British Naval Superiority In The Indian Ocean

East Indiaman (Ship Type) Small, broad, roomy ships developed in the 1590s by the Dutch for trade with their colonies in the East Indies. Developed from the galleon and Dutch Fluyt, East Indiamen were rigged as frigates (square-rigged) and powerfully armed, to the point of equaling a man-of-war in fire power. They featured two galleries, a single forecastle deck, a quarterdeck, and a half-deck. Typical of the class was the Den Ary, which carried 54 guns and whose hull was clinker-laid up to the sides of both the half-deck and the quarterdeck.

Shortly after the Dutch, the British entered the East India trade, forming “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,” also known as the Honourable East India Company [EIC]. Chartered in 1600, its ships, as were those of the Dutch, were well-armed and heavily manned. Similar, too, were the ships’ full underbodies, flat floors, sharp turns of the bilges, and quick rises. British East Indiamen were more apt to carry studding sails than were their Dutch counterparts and were frequently commanded by former Royal Navy officers. Quarters were often luxurious, and many vessels were adorned with gilding and ornamental carving.

British naval superiority in the Indian Ocean, arguably dates to Great Britain’s defeat of France during the Seven Years War (1756–63), but it was not cemented until their decisive victory over Napoleon. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the defeat of the Netherlands by France in 1795, Great Britain seized upon this enforced alliance between its main European and Indian Ocean rivals to take Cape Town, Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), and Java and Melaka from the Dutch, and the Mascarene Islands of Bourbon (now La Réunion) and Ile de France (now Mauritius) from the French. Twenty years later, by 1815, the British controlled the Cape, Ceylon, Melaka, and Mauritius, while Bourbon was returned to France by the Treaty of Paris. Just a few years later, the unauthorized occupation of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819 and its formal possession by the British in 1823 almost immediately reduced the economic signifcance of both Melaka and Dutch Jakarta.

European maritime superiority did not go unchallenged in the early modern period. Along the coast of western India two rival indigenous navies clashed with each other and with the EIC to control coastal shipping. The most successful were the Sidis of Janjira Island, about forty miles south of Mumbai, who had ruled this fortifed island since 1618. Descendants of enslaved Africans known as habshis, a broad name denoting origins in northeast Africa, the Janjira Sidis traced their Indian roots to military service in the Deccan of southern India.

From the great fortress they constructed at Janjira, the Sidis became an important factor in coastal shipping north of Goa up to Bombay, whether serving the Mughals or their own interests. Sidi naval power was challenged by the powerful and ambitious Maratha ruler Shivaji Bhosale, whose army was seizing large chunks of western India from the Mughals. Shivaji commanded a series of small forts along the Konkan coast, as well as a fleet of perhaps several hundred ships. Although Shivaji is remembered as a militant Hindu ruler, in the typical Indian Ocean division of labor his ships were captained by Muslims. His several attempts to assert a naval presence on the coast proved to be disruptive to both the English and Portuguese, who were simultaneously contending with Maratha continental expansion. In the process of beating back the Maratha challenge, the Sidis momentarily shifted their alliance from the Mughals to the EIC, but they remained an independent if steadily less powerful coastal naval force deep into the nineteenth century.

The Yaarubi rulers of Oman drew most of their revenue from customs duties levied at their ports, but they also began to expand the date plantations along the Batinah coast of northeastern Oman. The demand for labor created by this agricultural plantation expansion, as well as the maintenance of a standing army by the Imam, were harbingers of increased slave trading to the Gulf from East Africa. Maritime raiding was apparently another source of revenue for Oman, such that Masqat gained a reputation as a pirate’s den. In 1705 an Omani attack on an EIC vessel caused one offcial to write that “Muskat . . . is become a Terror to all the trading people of India,” while a company pilot’s guide published in 1728 cautioned that “the danger of this port is as much from the Treachery of the Arabs as from the Storms and Rocks of the Coasts; for they are not only Pirates and Thieves, but Cheats in every thing wherein you can deal with them.”

By this time, however, internal dissension over election to the Imamate gave rise to civil strife in Oman. In 1749 a new dynasty, the Busaidi, came to power. Under the vigorous leadership of Ahmad b. Said, Oman’s place as a mercantile maritime power in the western Indian Ocean steadily grew. One immediate consequence of this political transition was that the Omani Mazrui governor of Mombasa rejected the new Busaidi claimant to authority. According to the anonymous nineteenth-century Swahili History of Mombasa, which only exists in Arabic renditions, “When the governor learnt that the Imam Ahmad bin Said had come to power, and that he was not of the family of the Imams, he declared himself ruler of Mombasa and refused to recognize the country as a possession of the Imam, and said: Formerly this Imam was my equal: he has now seized Oman, so I have seized Mombasa.” Mombasa’s independence would eventually be ended by Oman’s imperial expansion into East Africa in the long nineteenth century. From the middle of the eighteenth century, however, it was Great Britain that came to dominate the maritime space of the Indian Ocean as it built an empire based around India that eventually extended from South Africa, through the Gulf, across the Bay of Bengal and Malaya all the way to Hong Kong.


The Persian Fleet – Salamis

“Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnasuss, sinks a rival Calyndian ship within the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, off the coast of Greece, 480 BC”

Battle of Salamis

No one who reads Herodotus’ narrative can underestimate the importance of the naval factor in the two Persian invasions. The Persians were an inland power and possessed no fleet of their own. It says all the more for the organizing ability of the Great Kings – Xerxes in particular – that they were able to muster such vast armadas. It also suggests that their knowledge of Greek seamanship and fighting power was such that they by no means despised the enemy with whom they had to deal.

The largest contingent of the Persian fleet consisted of Phoenician vessels, manned by Phoenician crews. Rather surprisingly, the Persians relied also upon ships and crews from the Greek Ionian cities which they had subjugated. Inevitably, they must have felt some doubts about the loyalty of the Greek contingents of their own fleet. On several occasions during the campaigns, the Ionian effort seems to have been half-hearted, and at the battle of Mycale the Ionian Greeks at last deserted their Persian overlords to aid their compatriots.

Artemisia, the Greek princess who ruled Halicarnassus (subject to Persian goodwill), was present herself on shipboard at the battle of Salamis, fighting on the Persian side. However, she seems to have joined either fleet as circumstances dictated at any particular moment, for when pursued by an Athenian vessel she deliberately rammed and sank another galley of her own contingent. The Athenians, thinking that she had changed sides, abandoned the pursuit and Artemisia made good her escape without further impediment.

The truth is possibly that Xerxes found it less risky to take the Ionian fleet with him than to leave it in his rear. On every ship there was a force of soldiers, either Persians, Medes or others whose loyalty was to be trusted. Persian commanders often took the place of local captains and Xerxes probably kept the leaders of the subject communities under his personal surveillance. Their position closely resembled that of hostages to the Persians.

Apart from the Phoenician and Greek naval contingents, there was in Xerxes’ fleet an Egyptian squadron which was to distinguish itself in the course of the fighting. We hear also of ships from Cyprus and Cilicia. Cyprus contained both Greek and Phoenician cities and the people of Cilicia were largely of Greek extraction. Whether the Cilicians felt any bond of sympathy with the Greeks of the mainland is another question, but only the links of empire united them with the Persians. The proportion of the total naval strength to that of the land army is recorded: the land forces, when counted by Xerxes at Doriscus in Thrace, were, according to Herodotus, 1,700,000 strong: the strength of the fleet is given with some precision as 1,207 vessels, not including transports.

The Structure of Ancient Ships

At this point something must be said of the construction of ancient ships in general and of ancient warships in particular. Mercantile and transport vessels were comparatively broad-beamed and correspondingly capacious. They had to depend on sails rather than oars if room was to be left for the cargo. The Greeks sometimes referred to them as “round ships”. By contrast, it may be remembered that the Latin for a warship was navis longa – a long ship. Throughout the ancient period which we are considering, warships were comparatively long and streamlined. They were built for speed and relied upon oars rather than sails. The Persians, in their two invasions, naturally needed both transports and warships.

The characteristic warship which developed about the time of the Persian Wars, and which was used in the battles with which we are concerned, was the trireme. This word is formed from the Latin; the Greek is trieres. The meaning is literally three-oared or triply furnished, but the reference is apparently to three banks of oars, which were ranged one above the other. At an earlier date, biremes, vessels of two oar-banks, were built. More common was the penteconter, a 50-oared galley with oars in a single bank. There were also triaconters, of 30 oars. Homeric ships had as few as 20.

Ancient ships, whether warships or transports, normally made use of single, square-rigged sails, and efficient performance required a following wind. Transports sometimes mounted two or, more rarely, three masts with a single yard and sail on each. Warships lowered their mast and sail before going into action. Steering was by means of two large paddles, one on either quarter. Battle tactics depended to a great extent on ramming the enemy, but boarding operations by heavily armed troops were also carried out and in this way prizes could be taken. Missiles were also used, although this method of fighting recommended itself more to the Persians than to the Greeks.

