth Rate was up to the task, and Anson’s judgement was scathing – ‘all our frigates sail wretchedly’ – but he had a radical proposal: copy a captured French ship.

The notion of British ships built to the lines of French prizes was to become very familiar, so it is difficult to appreciate that at the time it was completely unprecedented. It was indeed a revolutionary idea, but Anson wanted a revolutionary ship, and he knew he would never get one through official channels. However, his initiative was carefully considered, the combined product of extensive private correspondence with some of the more forward-thinking shipwrights and his personal experience of the performance of captured French cruisers in his fleet. These were longer, lower and more lightly built than anything in the Royal Navy and British naval officers were greatly impressed by their speed and weatherliness.

Although its significance only became evident in retrospect, French designers had achieved an important advance by a subtle alteration in the layout of ‘two-decked’ cruisers. British 24s had a heavily framed full-height lower deck, necessary to fight the guns and to allow rowing with standing oarsmen; the position of the deck itself was determined by the need for a safe freeboard to the ports. By contrast, in the latest French ships the lower deck was little more than a light platform, with much reduced headroom, and the deck itself, at its lowest point, positioned just below the waterline. This compressed the height of the topside, while the forecastle and quarterdeck were unarmed and had virtually no barricades or rails to catch the wind; combined with fine lines and light framing, this made for fast and weatherly ships. Credit for this innovation goes to Blaise Ollivier, the constructor at Brest, and was first applied in 1741 to the Medée of twenty-six 8pdrs. This formula was eventually adopted by all the major navies, and was dubbed the ‘true frigate’ form, in retrospect, by naval historians.

Four of the first eight such ships were captured during the war, and the largest of them, the 746-ton Ambuscade, soon established a fine reputation with Anson’s fleet. However, the ship Anson proposed to copy was not a national frigate, but a privateer called the Tygre, at 576 tons closer to the 24-gun ships he wanted to replace. Acting on the advice of Benjamin Slade, the Master Shipwright at Plymouth, he chose this ship because ‘she has a great character [ie reputation] for sailing’ and although the Admiralty decided against purchasing the Tygre herself, they instructed Slade to take off the lines ‘in the most exact manner’ and ‘have a perfect draught drawn thereof, and to take an exact account of all the scantlings, dimensions, form and manner of framing, scarphs, fastenings and every particular relating to her hull, masts and yards’. Then on 29 April 1747 two new 24-gun ships were ordered to be built ‘without the least deviation’ from this draught, one at Deptford and one by Slade himself at Plymouth, such being the priority that they were to be ‘carried on in preference to all other new works’.

Both launched in December 1748, they became Unicorn (Plymouth) and Lyme (Deptford). Carrying only twenty-four 9pdrs on the upper deck, they were the first British ships of this new frigate form.

The First 12-pounder Frigates

The Unicorn and Lyme set a number of important administrative precedents: first, that the Admiralty could depart from the Establishment if it felt the need; second, that it could determine the design (by insisting that a particular model be copied); and third, by extrapolation, that in future there would always be more than one source of design. Henceforth, there were always to be at least two Surveyors during wartime, and when there was only a single incumbent, he was supported by a highly regarded Assistant Surveyor who was clearly seen as a full Surveyor-in-waiting. In this case, the comparative principle was honoured by allowing Acworth and Allin, the two Surveyors in post, to design their own alternatives to the French-derived pair, equally untrammelled by Establishment restrictions. Both the resulting Seahorse from Acworth and Allin’s Mermaid were a conceptual halfway house between the old 24s and the new frigate form – they had no gunports on the lower deck but, having much the same headroom between decks, the height of side was not significantly reduced, and being shorter than the Unicorns, they did not perform so well. When the time came to build more Sixth Rates in 1755, there was no debate about which model to chose, and two slightly modified Unicorns were ordered. Now rated 28s, this type became the standard light cruiser for over two decades

In the interim a parallel argument was developing about the Navy’s heavy cruiser, the two-decker 44-gun ship. As early as 1747 the Navy Board was fending off suggestions that a frigate-form ship would be preferable, arguing – as they had in defence of the three-decker 80 – that multiple decks made them better fighting ships: there was more room on the gundecks to work the guns, and the crews were better protected than those on the long exposed quarterdecks and forecastles of frigates. They were prepared to admit that, being taller and more heavily built, British 44s were not such good sailers, but they denied that they could not open the lower deck ports in any sort of seaway – their lower tier could be opened in ‘any fighting weather’ and their battery of twenty 18pdrs was superior to the thirty 12pdrs proposed. Furthermore, as these two-deckers were often convoy escorts as well as cruisers their defensible qualities were as important as speed under sail.

As so often, France took the lead by building the Hermione, the first 12pdr frigate, in 1748, and thereafter no more French two-decker 40s were ordered. However, there was clearly a degree of uncertainty about the ideal size, armament, and even design features, of the new type. The first ship, measuring 811 tons by British calculation, had an unusually deep hull, with six ports on the lower deck when captured in 1758 (although none was armed; the ship may have been built with oar ports on this deck) and a main battery of twenty-six 12pdrs. The next ship was rather smaller with only twenty-four guns, while the two after that were far larger and carried thirty 12pdrs. There was never to be a remotely standard French 12pdr frigate, although a typical ship would measure about 900 tons and carry twenty-six 12pdrs and six 6pdrs on the quarterdeck.

By contrast the Royal Navy knew exactly what it wanted from its first 12pdr frigates, the specification being ships of about 650 tons and a battery of twenty-six 12pdrs; the dimensions did not vary by more than about 10 per cent during the three decades such ships were built. The disparity in size was partly the product of the typical British policy of building the smallest viable unit (so the maximum number could be built for any given budget), but in any case the true comparison is not with the handful of 12pdr ships France built before 1764 but the substantial numbers of large but 8pdr-armed frigates that formed the core of the French frigate force during the Seven Years War.

By 1755 both Acworth and Allin were dead and had been replaced by joint Surveyors of a far younger generation in Thomas Slade and William Bately. Following the new comparative policy, each was set to produce a draught to the same general specification for a 32-gun ship of about 125ft on the gundeck. Bately, a competent but unoriginal thinker, produced a slightly longer, narrower and shallower hull form based on a long-established fast-sailing tradition preserved in the yacht Royal Caroline but ultimately derived from Lord Danby’s work at the beginning of the century. His Richmond was a modest success, despite not being as fast as expected, and six ships were built to this draught during the war; astonishingly, the design was revived in 1804 for a further eight ships when it was decidedly obsolescent, although it has to be said that at the time a small, cheap design was politically expedient.

Slade, who by both contemporary and historical judgement was to become the best British ship designer of the century, did not excel with his first frigate class. Apparently a genuinely ab initio design based on no existing model, the Southampton class were strong, good sea-boats and performed well in heavy weather, but lacked speed. However, Slade’s most notable characteristic as a designer was a constant search for improvement, a self-critical faculty manifest in the many alterations to be found on his draughts. Often the advance was incremental – as seen in the many variants on his standard 74-gun ship classes – but in this case he took an entirely different starting point, developing the lines from the Tygre-derived 28s for the next class. As alternatives, he had offered the Admiralty an improved Southampton or a hull based on the extreme French form of the Amazon, the 20-gun Panthère captured in 1746, but as he was called to the Admiralty to discuss the options, it is highly likely that the final decision was largely based on his own preference. It was a good choice: the resulting Niger design provided the best British 12pdr class and, in terms of fitness for purpose, probably the best frigates of the Seven Years War. They were fast, weatherly, very handy and strongly built; more of them (eleven) were ordered than any other design, and it is entirely appropriate that when Lord Sandwich commissioned a spectacular structural model he chose one of these to be the subject. The Winchelsea model [SLR0339], complete on the starboard side but with the port side unplanked to reveal how such ships were built, was presented to George III in 1774 as part of Sandwich’s campaign to interest the King in his navy.

