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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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The Spanish Galleons
By Cindy Vallar


The Spaniard came in sight, with his huge sea-castles heaving upon the weather bow.
Thousands of soldiers looked down from her decks and laughed.
And up-shadowing high above us with her yawning tiers of guns
Took the break from our sails, and we stayed.

The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet by Alfred Lord Tennyson

High castles fore and aft and multiple decks of guns bring to mind the large galleons with lofty sails and graceful lines that transported the riches of the New World to Spain. Yet, the original galleons used to explore the lands across the oceans rarely surpassed the size of a modern-day offshore fishing boat.

Spain needed seaworthy ships capable of making transoceanic voyages while laden with vast cargoes, but early sea vessels lacked these qualities. Designers borrowed the best characteristics of existing ships to build just such a vessel. From the caravel came the fixed rudder and lateen sails. From the carrack came the sturdy hull and fore and aft castles. The result was the galleon, which combined square and lateen sails rigged on three or four masts with a longer ratio of length to beam and castles more integrated with the structure of the ship.

While the galleon is most often associated with Spain, other nations copied and modified the design. The Dutch enclosed a portion of the originally designed open-air gallery around the stern to provide toilets for the officers. Later, they extended the covering to also provide quarters for the officers. Based on innovations suggested by Sir Francis Drake, English shipbuilders built smaller versions with lower superstructures. These race-built galleons had sleeker hulls that allowed them to move swiftly and although they carried smaller guns, these possessed a longer range than those aboard Spanish galleons. This altered design made the race-built galleon a formidable foe, as evidenced when used against the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Drake's Revenge was one such galleon. Built in 1575, she participated in that battle against the Spanish invasion fleet. This warship later engaged a fleet of fifty-three Spanish warships near the Azores in 1591. She sank two ships outright and only struck her colors fifteen hours after the battle began because the majority of crew, including the captain, was killed or wounded and she had exhausted her supply of gunpowder. The victory for Spain, however, was bittersweet, for the Revenge was so damaged that she sank.

The Ark Royal, commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh circa 1580, possessed a length of 140 feet with a hundred-foot keel, a beam of thirty-seven feet, and four masts. She weighed five hundred tons and carried thirty-eight guns: twenty-two culverins and sixteen demi-culverins. Her crew numbered 320 sailors and one hundred soldiers. She was steered by means of a whipstaff--a long lever attached to a gooseneck hinge that moved the tiller.

The internal structure of Spanish galleons included a series of braces, knees, and decks as evidenced in The Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightry by the English shipwright, Matthew Baker. These allowed for more than one deck of guns aboard ships for the first time. The heaviest gun found aboard a galleon was approximately ten feet long and fired shot weighing thirty-two pounds. Yet, the most suitable gun for use on this vessel was the demi-culverin. Some Spanish galleons carried as many as thirty-six guns: sixteen culverins on the lowerdeck, twelve demi-culverins on the upper deck, and eight sakers.

Spain eventually built much larger, more elaborate galleons with the combined purpose of carrying cargo and soldiers. More than two thousand trees--pine, cedar, oak, and mahogany--were required to build the largest of these, some of which became the warships that guarded the flota, or fleet, of vessels bound for Spain from the New World with holds laden with riches. A typical galleon weighed five hundred tons, but the largest were 1,200 tons. The high superstructure, which clearly identified a Spanish galleon, made the ship clumsy and slow. While larger in size, though, life aboard the galleon was no better for mariners than previously designed ships. Wealthy or influential passengers plus their servants could put the total number of people aboard a galleon at two hundred soldiers and sailors and up to fifty civilians, which made for very cramped quarters.

A typical Spanish galleon had a number of decks: forecastle, upper or weatherdeck, main deck, lower or orlop deck, poop deck, and quarterdeck. The crew's quarters were in the bow while the officers and passengers lived in cramped cabins in the waist or center section of the galleon. Provisions were stowed near the galley. Larger galleons also had a surgeon aboard. In addition to the sailors and soldiers that made up the crew, there were also the carpenter, sailmaker, cook, and cooper.

The captain or admiral lived in the Great Cabin, earmarked by large windows, greater space, and more comfort. While his was above deck, the crew slept and ate on the gundecks where it was dark, damp, and odorous. Insects and rats abounded and foodstuffs often spoiled.

The crew of a Spanish galleon with thirty guns might number 180 men. In battle, sixty-six worked the guns, fifty manned small arms on the upper deck, and fifty sailed the ship. Four were stationed in the powder room and as many as four carpenters repaired damage belowdeck. The surgeon commanded several men who served as assistants in tending the wounded. The remaining crew kept watch for fires. Few galleons sank from enemy attacks, though. The enemy's guns more often damaged the rigging and masts, and inflicted serious wounds on the crew from flying splinters when shot crashed through wood.

