Tropic Suns: Seadogs Aboard an English Galleon

Tropic Suns: Seadogs Aboard an English Galleon

by James Seay Dean


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A historian and sailor describes how 16th-century voyages from England to the Americas were made

When a ship set out for the Americas in the 16th century, the crew faced a long voyage and a host of difficulties along the way. Ship-building, navigation, and provisioning were all crucial to the vessel actually arriving in the New World, which was by no means guaranteed. In order to reach her destination, both skill and luck played vital roles. By examining a host of original documents, including especially logs of voyages, historian and sailor James Seay Dean has been able to construct a detailed nautical history of this early period of English exploration of the Americas, when attention was still focused primarily on the Tropics. He looks at how the ships were built, how they were navigated in an age before even sextants, let alone GPS, and what life was like for the crews aboard them. This is an important book for anyone with an interest in the history of colonialism, as well as of ships and the sea.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752450971
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

James Seay Dean is emeritus professor of English & Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He has taught maritime history and published numerous articles in nautical, literary, and historical journals. He is also an experienced sailor and is the author of Sailing a Square-Rigger. He lives in Racine, Wisconsin.

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Tropic Suns

Seadogs Aboard an English Galleon

By James Seay Dean

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 James Seay Dean
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5738-0


'Ships Are But Boards'

'Ships are but boards, sailors but men.' William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1596–97

One day toward the end of January 1556 the English merchant Robert Tomson, passenger in a fleet of eight Spanish ships, was anticipating a landfall within hours at Nueva España's San Juan de Ulúa. The ship was 15 leagues (45 nautical miles) from port. He had left England some years before, moved to Spain, and had set out for the New World to pursue his fortune through trade. Tomson expected to step ashore before dinner on Mexican soil and to make his way to lodgings in nearby Vera Cruz. But from out of nowhere – it was a full three months beyond the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico – came a deadly storm, a Norther typical in those waters. The storm battered the fleet for ten days. One 500-ton hulk was cast away. As for Tomson's ship, he writes that in its 'boisterous winds, fogs and rain our ship being old and weak was so tossed, that she opened at the stern a fathom under water, and the best remedy we had was to stop it with beds and pilobiers, and for fear of sinking we threw and lightened into the sea all the goods we had or could come by'. The captain cut away the mainmast and threw all but one cannon overboard. Tomson was fortunate to live to tell the tale of steep waves and archaic design.

Ships in the sixteenth century were indeed boards, vulnerable especially in the tropics, where wind, wave and sun challenged traditional European designs and construction. In the 1520s English shipwrights were building hulks, cogs and carracks largely designed for coastal sailing but not suitable for transoceanic voyaging. The next seventy-five years were to see radical changes in design and practice in English shipyards. This chapter examines how the English first followed Portuguese and then Spanish examples, then over the decades caught up with and surpasssed these great maritime nations in both design and construction. It considers first the carracks, caravelas, galleons and their refinement as race-built galleons. Second, it turns to the techniques of construction. The old tradition of building with green wood proved troublesome, especially in the tropics. As ships were built from a series of ratios, shipwrights wasted much wood. New powerful cannon required stronger and more stable ships. The race-built galleon was such a ship. Its design could support the more powerful armament, and such vessels were fast and manoeuvrable. From 1570 on, most of the Navy was built or rebuilt the new way. By the 1590s English race-built galleons were copied by the rest of Europe. Related to design was the measurement of a ship's tonnage. Third, the chapter considers lessons learned from oceanic voyaging, during which the English saw new designs or on occasion fashioned a vessel from local raw materials. New vessels include the Dutch vlieboot, the Moorish gallizebra, the Brazilian jangada, Panamanian and Argentinian rafts and Chilean bladder boats. In the Americas, local shipwrights built Cuban frigates for use in Europe, and English shipwrights built a Panamanian pinnace, and a Bermudian bark.