All the demands that were to be placed on heavier frigates during the war were met, and with total satisfaction, by the 12pdr 32; but before this became clear there were a couple of trials with more powerful ships. In July 1756 three enlarged Southamptons were ordered as the Pallas class and rated as 36-gun ships. At around 720 tons, they were about 11 per cent larger (and because costs were calculated on a £ per ton basis, more expensive pro rata) yet they offered only four extra 6pdrs by way of firepower benefit over the standard 32. No more 12pdr 36s were ever ordered.

More radical was an attempt to find out if Slade could make an acceptable cruiser out of the two-decker 44, the single example being launched as the Phoenix in 1759. Longer and narrower than its 1745 Establishment predecessors, this ship was the only 44 built during the Seven Years War, so even the advantage of an 18pdr main battery was not considered valuable at this time.

By 1757 Slade enjoyed the complete confidence of the Admiralty and was allowed considerable autonomy over ship design, totally eclipsing Bately in the process. He was permitted to build a frigate on extreme French principles – ‘stretching’ the Tygre hull form by 10ft and using very lightweight framing – and the resulting 32-gun Tweed showed all the advantages and disadvantages of the French philosophy: she was fast, very wet, tender (lacking stability) and short-lived. It was almost as though Slade was providing his masters at the Admiralty with an object lesson in how to prioritise their requirements.

Slade’s final contributions to frigate design had a curious provenance. In 1757 the Navy had captured a very large 950-ton ‘frigate’ constructed in Quebec. Everything about this ship was strange – including her name, L’Abenakise, which the English tried to render as Bon Acquis or Bien Acquis, although she actually celebrated the Abenaki tribe, one of the principal Indian allies of French Canada. The ship herself, though new-built, was a demi-batterie ship, like the purpose-designed commerce-raiders of half a century earlier, with eight 18pdrs on the lower deck and twenty-eight 12s above. Despite the anachronistic layout, Slade inspected the ship and, ‘approving very much of the form of her body’, suggested that she would provide the model for an improved frigate design. Slade’s enthusiasm was so infectious that the Admiralty ordered draughts prepared for five new classes, from a 74 to a sloop. This required a further lesson for Their Lordships on the difficulty of simply scaling a set of lines up or down, but the resulting designs utilised the principles of the French form and were described as ‘nearly similar to the Aurora’, as the prize had been renamed.

Both new frigate designs, the 28-gun Mermaid and the 32-gun Lowestoffe were slightly larger than existing ships but not the radical improvement Slade had hoped for.

The ‘True Frigate’ 1748-1778 Part II

This highly detailed model of the Lowestoffe, launched in 1761, represents Sir Thomas Slade’s final thoughts on the 12pdr 32-gun frigate. The hull form was developed from that of a French prize, the more upright stem and sternpost being obvious features, but the midship section is more difficult to appreciate in a photograph. The French employed a characteristic transverse shape with sharp angles at the ends of the floors and around the load waterline, combined with excessive tumblehome (the curving in of the topsides), but it is notable that the British avoided the extreme versions of this ‘two-turn bilge’, preferring more rounded versions with less tumblehome. In Lowestoffe Slade produced a very fast ship, but she was only a slight improvement over his already excellent Niger class.

Continuity and Conservatism, 1771-1778

Slade died in 1771 leaving an impressive body of work – outstanding frigates, continuously improved 74s and the immortal Victory, the finest First Rate of the century – but, more significantly, a daunting reputation. Sir John Henslow, one of his followers and himself a Surveyor in the 1790s, summed up the view among his contemporaries: ‘My late very esteemed friend and patron, Sir Thomas Slade, he was truly a great man in the line he took, such a one I believe never went before him, and if I am not too partial, I may venture to say will hardly follow him.’ His successors certainly trod softly in the shadow of the great man.

Cruiser building had lapsed with the peace of 1763, but the threat of war with Spain in 1770 prompted a small programme of frigate construction. Alongside a few additions to Slade’s 32-gun Lowestoffe and 28-gun Mermaid classes, the new Surveyor, John Williams, produced his own designs for both rates. These set the precedent for his very conservative approach, although this was underpinned by the general satisfaction with existing dimensions, proportions and specifications. His resulting Amazon class 32s and Enterprize class 28s were almost clones of the earlier Niger and Unicorn classes, except that relatively minor changes to the lines of both classes actually degraded their performance under sail.

As tensions with Britain’s north American colonists escalated into rebellion, the Admiralty’s response was considered: six more 28s to Williams’ Enterprize design were ordered in 1776 and a further nine over the next two years, but no 32s. Instead, there was an apparently surprising return to the two-decker 44, built to a design derived from Slade’s Phoenix via a slightly modified one-off, the Roebuck of 1769. This was not a failure of belief in the frigate form, but a conscious response to the requirements of ‘littoral warfare’ as it is called these days. The colonies had no navy to speak of, and 28s could deal with the largest privateers, but the amphibious and shore bombardment missions characteristic of this war required ships of relatively shallow draught but heavy batteries – with 18pdrs on the lower deck, the 44s fulfilled this need perfectly, and nineteen of them were built during the conflict.

STRUCTURE: French and British

As a shipbuilding material, wood suffered from two major drawbacks of its organic nature: it was only available in limited dimensions, and it was subject to natural decay over time. These two factors determined the way wooden vessels were built. Ships were necessarily made up of many relatively small pieces, which placed great importance on the way they were put together – the methods of fastening – and the quality of those individual parts. The structural design was essentially a transverse system whose principal strength members were the large athwartship timbers loosely known as frames. Relatively speaking, wooden ships were longitudinally weak and therefore vulnerable to stresses set up by the action of wind and wave on the hull, which because of its fine ends possessed far less buoyancy fore and aft than amidships. This led to a condition known as ‘hogging’ in which the hull arched upwards, ‘breaking the sheer’ in the contemporary expression, opening up seams and forcing out the caulking that made the hull watertight. The gradual loosening of the hull’s integrity let in water, accelerated decay and degraded the performance of the ship itself.

Minimising this problem was a major concern for shipwrights, and there were various approaches open to them: increasing the scantlings (a term that encompassed both the breadth and thickness of the timbers); employing more elaborate fastenings; or optimising the hull design for greater strength. The first, which generally meant more substantial frames with less space between them, resulted in heavier and therefore slower hulls, so was not entirely appropriate for frigates (although British ships were generally more heavily built than those of their enemies). The second was something to which the British paid special attention, so that beam-ends, for example, were secured by both hanging and lodging knees, and ever more complex schemes of fastening were applied throughout the structure; this was costly in both labour and materials, but in the British view repaid by more durable hulls. The third was more subtle, in that the British preference for shorter, deeper hulls naturally endowed them with greater girder strength, despite the downside of potentially slower speed.