Persian Naval Strategy

It is interesting that Xerxes reverted to his father’s original plan and decided to invade Greece from the north. He must have considered that his channel through the Athos peninsula eliminated the main hazard of this route. Clearly, he could deploy a much larger army in Greece if his land forces could make their own way along the coast. At the same time, the fleet keeping pace on the army’s flank contained transports which considerably eased his supply problem. The land forces carried a good deal of their own baggage and equipment with the help of camels and other beasts of burden. These did not include horses. It was not customary in the ancient world to use horses for such purposes and it is noteworthy that Xerxes transported his horses by sea on special ships. Horseshoes were unknown in the ancient centres of civilization, and it is possible that the Persian cavalry might have reached Greece with lame mounts if their horses had been obliged to make the whole journey by land.

Warships were, of course, necessary to protect both the transports and the land forces. Without naval defence, the Persian army would have been exposed to the danger of Greek amphibious attacks on its flank and its rear. Moreover, it was Xerxes’ hope that he would crush any Greek naval units immediately, wherever he met them.

He met them first at Artemisium, on the northern promontory of Euboea. Several actions were fought there, with varying outcome. The Greek position was well chosen. In the narrow channel between the Euboean coast and the mainland, the Greeks could not be enveloped by superior numbers. At the same time, they guarded the flank of Leonidas’ forces at Thermopylae. If the Persians sailed round Euboea to attack them in the rear, then the Persian land forces would be separated from their seaborne support. What took the Greeks by surprise was the enormous size of Xerxes’ force, which despite all reports far exceeded their most pessimistic estimates. It was possible for Xerxes to send one section of his fleet round the south of Euboea while he engaged the Greeks at Artemisium with the remainder. Such a manoeuvre entailed no loss of numerical superiority on either front. But summer storms gathered over Thessaly and aided the Greeks. The very size of Xerxes’ fleet meant that there were not sufficient safe harbours to accommodate all the ships; a considerable part of it had to lie well out to sea in rough weather. In this way many ships were wrecked. When a squadron was dispatched to round Euboea and sail up the Ruripus strait, which divides the long island from the mainland, this contingent also fell victim to storms and treacherous currents. The task assigned to it was never carried out.

Quite apart from the figures given by Herodotus, events themselves testify to the huge size of the Persian armada. Despite the heavy losses suffered at Artemisium, Xerxes’ fleet still enjoyed the advantage of dauntingly superior numbers when, late in the same season, the battle of Salamis was fought. Even after Salamis, the number of surviving ships and crews was such that the Greek fleet at Mycale hesitated long before attacking them.

Imperial Lessons

Alexandria, July 11, 1882. The British fleet under the command of Admiral Seymour bombarded the city. Featured warships “Sultan” and “Alexandra”.

The first successful attack by self-propelled torpedoes. The Turkish ship Intibah is destroyed by torpedo boats from Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin torpedo boat tender. A painting by Lev Lagorio.

During 1877–8 the Russians had been providing some torpedo action data during their struggle with the Turks around the Black Sea. The Turkish fleet dominated that sea simply by lying at anchor, as the Russians had no sea-going ironclads and no chance of getting any in while Turkish forts and ships’ guns dominated the narrows to Constantinople; so the Russians had no alternative to using torpedo boats for offensive operations, and they carried out a number of raids by night with specially constructed 15-knot boats some 50 or 60 feet long, carried by mother ships, usually fast merchantmen. However the earlier attacks were made with spar and towing torpedoes, and to get close enough without alerting the enemy with sparks from the funnels and considerable engine noise, they had to drop their speed to walking pace and creep in. Even so they did not escape detection, and were only successful on one occasion when they found the coastal monitor Siefé unprotected by the usual torpedo boat obstructions placed around the Turkish ships. Despite detection by the sentry, they pressed in under her turret guns as they misfired three times and touched a spar torpedo off close by the sternpost; the Siefé sank in a short time. As for the ‘Whitehead’, this was also tried and on one occasion on the night of 25–6 January 1878, the Russians claimed to have sunk a Turkish guard-ship anchored at the entrance to Batum harbour from 80 yards range; although the Turks denied any loss it is possible that this was the first Whitehead success in action. Despite the poor condition of the Turkish fleet and the great resolution of the Russian officers, these were the only effective torpedo attacks of the war. They were modest successes, and it was evident that torpedoes would be little use against an efficient fleet at anchor and guarded as recommended by the British 1875 Torpedo Committee, by nets, lights, Gatling guns and guard boats.

More important than any matériel lessons from the Russo-Turkish war were the strategic issues. Historically Britain’s policy in the eastern Mediterranean had been to support Turkey as a barrier against Russian expansion towards Britain’s Indian Empire and the overland links with that Empire through Mesopotamia or across the sands of Egypt. This policy had been stiffened since 1869 by the opening of the Suez Canal, which seemed to offer French and Russian ships, acting on interior lines from Toulon and the Black Sea, the chance to enter the Indian Ocean and play havoc with all British routes to the East, besides blocking Britain’s own short cut. This was the view of the military departments.

Parallel with this was the strong commercial view: the canal had cut several thousand miles off the routes around the Cape to India and the Far East, and had naturally gathered to itself an increasing volume of steam shipping; by 1875, when Disraeli made his celebrated purchase of Suez Canal shares, over two million tons of British ships were using the waterway every year, 75 per cent of the total traffic. Then, as a symptom of both commercial and military views—or simply as an expression of British expansionist vitality-there was the maritime chauvinist view which by its very nature exaggerated the position; thus The Times could write: ‘The Canal is in fact the sea’; everyone knew who was mistress of the sea! And the Bristol Times and Daily News could go so far as to say, ‘holding that [canal] we hold Turkey and Egypt in the hollow of our hands, and the Mediterranean is an English lake, and the Suez Canal is only another name for the Thames and Mersey.’ In fact the Canal was a part of the Turkish Empire.

When Russia declared war on that Empire in April 1877, Britain was immediately involved, both because there was strong support in the country for the Turks and against the traditional threat to their eastern Empire, and because the Canal, which by now carried three million tons of British shipping a year, might become the scene of warlike operations which would stop commercial traffic. Britain sent a note to Russia, asking her not to ‘blockade or otherwise interfere with the Canal or its approaches’, and moved her Mediterranean ironclad squadron to Port Said.

We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.

Russia, with her armies fully occupied in a movement around the Black Sea, shortly renounced her belligerent rights against the Canal as an ‘international work’, and agreed to exclude Egypt from her sphere of operations; the following day, as if by reflex, the British squadron weighed and steamed out of Port Said.

The next year, with victorious Russian armies approaching Constantinople Disraeli’s cabinet ordered an even more explicit demonstration: the British ironclad squadron was to steam up the Dardanelles and anchor off the city itself. This was called off temporarily at the request of the Turks who sought an armistice, but was carried out three weeks later while peace terms were being negotiated. It had no effect: Turkey was forced to give up her Balkan Empire to Russian influence, and allow Russia access to the Mediterranean, a defeat for British policy and prestige which threatened war, and a conference was called at Berlin to try and avert it. While preliminary discussions were being held, Disraeli couldn’t resist another naval show: he summoned 8,000 troops from India through the Suez Canal, covered by three ironclads at Port Said, to concentrate at Malta. This was the first time the Indian Army had been used for grand Imperial designs, and while the numbers were not impressive, the manner of their smooth and rapid transfer by water, and the potential of the vast continent they represented, were significant. The Times noted: ‘they revealed England’s capacity for the first time in her history to fight a great Continental war without an ally.’

The actual effect of Disraeli’s demonstration cannot be determined—all parties at Berlin wanted peace—but the upshot was a compromise: Russia gave back to Turkey a great slice of Bulgaria she had acquired at the peace conference, and Disraeli, in a separate convention, took Cyprus from Turkey; he returned to London satisfied that he had brought ‘peace with honour’. Historians have seen in this peace the beginning of an end to the British policy of maintaining the Turkish Empire against Russia at all costs, and—more important for the history of the battleship—the beginning of a new Russian interest in sea power. Four years later they brought out their first systematic naval plan, for 15 battleships, 10 cruisers, later raised to 20 battleships, 24 cruisers, and various smaller craft. The threat of these squadrons in alliance with France provided the main stimulus to British building for the rest of the century.

The same year, 1882, also saw the logical result of Britain’s strategic and commercial interest in the Suez Canal combined with her new-found ‘by jingo’ expansionism; she established military and political control over Egypt. That this happened under a Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, anti-imperial, anti-military, champion of self-determination for all peoples, violent opponent of all that Disraeli had so extravagantly stood for, is an indication of just how inevitable this move was.