A generation before the English sailed off soundings into the Atlantic, the Portuguese and Spanish were Europe's uncontested maritime nations. The venerable Portuguese nau (a generic name for a large ship) was beamy, short-keeled, with a deep-draught and a large hold for cargo. Naus could carry much cargo, but they were not weatherly vessels. The early Portuguese navigators favoured the smaller but more seaworthy caravela redonda, relatively narrow in beam, with its hermaphrodite rig of square and fore and aft sails on as many as four masts. Here was a design that sailed well and was seaworthy, though smaller. In 1498 a caravela took the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama around Africa to India's pepper and cinnamon. It was a caravela that Pedro Álvares Cabral commanded when he discovered Brazil in 1500. The Portuguese were to write the first manuals on ship construction. About 1565 Fernando de Oliveira published his Livro da fábrica das naus. The Spanish were quick to follow. In 1575 Juan Escalante de Mendoza brought out Itinerario de navigación de los mares y tierras occidentales, a work that considers, among other matters, the proportions of ocean-going vessels, then the usual way to build a ship.

Tudor Carracks and Galleases

England, on the periphery of power, lagged behind the Continent in maritime construction. Shortly after Henry VIII became king in 1509, one of his first acts was to build his navy, a late medieval navy, where size, not efficiency, mattered. The old ways are figured in Henry VIII's great ship, the carrack Henry Grace à Dieu (colloquially, the Great Harry), and her contemporary, the carrack Mary Rose. To challenge the Scottish great ship, Michael, built in 1511, Henry VIII the next year ordered the Great Harry built at the Woolwich yard. Henry's Harry was the greatest of them all: four-masted, 1,000–1,500 tons, 165ft in length, with a four-deck forecastle and a two-deck sterncastle, ordnance of forty-three cannon of which twenty or twenty-one were the new bronze (colloquially called brass), and some 200 smaller ordnance. Her crew numbered between 700 and 1,000 men. Besides her size and the latest bronze cannon, she was the first English warship to have gunports cut into her hull. When launched, she was the grandest vessel afloat in European waters. But like the carrack Mary Rose, the Harry also proved top-heavy, and her rolling made for wildly inaccurate gunfire. In 1536 she was sent back to the shipyard for refitting. Shipwrights there anticipated Hawkyns' race-built design by over thirty years by reducing the Harry's top hamper, cutting down her tonnage to 1,000 tons, and improving her sail plan. In this refit, to make her easier to sail and to balance her centre of effort, her two masts forward carried the main, topsail and topgallants and the two aft carried five lateen sails. She became more responsive, faster, and was a more stable platform for firing her cannon. It is this refitted Harry that is shown in the Anthony Roll, 1546.

Like the Portuguese naus, though, even rebuilt carracks were slow and sailed poorly. Their capacious design, however, had long worked for the Hanse merchants trading in Scandinavia. Their high freeboard had proved a bulwark against attackers and against the steep cold waves of the North Sea. Their deep holds could carry many tuns of profitable cargo. One example was the 700-ton, 70-gun Jesus of Lubeck, 1544. She was one of five carrack traders built originally as merchantmen, 400 to 700 tons. Henry VIII bought her in 1544–45 in Hamburg from the Hanseatic League, and armed her as a warship to augment his navy. The refitted Jesus as shown in the Anthony Roll was in 1546 an impressive ship of great bulk, tonnage and substantial firepower. Of her four masts the fore and mainmasts carried a course and topsail, and on the mizzen and bonadventure mizzen a single lateen sail each. In battle she carried 300 men. Like most vessels of the time the Jesus had been built of green wood, as had Cabot's caravel, the Matthew, in the 1490s. Her unseasoned timber soon rotted. Her high forecastle and poop and full-cut sails made her poor in going to weather but good for defence from boarders.

Her high freeboard and broad beam allowed her to carry some heavy ordnance (seventy cannon in all) at a reasonable distance above the waterline, with smaller guns on the upper decks. Her stern's flat transom was high, with a centre-hung rudder mounted outboard on the transom, usual for the time. The stern was armed with eight cannon of somewhat smaller bore than her main cannon. Two were positioned close to the waterline, on either side of the rudder. Despite these modifications, she was built to be a Baltic trader, not a warship, and the hull suffered from the pounding recoil of heavy artillery. Spanish galleons, with more closely spaced ribs, could take the stresses better. The Jesus' cannon out-muscled her timbers.