That these were conscious policies is evident from a comparison with French practice, which was dramatically but consistently different. French frigates were longer, shallower and often more fine-lined, so at full load might displace about 25 per cent less than a British ship of similar burthen (a ‘tonnage’ calculated from the length, breadth and depth, known as Builder’s Measurement or bm for short). They were also more lightly built (typically, hull weight was about 48 per cent of full load displacement, or about 5 per cent less than for a comparable British frigate), largely because the frame timbers were of slighter scantling with more space between them. Associated with light timbering was a more limited scheme of fastening, particularly the absence of many of the knees, riders and other structural reinforcements common in British practice; this contributed to a lighter hull but one that was less rigid.

The many French prizes in Royal Navy service made these differences very obvious to the shipwrights charged with their upkeep, whose surveys and reports were usually critical – French frigates spent more time in dockyard hands, so cost more to maintain, and enjoyed shorter operational lives. In truth, they were never intended for the kind of hard usage to which the British subjected them – there was, for example, no French strategic requirement for allweather, year-round blockade duty – so they were a rather different kind of ship. Put crudely, French frigates were predators, designed to go to sea on limited, well-defined missions, able to run down intended targets and escape on their chosen point of sailing from more powerful opponents. Their light construction served this role as consciously as their hull form.

When scrutinised carefully, the ways various navies built their ships reveals as much about their tactical and strategic priorities as the way they were designed.

The ‘True Frigate’ 1748-1778 Part III

A more detailed model, again thought to represent Minerva, which is certainly what was intended, but it presents a few oddities. The quarterdeck rails correspond with the earliest draught and the figurehead, allowing for the loss of limbs, is close to that shown on a later draught. The waist rails have been raised, as occurred while Minerva was on the stocks (although the gangways are not quite flush as in the other model, which was a slightly later modification), but the most noticeable departure from the known features of the full-size ship are the oar ports. These can be seen on the later ships of the class, but not the parallel Williams design for Latona, nor on any draught for Minerva.

The Heavy Frigate 1778-1815

In an exchange of correspondence between the Admiralty and the Navy Board in October 1778, the Navy’s administrators quietly ditched a century-old, though largely unspoken, precedent. It had always been believed that any significant increase in the size, and hence cost, of warships was not in the national interest; this had manifested itself not only in the building of the smallest viable ships of each rate, but also an unwillingness to promote any new type, like the 74 or the 12pdr frigate, which promised to be more expensive to build, operate and man. This reluctance was only ever overcome when the irrefutable evidence of war proved that British ships were so inferior in firepower or performance that fundamental improvements were essential.

On 21 October the Admiralty told the Navy Board that it was to propose no more small frigates under 32 guns but, on the contrary, it should consider more powerful ships of 36 or 38 guns with a main battery of twenty-eight 12pdrs. France was now in the war and her navy already had such ships, so the Admiralty, led by the experienced and highly competent Lord Sandwich, was responding in traditional fashion to a known threat. It was no part of the Navy Board’s remit to make policy, but on the 29th they replied with a radical proposal to build the 36- and 38-gun ships with scantlings strong enough to carry 18pdrs: ‘Such ships we conceive will exceed in strength any now possessed by the French and may be constructed with every advantage that such ships ought to have.’ Their letter was accompanied by draughts for an 869-ton 36 by Sir John Williams and an even larger 938-ton 38 by Sir Edward Hunt.

After some deliberation the Admiralty ordered one 36 to be called Flora and one 38 which became Minerva: for the first time in the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy took the initiative in introducing a far larger and more expensive ship-type. The step-change was substantial. At a time when there was hardly a British-built frigate exceeding 700 tons, these new ships represented a huge escalation – the 36s typically cost nearly 40 per cent more than a 12pdr 32, but the 38s were almost twice as expensive; on the other hand, the 36-gun ship offered 52 per cent more firepower in broadside weight of metal and 62 per cent for the 38. They would not be built in large numbers, but for the first few years of their existence they had no equals in any other navy. They were highly regarded ships, and their entrance into service caused quite a stir – especially the 38s, which may be why there are a number of excellent contemporary models of them (apart from the two shown here, there is superb representation of Minerva, shown fully coppered, at Annapolis; and a model of Arethusa at Bristol, unplanked on one side revealing all the interior structure).

As had become the norm since Anson’s day, each Surveyor produced a comparable design, Williams’ 38-gun draught being adopted for the one-off Latona, and Hunt designing a 36 which became the four-ship Perseverance class, built alongside the four of Williams’ Flora class. It was not to be expected that such innovative designs would be perfect at the first attempt – indeed, the Minerva seems to have been draughted in a hurry and Hunt modified the lines of the three that followed. The main problems surrounded the size and weight of the 18pdr. The 141ft gundeck of the 38s was hardly long enough for fourteen ports a side – carrying guns so far forward and aft made them prone to heavy pitching – while the 9ft 4lcwt guns were unwieldy. The latter problem was solved by designing a new 8ft 38cwt gun for frigates, and the last Minerva class ship, Melampus, was converted to a 36 during construction with only thirteen upper deck ports that were rearranged to keep them away from the extremities of the ship. She turned out to be the best sailer of the first generation 18pdr ships (there is a fine rigged model of the ship alongside the aforementioned Arethusa in the Bristol City Museum).

The two 36-gun designs were very similar in performance, and with 6 inches more between the gunports than the 38s, they were less cramped. However, the battery also stretched almost to the ends of the ship, and they were given rather full lines and a deep hull to compensate. This made them weatherly, good sea-boats and – being short – manoeuvrable, but they were not very fast by frigate standards. Nevertheless, the Perseverance class was well enough thought of that the design was revived in 1801.


Much has been made of the superiority of the French ‘scientific’ attitude to shipbuilding; far less of the advantages of British technology to the Royal Navy. The French claimed to be the first to be able to predict a ship’s stability mathematically, for example, but a class of 74s designed as late as 1778 proved their calculations hopelessly wrong; at precisely the same time the British were perfecting two innovations which were to prove of almost incalculable importance to the coming war effort. One was copper sheathing and the other was the carronade.

Ever since ships had gone to sea, the growth of weed and encrustation on the underwater hull – fouling – had been a problem, as it significantly retarded the progress of the ship through the water (for vessels of this era it could mean the difference of 2 or 3 knots). In warmer waters wooden hulls were also threatened by the Teredo navalis mollusc which bored along the lengths of timbers, potentially weakening them to catastrophic effect. The conventional remedy to both hazards was to cover the ship’s bottom with either some primitive forerunner of antifouling paint, usually highly toxic, plus a sheathing of thin ‘sacrificial’ planking intended to keep the Teredo from the main hull.

A close-up of the bow of the Minerva model at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. The coppering on this superb model is entirely to scale.

These were such fundamental problems that many unsuccessful alternatives had been tried over the centuries, but in 1761 the British sheathed the frigate Alarm in thin copper sheets. Galvanic action soon corroded the ironwork used to fasten the underwater hull, but although nobody understood the science, the British persisted with practical trial-and-error experiments until by 1778 they had a workable solution. A systematic scheme of coppering line of battle ships was put in hand in February 1779 and in the following May all frigates were ordered to follow suit. By 1781 half the battlefleet was coppered, along with 115 frigates and 182 smaller ships.

Coppered ships proved to have a huge tactical advantage – they were not only faster, but also ‘fouled’ more slowly, so retaining their speed advantage longer. Henceforth, any small superiority in sailing bestowed by a finer (but unsheathed) hull form would be more than cancelled out by the reduced frictional resistance of a copper bottom. Moreover, the coppered navy gained a massive strategic benefit in extended periods between dockings, in effect multiplying the number of ships it could have in service at any one time. Fighting not only the colonial rebels, but France, Spain (from 1779) and the Netherlands (from 1780), it is difficult to see how a vastly outnumbered Royal Navy could have coped without this trump card.

