By Tom Anderson
The men and women who go to sea have always captured the human imagination. Some nations, often island nations such as United Kingdom, almost define themselves through their relationship with water, whether it be the well-charted, balmy merchants’ seas or the mysterious and perilous open ocean. Since the first intrepid soul clung to a floating tree trunk, ships have facilitated trade, exploration—and, inevitably, warfare. In this multi-part article we shall look at the history behind the ship names and terminology we know well, and then consider how things might have developed differently in alternate histories.
Naval history is a complex topic and although I have devoted a multi-part article to it, this is still inevitably going to come with gross oversimplifications. Furthermore, there is a somewhat inevitable focus on Western naval history, not least because this is the one which had the greatest impact on eras frequently subject to alternate history writing (such as the World Wars). This is not, however, to impugn the naval traditions of other cultures and civilisations. It is interesting to note that from a Western viewpoint, particular specific terms for ships are frequently used to evoke the corresponding cultures.
What is a description of an Arab harbour without dhows, or a Chinese one without junks? The word catamaran has historically immediately brought to mind images of the Pacific and Polynesian islanders, though more recently it has been applied to advanced modern ships that use the same two-hull design. Similar evolution of the cultural meaning of other ship terms can be seen even within the West itself; ‘yacht’ is no longer seen as a specifically Dutch word, but conversely endless pirate-themed media has created the idea that ‘galleons’ are specifically associated with Spain—this is true to an extent and they did begin there, but they were also used by many other nations. ‘Canoe’, originally from a Carib word via Spanish, became a generic term to describe almost any small boat operated by native peoples all over the world who were regarded as savages by Europeans. Nowadays the term is often used for personal manually-operated craft made from modern materials, slightly confused by the fact that in British English it is often applied to what others would call a kayak.
This brief exploration hopefully illustrates the linguistic power of different ship names. A coracle or a longship come with the power to instantly create the image of a particular time and place in one’s mind. Conversely, other terms have become successful and almost colourlessly generic, such as ‘frigate’, or even ‘destroyer’ which, as we will see in a later part of this article, has become far more widespread as a term than one would expect from its genesis. But now let us look at this topic systematically. We will be looking primarily at seagoing vessels rather than riverine ones, though the latter is also a richly evocative topic (consider the Norfolk wherry or the Chinese sampan). We will also be looking at vessels which travel atop the waves rather than under them; submarines are enough of a topic for a future article in their own right.
The biggest historical division in seagoing ships, certainly in the Western world, is probably between the oar-driven galleys which dominated the Mediterranean (and other inland seas such as the Baltic and Black Seas) and the wide variety of sail-driving blue water ships. Galleys themselves are much older than the word ‘galley’, though that itself dates back to at least the fourteenth century—it is probably derived from a Byzantine Greek word for dogfish (a kind of small shark). Galleys formed the basis of the naval warfare of the ancient world, being employed by Mediterranean powers such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians among many others. Remarkably, they remained in use well into the nineteenth century, albeit no longer for frontline warfare. Indeed, the earliest ships of war—as remained the case for many native peoples in other parts of the world later encountered by European explorers—were intended purely to ferry warriors from one place to another, not to fight themselves. There was no distinction drawn between merchant and fighting vessels (indeed, this is far more recent than many would assume). Boarding actions (and perhaps archery) represented the only way one ship could directly fight another.
Things changed some time before the 8th century BC, when galleys began to be built with bronze-sheathed rams at their bows. For the first time, ships could directly attack each other by ramming amidships to punch a hole through their opponent’s planking and sink it. Speed and manoeuvrability became newly important—a galley that could outmanoeuvre its opponent and then speed towards it with its ram had a great advantage. Ancient galley designs evolved to maximise these factors. The motive power of the earliest galleys was a single row of oarsmen, but power was multiplied by building ‘biremes’ (with two rows) and ‘triremes’ (with three). The trireme is one of the most iconic ships of this era. By stacking the banks of oarsmen on top of one another, the ship packed more power into a smaller and more manoeuvrable hull than if the old design (retrospectively called a ‘monoreme’) had been kept.