It was provoked by a nationalist revolt, itself largely a response to the increasing Europeanization of Egypt since the Canal. When Britain and France sent warships to Alexandria and the Canal to protect their nationals and property and overthrow the nationalist leader, Colonel Arabi, the Egyptian army started throwing up fortifications and mounting guns opposite the ships as they lay at anchor. At which point the French government fell and the new administration, alarmed that the Egyptian crisis might be a sinister German plot to lure French troops from their own borders, recalled their squadrons. Britain was left on her own. Now, while Gladstone was opposed to unilateral action, and tried to seek a solution imposed by the European ‘concert of nations’, he was defeated by his service departments, who took a more practical view after anti-Christian riots and a massacre of 50 foreigners at Alexandria. It became imperative to restore European prestige, and Gladstone sanctioned a naval bombardment of the forts at Alexandria as the quickest and most economical way.

So it was that the first British armoured ships ever to fire their guns in earnest cleared for action on the morning of 11 July 1882, and steamed in to position opposite the forts. They were a diverse collection. Largest and most modern was the Inflexible, commanded by Captain ‘Jackie’ Fisher, a dynamic man already marked for the highest positions; next came the flagship of the Mediterranean station, the Alexandra, the ultimate in British belt-and-battery ships, then the similar Sultan and Superb, and one of the scaled-down versions, the Invincible, to which the commander-in-chief had transferred his flag because of her shallower draft; then there was the Temeraire with her unique arrangement of central battery and disappearing guns at either end above, and finally of the big ships, Reed’s double-turret, fully-rigged, Monarch. There were in addition one smaller ironclad and a number of gunboats. In all, the fleet mounted 43 heavy rifled muzzle-loaders on any one broadside, ranging from the Inflexible’s four 80-ton pieces down to 9-tonners.

Against them the forts mounted only 41 rifled muzzle-loaders, besides 211 obsolete smooth-bores which were little use against armoured ships. Nevertheless, if these batteries had been manned by skilled guns’ crews they would have had all the theoretical advantages: they had steady platforms not deranged by other guns firing alongside, their guns could be set accurately for distance, their shot could be ‘spotted’ on to target by the high splashes it made in the water, and they had the whole of a ship to aim at and damage while a ship had to make a direct hit on a gun or its embrasure to put it out of action.

The theoretical odds didn’t worry the British; it was a bright, clear morning, the sea barely rippled by an offshore breeze, and the guns’ crews, stripped to the waist as in the old days, were eager to give what they considered an Arab rabble a taste of British powder. As the Invincible made the signal for general action a rumble like thunder spread through the separate detachments opposite the forts, and great clouds of thick, white smoke burst from the black hulls of the ships, rising and hanging about the taut rigging, only dispersing slowly. Below, the loading numbers went through their heavy precision drill, now spiced with the urgency of real action.

Again and again, from the smaller calibres first, came ‘the full-toned bellow of an old-fashioned muzzle-loader’, then more dense smoke as the pieces slid back. In the tops officers peered through it to watch the shells rising and growing smaller towards the dun shore some 1,500 yards away, then reported where they landed to the officers of the quarters. Punctuating the continuous thud and chatter came the great concussion of the Inflexible’s turret guns followed by a rumbling sound as the great shells ‘wobbled in the air with a noise like that of a distant train’.

So it went through the glistening day in almost target practice conditions; at one stage when the splashes from the Egyptian shells moved too close it became necessary for some ships to shift themselves with springs from the anchor cables, and for others to weigh and steam to and fro, but the Egyptian reply was not enough to divert the guns’ crews. And gradually the sheer volume of ships’ fire, the exploding shells, the noise and the occasional direct hit which wiped out a gun and its crew, wore the defenders down. Having suffered some 550 killed and wounded, against only 53 British casualties, they evacuated the forts after dark and the sailors and marines walked in on the thirteenth.

They found only 15 of the rifles and nine of the smooth bores disabled by hits from the 1,750 heavy shells, 1,730 lighter shells and 16,000 Nordenfelt bullets fired, and only about 5 per cent of the fire had actually hit the target area, the parapets of the forts. The best shooting appeared to have been made by the two ships with hydraulic laying and training gear, the Inflexible and Temeraire; however, most of the guns of the fleet had mechanical elevating gear and this had proved too slow and clumsy for the smooth water conditions at Alexandria. Had there been any swell the gunlayers could have set the elevation and waited until the ship rolled the sights on target; lacking such customary help one ship at least had bodies of men moving from one side of the deck to the other to produce an artificial roll. The report from the captain of the Monarch illustrates some of the difficulties:

After the captain of the turret had ascertained and communicated the heel to the numbers laying the gun, the time necessarily taken to work the elevating gear, lay the guns by means of the crude wooden scales and make ready is so great that probably another gun or turret will have fired in the interim, and consequently the heel of the ship will be so affected that a relay of the gun is necessary unless a bad or chance shot is purposely delivered.

In addition, there were no more aids to fire control than there had been at the beginning of the century, when effective range had been 300 yards or less; there were no rangefinders, no telegraphs to pass orders or range corrections from the officers stationed aloft to watch the fall of shot, and messages passed by voicepipe were frequently inaudible in the din of battle. The giant products of the ordnance revolution had outgrown the methods of controlling them; had the bombardment of Alexandria failed it is just possible that this lesson might have been heeded, but as the firing had been infinitely better than the Egyptians’, and the victory had been clear-cut and most economical, the reports were filed and there is no evidence that any improvements followed.

The evacuation of the forts took the fighting and destruction into Alexandria itself, hardened the Egyptians behind Arabi and boosted the military and colonial departments in England, whose Cabinet representatives virtually took over from Gladstone and forced him to alter the emphasis of the campaign from a limited punitive demonstration by the Navy to a full-scale invasion by the Army. When the French again refused to co-operate unless the security of the Canal were threatened the British cabinet called in Indian troops; meantime a British admiral who had won a VC in the Crimean War for refusing orders to retreat, ignored instructions to wait for the troops, seized and held Suez with his own squadron, and unilaterally closed the canal. Next month the British army annihilated Arabi’s forces at Tel-el-Kebir, and Britain became sole master of Egypt. The Canal had become at last (almost) as British as the Thames and the Mersey.

These events in the eastern Mediterranean from 1877–82 illustrate the importance Britain attached to command in that sea and over Egypt, a vital link of Empire. This feeling, practical or paranoic depending upon viewpoint, was a major factor behind ironclad, or as they came to be known battleship, building programmes to the end of the century. The scale of these programmes was determined by Russian and French building which, at least in the former case, stemmed directly from the arrogant displays of British naval supremacy. It was well enough for British first lords and naval historians after this to complain that Russia was a ‘land power’ with scarcely any sea trade and therefore no need for a navy, but it was a remarkably one-sided view which expected any great power to take humiliations lying down. On the other hand British interests in the area seemed to practical men in England to demand protection: besides the four million tons of merchant shipping passing through Suez annually by 1882—over 80 per cent of total traffic—and the British investment in the area, there was the awful possibility of such a vital hinge of maritime strategy falling to France or Russia. In this sense the acquisition of real power in Egypt was a natural development of the policy or instinct which had given Britain chains of island and mainland bases from which to protect her shipping throughout the world. The flag had to follow trade.

Whether the Egyptian move was an essential consequence of maritime strategy, or a high-handed demonstration of naval power, or both of these and a bit of the bond-holder’s dilemma, whether it was part reaction to France’s pretensions to a North African empire or was itself powerful stimulus to European powers to carve up bits of the undeveloped world for themselves—as they did with increased frenzy during the following decades—for the purposes of this story it was provocation for a naval race. It not only upset the balance at the meeting point of East and West and extended Britain’s naval commitments, it provided France and Russia with sufficient envy and resentment to begin building programmes which might—at least in alliance—prevent future unilateral action by the ‘mistress of the seas’.

Early Athenian Ships I

Athenians had been seafarers since earliest times, but their ventures were always overshadowed by maritime powers from Asia Minor, the Near East, and the rest of Greece. Legend claimed that even in the days of the first king of Athens, Cecrops, the people of Attica had to contend with raiders who terrorized their coasts. Several generations later King Menestheus led a fleet of fifty ships to Troy as Athens’ contribution to the Greek armada, twelve hundred strong. The city’s record in the Trojan War was undistinguished, outshone even by the contingent from the little offshore island of Salamis under the leadership of Ajax. After the end of the Bronze Age the royal citadels throughout Greece gave way to Iron Age communities, and they in turn grew into prosperous city-states. New currents in overseas commerce and colonization left Athens behind. Cities like Corinth, Megara, Chalcis, and Eretria took the lead.

Meanwhile the noble clans of Athens were pursuing their own initiatives and policies with private warships, armies, trading contacts, royal guest-friends, and religious rites. Some of the most powerful Athenian families even seized and held strategic sites around the northern Aegean and Hellespont as private fiefdoms. The one thing they seem never to have done was to unite their ships and efforts into a state navy. Even the conquest of Salamis, the Athenian state’s first nautical mission since the Trojan War, was said to have been carried out by a single thirty-oared galley and a fleet of fishing boats. But the spirit of free enterprise that ran strong in the ship lords of Attica was to remain a vital force within Themistocles’ new trireme fleet.

Actual naval battles were rare events in early Greek history. Homer knew nothing of fleet actions on his wine-dark sea, though in his Iliad and Odyssey he often cataloged or described ships of war. Their operations were limited to seaborne assaults on coastal towns (of which the Trojan War itself was just a glorified example) or piratical attacks at sea. As the centuries passed, two sizes of sleek, fast, open galley eventually became standard among the Greeks: the triakontor of thirty oars and the pentekontor of fifty. The traders, soldiers, or pirates who manned these galleys (often the same men), thirsting for gain and glory overseas, usually pulled the oars themselves

It was the Phoenicians of the Lebanon coast who literally raised galleys to a new level. These seagoing Canaanites invented the trireme, though exactly when no Greek could say. Enlarging their ships, the Phoenician shipwrights provided enough height and space to fit three tiers of rowers within the hull. Their motives had nothing to do with naval battles, for such engagements were still unknown. The Phoenicians needed bigger ships for exploration, commerce, and colonization. In the course of their epic voyages, Phoenician seafarers founded great cities from Carthage to Cádiz, made a three-year circumnavigation of Africa (the first in history) in triremes, and spread throughout the Mediterranean the most precious of their possessions: the alphabet.

The first Greeks to build triremes were the Corinthians. From their city near the Isthmus of Corinth these maritime pioneers dominated the western seaways and could haul their galleys across the narrow neck of the Isthmus for voyages eastward as well. The new Greek trireme differed from the Phoenician original in providing a rowing frame for the top tier of oarsmen, rather than having all the rowers enclosed within the ship’s hull. Some triremes maintained the open form of their small and nimble ancestors, the triakontors and pentekontors. Others had wooden decks above the rowers to carry colonists or mercenary troops. Greek soldiers of fortune, the “bronze men” called hoplites, were in demand with native rulers from the Nile delta to the Pillars of Heracles.

Like the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, Corinth was both a great center of commerce and a starting point for large-scale colonizing missions. Triremes could greatly improve the prospects of colonizing ventures, being able to carry more of the goods that new cities needed: livestock and fruit trees; equipment for farms and mills and fortifications; household items and personal belongings. For defense against attack during their voyages through hostile waters, or against opposition as the colonists tried to land, the large crew and towering hull made the trireme almost a floating fortress.

The earliest known naval battle among Greek fleets was a contest between the Corinthians and their own aggressively independent colonists, the Corcyraeans. Though the battle took place long after the Corinthians began building triremes, it was a clumsy collision between two fleets of pentekontors. The outcome was entirely decided by combat between the fighting men on board the ships. Naval maneuvers were nonexistent. This primitive procedure would typify all Greek sea battles for the next century and a half.

Then, at about the time of Themistocles’ birth, two landmark battles at opposite ends of the Greek world brought about a seismic shift in naval warfare. First, in a battle near the Corsican town of Alalia, sixty Greek galleys defeated a fleet of Etruscans and Carthaginians twice their own size. How was this miracle achieved? The Greeks relied on their ships’ rams and the skill of their steersmen rather than on man-to-man combat. Shortly afterward, at Samos in the eastern Aegean, a force of rebels in forty trireme transports turned against the local tyrant and crushed his war fleet of one hundred pentekontors. In both battles victory went to a heavily outnumbered fleet whose commanders made use of innovations in tactics or equipment. Ramming maneuvers and triremes thus made their debut in the line of battle almost simultaneously. Together they were to dominate Greek naval warfare for the next two hundred years.

Now everyone wanted triremes, not just as transports but as battleships. Rulers of Greek cities in Sicily and Italy equipped themselves with triremes. In Persia the Great King commanded his maritime subjects from Egypt to the Black Sea to build and maintain trireme fleets for the royal levies. The core of Persian naval power was the Phoenician fleet, but the conquered Greeks of Asia Minor and the islands were also bound by the king’s decree. All these forces could be mustered on demand to form the huge navy of the Persian Empire. Themistocles believed that Athens’ new trireme fleet might soon face not only the islanders of Aegina but the armada of the Great King as well.

While many cities and empires jostled for the prize of sea rule, ultimate success in naval warfare called for sacrifices that few were willing or able to make. Only the most determined of maritime nations would commit the formidable amounts of wealth and hard work that the cause required, not just for occasional emergencies but over the long haul. With triremes the scale and financial risks of naval warfare escalated dramatically. These great ships consumed far more materials and manpower than smaller galleys. Now money became, more than ever before, the true sinews of war.

Even more daunting than the monetary costs were the unprecedented demands on human effort. The Phocaean Greeks who won the historic battle at Alalia in Corsica understood the need for hard training at sea, day after exhausting day. In the new naval warfare, victory belonged to those with the best-drilled and best-disciplined crews, not those with the most courageous fighting men. Skillful steering, timing, and oarsmanship, attainable only through long and arduous practice, were the new keys to success. Ramming maneuvers changed the world by making the lower-class steersmen, subordinate officers, and rowers more important than the propertied hoplite soldiers. After all, a marine’s spear thrust might at best eliminate one enemy combatant. A trireme’s ramming stroke could destroy a ship and its entire company at one blow.

Themistocles had specified that Athens’ new ships should be fast triremes: light, open, and undecked for maximum speed and maneuverability. Only gangways would connect the steersman’s small afterdeck to the foredeck at the prow where the lookout, marines, and archers were stationed. The new Athenian triremes were designed for ramming attacks, not for carrying large contingents of troops. By committing themselves completely to this design, Themistocles and his fellow Athenians were taking a calculated risk. For many actions, fully decked triremes were more serviceable. Time would tell whether the city had made the right choice.

The construction of a single trireme was a major undertaking: building one hundred at once was a labor fit for Heracles. Once the rich citizens who would oversee the task received their talents of silver, each had to find an experienced shipwright. No plans, drawings, models, or manuals guided the builder of a ship. A trireme, whether fast or fully decked, existed at first only as an ideal image in the mind of a master shipwright. To build his trireme, the shipwright required a wide array of raw materials. Most could be supplied locally from the woods, fields, mines, and quarries of Attica itself. Many local trades and crafts would also take part in building the new fleet.

First, timber. The hills of Attica rang with the bite of iron on wood as the tall trees toppled and crashed to the ground: oak for strength; pine and fir for resilience; ash, mulberry, and elm for tight grain and hardness. After woodsmen lopped the branches from the fallen monarchs, teamsters with oxen and mules dragged the logs down to the shore. The shipwright prepared the building site by planting a line of wooden stocks in the sand and carefully leveling their tops. On the stocks he laid the keel. This was the ship’s backbone, an immense squared beam of oak heartwood measuring seventy feet or more in length. Ideally this oak keel was free not only of cracks but even of knots. On its strength depended the life of the trireme in the shocks of storm and battle. Oak was chosen for its ability to withstand the routine stresses of hauling the ship onto shore and then launching it again. Once the keel was on the stocks, two stout timbers were joined to its ends to define the ship’s profile. The curving sternpost rose as gracefully as the neck of a swan or the upturned tail of a dolphin. Forward, the upright stempost was set up a little distance from keel’s end. The short section of the keel that extended forward of the stempost would form the core of the ship’s beak and ultimately support the bronze ram.

Between the stern- and stemposts ran the long lines of planking. In triremes the outer shell was built up by joining plank to plank, rather than by attaching planks to a skeleton of frames and ribs as in later “frame-first” traditions. For the ancient “shell-first” construction the builders set up scaffolds on either side of the keel to support the planking as the ship took shape. They cut the planks with iron saws or adzes. Because the smooth lengths of pine were still green from the tree, it was easy to bend them to shape. Along the narrow edges of each plank the builders bored rows of holes: tiny ones for the linen cords, larger ones for the gomphoi or pegs. The latter were wooden dowels about the size of a man’s finger that acted as tenons. Starting on either side of the keel, the shipwright’s assistants secured the rows of planks by matching the row of larger holes to the tops of the pegs projecting from the plank below, then tapping the new plank into place with mallets. The pegs, now invisible, would act as miniature ribs to support and stiffen the hull. No iron nails or rivets were used in a trireme.

Once the planks were in place, the shipwright’s assistants spent days squatting on the inside of the rising hull, laboriously threading linen cords through the small holes along the planks’ edges and pulling them tight. Greek farmers sowed linon or flax in autumn, tended and weeded the fields over the winter, and harvested the crop in spring when the blue flowers had faded. The stems were cut, soaked, and allowed to rot. After beating and shredding, lustrous white fibers emerged from the decayed husk and pith. Twisting these fibers into thread produced a substance with near-miraculous properties. Linen cloth and padding were impenetrable enough to serve in protective vests or body armor for hoplites on land and for marines on board ship, while a net of linen cords could hold a tuna or a wild boar. Yet linen could be spun so fine that one pound might yield several miles of thread. Unlike wool it would not stretch or give with the working of the ship at sea. Linen also possessed the very proper nautical quality of being stronger wet than dry.

Early Athenian Ships II

Planks Pegged And Sewn

The system of construction made a strong hull that could withstand severe shocks. Only after the hull was pegged and stitched with linen—or, as an Athenian would have said, gomphatos and linorraphos—did the builder insert the curving wooden ribs. And should a rock or an enemy ram punch a hole through the planking, a wooden patch could be quickly stitched into place to close the breach.

On top of the long slender hull the shipwright now erected the structure that set Greek triremes apart from their Phoenician counterparts: the wooden rowing frame or parexeiresia (that is, a thing that is “beyond and outside the rowing”). Sometimes referred to as an outrigger, the rowing frame was wider than the ship’s hull and in fact performed multiple functions.

First, the rowing frame carried the tholepins for the upper tier or thranite of oars, and its wide span allowed for a long rowing stroke. Second, side screens would be fastened to the rowing frame when the ship went into battle to protect the thranite rowers from enemy darts and arrows. And third, the top of the frame could support a covering of canvas or wood. On fast triremes such as Themistocles had ordered, white linen canvas was spread above the crew to screen them from the hot sun while rowing. On a heavy trireme or troop carrier, wooden planking would be laid down on top of the rowing frame to make a deck on which soldiers or equipment could be transported. Finally, the stout transverse beams that crossed the ship at the end of the rowing frame served as towing bars to tow wrecked ships or prizes back to shore after a battle.

As the great size of the rowing frame suggests, oars were the prime movers of the trireme. At two hundred per ship (a total that included thirty spares), Themistocles’ new fleet required twenty thousand lengths of fine quality fir wood for its oars. The long shaft had a broad, smoothly planed blade at one end, and at the other the handle ended in a round knob to accommodate the rower’s grip. One man pulled each oar, securing the shaft to the upright tholepin with a loop of rope or leather. The 62 thranite oarsmen on the top tier enjoyed the most prestige. Inboard and below them were placed the wooden thwarts or seats for the 54 zygian oarsmen and the 54 thalamians. The latter took their name from the ship’s thalamos or hold since they were entombed deep within the hull, only a little above the waterline. All the rowers faced aft toward the steersman as they pulled their oars.

Once all these wooden fittings of the hull were complete, it was time to coat the ship with pitch, an extract from the trunks and roots of conifers. Once a year pitch-makers tapped or stripped the resinous wood of mature trees. In emergencies they cut down the firs and applied fire to the logs, rendering out large pools of pitch in just a couple of days. Carters conveyed thousands of jars of pitch to the shipbuilding sites in their wagons. The poetical references to “dark ships” or “black ships” referred to the coating of pitch.

More than hostile rams or hidden reefs, the shipwrights feared the teredon or borer. Infestations of this remorseless mollusk could be kept at bay only by vigilant maintenance, including drying the hull on shore and applications of pitch. In summer the seas around Greece seethed with the spawn of the teredo, sometimes called the “shipworm.” Each tiny larva swam about in search of timber: driftwood, dock pilings, or a passing ship. Once fastened to a wooden surface, it quickly bored a hole by wielding the razorlike edge of its vestigial shell as a rasp. From that hiding place the teredo would never emerge. Once inside the hole it kept its mouth fixed to the opening so as to suck in the life-giving seawater. The sharp shell at the other end of the teredo’s body continued to burrow deeper. As the burrow extended into the timber, the animal grew to fill its ever-lengthening home.

Within a month the sluglike teredo could reach a foot in length. Now it was ready to eject swarms of its own larvae into the sea, starting a new cycle. Once planking and ribs were riddled with their holes, a ship might suddenly break up and sink in midvoyage. Even when a wreck reached the bottom of the sea, the teredo would continue its attacks. In a short time no exposed wood whatever would be left to mark the ship’s resting place. Through conscientious maintenance—new applications of pitch, drying out and inspection of the hulls, and prompt replacement of unsound planks—an Athenian trireme could remain in active service for twenty-five years.

The trireme’s design approached the physical limits of lightness and slenderness combined with maximum length. So extreme was the design that not even the thousands of wooden pegs and linen stitches could prevent the hull from sagging or twisting under the stresses of rough seas or even routine rowing. On Athenian triremes huge hypozomata or girding cables provided the tensile strength that the wooden structure lacked. A girding cable weighed about 250 pounds and measured about 300 feet in length. Each ship carried two pairs. Looped to the hull at prow and stern, the cables stretched around the full length of the hull below the rowing frame. The ends passed inside where the mariners kept them taut by twisting spindles or winches. Just as pegs and linen cords formed the joints of the hull, the girding cables acted as the ship’s tendons.

The trireme required many other ropes as well. Made of papyrus, esparto grass, hemp, or linen, ropes supplied the rigging for the mast and sail, the two anchor lines, the mooring lines, and the towing cables. The ship’s tall mast and the wide-reaching yards or yardarms that held the sail were made from lengths of unblemished pine or fir. For the sail, the women of Athens wove long bolts of linen cloth on their upright looms. Sailmakers then stitched many such bolts together into a big rectangle. Despite their great weight—and their great cost—the mast and sail were secondary to the oars and, when battled threatened, were removed from the ship altogether and left on shore. Some triremes also carried a smaller “boat sail” and mast for emergencies.

The ship’s beak had already been fashioned in wood as part of the hull. To complete the trireme’s prime lethal weapon, the ram, metalworkers had to sheathe the beak with bronze. The one hundred rams needed for Themistocles’ triremes required tons of metal—a gigantic windfall for the bronze industry. Bronze, an alloy of nine parts copper to one part tin, does not rust and is more suitable than iron for use at sea. Some of the bronze poured into the rams of the Athenian triremes was recycled, melted down from swords that had been wielded in forgotten battles, from keys to vanished storerooms, images of lost gods, and ornaments of beautiful women long dead. Master craftsmen made the rams with the same lost-wax method that they used to cast hollow bronze statues of gods and heroes for the temples and sanctuaries.

The form of the ram was first modeled in sheets of beeswax directly onto the wooden beak, so that each would be custom made for its ship. As the artists worked the wax onto the beak, it warmed up and softened, becoming easier to handle. At the ram’s forward end the wax was built up into a thick projecting flange, triple-pronged like Poseidon’s trident. When every detail of the ram had been modeled, the wax sheath was gently detached from the wood and carried over to a pit dug in the sand of the beach.

The next step called for clay, the same iron-rich clay that went into Athens’ red and black pottery. With the wax model turned nose downward in the pit, clay was packed around its exterior and into its conical hollow to create a mold. Thin iron rods forged by the blacksmiths were pushed through the wax and the two masses of clay. When the wax was entirely encased in the clay except for its upper edge, the massive mold was inverted and suspended over a fire until all the wax was melted out. A hollow negative space in the exact shape of the ram had now been formed inside the packed clay. It remained only to fill the mold with molten bronze. But this was a complex and difficult undertaking.

Wood fires could not produce the necessary heat; the process required charcoal. A trireme’s ram had to be cast in a single rapid operation. First the bronze workers erected a circle of small upright clay furnaces around the rim of the pit. A channel led from the foot of each furnace to the edge of the mold. Broken bronze, whether from ingots or scrap, was divided among the furnaces. With the lighting of the charcoal, the metal in each furnace quickly became a glowing, molten mass. At a signal, the bronze workers and their apprentices removed the clay stoppers from all the furnaces. Simultaneously the bright hot streams poured down the channels and filled the hollow in the clay mold left by the melting of the wax. The casting happened with a rush, and the bronze cooled and hardened quickly. When the clay mold was broken (never to be used again), the bronze ram itself, smooth, dark, and deadly, saw the light for the first time. After cutting away the iron rods, finishing off the back edge, and polishing the surface, the bronze workers slid the new ram into place over the trireme’s wooden beak, fastening it securely with bronze nails.

