Defeat of the Spanish Fleet, 14 February 1797
Robert Cleveley ( English 1747 -1809)
Water-colour 4 in x 8 in
Marineart Gallery, New York

HMS Victory Engaging the Spanish Ship 'Prince of Asturias' off Cape St. Vincent, 1797
Robert Cleveley ( English 1747 -1809)
Water-colour 4 in x 8 in
Marineart Gallery, New York


The Carrack

The information on this page is reproduced here with the kind permission of Michael Imig for educational purposes. © Michael Imig,  Visit his web site, The Era of the Spanish Galleons

Carracks are regarded as the immediate predecessor of the galleon in terms of ship design.  They were the first large square-rigged ships to ply the seas and were valued because of their large capacity for carrying troops or cargo.

Carracks differed from galleons in that they were still primarily medieval ships built with an emphasis on winning a medieval style battle. The design emphasis was not on sailing qualities and artillery capacity, but with building a ship resistant to enemy boarding parties. (To a lesser extent this is true of the galleon as well and contributed to its eventual demise as a ship design) To repel boarders the aft and forecastles were built up as towering fortresses bristling with archery or gun slits. Although guns are recorded as being in use on some European ships as early as 1337, they did not have any real affect on warfare for nearly 150 years. Early guns were of small calibre, slow to  reload, and unreliable in battle.

Columbus and His Ships

The Caravel

Caravels were valued for their speed and relative ease of sailing in contrary winds. Prior to the development of the galleon they were the mainstays of Spanish shipping. However their small size limited the cargo capacity of the hull and they gradually disappeared in the late 16th century.

In Spain and Portugal, the earliest known caravels date from the 13th Century. These early caravels were small, three-masted vessels with lateen rigging. They carried a crew of 5 or 6 men and were perhaps 50 tons in size. They were used as fishing boats, or coastal cargo ships.

The peak of the caravel was the period from the 1430s to the 1530s when all of Europe, not just Spain and Portugal, made use of them. By this time many caravels were 100--200 tons in size, although this was still quite small in comparison to the average 400 or 500 ton galleon that was to dominate the seas in later decades. The caravels of this time were often square-rigged on the fore and main masts, although the lateen rig was kept for the mizzen. The most famous caravels are the Nina and the Pinta, which sailed with Columbus on his maiden voyage to the New World.

Caravel with Latine Rigging

Reproduction of one of Columbus's Ships

Model of a Caravel


The Tools Of Dead Reckoning

Navigation in this era was notoriously unreliable given the limited technological resources that Sailors had at their disposal. It was possible to determine latitude by means we shall soon see, but a reliable means of fixing longitude was to remain undiscovered in this era. The Spanish crown offered (huge rewards to anyone who could devise an accurate means of fixing longitude at sea.) Since no means had yet been discovered to measure longitude, a variety of less accurate methods of figuring position were used. {These instruments were found on the Mary Rose} 

Sandglass & Log Lines - The illustration to the left depicts a sandglass and log line. They were used by the pilot to measure the galleon’s speed. This was done by knotting a rope at equal intervals and fixing a piece of wood to the end. The wood was thrown into the water and a sailor counted aloud as the knots in the rope slipped through his finger.  The number of knots that passed through his fingers in one minute (measured by the sandglass) provided the pilot with the approximate speed. (I.e.. the English derivation of the term “knots” for measuring nautical miles per hour.) The Spanish of course did not use “miles” as a measurement, but used a similar method to measure according to their own system. Larger sandglasses measured the passage of hours and were also very important. A pilot needed to know how long he had been at sea.

Journals - experienced pilots kept logs describing areas where they had ventured before.  These records included notes on currents, water colour, prevailing winds, climate conditions, water depth, sighting of birds and islands, etc. By referencing the progress made on past voyages the navigator could get a better idea of where he might be and what to expect ahead.

Compass - these comprised of a magnetized needle that pivoted on a pin. They functioned like the modern compass.