Besides carracks, Harry had galleasses. Any captain wants a ship that can manoeuvre in any direction, independent of the wind. The galleass seemed the answer. The galleass, variously called galleys, galleasses or barks, was powered by as many as sixty oars, and had three masts that supported a full sail plan. She was sleek, with a length-to-beam ratio of 3:1 (2:1 was then normal). The vessel was armed with light cannon. She promised to be more versatile than the huge carrack. If there were wind, sail; if calm, row. Underwater, the galleass had the sleek lines of the galley, with a full keel and relatively deep draught, and a pronounced tumblehome that added stability. Such was Henry's Great Galley, launched in 1515 just a year after the Great Harry slid down the ways in 1514. This huge clinker-built vessel of 800 tons had four masts, 120 oars and 97 cannon. But Henry's massive Great Galley (really a galleass) unfortunately proved leak. Furthermore, 800 tons were simply too much to row. In 1544, she was sent back to the yards to be rebuilt as a great ship of 500 tons, without the oars.

In 1545, the war with France proved the uselessness of the large oared galleasses. Both the galleass and the carrack were dying breeds. Even as they came down the ways at the Chatham yard, smaller and faster vessels had for a half century proved their worth in Europe. Yet though Henry's feet were firmly planted on a medieval deck, in some ways he was farseeing. He had always insisted on a fine turn of speed from his horses, women and ships. Thus when his galleasses proved too heavy and too slow he ordered them all back to the shipyards. There they lost their oars and some tonnage. By 1549 they had all been rebuilt as ships.


When the northern carrack met the southern caravela, the result was a three-masted ship with both square sails and a mizzen lateen sail, and a stern-mounted rudder. Size had met speed. The hermaphrodite plan sailed better than the plan of the bulky northern European ships and on the open sea could go to weather or reach well in following seas. This new vessel was the galleon, so successful a design that from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, the galleon was the principal merchant and naval vessel of the English and European fleets. Like all ships of the time, the design was generic so that a single ship could serve as a cargo vessel or warship. Galleons had a pronounced tumblehome that brought the upper gun deck closer to the vessel's centre line, improving stability and making for accurate gunnery. Longer and narrower than carracks, they sailed better than the earlier design. So successful was the galleon as a design, that one, the Lion, was rebuilt three times over her extraordinarily long lifespan of 141 years, from 1557 to 1698.

The galleon's hull was similar to that of the caravela redonda, but she was more stoutly built to withstand heavy seas and to carry heavy ordnance. She was fully rigged like her predecessor. Galleons of this period had three or more masts, of which the fore and main masts were rigged with squares, and lateen-rigged on the after masts. She had a beak, a high forecastle and sterncastle and one or two gun decks. In both merchant and naval use she was armed. It was this sort of vessel that Sir John Hawkyns in the 1570s typically modified as the race-built galleon.

Hawkyns' Race-Built Galleons

Storms and battle encountered in Hawkyns' third trading voyage in 1567–68 to the Caribbean convinced him that a new ship design was needed. D.W. Waters argues cogently that from the disaster at the small port of San Juan de Ulúa in 1568, Hawkyns understood that the Elizabethan navy's 'narrow seas' now had to mean 'oceanic', and that 'battle by boarding' had to give way to 'battle by bombardment'. In that one battle Hawkyns recognised the need for a different design and for new tactics.

By the 1560s the old carrack Jesus of Lubeck had been well past her useful life and was headed for the breakers when she became Elizabeth's major stake in Hawkyns' second voyage, 1564–65, and then the third, 1567–68. For that third voyage the queen valued her condemned vessel not worth the repair costs of £4,000, and Hawkyns had to spend a considerable sum to make the 24-year-old ship seaworthy. Overhauled, the Jesus sailed as Hawkyns' admiral (flagship). Though archaic in design, she still had a cavernous capacity for cargo and the potential for substantial profit. She was leak and unseaworthy, but Hawkyns had to keep her, as she was the queen's impressive royal vessel, part of her stake in the enterprise. Elizabeth's other contribution was the Minion, 300–600 tons, much younger, purchased in 1558. But within six years of her launching she was likewise condemned as unseaworthy and deemed not worth repairing. Like the Jesus, she too was overvalued by the queen. On the West Indian run, Spanish ships rarely undertook more than four voyages out and back before being retired. In the sixteenth century it was rare that a ship would last fifteen years. Five to ten years was the average life before she went to the breakers, and for Spanish ships even less. Shipwrights knew that within fifteen years even a very well-built vessel would surely need to be completely rebuilt. Keep in mind that the tea clippers of the nineteenth century were built to last only a couple of years. By any standard, then, both of Elizabeth's ships were long past their prime.