The arms race continued in the 4th century BC, in a manner that a modern observer could be forgiven for comparing to razor manufacturers competing over the number of blades in their razors; the quinquireme was a commonly used design, but there are references in Greek works to ‘tens’, ‘twelves’ or even ‘thirties’. Some of these were likely the result of adding more oarsmen to an oar rather than adding more banks of oars; the original designs are lost and the sceptical modern observer might wonder if some of these represent inflated propaganda claims. The other advantage to adding more banks of oars related to the fact that naval operations required skilled professional oarsmen; the ancient navies at this point mostly did not use slave oarsmen which galleys would later become synonymous with. Few states could afford to maintain a standing force of trained oarsmen, but the multiple oar banks meant that one trained oarsmen could set the pace for novices on the other oars. The pace of the oars was set by a drumbeat, with ‘ramming speed’ being the highest speed possible (as immortalised by a scene in Ben-Hur, albeit with slave oarsmen). Galleys needed to travel at high speed for their rams to penetrate rather than glancing off, something else which multiple banks of oarsmen helped.
The advancement of galley technology ultimately suffered from the Romans destroying all naval competitors in the Mediterranean and turning it into what they justly described as Mare Nostrum—simply ‘Our Sea’ in Latin. The designs for more advanced galley warships fell into disuse and were lost, with the smaller ‘liburnian’ galleys being the main vessel used. Nonetheless, galleys returned with a vengeance as a weapon of war with the fall of Rome, exacerbated by the separation of the Mediterranean into a Christian northern coast and and a Muslim southern coast (ignoring the distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity which also played a role). Galleys were now mostly crewed by slaves, often ‘recruited’ on sectarian lines; Muslim powers such as the Deylicate of Algiers would capture Christian ships or raid Christian shores for slave oarsmen, and vice versa for the Christian powers. North African and Turkish slave raiders and pirates operated farther afield than might be imagined—there was even a Moroccan pirate base on the island of Lundy off the coast of Devon in the seventeenth century, albeit under the command of a renegade Dutchman.
Galleys remained a frontline weapon of war into the sixteenth century, forming the majority of both fleets at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In this, one of the biggest naval battles in history, the Catholic Holy League (led by the Spanish Empire and the Venetian Republic under the command of Don Juan of Austria) decisively defeated the Muslim Ottomans under Müezzinzade Ali Pasha. Yet this, the apotheosis of galley warfare, was marred by the fact that a big part of the Catholics’ triumph came from the use of six new ‘galleass’ warships, an attempt to combine the speed and manoeuvrability of a galleon with the firepower and blue-water capabilities of a galleon. Gunpowder had come to Europe from (ultimately) China more than a century before, and cannons had begun to change naval warfare—though, as we will see, this took longer than one might expect. Firearms began to drive changes in tactics, with the Catholics using a crescent formation that became the later ‘line of battle’ rather than ships attacking individually. Furthermore, Galleys’ banks of oars blocked their flanks and made them fundamentally incompatible with the rows of guns used by oceangoing vessels like galleons—and the technological limitations of the time meant that one needed many guns to achieve by quantity what was lacking in quality (or accuracy). The galley’s days as a frontline warship were numbered.
Nonetheless, as noted above, galleys remained in use by traders and raiders in the Mediterranean into the 19th century, mostly by North Africans such as the Corsairs of Algiers towards the end. Galleys in this late era typically mounted one very large, fixed cannon as a bow chaser, pointing directly forwards. This could almost be considered an evolution of the ancient ram tactic. On the other side of the world, the peoples of what is now Malaysia and Indonesia also used a similar craft, the lancaran, with swivel guns; however, reflecting the less enclosed nature of those seas, lancarans used more sail power in addition to oars than galleys did. Galleys had become too easy to counter; the term ‘frigate’ was first applied to a galleas-like ship developed by the Spanish as a speedy counter to North African galleys, although as we will see the term was later applied in different ways. Spain was also responsible for the word ‘xebec’, a type of fast sailing ship that could compete with the galleys without using oar power. As noted in a previous article, the defeat of a late 18th century Spanish xebec-frigate was one of the early achievements of Thomas Cochrane in the Royal Navy.
So much for the Mediterranean galley, a ship design so successful it was used over a period of over three thousand years. But what of the high seas? We shall consider that in the next part of this article.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth