By Tom Anderson
In the first part of this multi-part article, I looked at the millennia-long history of the Mediterranean galley as a vessel of trade and war. Historically in Europe an important division was drawn between such oar-driven Mediterranean craft and the mostly sail-driven vessels of the high seas, which will be the subject of this part.
Since antiquity, ancient explorers and traded had attempted to cross seas beyond the Mediterranean to find what lay beyond. This was hampered by the fact that the Carthaginian Empire at one point blocked the Straits of Gibraltar (poetically known as the Pillars of Hercules) to vessels from other nations attempting to leave the Mediterranean. But then, it was thought nothing lay further west from Europe, and indeed according to a later story the pillars were reportedly marked with ‘Ne plus ultra’ (Latin for ‘Nothing Further Beyond’) as a warning to sailors. This did not prevent the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia from exploring the North Sea and the British Isles; he was the first to record the name Britain (or Prydain), a name supposedly derived from its inhabitants being tattooed. Later, Julius Caesar would bring troops in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to invade the isles from continental Europe—it would be his successor Claudius, a century later, who would finally pull this off following a long period of informal trade with the Britons. It is unclear whether Pytheas or Caesar used galleys or other types of ships. Galleys (and barges) could not travel far beyond coastlines, limiting their use. The ancient world saw sea travel across the Channel and North Sea, Roman trading posts on the west coast of India with ships crossing the Arab Sea, not to mention considerable travel and trade by the civilisations of the East and the remarkable voyages of the Polynesian peoples. Nonetheless, travelling farther would not only be a significant challenge, but there seemed no incentive to do so. After all, there was Nothing Further Beyond.
More specialised craft for the open ocean were developed throughout the Roman and post-Roman period. An important innovation was the type of trading ship known as a ‘cog’, particularly associated with the Hanseatic League of trading ports in northern Germany and on other Baltic coastlines. Cogs are the exemplar of a ‘clinker-built’ wooden ship, in which the planks making up the hull are in overlapping layers. Viking longships and the craft used by peoples like the Anglo-Saxons also fall into this category. Longships were capable of travelling as far as Iceland, Greenland, and even the north-east of North America, although explorers like Leif Erikson did not realise their ‘Vinland’ was a new continent at the time. The cog-type design was refined in fifteenth-century Portugal into the caravel under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator, initially as a manoeuvrable sail ship capable of fighting the slave-raiding galleys of Barbary pirates. Caravels were probably the first type of ship that could effectively ‘tack into the wind’, adjusting their sails diagonally to be able to use the wind’s motive power to move against rather than with it. Almost incidentally, caravels could also successfully travel much farther from coastlines than previous ships. At this time Europeans were greatly incentivised to explore new frontiers; the last remnant of the Christian Byzantine Empire had been destroyed and the replacement Muslim Ottoman Empire was blocking trade to the East. At this time, although there was no Suez Canal, smaller canals and overland connections allowed trade to the East through Egypt—but this had suddenly become much more difficult for Christians. The Mediterranean trading republics of Genoa and Venice (among others) began to decline, whilst other powers sought radical, outside-the-box solutions. The Age of Discovery had begun.
Centuries of European-triumphalist historiography of the Age of Discovery have led to a backlash in which it is argued that, actually, Europe at this time was a cultural backwater compared to some of the civilisations of the East such as China. But this is to miss the point; the reason why European nations poured so much money and effort into voyages of discovery was because China, India and the East Indies (Indonesia) had products that Europeans wanted, such as spices and silk. The reverse was not so true, which eventually led to the frustrated talking-past-one-another tragedies of centuries later when Europeans attempted to force China and Japan to open up to external trade. But for now, in the fifteenth century, Ming Dynasty China made a decision which in hindsight seems risible. Admiral Zheng He had explored a considerable part of the world with his fleet of Nanjing-built treasure ships (bigger than anything Europeans had built, although their recorded size may have been exaggerated by chroniclers). But later Emperors cancelled the voyages on Confucian principle and the ships were allowed to rot in harbour, even at the same time that Europeans were beginning to cross the oceans.
The Portuguese made the most obvious decision by deciding to round the Horn of Africa, cut out the Ottomans altogether and trade directly with the East by this manner. Vasco da Gama first successfully completed a voyage to India by this manner at the end of the fifteenth century. Staging posts in Africa along the way led to Portuguese colonies such as Angola and Mozambique, and the port of Goa in India was established as the nexus of trade with Portugal. However, better remembered was the more radical decision made by (probably) Genoese-born Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, who (mistakenly) thinking the Earth was smaller than it was, thought that one could easily reach Japan from Europe by sailing west. After initially turning down his proposal, the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, took a chance on funding it after being advised that Columbus was probably mistaken but it was a low-risk high-reward scheme from their perspective. In the end, of course, Columbus discovered the Americas instead, although he insisted they were part of Asia until his death. Maps from the era often hopefully attach North America to China directly, or at least hope that the Americas were narrower than they are. (This was the primary motivation behind England and France colonising North America later—the hope that the Pacific would be only a dozen days’ march west of the Atlantic and allow easy trade with the East).
