Age of Invention: Sails Force

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One of the things I’ve been looking into lately is the maritime technology of the late sixteenth century. This is because I think it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle as to why London grew so dramatically over the course of c.1550-1650: an unprecedented, near-tenfold urban explosion.

As I’ve mentioned before, a newfound ability of the English to sail much farther afield likely had a lot to do with this growth. Having once hugged the nearby coasts, rarely venturing beyond the northern coasts of France, Spain and the Netherlands, English ships in the late sixteenth century were suddenly sailing to Morocco, the Gulf of Guinea, to the icy White Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, across the Atlantic, and into the Indian Ocean. English merchants found new and more direct markets for their exports of wool cloth, with London soon becoming one of the major northern hubs for exotic imports: sugar from Morocco and the Caribbean, currants from Kefalonia and Zakynthos, tobacco from the Americas, silk from Persia, dyes like indigo, brazilwood, logwood, and cochineal, and the spices sold at Aleppo, increasingly bought closer to their source in the Indian Ocean.

The extended range of English merchants was largely due to the adoption of certain navigation techniques — rather than remembering coastal landmarks and the kind of sediment that might be drawn up from the sea floor, English navigators increasingly found their bearings by looking to the stars. Adopted from the Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians thanks to the efforts of Sebastian Cabot, celestial navigation made it significantly easier for the English to sail the open seas. In the early 1550s, Cabot helped organise trial expeditions to Morocco and the Guinea coast, to the eastern Mediterranean, and north-east into the White Sea in search of a shortcut to China. With the adoption of celestial navigation, England’s age of exploration began.

What has bothered me about this narrative so far, however, is that the English did not just catch up with the technology of the Iberian and Italian explorers. In many of the distant seas that they began to pop up in, they also came to supplant them. Semi-official pirates, or privateers, like John Hawkins and Francis Drake were in the 1560s capturing Spanish and Portuguese ships off the coasts of Africa and the Caribbean, and raiding the Spanish-controlled South American mainland. In 1578 Drake even extended his raiding into the Pacific, after which he circumnavigated the globe, looting essentially anything of value in his path. By 1600, if not earlier, English ships were also out-competing the once-mighty maritime power of Venice in their own home seas.

Certainly, the spread of celestial navigation techniques played a role here. In the early 1550s, when Cabot sent the English sailing out of their comfort zone, the fleet captains were still largely chosen for their military prowess rather than for any navigational skill. Sir Hugh Willoughby, who captained the expedition to the White Sea, was really the voyage’s “General”. He had led a small contingent of cavalry in the wars with Scotland, and even commanded a fort under siege, but he had no skill in navigation. His chief qualifications for the role were that he was tall and imposing, and had the impetuosity to sail out into the unknown — he had earnestly requested the commission, presumably sensing the potential to achieve everlasting glory. (His inexperience of navigation showed, however, when his ship became separated from that of his pilot, and he and his crew all perished on an icy Arctic shore). Much the same could be said of Thomas Wyndham, who captained the trial expedition to the western coast of Africa. The younger son of wealthy minor gentry, he was university-educated in the humanities and civil law, and had mainly got his reputation fighting in Ireland and Scotland (though he did have some experience of leading naval landings and of organising a bit of coastal piracy).

The second generation of naval commanders, however, were of a slightly different breed. Although they still tended to be violent young men drawn from the impetuous sons of wealthy merchants and the minor gentry, they were highly skilled navigators too. Although Drake during his circumnavigation made use of pilots captured from ships en route, the first things he seized were their charts and instruments, which he used himself or else cast into the sea. He was unafraid to leave pilots behind once he had extracted their knowledge of coastal landmarks, and made diligent latitude measurements to verify captured charts, compiling the information into new charts of his own. Drake boasted that he was not just the most skilled mariner in the world, but the most learned. Even some of his enemies could not help but agree. “He is a very skilful mariner” was the later testimony of one of the pilots he had captured, who noted that Drake sailed with books on celestial navigation, too.

But there has to be more to the story than the simple adoption of celestial navigation. After all, the Portuguese and Spanish had had the techniques for far longer than the English. There were certainly some English advances to navigational techniques and instruments, which simplified mariners’ calculations, increased the accuracy of their measurements, and reduced human error. But it’s hard to say if these gave English navigators an especially strong edge. I’m still unclear on how broadly the advances were adopted, or even whether there were very similar advances being made in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. So there may have been some kind of edge for the English in this regard, but I’ve not seen any attempt at quantification, or even know how one might go about it.

Apart from the adoption and refinement of celestial navigation techniques, however, English seafaring capabilities also benefited from some more obvious, physical changes. In 1588, for example, on the eve of the Spanish Armada, a senior Spanish officer believed that the English had “many more long-range guns”. By the 1540s, medieval ironmaking techniques involving the blast furnace had gradually spread from Germany, to Normandy, and thence to the Weald of Sussex and Kent. Whereas in the first half of the sixteenth century England had typically imported three quarters of its iron from Spain, by 1590 it had not only quintupled its consumption of iron but was also almost entirely self-sufficient. And by allowing England to exploit its plentiful domestic deposits of iron, the blast furnace resulted in it producing many more cheap cannon.

Iron guns were in many ways worse for ships than those of bronze. They were heavier, prone to corrosion, and more likely to explode without warning. Bronze guns, by contrast, would first bulge and then split, but in any case tended to last. When the British captured Gorée off the coast of Senegal in 1758, they found a working English-made bronze cannon that dated from 1582. Yet iron was only 10-20% the price of bronze. Although the Royal Navy for decades continued to prefer bronze, cheap, medium-sized cannon of iron proliferated, becoming affordable to merchants, pirates, and privateers — a situation that was unique to England.

English ships were thus especially well-armed, allowing them to access new markets even when they sailed into hostile waters. They were soon some of the only merchants able to hold their own against the latest Mediterranean apex predator, whether it be the Spanish navy, Algeria-based corsairs, or Ottoman galleys. And they were able to insert themselves, sometimes violently, into the inter-oceanic trades — all despite the armed resistance of the Spanish and Portuguese, who had long monopolised those routes. In the 1560s, John Hawkins tried a few times to muscle in on the transatlantic Portuguese and Spanish trade in slaves. With backing from the monarch and her ministers, he captured Portuguese slave ships, raided and traded along the African coastline himself, and then sold slaves in the Spanish colonies of the Americas, sometimes having to attack those colonies before the local governor would allow them to trade. (The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, as Hawkins’s privateering fleet was all but destroyed in 1568 and the English were not involved in the slave trade again for almost a century.)

The English hold over the hostile markets was only threatened during times of peace on the continent, when their ships’ defensiveness no longer gave them a special advantage. The Dutch usurped English dominance of the trade with Iberia and the Mediterranean, for example, during the Dutch Republic’s truce with Spain 1609-21. Their more efficient ships, especially for bulk commodities — the fluyt invented at Hoorn in the late 1580s — were cheaper to build, required fewer sailors, and were easier to handle. But these advantages only made them competitive when the risk of attack was low, as they were hardly armed. When wars resumed, the English had a chance to regain their position.

Finally, the English acquired a few further advantages when it came to ship design. Thanks to the shipwright Matthew Baker, who had been on the trial voyage Cabot dispatched to the Mediterranean, England experienced a revolution in using mathematics to design ships. Baker’s methods, seemingly developed in the 1560s, allowed him to more cheaply experiment with new forms, and by the 1570s these began to bear fruit. The old ocean-going carracks and galleons, with their high forecastles and aftercastles, became substantially sleeker. Taking inspiration from nature, Baker designed a streamlined, elongated hull modelled below the waterline upon a cod’s head with a mackerel tail. Above the waterline, too, he lowered the forecastle and set it further back, as well as flattening the aftercastle.

Starting in 1570 with his prototype the Foresight, and more fully developed in 1575-77 with the Revenge, these razed or “race-built” galleons gave the English some significant advantages. Drake even chose the Revenge as his flagship to battle the Spanish Armada in 1588, and to lead an ill-fated reprisal invasion of Portugal the following year. The higher castles of carracks and old-style galleons were suited to clearing an enemy’s decks with arrows and gunfire, as well as to defend against boarders. They were designed for combat at close quarters, in which height was an advantage. They were floating fortresses, their imposing height known to inspire terror. The race-built galleons, by contrast, by making the ship less top-heavy, could have longer and lower gundecks, with more of the ship’s displacement devoted to ordnance — especially useful when taking advantage of the cheaper but heavier cannon made of iron. Rather than killing an enemy ship’s sailors and soldiers, the race-built galleons were optimised for blasting through its hull. What they lost in “majesty and terror”, they made up for with overwhelming firepower. They aimed to sink.

One naval historian has termed the change “The Dreadnought Revolution of Tudor England”, comparing it to the great leap forward in naval technology of the early 1900s. In fact, by complete coincidence, one of the very earliest race-built ships was also called the Dreadnought. Despite engaging the Armada even at very close quarters, with both sides trading large quantities of shot, English ships dealt immense structural damage while receiving very little in return. The English navy extensive required repair after the battle, but hardly any of it was to the ships’ hulls.

And the race-built galleons were considerably more manoeuvrable. The Spanish officer who provided his judgement before the Armada set sail noted that he thought the English ships were “faster and handier than ours”. Other Iberian commanders echoed this afterwards, too, complaining that the English had been able to tack four or five times faster than them, meaning that they could change direction much more quickly — a crucial capability in any fight at sea. Even the fastest Spanish ships by comparison “appeared to be standing still”.

I’m no nautical engineer, but from what I gather this greater manoeuvrability was due to the lower and receded forecastle — it meant that the front of the ship faced less wind resistance. The lowering of both castles also made the ships less top-heavy, reducing their roll. And the advantages of the new design were not confined to the Royal Navy. Private ships, sometimes owned by courtiers with financial interests in both trade and plunder, were often built along the same lines too (though the full extent of the design’s adoption is unclear). As one seasoned travel writer noted in 1600, English ships were known to be significantly nimbler and swifter than those of the Venetians even in their home seas. They could make the journey from Venice to Syria and back again in the time that it took an Italian ship just to make the outward journey — one of the key reasons seems to be that the English ships would set out even when the winds were not ideal, their reduced roll also making them less susceptible to bad weather.

Overall then, the English gained a series of technological advantages, each of them perhaps minor in their own way, but collectively allowing them to launch an era of exploration, extraordinary piracy, and unprecedented trade. Through navigational technique, cheap iron ordnance, and sleeker ship design, by 1600 they were already well on their way to one day ruling the waves.

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