Backstaff - the backstaff was used to measure latitude. This is done by measuring the altitude of the sun. At noon the sun would be directly overhead on the equator. However far the sun deviates from that position gives the pilot a measurement of how far south or north he has sailed.

The Mariners

One tends to think of the captain as setting the ship's course and measuring this progress. But in reality his duties were largely supervisory. This was particularly necessary for the Spanish because they made a habit of appointing captains for their bravery or administrative abilities rather than their nautical skills.

Below is the collective navigational brain trust of a Spanish war galleon:

Captain (Capitan)

The commanding officer of the ship, he supervised the duties of the master and pilot but generally let them plot the course. Only a few Spanish captains were accomplished navigators in their own right.

Master (Maestre)

Originally most Spanish ships did not even have “captains”, but were commanded by men of this rank. That remained true on smaller ships, but by the mid 1500s the masters on galleons assigned specifically to giving orders for handling the ship, keeping it seaworthy, checking equipment, and performing navigational duties.


Usually an experienced sailor who had been the same route many times before. He was the man actually responsible for setting the course. Sometimes one man performed the duties of both pilot and master.

The Art of Getting Lost

Unlike today, no navigator knew exactly where he was all the time. As long as charted land was in sight the task was not too hard - you could guide yourself by landmarks. But crossing an ocean meant days or weeks out of sight of land and that's when the trouble began. Although log lines provided a rough estimate of speed, they could not take into account every fluctuation of the wind, and the speed or hindrance of the underlying currents. During voyages to the New World, navigators frequently disagreed by days how much further the fleet would have to travel before sighting land. 
Clouds could obscure the sun and stars for days, presenting further problems. If the sun or constellations could not be seen, navigators had serious difficulties in determining latitude, their only firm measurement when out of sight of land. But the primitive means of navigation during the era were more of a bothersome hindrance than a threat to the well being of the ship. You might get to the New World a few days later or earlier than expected, but you would eventually arrive.

The more serious navigational dangers for the treasure fleets were due to poor or non-existent charting of shoal waters in the Caribbean. Galleons could and did have their hulls ripped open by sailing into treacherously shallow water. In those instances it was important to have a pilot familiar with the both the anchorage and routes the galleons would follow.

The Cargo Manifest

Silver - Mines were worked in Taxco, Zultepec, Pachuca, Zacatecas, Vetagrande, San Luis Potosi, Sombrerete, and Guanajuato by 1558 alone. During the two ensuing centuries mines were worked over much of modern South and Central America, but the richest deposits seem to have been in Peru and Mexico.

Silver was mined in huge quantities, by some estimates at a ratio of ten to one compared to gold. Aside from being melted down and shipped to Spain, silver was also used by the several mints in the New World. Denominations of eight, four, two, one, and one half reales were all struck. The eight-reale coin, known by much of the world as the “piece-of-eight”, was the common denomination of economic transactions in the New World. The piece-of-eight is about an ounce (approximately 29 grams) of silver.
Gold - Sizeable deposits were mined in Colombia and Chile, plus smaller quantities throughout South America and Mexico.

Gold occurred in lesser quantities than silver in the New World.  Foundries would melt the gold into bars or bricks a few pounds in weight and ship them back to Spain aboard the next flotilla.  Gold bars were stamped with the King's seal to indicate payment of taxes. They were also stamped to indicate carat purity. Purity was determined by an assayer who took a “bite”, or small notch, from the bar to make the test. The penalty for smuggling untaxed gold back to Spain was 200 lashes and ten years chained to the oar of a galley.

Gold coins were not minted in the New World until 1679, when a mint was established in Mexico City. Coins were struck in denominations of eight, four, two, and one escudos. The eight-escudo coin is commonly called the “doubloon”.
Platinum - This rare resource was mined in Colombia. However its value was less than that of gold or silver during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Pearls - An early flood of pearls came from the island of Margarita in the eastern Caribbean, but by the end of the sixteenth century the beds were largely depleted.  Smaller fisheries continued to operate around the Caribbean and South America.
Emeralds - Rich mines were worked in the seventeenth century in modern Colombia. 
Other - Very profitable imports such as hides, dyes, rare woods and agricultural products (e.g. tobacco, vanilla beans, sarsaparilla, cacao) came from throughout the new colonies and complemented the rich haul. Moreover the galleons also carried the invaluable loads of silks, spices, pottery and other valuables brought across the Pacific from China to Panama via Spain's “Manila galleons”.

Background Sources:

Treasure of the Atocha, R. Duncan Mathewson III, E.P. Dutton, NY, 1986
The Search for Sunken Treasure, Robert and Jennifer Marx, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1993

The Funnel Of Gold, Mendel Peterson, Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1975

Spanish galleon routes (white): West Indies or trans-atlantic route begun in 1492, Manila galleon or trans-pacific route begun in 1565. (Blue: Portuguese routes, operational from 1498 to 1640) Credit: NASA/JPL/NIMA derivative work: Uxbona

Map showing main Portuguese (blue) and Spanish (white) oceanic trade routes in the 16th century, as a result of the exploration during the Age of Discovery. Showing the Spanish colonial Manila-Acapulco Galleons route (1565-1815) between the Viceroyalty of New Spain (México) and the Spanish East Indies (Philippines), using the ports of Acapulco and Cavite. PIA03395: World in Mercator Projection, Shaded Relief and Colored Height

A silver 8-Reales (Peso) coin minted in México (1621-65). Credit: Centpacrr

Mint mark17th Century "Spanish Treasure" "Shield Type" Silver 8-Reales (Peso) Cob ("Macuquina") Coin marked with Spanish Royal Coat of Arms of Filipe IV (1621-1665) (illustrated) Minted in México City (Mint mark: "M" with small "o" above located to left of the shield of Filipe IV on reverse). 43mm x 37mm (irregular), 26.658 gm (0.941 oz) [Note: The legal weight for this denomination was 27.468 gm (0.970 oz); this coin is 0.810 gm (0.029 oz) short of that.] Fineness: 930.5.

Spanish Treasure Fleet

English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588 Credit: Unknown

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines. Credit:  Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada, an unsigned painting mistakenly attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, oil on canvas, 121.3 × 284.5 cm (47¾ × 112 in). Held by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London. The painting presents a stylized account of the battle of Gravelines between the Spanish Armada and the English fleet, including the beacons, Elizabeth's address at Tilbury, and the battle itself in a single montage on three jointed pieces of fine tabby-weave linen. The smalt used would have once made the sky bright blue but it and other pigments in the work have discolored over time. Mainstream historians consider the red and yellow flags simply Spanish, although some Catalan historians consider them local.

Spanish Armada

How to Fire a Cannon

{Cannon from the Mary Rose}

Firing A Gun

Here is a summary of the steps involved in firing a muzzle loading cannon:

1. Insert a charge of gunpowder into the barrel with a gun ladle
2. Insert a piece of cloth wadding with a rammer. The wadding separates the charge
    from the shot.
3. Insert the cannon ball (shot) with rammer.
4. Insert another piece of wadding with rammer.
5. Run the gun out (i.e.. so the muzzle protrudes from the gun port.)
6. Prick the powder charge through a "touch hole" at the top of cannon.
7. Fill touch hole with powder from powder horn.
8. Ignite powder in touch hole by inserting a cord and lighting it.
9. Cannon fires.
10. Recoil pushes gun backwards
11. Swab the gun's barrel with sponge and water

Size And Weight Of The Guns

The war galleons of the era carried anywhere from 20 to 50 guns forged of iron or brass. Brass was preferred since it did not rust easily, but was far more expensive. On the whole, iron guns were predominant.