Both da Gama and Columbus made use of caravels in their voyages, but they also used carracks (or naos), a larger type of ship also derived from the cog but with multiple masts. Carracks were also ‘carvel-built’ rather than clinker-built, meaning their planks lined up rather than overlapping. The three or four masts meant that naval terminology multiplied to allow specific terms: the foremast at the front (bows), the mainmast in the middle and the mizzenmast at the back (or stern). Typically the mizzenmast was lateen-rigged (with a triangular sail) while the others were square-rigged. Carracks were initially successful but were rather small for trading purposes, and in the sixteenth century were replaced with the larger galleon, a Spanish invention optimised for both cargo and warfare. This double priority was needed because Spain had conquered and plundered the wealthy empires of the Americas and also (via Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world) colonised the Philippines; a fleet of galleons would sail with Aztec gold from Acapulco to Manila and trade it for Chinese goods there with Ming Chinese traders. Galleons would also sail across the Atlantic from Veracruz to Spain, bringing those Chinese goods and more gold from New Spain (Mexico) to Spain as well as Spanish goods back to New Spain. The Treaty of Tordesillas had geographically split the world’s trading interests between Spain and Portugal, although later Portugal became temporarily part of Spain regardless.
Though capacious for cargo, galleons were also a target for attack from pirates and needed to defend themselves. In this era, it must be remembered that there was little distinction between civilian and military ships, and indeed government-chartered or privately owned ones. Hence why people such as Francis Drake could either be privateers operating on behalf of the English government raiding enemy shipping, or self-aggrandising pirates preying on commerce, depending on where one stood.
In 1588 Spain assembled a fleet of 130 warships to invade Protestant England; however, only 28 of these had been built as warships, as only 20 were galleons. The remainder were mostly the smaller carracks and galleasses. The Spanish commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, used a variation on the crescent formation that the Spaniards and their allies had used to great effect in the Battle of Lepanto 17 years earlier. Although the weather played a bigger role than the English fleet in the defeat of Spain (as mentioned in my previous article ‘Whither the Weather’) English tactics did signify a sea-change (no pun intended) in how naval battles were fought. Galleons were equipped with many cannons (Portugal’s Botafago, the biggest galleon of the 1530s, carried 366!) but at this point naval warfare was still focused on the idea of boarding and capturing enemy ships first and foremost.
The latter would not go away altogether for centuries, as we will see in the next part of this article, but the English—under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham and Francis Drake—demonstrated that gunnery could make a real difference. Spanish tactics typically had their ships’ gunners fire only one volley to clear the way for a boarding action; later analysis showed that much of the Armada’s ammunition was never expended, and indeed little care had been put into ensuring guns had a supply of the right-sized cannonballs. By contrast, at the Battle of Gravelines the outnumbered English formed a line of battle, avoided closing with the Spanish, and used cannon fire to attack the Spanish ships’ rudders and disable them. The English ships were ‘race-built’ galleons or ‘razees’, deliberately cut down (as in ‘razored’) with fewer decks than standard galleons, granting them the sort of manoeuvrability needed for these tactics. The English also used fireships to attack the Spanish both in harbour and during battle—fireships were sacrificed ships loaded with burning pitch that could set fire to their wooden opponents if they collided with them.
While England has historically presented the defeat of the ‘Invincible’ Armada as a standalone moment of defiance in its history, it is worth remembering that from the Spanish perspective it was only part of the great Eighty Years’ War with the Protestant Dutch rebels, in part motivated by Elizabeth I’s support for the rebels. The Dutch had already deployed a new kind of fireship called a ‘hellburner’ against the Spanish, not only flaming but loaded with gunpowder that could explode amid the enemy fleet. These proved terribly effective at the Siege of Antwerp three years before the Armada and were regarded almost as a contemporary weapon of mass destruction. The Spanish are thought to have overreacted at Gravelines by assuming the English were also using hellburners, when in fact Drake’s fireships were the conventional type.
This is just a small glimpse at naval warfare in this era; there are many other battles that could be cited. This was a time when navies were finding their feet, moving away from merely chartering private ships into maintaining standard forces with trained sailors. This was the era in which England’s Royal Navy introduced a classification system for its vessels (albeit with the categories being the rather vague-sounding ‘Royal ship’, ‘Great ship’, ‘Middling ship’ and ‘Small ship’; Henry VIII’s ill-fated Mary Rose was a Great ship and carrack). Nautical terms became better-known and standardised. Ships’ crews needed to speak about directions that did not change depending on which way one was facing ‘not my left, your left’ so ‘port and starboard’ appeared; the side of the ship facing a port, and the side with the steering board. Formerly ‘larboard’ was also sometimes used instead of port, with the Royal Navy not managing to extirpate this confusingly similar-sounding term until the nineteenth century.
Astronomy and navigational mathematics were so important for exploration that the Portuguese later put an armillary sphere on their flag. At this time ships could easily estimate their latitude by measuring the angles between the sun, the horizon and another astronomical object using an astrolabe or sextant. Longitude was much more difficult, requiring a truly accurate clock, and the Longitude Problem would not be solved (accompanied by a big cash prize) until the 18th century. The Flemish mapmaker Gerard Mercator created a map projection where any ship could set off in a straight line and reach a destination predictably without distortion from curvature. Of course, this distorted the land area instead (making Equatorial regions look smaller and the poles look bigger) which has somehow convinced generations of ignorant people that the first priority of a sixteenth century Flemish mapmaker was to make Greenland look bigger than Africa in a conspiracy to promote European cultural supremacism over the developing world. We can probably safely assume there wasn’t any money in that in 1569.
Also, we should remember, it was an age when travel was almost unimaginably perilous. Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world was described as a success, but he died on the way, and of his 5 ships and 270 men, just 1 ship and 18 men made it back to Spain. This was not unusual. It is a measure of the profit to be had in exploration, piracy and naval warfare that anyone dared venture to sea at all. In the next part of this article, we will look at how naval warfare and practice evolved into the age of the Napoleonic Wars and towards the decline of sail.
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