Having given the fleet a speed advantage, the Navy Board was simultaneously working towards enhanced firepower. Key to this was a new lightweight, short-barrelled weapon, capable of rapid fire but handled by a small crew. Developed by the Carron Foundry in Scotland and christened the carronade, it was intended originally to allow short-handed merchant ships to defend themselves against privateers, whose favoured tactic was to board in order to do as little damage as possible to their prize. In these circumstances the gun’s major drawback – its short range – was less relevant.

The carronade’s origins are obscure but its very short length may have been inspired by the howitzer and existing swivel guns may have played a part – early versions were mounted in a similar fashion, on crutches, and some had a ‘tiller’ for aiming. At first they had trunnions like conventional cannon [SLR2966], but their development was rapid, particularly in the mounting as this was the most important contributor to its speed and ease of handling. Eventually, a pivoted slide mount became the preferred fitting.

In 1778 the carronade received the enthusiastic backing of the Navy’s administrators, who saw its potential for anti-personnel fire and dismantling rigging. It was to be a supplementary weapon not a substitute, filling empty spaces on the upperworks, and frigates with their long and lightly armed quarter decks and forecastles became the prime beneficiaries. There were teething troubles, particularly with muzzle-flash, which endangered the crew and – because the barrel did not protrude very far through the port – the lower rigging. The answer was to lengthen the barrel and later to add a muzzle extension, but the bulwarks were also planked up solid to protect the crew.

Service reaction was mixed at first, but by the end of the war a number of high-profile successes for the carronade had swung Navy opinion in its favour. They were all removed for peacetime commissions after 1783, so they were still seen as supernumerary weapons, but by the time war was again underway in 1794, the proposed additions for frigates were of far heavier calibre – 32pdrs for 38s and 36s, with 24pdrs for smaller frigates. At first carronades were entirely additional and, like the swivels they in effect replaced, they were not counted in the rating, but soon the huge advantage of a 32pdr or 24pdr weapon over the usual long 9s or 6s led to the replacement of conventional guns with carronades. By about 1800 most frigates had only two long guns as chasers on their upperworks and all remaining ports filled with carronades – but the traditional rating remained, so a British ‘38’ regularly mounted 46 guns.

The mature form of the carronade and its mounting. The gun has a muzzle cup (extension), the trunnions have been replaced by loops underneath, and elevation is via a screw mechanism at the breech. The body of the carriage recoils and is run out guided by a groove in the slide, which is pivoted at its outboard end; trucks at its inboard end make it easy to traverse the mounting. If the pivot pin was located inside the gunport – called the ‘inside principle’ – the port could be smaller, but those over the channels might pose a danger to the shrouds from blast; the alternative ‘outside principle’, with the pivot stepped on the outboard edge of the sill, required a larger port, making the crew more vulnerable when reloading.

Carronades, with their range limitations, were perfect for frigates because they complemented a powerful battery of long-range guns on the deck below, and in many of the single-ship actions of the 1790s between nominally equal opponents, carronades gave the Royal Navy a massive firepower advantage. The French response was both slow and inadequate: the brass 36pdr obusier (howitzer) introduced about 1787 was a poor weapon, and it was not until 1808 that they had a satisfactory iron carronade, and even then of only 24pdr calibre.

The success of the carronade during the Napoleonic Wars led to their widespread usage throughout the British fleet, and smaller vessels often had their complete armament, except a couple of chase guns, replaced by carronades. They were expected to use speed and manoeuvrability to bring their guns to bear, but if disabled aloft they proved very vulnerable to any opponent with longer-ranged armament. A number of such actions during the War of 1812 prompted some reconsideration of their utility, and after 1815 they were gradually superseded by more powerful weapons – generally shortened forms of 32pdr long guns in varying lengths and hence weights. By the late 1820s carronades were no longer included in the established armament of new frigates and the carronade principle was eventually abandoned completely in the 1830s.

German WWII Submarine Designs

German submarine designs exerted a major influence, either directly or indirectly, on most of the world’s submarine development in the years between the two world wars-except in Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union. All the major navies of the victorious Allies-Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States-received examples of the latest German U-boats under the terms of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles. They intently examined and analyzed these German craft to determine the applicability and suitability of their features for incorporation into their own types and, in several instances, commissioned former German submarines into their own services to acquire operational experience in their use. Both Italian and French designers were very much influenced by studying and operating examples of the later Mittel-U and UB-III types prior to developing their first new postwar boats. The big U-cruisers had even more impact. The first French oceangoing submarines, the Requin class, benefited substantially from their designers’ study of U-cruisers. The big U. S. Navy fleet boats owed a great debt to the German boats (including even their diesel engines, in some cases), and German engineers were intimately involved in the development of the early Japanese kaidai and junsen types.

German design influence spread to lesser fleets too, largely through the activities of the Ingenieurskantoor voor Scheepsbouw (IvS). The IvS was established in July 1922 at Den Haag in The Netherlands by a consortium of the Krupp and Vulcan shipbuilding yards to circumvent the Versailles Treaty’s prohibition on submarine design and construction. The engineering staff was led by Hans Techel, who had headed Krupp’s submarine design team since 1907, and the firm also received clandestine financial support from the German Navy, which was desirous of maintaining German submarine design expertise despite the treaty. IvS engineers produced submarine designs that were constructed for Turkey, Finland, the Soviet Union, Spain, and Sweden, and also served as prototypes for the German Navy’s Type IIA coastal, Type IA long-range, and Type VII oceangoing U-boats.

German submarines were developed clandestinely, inasmuch as the Versailles Treaty prohibited them in the German Navy. Design work, both at IvS and by the Blohm und Voss firm, continued for foreign navies with production undertaken in the customer’s yards under German supervision. These boats also served as prototypes for domestic production, which made it possible for the first new German submarine, the U-1, to be completed on 29 June 1935, only five weeks after the repudiation of the Versailles Treaty.

The overwhelming majority of the 1,150 U-boats commissioned between 1935 and 1945 belonged to two groups: the so-called 500- ton Type VII medium boats, and the 740-ton Type IX long-range submarines. The Type VIIC actually displaced between 760 and 1,000 tons on the surface, had a cruising range of 6,500 to 10,000 miles at 12 knots on the surface and 80 miles at 4 knots submerged. They had a battery of 5 torpedo tubes with 14 torpedoes, an 88mm deck gun, and ever-increasing numbers of light antiaircraft weapons. Almost 700 of these boats in all of their variants entered service during World War II. The Type XIC actually displaced 1,120 tons; it had a cruising range of 11,000 miles at 12 knots on the surface and 63 miles at 4 knots submerged. They had a battery of 6 torpedo tubes with 22 torpedoes, a 105mm deck gun, and ever-increasing numbers of light antiaircraft weapons. Almost 200 of this type and its variants were commissioned.

Germany also commissioned a number of other important types during World War II. Among the most important were the Type X minelayers and the Type XIV supply boats. Both types operated as resuppliers for the operational boats during the Battle of the Atlantic, providing fuel, provisions, medical supplies, reload torpedoes, and even medical care and replacement crew members. Consequently they became prime targets for Allied antisubmarine forces, and few survived. The other major vessels were the radical Type XXI and Type XXIII boats, designed for high submerged speed and extended underwater operation. Revolutionary streamlined hull shapes, greatly increased battery space, and the installation of snorkels allowed these boats to operate at submerged speeds that made them very difficult targets for Allied antisubmarine forces. Confused production priorities, however, and the general shortage of materials late in the war prevented more than a very few from putting to sea operationally.


The outbreak of World War II found the German submarine arm well trained but deficient in numbers. From the moment of its reestablishment, the submarine force had concentrated much of its effort on validating Kommodore Karl Dönitz’s concepts for an all-out assault on enemy trade using concentrated groups of submarines under central shore-based control to locate and destroy convoyed shipping, primarily through surfaced night attacks (wolf-pack tactics). Dönitz was promoted Konteradmiral in October 1939, but shortages of U-boats, Adolf Hitler’s initial insistence on Germany’s adherence to the Prize Regulations, and demands on the submarine force for its support of surface naval operations prevented him from exploiting the potential of the wolf-pack tactics for most of the first nine months of the conflict. On average only six boats were at sea at any one time during this period, forcing them to attack individually, although some attempts were made to mount combined attacks whenever possible.

As a result of its World War I experience after 1917, Britain was quick to begin the convoying of merchant vessels. There was some initial hesitation because of the feared detrimental effect that convoys could have on the efficient employment of shipping, but when the liner Athena was torpedoed and sunk without warning on 3 September 1939, Britain took this to indicate that Germany had commenced an unrestricted campaign of submarine warfare against merchant vessels. Regular east coast convoys between the Firth of Forth and the River Thames started on 6 September and outbound transatlantic convoys from Liverpool two days later.

The conquest of Norway and the collapse of France in June 1940 brought substantial changes to the U-boat war against trade. From French bases, German reconnaissance and long-range bomber aircraft operated far into the Atlantic, while the operational range of the U-boats sailing from Norway and French Biscay ports increased dramatically. Italy’s simultaneous entry into the war terminated all commercial traffic in the Mediterranean except for very heavily escorted operational convoys bringing supplies into Malta. It also substantially increased the number of submarines available for the Atlantic campaign against shipping, inasmuch as Italian submarines began operating from Biscay ports, effectively doubling the total Axis force at sea. This situation allowed Dönitz to introduce his wolf-pack tactic on a large scale into the Atlantic shipping campaign, just as the British faced an alarming shortage of oceanic convoy escorts because of the neutralization of the French Fleet and their decision to retain destroyers in home waters to guard against a German invasion. The results vindicated Dönitz’s belief in the effectiveness of wolf packs. In the first nine months of the war, German U-boats sank a little more than 1 million tons of shipping, whereas they and the Italians together destroyed more than 2.3 million tons between June 1940 and February 1941. However, the release of destroyers from their guard duties, the addition of new escorts, and the transfer of fifty obsolete destroyers from the U. S. Navy improved the situation. The dispersal point for westbound transatlantic convoys and the pickup point for escort groups meeting eastbound shipping gradually moved westward as the range of the escorts was increased. This pushed the main arena of Axis submarine operations more toward the mid-Atlantic zone, which reduced the time that boats could spend on station. In mid-1941 the United States imposed its socalled Neutrality Zone on the western Atlantic and began escorting British convoys in conjunction with Royal Canadian Navy escorts, operating from Argentia in Newfoundland. North Atlantic convoys now were escorted throughout by antisubmarine vessels. Nevertheless, these additions to the escort force had only a limited impact on losses, since German and Italian submarines succeeded in sinking a further 1.8 million tons in the following nine months prior to the U. S. entry into the war.

The German declaration of war on the United States on 10 December 1941 brought a major westward expansion of U-boat operations against shipping. A disastrous period followed, while the U. S. Navy struggled with the problems of finding the escorts and crews required to convoy the enormous volume of merchant traffic along the East Coast of the United States, and with the very concept of convoy itself. Axis submarines sank more than 3 million tons of Allied shipping between December 1941 and June 1942, well over 75 percent of it along the East Coast of the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, by mid-1942 an elaborate and comprehensive system of interlocking convoy routes and sailings was established for the East Coast of North America and the Caribbean.

As Dönitz became aware of the extension of convoy along the Atlantic East Coast, he shifted U-boat operations back to the mid-Atlantic. His all-out assault on the North Atlantic convoy systems inflicted heavy losses: between July 1942 and March 1943, Axis (almost entirely German) submarines destroyed more than 4.5 millions tons of Allied shipping, over 633,000 tons in March alone. Nevertheless, new Allied countermeasures became available at this crucial moment, and U-boat successes fell to 287,137 tons in April, 237,182 tons in May, and only 76,090 tons in June. Dönitz’s reaction was to deploy his U-boats in areas where Allied antisubmarine forces were weak, anticipating that this would compensate for the lack of success in the North Atlantic. Initially this plan to some extent met his expectations, since sinkings rose to 237,777 tons in July, but the success of the Allied assault on U-boats in transit to their patrol stations rendered the German accomplishment transitory; merchant ship sinkings dropped to 92,443 tons in August, never to surpass 100,000 tons per month at any subsequent time during the war.

The collapse of the U-boat offensive in mid-1943 resulted from the Allies’ concurrent deployment of a series of new countermeasures and technologies that reached maturity almost simultaneously: centrimetric radar aboard both ships and aircraft, efficient shipborne high-frequency direction finding, ahead-throwing weapons that permitted ships to fire antisubmarine bombs forward and thus retain sonar contact, very-long-range shore-based antisubmarine aircraft, escort carriers and escort support groups, and advances in decryption of German communications codes. The U-boat arm attempted to defeat these countermeasures by deploying its own new weaponry, the most important elements of which were radar warning receivers, heavy antiaircraft batteries, and acoustic torpedoes designed to hunt antisubmarines vessels. Not only did these fail to stem the tide of Allied success against the U-boats, but new convoy communications codes also defeated German cryptographers, rendering locating targets much more difficult. Then, in 1944, Allied military successes in France began to force German U-boats to make more extended passages to their patrol areas as their home ports moved farther from the Atlantic; German air bases also ceased to give aircraft quick access to British coastal waters.

During the final year of this conflict, U-boats equipped with snorkels entered service. The production of new, fast elektroboote (the radical new Type XXI submarines with high underwater speed) allowed the first examples to become operational, but their numbers were far too few to make any difference. Also, there were insufficient experienced crews available to exploit their potential and they had design and manufacturing faults. Such was the success of Allied antisubmarine measures during this period that full-scale convoying became unnecessary in some areas, and much of the focus of their escorts turned to hunting U-boats rather than directly protecting merchant shipping. The full measure of the defeat of the U-boats is indicated by the fact that more than two-thirds of the 650 German submarines lost during World War II were sunk in the last two years of the war.

The Chinese War Junk I

Junk is a type of ancient Chinese sailing ship that is still in use today. Junks were used as seagoing vessels as early as the 2nd century AD and developed rapidly during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). They evolved in the later dynasties, and were used throughout Asia for extensive ocean voyages. They were found, and in lesser numbers are still found, throughout South-East Asia and India, but primarily in China. Found more broadly today is a growing number of modern recreational junk-rigged sailboats.

The term junk may be used to cover many kinds of boat—ocean-going, cargo-carrying, pleasure boats, live-aboards. They vary greatly in size and there are significant regional variations in the type of rig, however they all employ fully battened sails.

