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HThe following text was accepted by the publisher in February 2001 and is currently in press. The scholarly apparatus will be condensed to conform to the publisher’s style, giving citations in a separate sources section which will be prepared when the text is in galley proofs for reasons of pagination.

Chapter 3

Caravels and Carracks

Woodcut of a Carrack by Willem A. Cruce, drawn in preparation for the 1468 wedding celebrations of Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Mary of York. At one of the wedding banquets large models of carracks, symbolizing the Duke's power, graced the serving platters of roast meat and the woodcut was used to guide the model-builders. Accurate and informative, it is the earliest depiction of a carrack  — kraek in Flemish — explicitly identified as such. Gunpowder was clearly expected to play a subsidiary role in combat. The vessel's offensive punch was its overhanging forecastle, a point underlined by the grappling hook beneath the bowsprit. The circular holes in the fore and stern castle rails were no doubt loopholes for crossbowmen and hangunners.

The evolution of European sailing vessels capable of projecting power overseas was anything but straightforward, nor is the process completely understood today. The designs ancestral to the ships of the line, frigates, and specialized bulk carriers of the eighteenth century established their lineages not because they were necessarily superior to their competitors on the high seas, but because they were well suited for conditions in their home waters and because those who operated them had incentive and resources to progressively modify their designs and construction in order to operate further from home. This was certainly true of the cog, the most important sailing warship in northern European waters at the dawn of the gunpowder era.

The cog’s origins lay in Anglo-Saxon designs that were no more seaworthy or efficient than contemporary Viking ships. But as trade expanded, the cog’s owners and operators progressively modified it, refining the efficiency of its rig, making it larger to increase cargo capacity, replacing the steering oar with a pintle-and-gudgeon rudder thus making further increases in size feasible, and so on. Through all this, the cog retained its single mast and square sail, keel, flat bottom with flush-joined planking, straight stem and stern posts, and clinker upper planking. So successful was the cog that certain features of its design, notably the sternpost rudder and square sail, were widely adopted in the Mediterranean for use in conditions quite different from those in which it had evolved. Ultimately certain design features, notably the single mast and square sail that limited its size and handiness, rendered the cog obsolete and it gave way first to the hulk and then to the full-rigged ship. Similarly, the cog’s flat bottom, useful for loading and unloading in small ports with extreme tides, became irrelevant for large vessels as trade swelled in volume and as an increasing proportion passed through major ports with wharves and proper loading facilities. Over the long haul, then, it was not just the inherent qualities of a type of ship that counted, but who operated it, why, and with what resources. Of this there is no better example than the caravel.

The caravel began as an Atlantic fishing boat incorporating a mixture of Atlantic and Mediterranean design features. When it becomes identifiable as a distinct type in the fourteenth century, the smallest caravels were open boats with a single mast. The defining characteristics were a flush-planked hull built skeleton first — that is carvel built — a sternpost rudder, lateen rig, and above all a reputation for seaworthiness and weatherliness. Caravels’ hulls had a length to breadth ratio of nearly 5:1 (by comparison, cogs were just over 2:1).1 At this point, the caravel was one type of deep-sea ship among many, and it is unlikely that it would have supplanted the ancestors of the nao (about which more below) had not Portugal’s kings embarked on an aggressive campaign of exploration along the African coast. For this, the caravel proved ideal and by the 1440s was the preferred vessel. The caravels that found the way to India probably displaced from 80 to 130 tons; most had three masts though the largest had four. Although lateen sails were awkward for frequent tacking — to come about, the sail must be furled and the foot of the boom brought around the front of the mast — they were more weatherly than contemporary square sails and ideal for the long reaches out into the Atlantic needed to reach the Cape of Good Hope. Eventually, a mixed rig with the foremast square rigged and the rest lateen proved best. In Columbus’ day caravels were superior to naos in seaworthiness and weatherliness, but could not be made as large without sacrificing their sailing characteristics. In addition, caravels lacked cargo capacity and for extended voyages the Portuguese routinely supported caravels with supply ships, naos, that were abandoned when their stores were depleted.

The Portuguese also used caravels as warships from the 1450s to defend the Guinea trade from Castillian and French interlopers. The caravel’s weatherliness and superior speed in moderate conditions provided an effective defense against boarding — a point of vulnerability because of the caravel’s low freeboard — but guns were needed to make the caravel an effective warship, The caravel’s stability and low freeboard enabled the Portuguese to mount heavy ordnance on her main deck, firing over the bulwarks or through apertures in them. The caravel’s small size dictated that these pieces would be few in number — perhaps only one — mounted amidships to fire broadside; there was no other option. Further, their weight topside posed stability problems in even moderate seas; the guns were therefore stowed below and hoisted up only when battle was imminent.2 The four lifting lugs atop Portuguese camelos and cameletes — they are surely that, though they may also have served other purposes — are clear if indirect evidence of this.3 When the Portuguese began using heavily-gunned caravels we cannot say, but the matter-of-fact competence with which they were used in early encounters in the Indian Ocean suggests that it was well before they turned the Cape of Good Hope.

The caravel represented only a partial and specialized solution to the problem of combining heavy ordnance with ocean-going sailing capabilities. Confronted by a carrack or large nao, a caravel could avoid combat by superior weatherliness, and under ideal conditions bombard from afar; but it could not close in for the kill without being overwhelmed from above by anti-personnel weapons. The problem was exacerbated in the early 1500s when carracks began carrying heavy ordnance low in the hull. Caravels retained their utility through the sixteenth century, but were never first line warships in European waters.

Meanwhile, the design of naos, precursors to the full-rigged ship, more stoutly built than caravels and with beamier and more capacious hulls, progressively improved. They were better cargo carriers from the outset, and as they became more seaworthy and weatherly the caravel’s advantages dwindled. At the turn of the sixteenth century, caravels still enjoyed significant advantages in speed and weatherliness — the contrast in performance between Columbus’ lubberly Santa Maria, a nao, and the caravel Niña is an apt illustration — but the caravel was an evolutionary dead end. The future lay with the ship, of which the carrack was for a considerable time the most important type built for war.

The full-rigged ship emerged from a fusion of Atlantic and Mediterranean technologies that began during the thirteenth century and accelerated rapidly from about 1300. At that time, deep-sea Atlantic vessels had a single mast, a single square sail, and, if they were of any size, a sternpost pintle and gudgeon rudder. With the exception of the cog’s flush-planked bottom, they were build shell first of lap-strake construction. Mediterranean sailing vessels were built skeleton first with flush planking nailed to the frames, were lateen rigged and had quarter rudders. Vessels of any size had two masts and acquired a third from about 1400.4 The ensuing process of borrowing and adaptation was complex and the precise sequence debatable, but the outlines are clear. Mediterranean shipwrights borrowed first sternpost rudder and then square rig. Atlantic shipwrights adopted multiple masts and began setting a lateen sail on the rearmost to aid in trimming the ship.

The next crucial step was the adoption of skeleton-first, carvel construction by Atlantic shipwrights. The reasons for the shift are unclear: skeleton-first construction was less dependent upon traditional skills and probably cheaper5 although how important those factors were we cannot say. More important over the long term, shell first hulls were built by eye whereas skeleton-first construction required systematic planning. Frames had to be lofted and the shape of the hull determined before the planking was applied, rewarding those who planned best and bringing better designs to the fore more rapidly. That began happening in Europe with increasing frequency; it did not elsewhere, a matter of no small importance. Finally, carvel construction was more adaptable to the strengthening needed to accommodate the weight and recoil of heavy guns.6

By the 1450s, the process outlined above had produced the nao, a carvel-built vessel with a pintle and gudgeon rudder, three masts and a bowsprit. The hull had a length-to-breadth ratio of about 3.5:1 and permanent fighting structures at bow and stern. The fore and mainmasts were square rigged and the mizzen lateen rigged; a square spritsail was hung beneath the bowsprit. By century’s end, top masts were fined to carry square topsails, further increasing the power of the rig. The result was the full-rigged ship, or simply ship. Hulls became progressively more seaworthy and efficient, and by the mid-1500s well-designed ships could perform as well as caravels. They did not, however, dominate in battle; that distinction fell to the carrack.

Carrack has a fairly specific meaning in English and other northern languages, but this is not true elsewhere and terminology can be misleading. The idea behind the carrack was nevertheless clear: to gain tactical advantage from size and height, particularly by means of the high, projecting forecastle and large fighting tops that were the carrack’s distinguishing features. Carracks might be clinker-built, carvel-built or a combination of both. Nor was the carrack defined by sail plan and rigging; some early carracks had two masts, or even one.7 It became an important type only after its hull and fighting superstructures were combined with the ship’s sail plan.

The carrack emerged from a dual need: to secure cargoes from piratical attack, and to project armed might afloat. Assuming a seaworthy and reasonably weatherly vessel, which ship-rigged carracks were, sheer size and height served both purposes and by the first decades of the fifteenth century the carrack had acquired its characteristic form. This is shown in the engraving of a kraeck by the Dutch master WA (Willem Cruce) and the Warwick Roll illustrations. Depicting carracks of about 1476 and 1480 respectively, these sources provide telling details.8 Forecastles are considerably higher than stern castles, indicating the preferred tactics: to come alongside the enemy vessel bow first, grapple to hold the enemy fast — the grappling hook dangling prominently from the forecastle of WA’s carrack makes the point — dominate the enemy’s waist with missile fire, board and capture. As we saw in our discussion of Zonchio, gunpowder ordnance at first did little to change this tactical prescription and the small bombards that were initially the carrack’s main gunpowder weapons were primarily defensive. This is clear on WA’s carrack: the stern gallery and mizzen crow’s nest are armed with guns, whereas the waist and forecastle have none. Moreover, the main- and foremast crow’s nests have hoists for stones and are liberally festooned with gads.

Carracks were the first sailing ships to mount heavy guns low in the hull behind water-tight gunports, though when and where is unclear. A strong, although undocumented, tradition attributes the invention of the water-tight gunport to a French shipwright around 1500 and there may be a grain of truth in it: the large French ship La Cordelière, built in the 1490s, was armed with sixteen large guns on the lower deck and it is difficult to see how else they could have been mounted.9 Be this as it may, the first really effective heavy guns aboard sailing ships were a defensive response to the galley, basilisks firing through ports on either side of the carrack’s rudder in what would become known as the gunroom. To modern sensibilities, a rearward-firing mount seems a peculiar location for one’s heaviest ordnance, but there were good reasons for the choice. Given the carrack’s underwater lines, the stern was the only place to mount really heavy ordnance and the carrack’s flat counter was a logical place to experiment with watertight ports. Finally, when conditions were calm enough for galleys to stalk carracks they were also sufficiently calm for the carrack’s crew to put out boats and kedges to slew the ship into position to return fire.

When and where this first happened is unknown, but the first strategically meaningful use of heavy guns on sailing ships was against land targets by James IV of Scotland. The evidence is by inference, but clear. We know that James’ carracks mounted heavy ordnance10, and in asserting royal authority over Scotland’s Western Isles, his forces reduced by gunfire in 1503 the island fortress of Cairn-na-Burgh, over a mile from the nearest land.11 Atlantic shipwrights soon learned to cut water-tight ports in carracks’ curving sides, and by the 1520s, heavy broadside ordnance was common. That does not mean that the “broadside sailing ship” had been discovered. To the contrary, ideas about how best to mount and use heavy ordnance aboard sailing ships were in flux with the apparent goal to maximize the weight of fire directed forward, no doubt to match the galley’s main centerline gun. The carrack’s hull form put this goal effectively beyond reach, but did not prevent attempts to attain it. When Mary Rose went down in 1545, she mounted a bronze nine-pound demi-culverin on a truck carriage — presumably one of a pair and one of the best and most modern guns on board — atop the forward end of the stern castle firing obliquely forward past the forecastle.12