On the return leg during that third voyage the Jesus suffered serious damage in a hurricane. In the Gulf's steep waves, we read, the planking of her transom opened the seams enough for fish to swim through the gap, so large a man's wrist could reach in. Hawkyns had to head for the Spanish port of San Juan de Ulúa, where he was attacked by the Spanish. Hawkyns lost the battle, all his valuable cargo, the old carrack and her new bronze cannon, and other vessels. On escaping and once back in England, he knew his course – to design and build the race-built galleon. The term 'race-built' comes from the French 'razer', to cut or scrape away, as to cut away a highly charged superstructure.

Two years later, in 1570, Hawkyns joined in partnership with the Deptford shipwright Richard Chapman to build this new kind of vessel. The result was a race-built galleon less than half the size of the carrack Jesus of Lubeck but stronger and faster. The race-built galleon Foresight, keel 78ft, 295 tons, 28/36 guns, had a length-to-beam ratio of 3:1, not the usual 2:1. Below the waterline her hull shape was modelled on that of the galleass. Locating her gundeck on a stepped deck above the cargo deck relatively higher above the waterline gave increased freeboard and kept the heavier cannon drier and increased their range. To offset the higher centre of gravity caused by the placement of the heavy ordnance, Chapman increased the draught, which not only improved stability but also decreased leeway. He decked over the galleon's waist to add a battery of lighter ordnance of shorter 9lb demi-culverins. He cut down the fore and stern castles to reduce windage and to improve windward performance. Her bows were angled to break the seas and to keep the lower forecastle drier. Her lengthened bowsprit, supported and strengthened by the beakhead, along with a forward-raked foremast, allowed this new-styled galleon to carry a square spritsail forward, thus balancing the helm better and making the ship drier.

So successful was the Foresight that in the same year two other vessels were rebuilt to Hawkyns' new fashion. Both were older galleasses (oars had given way to gun decks): the Bull, 1546, 160 tons BM (Builder's Measurement), six demi-culverins, eight sakers and lesser ordnance (by 1585), reclassified as a ship from 1549; and the Tiger, pictured in the Anthony Roll, 1546, 160 BM tons (increased after rebuilding in 1570 to 200 tons, armed with six demi-culverins and ten sakers and lesser ordnance (by 1585). Over the next few years, the bulk of the navy's existing fleet was modified, and newly commissioned vessels were constructed from keel up to the new design. Hawkyns reduced the top hamper of the older galleons, increased the length-to-beam ratio so that the ships appeared to float 'low in the water' like galleasses, and recut their sails to make them flatter, thus allowing the vessel to sail closer to the wind. The improved ships could then sail within six or seven points of the wind (each point 11° 15', a 'point' being one of the 32 points of the compass card), about what a nineteenth-century ship of the line or a modern schooner can do. These changes made them faster, stronger and more seaworthy. By 1588 when the English fleet met the Spanish in the English Channel, sixteen of the twenty-one front-line ships had been either modified or built afresh as race-built vessels.


Excerpted from Tropic Suns by James Seay Dean. Copyright © 2014 James Seay Dean. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface 7

Notices to Mariners 9

Acknowledgements 11

Introduction 13

1 'Shisp Are But Boards' 19

2 'Remainder Biscuit' 41

3 Western Winds-A Tropical Rutter 59

4 Stars for Wandering Barks 73

5 The Way of a Fighting Ship 103

6 'Plague of the Sea and Spoyle of Mariner's 134

7 Traffigues and Booty 168

8 Epilogue 190

Appendix A Chronology 196

Appendix B Tropical Climate and Weather 203

Appendix C Glossary 218

Bibliography 223

About the Author 231

Index 233

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