The construction of junks has been distinguished from the characteristics of traditional western vessels by several features: the unbattened sails on masts that employ little standing rigging, the presence of watertight bulkheads to minimize the consequences of a hole in the hull, the use of leeboards, and the early adoption of stern-mounted steering rudders. The historian Herbert Warington Smyth considered the junk as one of the most efficient ship designs, stating that “As an engine for carrying man and his commerce upon the high and stormy seas as well as on the vast inland waterways, it is doubtful if any class of vessel… is more suited or better adapted to its purpose than the Chinese or Indian junk, and it is certain that for flatness of sail and handiness, the Chinese rig is unsurpassed.”

The structure and flexibility of junk sails make the junk fast and easily controlled. The sails of a junk can be moved inward toward the long axis of the ship. In theory this closeness of what is called sheeting allowed the junk to sail into the wind. In practice, evidenced both by traditional sailing routes and seasons and textual evidence junks could not sail well into the wind. That is because a rig is dependent on its aerodynamic shape, the shape of the hull which it drives, and the balance between the centre of effort (the centre of drive) of the sail plan and the centre of resistance against the hull. In the typical junk these were both ill-adapted to windward work because, put simply, junks were neither intended to nor designed to work to windward.

The sails include several horizontal members, called “battens”, which in principle could provide shape and strength but in practice, because of the available materials and technology, did neither. Junk sails are controlled at their trailing edge by lines much in the same way as the mainsail on a typical sailboat, but in the junk sail each batten has a line attached to its trailing edge where on a typical sailboat a single line (the sheet) is attached only to the boom. The sails can also be easily reefed to accommodate various wind strengths, but there was traditionally no available adjustment for sail shape for the reasons given to do with traditional materials. The battens also make the sails more resistant than other sails to large tears, as a tear is typically limited to a single “panel” between battens. In South China the sails have a curved roach especially towards the head, similar to a typical balanced lug sail. The main drawback to the junk sail is its high weight caused by the 6 to 15 heavy full length battens. With high weight aloft and no deep keel, junks were known to capsize when lightly laden due to their high centre of gravity. The top batten is heavier and similar to a gaff. In principle junk sails have much in common with the most aerodynamically efficient sails used today in windsurfers or catamarans. In practice, because of the comparatively low tech materials, they had no better performance characteristic than any other contemporary sail plan, whether western, Arab, Polynesian or other.

The sail-plan is also spread out between multiple masts, allowing for a comparatively powerful sail area, with a low centre of effort, which reduces the heeling moment. However, a thoughtful analysis of these multiple masts indicates that only two or so were actually the main ‘driving’ sails. The others were used to try to balance the junk—that is, to get it to more or less steer itself along the chosen course. This was necessary because the Chinese stern hung rudder, in origin a modified centreline steering oar, whilst extremely efficient, was comparatively mechanically weak. The large forces that a sailing vessel can place upon its rudder were known to rip rudders from their relatively weakly constructed mountings (many trading junks carried a spare rudder), so using the sail plan to get the junk to steer itself, reducing the loads on the rudder, was an ingenious development.

Flags were hung from the masts to bring good luck and women to the sailors. A legend among the Chinese during the junk’s heyday regarded a dragon which lived in the clouds. It was said that when the dragon became angry, it created typhoons and storms. Bright flags, with Chinese writing on them, were said to please the dragon. Red was best, as it would induce the dragon to help the sailors.

Classic junks were built of softwoods (although after the 17th century of teak in Guangdong) with the outside shape built first. Then multiple internal compartment/bulkheads accessed by separate hatches and ladders, reminiscent of the interior structure of bamboo, were built in. Traditionally, the hull has a horseshoe-shaped stern supporting a high poop deck. The bottom is flat in a river junk with no keel (similar to a sampan), so that the boat relies on a daggerboard, leeboard or very large rudder to prevent the boat from slipping sideways in the water. Ocean-going junks have a curved hull in section with a large amount of tumblehome in the topsides. The planking is edge nailed on a diagonal. Iron nails or spikes have been recovered from a Canton dig dated to circa 221 BC. For caulking the Chinese used a mix of ground lime with Tung oil together with chopped hemp from old fishing nets which set hard in 18 hours, but usefully remained flexible. Junks have narrow waterlines which accounts for their potential speed in moderate conditions, although such voyage data as we have indicates that average speeds on voyage for junks were little different from average voyage speeds of almost all traditional sail, i.e. around 4–6 knots. The largest junks, the treasure ships commanded by Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, were built for world exploration in the 15th century, and according to some interpretations may have been over 120 metres (390 ft) in length, or larger. This conjecture was based on the size of a rudder post that was found and misinterpreted, using formulae applicable to modern engine powered ships. More careful analysis shows that the rudder post that was found is actually smaller than the rudder post shown for a 70’ long Pechili Trader in Worcester’s “Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze”.

Another characteristic of junks, interior compartments or bulkheads, strengthened the ship and slowed flooding in case of holing. Ships built in this manner were written of in Zhu Yu’s book Pingzhou Table Talks, published by 1119 during the Song Dynasty. Again, this type of construction for Chinese ship hulls was attested to by the Moroccan Muslim Berber traveler Ibn Batutta (1304–1377 AD), who described it in great detail (refer to Technology of the Song Dynasty). Although some historians have questioned whether the compartments were watertight, most believe that watertight compartments did exist in Chinese junks because although most of the time there were small passage ways (known as limber holes) between compartments, these could be blocked with stoppers and such stoppers have been identified in wrecks. All wrecks discovered so far have limber holes; these are different from the free flooding holes that are located only in the foremost and aftermost compartments, but are at the base of the transverse bulkheads allowing water in each compartment to drain to the lowest compartment, thus facilitating pumping. It is believed from evidence in wrecks that the limber holes could be stopped either to allow the carriage of liquid cargoes or to isolate a compartment that had sprung a leak.

Leeboards and centerboards, used to stabilize the junk and to improve its capability to sail upwind, are documented from a 759 AD book by Li Chuan. The innovation was adopted by Portuguese and Dutch ships around 1570. Junks often employ a daggerboard that is forward on the hull which allows the center section of the hull to be free of the daggerboard trunk allowing larger cargo compartments. Because the daggerboard is located so far forward, the junk must use a balanced rudder to counteract the imbalance of lateral resistance.

The rudder is reported to be the strongest part of the junk. In the Tiangong Kaiwu “Exploitation of the Works of Nature” (1637), Song Yingxing wrote, “The rudder-post is made of elm, or else of langmu or of zhumu.” The Ming author also applauds the strength of the langmu wood as “if one could use a single silk thread to hoist a thousand jun or sustain the weight of a mountain landslide.”

Ching Shih(also known as Cheng I Sao) had over 300 Junks under her command, manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates. With a fleet so large, she was a large threat to the Chinese, who had not been developing a better navy. After Ching Shih retired, the Chinese Navy had continued to make the same mistake, and would cause their downfall later in the First Opium War. This is also why Chinese mariners didn’t have a good compass until the 19th century.