For all the guns aboard carracks from the 1510s, size and height were still considered its principal tactical virtues, all the moreso as carracks were efficient bulk carriers. This was particularly true in eastern waters, where the main threat was being overwhelmed by boarders from smaller craft. In European waters, the principal threat was the cannon-armed war galley and galleys rarely ventured onto the high seas beyond the Mediterranean and the English Channel. The Portuguese appreciated these factors, and from an early date caravels gave way on the Carreira das Indias to increasingly large carracks.

To recapitulate, the heavily armed caravel was an expedient that perfectly suited Portugal’s initial thrust into the Indian Ocean, but declined in utility once the Portuguese had suppressed local opposition afloat. The caravel did not spawn the long term solution to the problem of mounting heavy guns on sailing warships, nor did its use by the Portuguese stimulate the further development of broadside tactics. Carracks could carry impressive numbers of heavy guns low in the hull, but those guns were mainly for defense. The carrack’s underwater lines and the bulk and weight of the forecastle effectively ruled out heavy bow chasers, and its high freeboard and towering castles made it a poor sailer to windward. Carracks retained their utility well into the seventeenth century, but the carrack, like the caravel, was an evolutionary dead end.

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1 Carla Rahn Phillips. "The Caravel and the Galleon," Richard W. Unger and Robert Gardiner, eds., Cogs, Caravels and Galleons: The Sailing Ship, 1000-1650 (London: Conway Maritime Press: 1994). 91114, esp. 92., gives a range of 18-60 tons burden (carrying capacity) which I have converted to displacement tonnage using the 1:1.5 ratio given by Jan Glete, Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500-1860 (Stockholm: Almqvist and Waksell; 1993), Vol. II, 529, rounding up to account for the volumetric inefficiency of smaller vessels.
2 Roger C. Smith, Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 165-66.
3 Author's observation based on drawings of extant cannon and museum specimens, particularly in the collection of the Museu Militar, Lisbon.
4 Lawrence V. Mott, "A Three-masted Ship Depiction from 1409," International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1994), 39-40.
5 Ian Friel; The Good Ship: Ships and Shipbuilding Technology in England 1200-1520 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), 65, cited in Colin Andrew O'Bannon, The Transition from Clinker to Carvel Shipbuilding in Northern Europe: An Assessment of the Archaeological Record (Unpublished Ohio State University MA Thesis, Dr. John F. Guilmartin and Dr. Frederick M. Hocker advisors, May 3000).
6 O'Bannon, Transition, argues convincingly from archaeological evidence that at least English shipwrights were strengthening the hulls of large warships for heavy gunpowder ordnance well before the shift to carvel construction. The benchmark is the Henry Grace à Dieu, laid down in the first quarter of the fifteenth century.
7 For example the depiction of a single-masted carrack in an Italian manuscript of around 1445 in Frank Howard, Sailing Ships of War, 1400-1860 (Greenwich: Conway Maritime Press, 1979), 19.
8 André Wegener Sleeswyk, "The Engraver Willem A. Cruce and the Development of the Chain-Wale," The Mariner's Mirror, Vol. 76, No. 4 (November 1990): 345-361: for the artist's identity and the dating of the depiction to 1476 with subsequent modifications to the rigging dating to circa 1490.
9 Jan Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London: Routledge, 2000), 138.
10 Norman Macdougall, "The greattest scheip that ever sallit in Ingland or France': James IV's Great Michael" Norman Macdougall, ed., Scotland and War AD 79-1918 (Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1991), 36-60. The Great Michael had three great basilisks, one forward and two aft, 38.
11 Nicholas A M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 (London: W. W. Norton, 1997), 167-68.
12 Margaret Rule, The Mary Rose: The Excavation and Raising of Henry VIII's Flagship (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1982), 103-105, 165-68.

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