Quarrymen and stone workers provided fine white marble from Mount Pentelicus near the city, and from thin slabs of this marble the sculptors carved a pair of ophthalmoi or “eyes” for each trireme. A colored circle painted in red ochre represented the iris. The eyes were fixed on either side of the prow. Athenians believed that these eyes allowed the ship to find a safe passage through the sea, completing the magical creation of a living thing from inanimate materials. In Greek terminology, the projecting ends of the transverse beam above the eyes were the ship’s ears, and the yardarms were its horns; the sail and banks of oars were its wings, and the grappling hooks were its iron hands.

Blacksmiths fashioned a pair of iron anchors for each trireme, to be slung on either side of the bow. They would prevent the ship from swinging while its stern was grounded on the beach. Tanners and leatherworkers provided the tubular sleeves that waterproofed the lower oar ports. From the same workshops came the side screens of hide for the rowing frames. Pads of sheepskin would enable the trireme’s oarsmen to work their legs as they rowed, thus adding to the power of each stroke.

Finally goldsmiths gilded the figurehead of Athena that would identify each ship as a trireme of Athens. The goddess wore a helmet as well as the famous breastplate or aegis adorned with the head of Medusa, the gorgon that could turn a mortal to stone with a single glance. As patron deity of arts and crafts, a goddess of wisdom and also of war, Athena had been presiding over the entire project from beginning to end.

From the mines of Laurium the silver had flowed through the city’s mint, where it was transformed into the coins that bore the emblems of Athena. Then as Themistocles had planned, the river of silver broke into a hundred separate streams, passing through the hands of the wealthy citizens who organized the great shipbuilding campaign. During the months of shipbuilding the silver was disbursed to all those workers, from loggers to shipwrights to bronzesmiths, whose efforts made Themistocles’ vision a reality. In the end, the money returned to many of the same citizens who had voted to give up their ten drachmas for the common good. By the time one hundred new triremes gleamed in the sunlight at Phaleron Bay, the Athenians were already a changed people. In the great contest that lay ahead, as they hazarded their new ships and their very existence in the cause of freedom, their sense of common purpose would grow stronger with every trial and danger.

Machines to Make Machines


The Foochow Arsenal, also known as the Fuzhou or Mawei Arsenal, was one of several shipyards in Qing China as part of the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Ding Gongzhen had complained in 1843 that he couldn’t make a full-sized steamship because he lacked “machines for making machines”. In the summer of 1863, Zeng Guofan addressed this deficit. He summoned to an audience China’s first graduate of an American university, Yung Wing (1828–1912). At first, Yung reacted with fear. At that point, the Taiping wars were still raging, and he’d recently offered to help the Taiping modernize their military and banking systems. What if Zeng knew and wanted to behead him for treason? Yung’s friends said Zeng just wanted help, so Yung went to the great official’s headquarters. In their first meeting, Zeng sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at Yung with a slight smile, and then asked a series of personal questions. When Zeng sipped his tea, Yung knew the audience was over. At a second meeting, Zeng asked Yung what China most needed at present. Yung, having been coached by his friends, replied that China needed “a mother machine shop, capable of reproducing other machine shops.”

Zeng liked this answer and liked Yung Wing. He gave him 68,000 taels of silver (about 2,500 kilograms) and full autonomy to buy a modern factory and transport it back to China, a task he could carry out wherever and however he saw fit. Yung went to America, arranged to purchase a machine shop, attended his tenth class reunion at Yale, volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War (his service was declined), and, finally, in 1865, returned to China on a Nantucket bark of dubious seaworthiness (the captain’s six-year-old son swore like a sailor). He was rewarded with an official rank in the Qing bureaucracy, and the factory he purchased became the heart of the famous Jiangnan Arsenal.

The Jiangnan Arsenal is often considered a failure, but in fact the strides made there were impressive. It produced steamers from scratch—every part, from the engines to the hulls to the screw propeller mechanisms. It produced guns of advanced designs, copying or reverse engineering Western models. Testing and experimentation were an important part of the production process, and high officials were closely involved.

It wasn’t the only modern factory in China. There were many such experiments. The most significant was started by Zeng’s contemporary, the great general Zuo Zongtang (famous in the United States for the chicken dish named after him). Working with the Frenchman Prosper Giquel (commander of the Sino-French Ever-Triumphant Army), General Zuo established an institution that historians usually call the Fuzhou Shipyard, although the term is too modest. It was a huge complex, occupying 118 acres of land, with forty-five buildings, including factories, workshops, a foundry, offices, and dormitories. It even had its own tramway system. Dozens of Europeans worked there as technicians, teachers, and foremen, as did scores of Chinese administrators and thousands of Chinese workers.

The Fuzhou complex also had schools. Most of China’s new arsenals did, too, but the Fuzhou Shipyard’s were particularly ambitious, and they focused on precisely the skills that had prevented Ding Gongchen and other would-be modernizers of the 1840s from achieving success: technical drawing, mathematics, and engineering. The French advisor Prosper Giquel explained, in a report on the first five years of the Fuzhou Shipyard, the rationale for such schooling:

In order to calculate the dimensions of a piece of machinery or of a hull, it is necessary to know arithmetic and geometry; in order to reproduce that object on a plan it is necessary to understand the science of perspective, which is descriptive geometry; in order to explain the pressure exerted on engines and ships as well as on still bodies, by gravity, heat, and other phenomena of nature, it is necessary to understand the laws of physics. Next in order come the increments a body undergoes under the impulse of the forces to which it is subjected; the resistances which it will need to overcome, the strain which it is able or ought to bear, which is the science of statics and of mechanics; and for these the calculations of ordinary arithmetic and geometry no longer suffice; it is necessary also to possess the knowledge of trigonometry, of analytical geometry, of the infinitesimal calculus, so as not to be any longer bound down to reason as to objects of determinate form and size, but be able to arrive at general formulae applicable to all the details of construction.

High Chinese officials were becoming cognizant of the close link between science and military production. As Governor-General Ding Richang (1823–1882) wrote, “The Westerners … have been expending their intelligence, energy, and wealth on things that were completely vague and intangible for hundreds of years; the effects are now suddenly apparent.’” Shen Baozhen (1820–1879), the director of the Fuzhou Shipyard, wrote in 1870, “The ships and guns of the West are making such extraordinary improvement that they almost defy imagination; this is the result of a capacity for computation that reaches smaller and smaller decimals; if the calculation is finer by the slightest degree, the performance of the machinery will be ten times more adroit.” He later recommended that Chinese students be sent to Europe so that they could continue mastering Western learning, and “peep into [its] subtle secrets.”

Fuzhou Shipyard students got a good opportunity to peep in 1877, when the first cohort was sent to France. Others followed, and the education programs were enormously important. As Hsien-chun Wang has recently written, “We cannot overemphasize the significance of the [Fuzhou Shipyard’s] School of Naval Construction. It was China’s first engineering school that systematically imported from the West a technology from its scientific principles to the engineering application.… Compared to other new educational institutions in China that introduced Western knowledge in the period between the 1860s and 1880s, the schools of the Fuzhou shipyard were much more technical.” Students learned about every part of steamship design, and graduates had careers lasting well into the twentieth century.

The Fuzhou Shipyard produced guns, ammunition, and steamships. At first the steamships were basic models: a 150-horsepower transport, an 80-horsepower gunboat. But the quality was high. A British merchant noted that the vessels were “admirably fastened and particularly well finished outside and inside. They could not be better finished in London or New York.” The third vessel to launch—an 80-horsepower gunboat—was even better, fast and solid, perhaps even a little too solid, according to the merchant: “somewhat unnecessarily strong for the tonnage and weight, but the faults are good and unusual.” Other early vessels were also considered effective. By 1873, the British observer noted, Fuzhou-produced gunboats were better than contemporary British vessels of the same type. “No navy,” he wrote, “has better vessels.” Other Western observers corroborated these judgments.

Yet steamer technology was changing rapidly. In 1853, the Scottish shipwright John Elder (remembered today as a master draftsman, among other things) had patented a design for a compound engine for marine use. Instead of a single condenser, Elder’s engine had two. The steam first entered a high-heat, high-pressure condenser. Then it was shunted to a lower-pressure, lower-heat condenser. At each stage it drove pistons. The result was a significant increase in efficiency, and by 1858 Elder patented a triple-compound version, even more efficient. By the 1870s, iron-hulled vessels driven by compound engines were being widely adopted throughout Europe.

The Fuzhou Shipyard followed. By 1877 it was producing iron-hulled vessels with compound engines. Its first success, a sloop launched in May 1877, was impressive: at 1,200 tons, it was driven by a composite 750-horsepower engine. By December 1880, the shipyard had built four such sloops. In 1883, it launched a powerful cruiser: 2,200 tons, with a 2400-horsepower triple-compound engine and a cruising speed of fifteen knots. General Zuo Zongtang ordered two more. In May 1888, a ship called the Longwei was completed, and it was the most technologically sophisticated vessel yet: 2,100 tons with twenty-centimeter-thick steel armor, and a turret whose armor was even thicker. It was driven by two 1,200-horsepower triple expansion engines, which enabled a cruising speed of fourteen knots. It featured electric lighting, a searchlight, and a telephonic communication system.

Yet still the pace of change accelerated. By the 1880s, European cruisers could reach nine thousand tons and cruise at twenty-two knots. Triple expansion engines of eight thousand horsepower were by then common, and hulls were made of steel. Never before had technology moved so swiftly. In 1903, a historian of the British navy wrote, “It may be said with little or no fear of exaggeration that the best ship existing in 1867 would have been more than a match for the entire British fleet existing in 1857, and, again, that the best ship existing in 1877 would have been almost, if not quite, equal to fighting and beating the entire fleet of only ten years earlier. By 1890, the ships of 1877 had become well-nigh obsolete; and by 1900 the best ships, even of 1890, were hardly worthy of a place in the crack fleets of the country.”

So when we assess the performance of the Fuzhou Shipyard and the Jiangnan Arsenal, we must keep in mind that China was not just closing a gap. It was embarking on a new phase of continuous revolutionary improvement, and that phase was not new to Asia alone: it was new in world history. To appreciate the rapid development of mechanical technologies, one can chart the number of specialized engineering societies that were founded in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is certainly a lag between East Asians and Europeans, but what is surprising is how new Great Britain’s were as well.

China and Japan were modernizing swiftly, but so were all their Western rivals, and it is the trajectory that is important. Within its first two decades of existence, the Fuzhou Shipyard had vaulted forward in technological capacity, able to follow the continual technological revolution. In fact, the Fuzhou Shipyard compares favorably to Japan’s famous Yokosuka Shipyard well into the 1880s. The Yokosuka Shipyard was smaller than that of Fuzhou, and its budget was lower, just a third of that of Fuzhou in 1871. It produced far fewer vessels—just thirteen between 1876 and 1894, whereas the Fuzhou Shipyard produced thirty-three vessels before 1895. The Yokosuka Shipyard also trailed the Fuzhou Shipyard in terms of technology, building its first iron-hulled vessel after Fuzhou. Experts now believe that the relative maritime performance of Japan and China was much closer than historians had tended to assume up through the 1880s. Moreover, China and Japan seem to have been unusual: with the possible exception of the Ottoman Empire, no other non-Western states mastered steamship technology so well.

Unfortunately, by the late 1880s the Fuzhou Shipyard ran into problems. The issue was not conservatism or lack of know-how or a supposed Chinese indifference to engineering and preference for Confucianism, as scholars have suggested. It was a lack of dedicated funding. Yokosuka Shipyard received clear and consistent allocations, having been placed under Japan’s Naval Department in 1872. The Fuzhou Shipyard didn’t. When Zuo Zongtang had set it up, he’d arranged for funding to be shared by several provinces, of which the most important was Fujian, where the shipyard was located. Other provinces were supposed to contribute, but their allocations weren’t automatic. Moreover, Zuo Zongtang hadn’t taken into account steam vessels’ high maintenance costs, which consumed an increasing portion of the budget. Each year, funding had to be cobbled together from multiple sources. The shipyard’s directors spent as much time wrangling funding and lobbying officials as directing operations.

For a time, powerful officials kept the shipyard flourishing. The great Shen Baozhen, for example, had supported it as viceroy of Liangjiang. But he died in 1879. Zuo Zongtang, the shipyard’s founder and greatest patron, died in 1885. Afterward, it became harder and harder for directors to cobble together the funding. Morale suffered, as evidenced by high turnover for the position of shipyard director: between 1875 and 1890, three resigned and four moved to other posts. By the late 1880s, the shipyard was faltering.

Japan’s Yokosuka Shipyard was on the opposite trajectory. Although its early years had been rough, by the late 1880s it had dedicated funding that allowed it to invest in multiyear projects and make continued capital investments, vital in this time of constant technological change. It increased its commitment to innovation, hiring Western experts to build the latest designs, although its advanced cruisers were less effective than once believed.

Indeed, on the eve of the war between China and Japan, many experts believed with good reason that China’s fleet had advantages over that of Japan and that China would win the war.



Carrack Santa Maria,with caravels Nina and Pinta.

Surprisingly, considering how much warfare occurred during the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, there was comparatively little naval warfare. The number of major conflicts at sea decreased, as did even the number of minor conflicts, i.e., single ship combat, piracy (both state-sponsored and not), skirmishing, trade disputes, and so on.

However, the fourteenth century did not start out as one of naval peace, with wars in both northern European seas and the Mediterranean continuing from the previous century. In the north, especially in the English Channel off Normandy and Flanders, the fleets of Edward I of England and Philip IV of France continued to spar against each other without decisive conclusion. Both had large treasuries, with which they could build a large number of their own ships and also buy the services of others, the English primarily using ships, captains, and sailors from the various Low Countries principalities, and the French using primarily those from the Iberian kingdoms. Edward and Philip were also powerful kings who saw negotiation and compromise with each other as weakness. They actually did not like each other personally, an enmity not helped even by the marriage of Philip’s daughter, Isabella, to Edward’s son, Edward (later King Edward II), a union that would produce the military headache of the next century and half: the so-called Hundred Years’ War.

In the Mediterranean, during the first half of the fourteenth century, Venice and Genoa continued to fight sporadically against each other, whether it was a new war, a continuation of the war (or wars) begun in the thirteenth century or a side-theater of the war that Venice was also then fighting with Byzantium. This matters only for historical interpretation, and for the fact that it is in this war that Marco Polo was taken prisoner, which allowed him to dictate his memoirs to fellow prisoner, Rustichello. However it is classified, the warfare ended in a draw, an indecisiveness that ensured the continuation of the fighting.

This continuation occurred in 1350 and again in 1378 (the third and fourth Venetian-Genoese wars, if counted separately). Ostensibly, the 1350 war was fought for the reason that earlier Venetian-Genoese wars had: Genoese trading in the eastern Mediterranean. Venice was allied with Aragon, which had its own conflict with the Genoese over trading in the western Mediterranean, Byzantium, and Pisa (although the latter would never be a naval factor after its defeat by Genoa at Meloria in 1284), and Genoa was allied with the upstart Ottoman Turks. But most of the actual fighting was between Venetian and Genoese ships. Both sides fought to a draw at the battle of the Bosporus in 1352, although the amount of destruction that had been done to its fleet forced Venice to withdraw from the region and restored Genoa to its trading monopoly with Byzantium. They then traded victories at the battles of Alghero and Zonklon in 1354 and signed a peace a year later.

Therefore it came as little surprise when fighting broke out again in 1378. Frequently called the War of Chioggia, it was started over possession of the island of Tenedos in the eastern Mediterranean. In the initial battles, Cape d’Anzio, Traù, and Pola, fought in 1378–79, little was decided, although the Genoese did claim victory, which perhaps gave them too much confidence, as in the following year they boldly took their fleet into the Venetian lagoon only to be defeated in a much larger battle fought off Chioggia. Their fleet almost completely destroyed, the Genose limped to the Peace of Turin (1381), their proud naval history essentially ended in a single afternoon.

Throughout the rest of the Mediterranean the seas remained peaceful during the fourteenth century. Part of this was certainly due to the natural disasters that paralyzed Europe—the Famine of 1315–17 and the Black Death of 1346–49—during which time maritime traffic declined markedly (especially as ships were thought to be primarily responsible for spreading the plague), and part also to man-made disasters—the Bardi and Peruzzi bank failures in the 1340s, the Hundred Years’ War, Flemish and Italian trade decline, and so on.

But also to be considered were the changes in design and construction of ships that made attacking these vessels no longer a simple feat. Piracy was ubiquitous; it always would be, and in fact it would significantly increase during the later fifteenth century with the rise of powerful Ottoman and Mamluk navies whose state-sponsored piracy against European ships would more than match the state-sponsored piracy of those ships against them. But it was harder and more expensive for smaller, non-state-sponsored ships (for they were rarely fleets—although that, too, would change in the early sixteenth century with, among others the Barbarossa brothers) to compete with the new, larger, and better-armed vessels. Perhaps economics could also be credited for the low number of national naval conflicts. As Pisa had proved in 1284 and Genoa in 1380, the loss of a fleet was difficult to recover from; building new ships was expensive and time-consuming, during which time other, non-military maritime activities, i.e., trade and fishing, ceased. Peace allowed for recovery, the building of larger fleets, and increased trade and prosperity. Even though there would be a slight resurgence in naval activity during the 1420s and 1430s, again between Genoa and Venice, the Mediterranean remained relatively calm until around 1480.

This peace permitted Venice, Aragon, and, at least until 1460, Genoa to strengthen their maritime empires and even to recover some of their previously lost territories. Venice especially grew strong during this period, with large mainland holdings along the Italian peninsula, on the Dalmatian coast, in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean islands, including Crete and Cyprus, and a fleet that grew to an estimated 80 galleys and 300 sailing ships, the largest in the Mediterranean. (Only Ottoman Turkey would eventually compete with Venice in the east.)

Venice’s strength in the eastern Mediterranean was nearly equaled by that of Aragon in the western Mediterranean. Naples, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Valencia, and Catalonia had been added during the long reign of Alfonso V the Magnificent (1396–1458); Castile was united to the kingdom by the marriage between Alfonso’s grandson, Ferdinand II, and Isabella in 1469; and Grenada was captured in 1492. This allowed Aragonese ships to travel virtually without danger around the Mediterranean between the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Only Portugal competed with them in the Atlantic, which allowed Aragonese fleets free access to whatever lay to the west, and resulted, also in 1492, in Columbus’s voyage to the “new world.”

The Mediterranean peace also gave rise to new maritime powers. One of these, Florence, interestingly, did not lie on the sea but grew into a minor naval power after its conquest of Pisa in 1406. At the same time, the French, Burgundians (also landlocked), and the Knights Hospitaller also began to build their own fleets and to develop their own naval power. But no new naval power arose more quickly or had more impact than Portugal. With Aragon dominating the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese, under, among others, the able leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, took a new approach to naval activity. Instead of venturing east into the Mediterranean, the Portuguese went south to the islands of the Atlantic, conquering Madeira, the Cape Verdes, and the Azores by 1410, and into Atlantic North Africa, conquering Ceuta in 1415 and adding to that throughout the century until, by 1471, Portugal had complete control of Tangiers and all the Moroccan ports south to Agadir. Traveling farther to the south along the African continent, by 1480 the Portuguese had reached the coasts of Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Congo, and, by 1487, Bartholomeu Diaz had landed at the Cape of Good Hope. Eleven years later, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa and landed in India.

In the Indian Ocean the Portuguese encountered another European naval power, the Ottoman Empire, which had arrived there through a much more direct route, overland and down the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, but had the same goal in mind: trying to find an alternative to the Silk Road, which had essentially, if not actually, been closed due to the bellicosity of the Mongol warlords who controlled it. A secondary, although also similar, reason for the Ottoman presence was to seek converts for their religion, in this case Islam, as it was for the Portuguese to seek converts for their religion, Christianity.

The rise of the Ottoman Turks had been meteoric. Little more than a small tribe led by a central Asian Minor Turkish dynast, Ghazi Osman, in 1300, by the time the Portuguese ran into them off Africa and India shortly after 1500 they had come to be one of the most dominant political, military, and naval powers in the world. They had conquered all of Asia Minor, although not completely defeating the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. By that time they had also captured Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania, Herzegovina, and Serbia; soundly defeated two pan-European “Crusader” forces sent to stop their progress—at Nicopolis in 1396 and Varna in 1444; outlasted the Timurid Mongols under Tamerlane, after an initial setback at the battle of Ankara in 1402, where they had been defeated and their Sultan, Bayezid I, captured (after being paraded around the Timurid lands in a cage for more than a year, he committed suicide by banging his head repeatedly into the metal bars of his cage); and survived several inheritance crises. Only the Hospitallers on Rhodes, the Serbs in Belgrade, and the Hungarians had halted Ottoman progress, although they would not be able to hold out past 1527.

Before 1453 almost all of the Ottoman conquests had been land-based operations, with few ships needed, other than for transporting men and supplies. Indeed, the Ottoman navy before the middle of the fifteenth century probably had more riverine than open-sea vessels. It even had difficulty keeping European ships from running the very meager blockade they had set up around Constantinople in 1453. However, Constantinople’s conqueror, Mehmed II, was determined to change this and, within a decade at most, had built a navy that could compete with any others in the world. Quickly, Eastern Mediterranean islands began to fall. Rhodes held out through his and his two successors’ reigns, but, after being resoundingly defeated in the 1499–1503 war against them, Venice kept only Crete and Cyprus by submitting to the harshest, and most expensive, peace treaties. Mehmed’s grandson, Selim I, used an even larger and more powerful fleet to defeat the Mamluks and conquer Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, Syria, Israel, and Egypt in 1516–17, and his great-grandson, Suleyman I the Magnificent, took an even larger and more powerful navy even farther, into the central and western Mediterranean, where he terrorized European and North African foes into the 1570s.

In northern Europe, the conflict of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries between France and England developed by the middle of the fourteenth century into the Hundred Years’ War. From its outset naval warfare became a prominent, if not frequent, feature of this war. The first major engagement, fought at Sluys in 1340, was a naval battle, with the navy of Edward III sweeping down on the moored French and mercenary Iberian and Genoese fleet with, as contemporary chronicler Geoffrey le Baker writes, “the wind and sun at his back and the flow of the tide with him.” The English prevailed and the French fleet was either captured or destroyed. They would prevail again over a much smaller French-employed Castilian fleet at the battle of Winchelsea in 1350. Together these victories allowed the English almost unhindered access to the Channel, and they used this freedom to transport large armies back and forth across the water, which helped achieve further victories at Crécy, Calais, Poitiers, and elsewhere. But the French eventually recovered and, again with the help of mercenary Castilian ships and sailors, at the battle of La Rochelle, fought in 1372, they responded with an impressive victory against the English, destroying most of the latter’s fleet, but also leaving their own fleet in ruin. This Pyrrhic victory for the French, coupled with the financial problems of both them and English—for example, after the death of Edward III in 1377 the English were forced to sell off many of their ships to pay the royal debts—essentially meant the end of the naval phase of the Hundred Years’ War. This decline continued into and throughout most of the fifteenth century, with neither France nor England desiring to engage each other on the sea, although piracy and privateering continued to be sponsored by the two kingdoms against each other until well past the end of the war.

The cog continued to be the most prominent ship of the late Middle Ages, especially in the north, both as a cargo vessel and as a warship. So dominant were cogs in England, for example, that they made up more than 57 percent of the vessels in that navy between 1337 and 1360. Their popularity also extended to the Mediterranean, but there the great galley continued to be a most favored cargo and warship, as it would into the eighteenth century. Its long, thin shape was perfect for the relative calm of the Mediterranean, its speed ensured by capable oarsmen—although these began increasingly to be replaced by enforced rowers—and lateen sails. Some galleys also had square sails. Galleys were also known in northern Europe, with several involved in the naval battles of the early Hundred Years’ War. One interesting reference to galleys comes from Burgundian Duke Philip the Good’s construction of five galleys in Antwerp to deliver a large dowry of arms and armor, together with his niece, for her marriage to King James II of Scotland in 1449.

By the fifteenth century, other vessels also began to appear. One was the balinger, a small-oared cargo ship of indeterminate design, although probably similar to a barge, which served as a coastal cargo transport primarily along the English, French, Low Countries, and Scandinavian coasts. A second was the extremely large northern European buss, the principal herring fishing ship of the growing Dutch fleet. And a third new ship was the caravel, a two-masted ship of Middle Eastern and North African influence, which used lateen and square sails together to allow for both speed and maneuverability. It was 20–30 meters long, 4–5 meters wide, with a shallow draft and a cargo capacity of 50 tons or more (150–200 tons by the end of the fifteenth century), and it could also travel long distances with relative ease. The caravel was favored by the Portuguese and Spanish for their lengthy voyages of exploration, with Columbus’s Nina and Pinta being the most famous examples.

However, the most important new ship of the fifteenth century, as both a cargo ship and a warship, was without doubt the carrack. Essentially a modification of the cog, the carrack (sometimes erroneously called a nef in the fifteenth century) was a large ship with two and later three or four masts. Its enormous size, sometimes as large as 38 meters long and 12 meters wide, with a previously unprecedented cargo capability of 1,000 to 1,400 tons, made it an excellent cargo ship, capable of carrying heavy bulk cargoes, while its carvel construction, sternpost rudder, and multiple sails allowed it to withstand both Atlantic and Mediterranean travel. Like the cog, primarily a cargo ship, the carrack was also capable of easily being both warship and cargo vessel, and was often outfitted with fore and aft castles on which could be set crossbowmen and cannon. By the end of the fifteenth century, the carrack, which counted Columbus’s flagship the Santa Maria among its number, had already replaced the cog as the ship of choice among late medieval admirals and sailors, and it would become the model of the great sailing ship-of-the-line of the early modern era.