The enemies that inflicted the most devastating damage on the treasure galleons, though, were the sea and wind. In spite of its seaworthiness, the galleon was a fragile structure. Hurricanes and rough seas sank more than one treasure ship during the years the galleons sailed.

The Spanish Flota
Spain’s overseas empire incorporated the Caribbean and much of Latin America. They built fortified ports to provide safe harbors for their ships to anchor. Chief among these ports were Havana (Cuba), Cartagena (Colombia), Vera Cruz (Mexico), and Panama. They also established local administrative and trading centers in Porto Bello, Santo Domingo, Caracas, and Campeche.

Spain jealously guarded her possessions because of the wealth found there.  She considered any interlopers—particularly those from northern Eurpose—pirata and treated them accordingly. The Spaniards seized ships and tortured, enslaved, or slew violators. This persecution united the pirates against Spain and the rich treasure ships stirred their lust to acquire the gold, silver, and gems for themselves.

From Seville, the House of Trade of the Casa de Contratacíon (Council of the Indies) oversaw all operations of the flota (treasure fleet). They controlled every aspect of the ships from the men who crewed them to the armament aboard to the cargo and passengers carried. From 1550 to 1735, the flota crisscrossed the Atlantic, bringing supplies and people from Spain to the New World and returning home laden with silver, gold, emeralds, pearls, silks, indigo, and spices.

Initially merchant ships sailed between Spain and the New World alone, but frequent pirate attacks that caused heavy losses changed this. An armed convoy of ships was introduced, and once the galleons became part of the flota, the Council of the Indies reorganized the system once again. After 1564 two fleets sailed. The Tierra Firma Flota usually departed Seville in August bound for Cartagena and Panama.  The New Spain Flota sailed in April for Vera Cruz. Each voyage usually took two to three months, and the ships rarely departed on schedule. Both wintered in the New World, then joined up in Havana around February or March. Laden with their precious cargoes, the combined flota sailed for Spain. Sometimes, however, each returned to Spain separately.

Pirates continued to attack the treasure ships, so the Council of the Indies added a third convoy to the flota system in 1591, a change which remained in effect until the mid 1600s. Comprised of up to twelve galleons and at least two pataches (dispatch boats), the Armada de Tierra Firma carried only treasure. The average weight of the Silver Fleet galleons was six hundred tons, but some weighed one thousand tons. Each galleon carried two hundred marines and much armament to safeguard the cargo against pirate attacks.

Spain had two other treasure fleets, both of which operated in the Pacific Ocean. The Armada of the South Seas, begun around 1540, carried silver from Peru to Panama, which mules then carted overland to Porto Bello. The Manila Galleons began their runs from the Philippines in 1565 and continued bringing valuable cargo from China to Acapulco until 1815. During the Sixteenth Century, these galleons averaged seven hundred tons.  In the next century, their size doubled to 1500 tons. The Eighteenth Century saw further increases ranging from 1700 to 2000 tons. The voyage to the Philippines from Mexico took about nine weeks, but the return trip took four to eight months. Mariners considered it one of the most dangerous routes in the world. One third of the three hundred to six hundred people aboard during any voyage died from scurvy, epidemics, hunger, thirst, or exposure. Even so, the Manila Galleons always had men willing to crew them and passengers willing to risk the odds.

Perhaps the most infamous pirata to prey on the treasure fleets was Sir Francis Drake. He captured the San Felipe on 18 June 1587. Laden with spices, silks, and ivory, she was one of the richest prizes ever seized. While aboard the Golden Hind on 1 March 1579, he and his men also captured the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (also known as Caca Fuego-- Shitfire). Her cargo far surpassed Drake’s expectations: “fruits, conserves, sugar and a great quantity of jewels and precious stones, eighty pounds of bar gold and twenty-six tons of uncoined silver,” a cargo worth $35,000,000 today. (Jennifer Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean)

In 1553 Vincent Bocquet of Dieppe captured eight out of fourteen vessels in a flota bound for Spain. He accomplished this feat with only two ships. Piet Heyn, who commanded a fleet of thirty-one ships, succeeded in capturing every ship in the flota in 1628. The combined haul amounted to 177,357 pounds of silver, 135 pounds of gold, 2270 chests of indigo, 735 chests of a scarlet dye called cochineal, 37,375 hides, logwood, and 235 chests of sugar, spices, and pearls. (Marx)

Although the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 weakened Spain’s monopoly of the New World, the treasure flota continued to sail. By the end of the 1600s, however, the availability of silver in Europe caused the value of this precious metal to plummet. At the same time the cost to sail rose. Combined with high inflation and the drain of the Thirty Years’ War on Spain’s economy, these brought about the decline of the flota system.

In 1537 six warships and twenty merchant ships comprised one-third of the flota. During its declining years, the entire fleet usually numbered twelve ships. By 1740 Spain abandoned the system all together, although the Manila Galleons continued to sail for almost another century.