The Vessels

From the 9th to the 12th century, large Chinese sea-going ships were apparently developed. The first Sung emperor often visited shipyards, which produced both river and sea-going vessels. In 1124 two very large ships were built for the embassy to Korea. There is a relief carving on the Bayon temple built by Jayavarman VII in Angkor Thom in Cambodia cited in Needham. Dating from circa 1185, it pictures a Chinese junk with two masts, Chinese matting sails, and stern-post rudder. A Nan Sung scholar, Mo Chi of the Imperial University, is reported as sailing far to the north in Chhi Tung Yeh Yu. In 1161, the main fleet of the Sung navy fought a larger Jin Empire fleet off the Shandong Peninsula and won. Thus, the Southern Sung of the 12th century gained complete control of the East China Sea. There were four decades of maritime strength for the Sung (until the first decade of the 13th century), when the Sung navy declined and the Mongols started building a navy to help conquer the Sung. In 1279, the Mongol Khubilai Khan had conquered the Sung capital and then his quickly created fleet chased a large Sung junk with the renegade Sung court and the last Sung prince, who leaped into the water and drowned.

The Yuan (Mongol) dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries maintained the large fleet, sent emissaries to Sumatra, Ceylon, and southern India to establish influence, and Yuan merchants gradually took over the spice trade from the Arabs. It was the Yuan ships of this era that Marco Polo saw and reported, consisting of four-masted ocean-going junks with sixty individual cabins for merchants, up to 300 crew and watertight bulkheads. The Yuan dynasty greatly favored sea power (somewhat at the expense of lake and river combatants, which had been developing human-powered paddlewheel ships up until this period). However, while the Yuan achieved greater foreign contacts and overseas trading success, Khubilai Khan failed spectacularly in his two massive maritime expeditions against Japan (1274 and 1281), and also in expeditions against the Liu Ch’iu (Ryukyu) Islands. Initial successes of a Yuan armada against Java were followed by a forced retirement. A major feature of the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty was a dramatic lessening of Confucian influence in the Imperial court, and a great opening to foreign influences.

When the Manchus retook the Imperial throne and thus founded the Ming dynasty in the second half of the 14th century, the early Ming emperors inherited much of the Yuan maritime technology and policy. There were huge ocean-going warships, large ocean capable cargo ships, a regular coastal grain delivery system transporting grain from the southern provinces to the northern ones, and considerable foreign contacts, primarily in south east Asia but extending to Ceylon and India. However, two other dynamics were at work. First, the Ming dynasty was continually working to restore her native culture after a century-long of foreign rule. The Grand Canal, initially completed during the Sui dynasty (6th century AD), with a vast remodelling and extension to the new northern capital at Peking during the Yuan (13th century), was initially in disrepair due to the extensive conflict between the Yuan and Ming. The early Ming saw the rebuilding and improvement of the Grand Canal and other canals, paved highways, bridges, defenses, temples, shrines and walled cities. Second, the Ming administration was being restructured, with a resurgence of Confucian scholars as senior officials and a great development in the use of eunuchs in high office as well. These two categories of high officials were in considerable conflict throughout the Ming period. The Confucians were generally ascendant, but during the rule of the third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, the eunuch administrators and warriors were greatly trusted and given great power. This was largely because Zhu Di was a rebel warrior prince who usurped the throne of his nephew, with an initial power base purely in the north. Many of the government ministers disapproved of his usurpation early in his reign, so Zhu Di preferred to entrust eunuchs with a large share of the business of government. Many of the eunuch administrators had been loyal retainers to Zhu Di in the frontier wars and the rebellion for decades, whereas the Confucian administrators and warrior princes had defended the old, recently defeated regime.

The Chinese War Junk II

In the case of the Ming Indian Ocean expeditions, the Emperor Zhu Di chose as his agent and leader of the expeditions the eunuch Admiral Zheng He. Born 1372 into a Muslim family named Ma in Yunnan, he was taken at age ten into the Ming service, and subsequently castrated at age thirteen and placed into the household of the twenty-five year old Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, the fourth son of the first Ming emperor. Over the next ten years, from Yunnan to the northern frontier, Ma He (who was to be given the name Zheng He when the prince became emperor) served in the field doing frontier defense with Prince Zhu Di. The large, commanding and battle experienced eunuch distinguished himself during Prince Zhu Di’s bid for the throne, in both the 1399 defense of Beiping and the final campaign of 1402 to capture Nanjing.

In 1403 the new emperor Zhu Di issued orders to begin construction of an imperial fleet of warships and support ships to visit ports in the China seas and the Indian Ocean. The Ming Tong Jian, an unofficial history of the period, says: Regarding the Jianwen emperor’s escape, there are some who say he is abroad. The emperor ordered Zheng He to seek out traces of him. The fleet was larger than required to reopen trade with the southern and western regions, but such magnificence might well convince any foreign ruler harboring the deposed Chinese emperor of Zhu Di’s strength. And foreign trade, such as that which had occurred fifty years previously under the Yuan dynasty, might well help a treasury depleted by a long civil war. An imperial history compiled in 1767, the Li-Tai Thung Chien Chi Lan (Essentials of the Comprehensive Mirror of History), states: In the third year of the Yung-Lo reign-period [Zhi Di’s dynastic title, 1405], the Imperial Palace Eunuch Zheng He was sent on a mission to the Western Oceans. The emperor [Zhu Di], under the suspicion that (his nephew) the (previous) emperor might have fled beyond the seas, commissioned Zheng He, Wang Ching-Hung and others, to pursue his traces. Bearing vast amounts of gold and other treasures, and with a force of more than 37,000 officers and men under their command, they built great ships and set sail from…the prefecture of Suchow, whence they proceeded by way of Fukien to Chan-Chheng (Indo-China), and thence on voyages throughout the western seas….Every country became obedient to the imperial commands, and when Zheng He turned homewards, sent envoys in his train to offer tribute…..Zheng He was commissioned on no less than seven diplomatic expeditions, and thrice made prisoners of foreign chiefs…..At the same time, the different peoples, attracted to the profit of Chinese merchandise, enlarge their mutual intercourse for purposes of trade, and there was uninterrupted going to and fro.

At the time of the Ming Indian Ocean voyages, Chinese ocean-going technology was somewhat superior to the European, with the exception of navigation. In ship size, the Chinese had by far the larger ships. The largest ships of the Zheng He expeditions were about 500 feet long. The dimension of the ships given in Chinese histories was always subject to the accusation of exaggeration. However, in 1962, an actual rudder post of one of Zheng He’s treasure ships was discovered at the site of one of the Ming shipyards near Nanking. This timber was 36.2 feet long, and when reverse engineered to typical proportions, this yields a ship length of 480 to 536 feet, depending upon different assumptions about the draught. In comparison, the ocean-going European ships of this period were considerably smaller, more typically 100 feet long (i.e. 1500 tons for Zheng He and perhaps 300 tons for the Portuguese explorers). The Chinese had been using multi-masted ships for several centuries, while the Portuguese had just in the past century developed this innovation with their new, secret design caravel. In compartmentation, the Chinese had a clear advantage, with large ships of up to thirteen watertight compartments for centuries prior the period of examination. Western ships were not provided with watertight compartments until the middle of the 19th century, after reports of Chinese compartmentation illuminated the advantages in surviving a hole in the ship’s hull. In sail technology, the Europeans had long sufficed with square sail rigs on their ocean vessels (while with some lateen rigs on smaller ships since the 3rd century), which were good running before the wind but unhandy in beating upwind. The Chinese had been using fore-and-aft lugsails (more efficient in beating upwind) since the 3rd century AD, and since the 9th century in ocean-going ships, and were thus long able to steer closer to the wind.

However, in the 15th century, the western and eastern sail technology was comparable. The mariner’s compass, so crucial to navigation out of sight of land, was developed from the Chinese magnetized needle of the 8th century, and it traveled via land route to the Mediterranean where about the 12th century the Europeans or the Arabs developed the true mariner’s compass (floating), but China soon received the improved model. So both East and West had the mariner’s compass in the 15th century. Stern post rudders, which are a significant advantage over steering oars in steering larger ships in tumultuous seas, were utilized in China as early as the 1st century A. D. These were not developed until about the 14th century in Europe, but stern post rudders were available to both East and West in the 15th century. Knowledge of wind and sea currents was considerably more advanced in the West by the Portuguese and Dutch than by the Chinese in the 15th century. The West also had superior knowledge of celestial navigation, that advantage being shared by the Arabs; the Chinese were reduced to utilizing Islamic astronomers and mathematicians at the Imperial Observatory, but had not extended celestial work to the practical work of navigating as of yet. The Arab and the Portuguese cross-staff or balestilha developed in the 14th century, and the astrolabe for even better measurement of the angle of celestial objects in the early 15th century. In military technology, both East and West had cannon, armor and horses.

In summary, before the 15th century, the Chinese were ahead in oceangoing ship technology, with larger compartmented ships and efficient fore-and-aft lugsails on multiple masts. In the 15th century, the Chinese and the Europeans were in rough overall parity. The Chinese were ahead in ship size and hull construction, and the Portuguese were ahead in the arts of navigation, and there was parity in sail technology (the Chinese with battened lugsails, the Portuguese with lateen sails). Neither had a distinct overall advantage. Both were technologically capable of great voyages of discovery, mercantile enterprise, and colonization. In tracing the developments, what is distinctive is that the rate of progress in nautical technology of the West was considerably faster than that of the East. By the 16th century, the West was clearly superior in ocean-going maritime technology (especially considering the regression that occurred in China due to policy influences).

Chinese Naval Warfare

It is perhaps not surprising that the Chinese didn’t develop naval gunnery to the degree practised by the Western navies. The majority of the actions fought took place in restricted waters, often on rivers in head to head encounters. Few cannon were mounted, the Chinese instead relying largely on close quarter actions and boarding. Thus the weapons developed by the Chinese tended to support this style of fighting. Typical weapons included fireships, rafts and burning torches, stink bombs, anti-boarding spikes, and primitive mines.

Stink bombs – these were small grenades, clay pots filled with gunpowder, sulphur, nails and other shrapnel and any other unpleasant substances which the maker had to hand. They were used in boarding actions, hurled by the boarding parties just before they stormed their intended victim, or thrown onto an approaching warship’s decks to disrupt the boarders before they made their attack. Being hand thrown their range was severely limited.

Mines – These were made from wooden barrels filled with gunpowder and rigged with a fuse. These would be laid by a ship and set to drift down upon an enemy. Chinese ‘minelayers’ were quite adept at estimating the anticipated speed of drift and could set the fuse accordingly. Nevertheless this was quite a haphazard weapon to use.

Fireships – Not quite on the grandiose scale of Western fireships, the Chinese equivalent was often made up of two small boats filled with combustible material, connected by a stout hawser or chain. A ship passing between the two boats would foul the chain and bring one or both of the boats alongside.

Spikes – These were arranged around a ships hull to discourage enemy ships from closing and boarding.

War on the Rivers

For age-of-sail players used to actions on the high seas, or even in normal coastal waters, the confined waters in which many Oriental actions were fought present some interesting problems. That is not to say that actions in open water did not occur (even on the rivers – the Yangtse is, after all, one of the world’s widest rivers), but since the Chinese vessels were really restricted to rivers and the littorals this is where most of the action will take place.

As alluded to already, operating a sailing vessel on a twisting river presents some unusual problems for sailing vessels constrained by the wind to certain courses. In many cases the ships boats would be lowered and the vessel towed. This would not present too much of a problem, but would of course expose the boat crews to extreme danger in action.

As well as wind constraints there would be depth constraints, possibly with narrow and sometimes shifting channels known only to local pilots (who may or may not be trustworthy…). Then there is the river flow itself – a typical regional river current of 1-2 knots would be appropriate, but could increase to as much as 5 or 6 in restricted areas or during floods (as an aside the depth of the Yangtse river could easily treble to as much as 60 feet during the rainy season!)

Most rules include some sort of rules to cater for shallows, but in these sort of scenarios they become somewhat more relevant. Referees and others should be aware of this challenging environment when writing scenarios, as they add considerably to the enjoyment and ‘feel’ of the game, and stop the scenario degenerating into an ‘open sea with lots of coast’ action as can often happen.

The Opium War

Whilst coastal and trade protection actions took place in the China Seas throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the major period of interest to naval wargamers in the region during the age of sail (or rather towards its end) was the Opium War of 1839-42. Despite the advances in naval technology in Europe and the USA since the fall of Napoleon the ships involved in the war were generally sail driven.

The main purpose of the RN presence on the coast of China was to maintain a blockade in defence of the right of British traders to import opium to mainland China. Opium had been exported from India to China since the latter years of the Napoleonic wars. This was before the trade in tea from India took off and was an attempt (partly by the authorities in India) to maintain a balance against the goods being exported from China at the time. A permanent trading enclosure, known as “The Factory” was established at Canton, 40 miles up the Canton river from the sea. Communications with the outside world were maintained by ships coming up to canton, or to Wampoa, 12 miles downstream. In 1820 the Chinese government declared the trade in opium illegal, although this was largely ineffective as many of the coastal warlords and mandarins were heavily involved in the trade or were accepting bribes from the importers. This state of affairs continued until 1837 when a government crackdown, initiated by the Emperor, and overseen by Lin Tse-hsii, led to the expulsion of several merchants from Canton and the seizure of stocks and properties belonging to the opium importers. Tension increased until February 1839 when Chinese police executed a local merchant involved in the trade and travel restrictions were placed on foreign nationals. To safeguard the British merchants in the region a squadron of the Royal Navy was despatched to Canton under Captain Charles Elliot, RN. Elliot advised the merchants that Canton was no longer safe. He was right, as Lin besieged the Factory, confiscating 20,000 cases of opium (worth £5 million, or the equivalent of £500 million today) when the inevitable occurred and the enclosure fell to Government forces. A withdrawal was made to Hong Kong Island, a move beginning the process which led to the British possession of the colony.

The situation deteriorated as the British attempted to continue the trade, opposed by the Chinese government. Diplomatic efforts were frustrated by the distances over which official communications and information had to travel, personalities on the ground, and after a number of minor incidents which rapidly escalated a state of near general war existed on the coast of China. There were several expeditions upriver to engage and destroy Chinese naval forces and smuggling operations. The blockade intensified in 1840 when all Chinese navigation was forbidden and orders were issued for all Chinese ships to be seized. In reaction the Chinese government offered bounties for Englishmen killed or captured. An enterprising Chinese could claim the equivalent of $100 for a captured sailor (or $20 for his head), up to $5000 for a Captain, and $10,000 for capturing or burning an English ship. Despite these incentives the success rate of the Chinese against the British was not great, superior firepower usually winning the day. However, there were close calls. Whilst patrolling the mouth of the Yangtse the Hellas became ensnared in a system of underwater stakes which the local warlord had placed in the river to trap unwary ships. She was attacked by eight Pechili junks which closed in an attempt to board, but the Hellas outgunned her opponents and extricated herself from this otherwise unfortunate position and was able to withdraw.