A Fateful Voyage: The Story of the 1715 Fleet, Pirates, and a Tercentary

If you would like to learn more, I recommend the following resources:

"The 1622 Spanish Treasure Fleet Disaster in the Dry Tortugas" [http://www.adp.fsu.edu/rosario.html -- link no longer active].
Aoestegui, Cruz. "Architecture and Naval Construction in the Atlantic Spain in the 17th and Early 18th Centuries." [http://www.ipa-min-cultura.pt/cnans/simposio/6orador.html -- link no longer active]
Arnold, J. Barto, and Melinda Arceneaux Wickman. "Padre Island Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554," The Handbook of Texas. Texas State Historical Association, 2002. [http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/etpfe -- verified 8/7/2015]

Blindkat. Pirates of the Caribbean. 2003. [http://pirates.hegewisch.net/pirates.html -- verified 8/7/2015]

"Cargoes," Shipwreck: The Exhibit. Miami Museum of Science. 2002. [http://www.miamisci.org/shipwreck/cargoes.html -- link no longer active]

Dankwa, E. T. "The Carrack," A Concise History of the Development of Square-rigged Ship from the Carrack to the Full-rigger. 2000. [http://www.in-arch.net/Sqrigg/squrig2.html -- verified 8/7/2015]
DeBry, John. "The 1715 Fleet Disaster," HRD Newsletters, 1:2-6 and 2:2-4 [http://www.hrd1715.com/1715story.html -- verified 8/7/2015]

Gaither, Catherine M. "The 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet: Picking Up the Pieces of a 281-year-old Disaster," tuSpain, 1996. [http://www.tuspain.com/heritage/gold.htm -- verified 8/7/2015]
"Galleons," The Great Ships. A&E Television, 1996.

"History of the Shipwreck Nestra Senora de Atocha," New World Treasures, 2003. [http://www.newworldtreasures.com/atochastory.htm -- verified 8/7/2015]
"The History of the Spanish Treasure Fleet System" [http://www.adp.fsu.edu/fleet.html -- link no longer active].
Hoffman, Paul E. The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean, 1535-1585. Louisiana State, 1980.
Horner, Dave. Shipwreck. ibooks, 2012.

Konstam, Angus. The History of Shipwrecks. Lyons Press, 2002.
Kyle, Kristen. "Promise of Gold: Spanish Galleons & Treasure Fleets," Promise of Gold Research Notes. [http://www.kristenkyle.com/rbb_pog2.html -- link no longer active]

Lane, Kris E. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas 1500-1750. M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

"Manila Galleons" [http://www.mms.gov/omm/pacific/kids/manila-galleons.html -- link no longer active]
Marx, Jenifer.  Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean. Krieger, 1992.

"Sailing the Ship," Shipwreck: The Exhibit. Miami Museum of Science. 2002. [http://www.miamisci.org/shipwreck/sailing.html -- link no longer active]
"Sea Battles," Shipwreck: The Exhibit. Miami Museum of Science. 2002. [http://www.miamisci.org/shipwreck/seabattles.html -- link no longer active]
"Shipbuilding," Shipwreck: The Exhibit. Miami Museum of Science. 2002. [http://www.miamisci.org/shipwreck/shipbuilding.html -- link no longer active]
Smith, Kellen D. "Casa de Contratacion," Historical Text Archive. [http://historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?action=read&artid=626 -- verified 8/7/2015]
"Spain," Shipwreck: The Exhibit. Miami Museum of Science. 2002. [http://www.miamisci.org/shipwreck/spain.html -- link no longer active]
Tennyson, Alfred. "The Revenge: A Ballard of the Fleet," The Literature Network [http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/726/ -- verified 8/7/2015]
"Treasure Ships," 1999. [http://w1.303.telia.com/~u30303144/treasureships.html -- link no longer active]
"Treasures," 1999. [http://w1.303.telia.com/~u30303144/pirategold.html -- link no longer active]

Vieira de Casto, Filipe. "Class 12: The Spanish Fleets," Nautical Archaeology of the Americas ANTH318 [http://nautarch.tamu.edu/class/anth318/Class%2012-%20Spanish%20Shipwrecks.htm -- verified 8/7/2015].

Walton, Timothy. "Unaccounted for Shipwrecks: The 1605 Terra Firma Fleet," Treasure Quest Magazine, 1999. [http://www.treasureexpeditions.com/1605_terra_firma_fleet.htm -- verified 8/7/2015]
Weller, Bob "Frogfoot." "Mystery Ship of the 1715 Treasure Fleet," Treasureexpeditions.com, 1999. [http://www.treasureexpeditions.com/MysteryShip.htm -- link no longer active]

© 2003 Cindy Vallar

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