The calibre of the guns in the era varied widely. Foundries forged everything from 2lb to 50lb guns. (The weight of course is the poundage of the shot, not the gun itself.)  On average 24lb guns were carried as the standard broadside on most mid- and larger sized galleons, but again this varied. A broadside might comprise of heavier guns (30lb to 40lbs) fired from lower decks, while lighter guns (15lb to 24lbs) were fired from he upper decks. The heavier guns were placed lower in the ship to improve its stability during rough weather.

The table below gives you an idea of weight of the guns themselves. When you consider that the average galleon might carry 20 to 40 guns of such weight, plus her crew and other supplies, and sailed under the power of the wind alone, it's easy to understand why trans-Atlantic journeys were measured in weeks.

(Weight of shot in pounds)
Gun Weight
(in pounds)
24 5,187
16 4,020
12 3,300

Types Of Shot

The next table gives a listing of the ammunition produced at one Spanish controlled foundry between 1628 and 1646.  The quantities produced for each respective gun hint at the type of guns most commonly used by the Spanish military. Of course the numbers make no distinction between guns used on land and at sea. The three most highly produced weights are marked with asterisks.
Calibre  Shot Produced 
40 6,564
38 1,000
35 1,427
32 500
25 3,316
24* 21,754
20 2,000
Calibre  Shot Produced 
18  100 
17  800 
16* 42,580 
14 1,400
12 9,092
10* 39,606
8 1,400

Clearly the 24lb and 16lb guns were prevalent at the time.( Note that due to a lack of internal gun foundries, most Spanish cannons were produced either in Italy or the Spanish Netherlands. But much of the shot was forged in Spain. More information on this in page two.)

Smaller Guns & Alternative Shot

The smallest caliber cannons were not mounted on wooden carriages but on the railings of the ship. These were principally guns of 5lbs or less, and their principal purpose was not to damage an enemy ship, but to repel boarders. As such they often did not carry an iron ball as shot, but sharp fragments of sharded metal which formed a deadly curtain of shrapnel when fired.

 Among the other types of shot used by galleons were bar shot and chain shot. These elongated projectiles were used to wreak damage on enemy rigging and sails, and were more effective than ordinary ball shot as an anti-personnel device. A riskier type of shot, known as an "incendiary shot", was a ball with spikes on either end wrapped in tar soaked rope. Ideally flaming ball would lodge in the dry wood of the enemy's hull and set the ship ablaze. But large quantities of flammable ammunition are a liability themselves in battle since a stray spark can send a ship up in flames, and Spanish captains were no doubt wary of its use.

Finally some ships carried high-calibre snub nosed weapons known in that era as mortars. These devices, often firing shot from 30 to 60lbs, could devastate an enemy vessel with a few short broadsides. What they had in power, however, they lacked in accuracy, and beyond short range most mortars were useless.

Gun Crews

In battle each cannon might have a 2 to 8 man crew, depending on the size of the gun. The heavier weapons needed more manpower to run out after reloading. The length between shots might be as much as three or four minutes, but this varied greatly with the skill of the crew. Between shots the barrel had to be "swabbed" thoroughly with a sponge before the next powder charge was inserted. (If any flaming bits of debris from the previous shot remained there might be a very unpleasant explosion.) Accidents were not uncommon in this era and a disciplined gun crew was better than a recklessly hasty (and no doubt short-lived) gun crew.

Spanish Naval Background
The Spanish Seaman's Plight

The cannon is from The Galeon Andalucia, a replica of a 17th Century Spanish Tall Ship. ~ SOURCE

Spain did not generally regard itself as a maritime nation in the 16th and 17th centuries, even though control of the seas was crucial to the protection of its empire. Similar to France, or Germany in later centuries, Spanish power was based on its army—which was second to none in Europe.

Unlike mariners in England, Holland, or Portugal, a Spanish mariner suffered from a lack of prestige in his country. The best and brightest military minds went into the Army. Aside from accounts written at the time, one can find evidence of this from two important examples: Spanish Treasure Fleets were often commanded by “admirals” whose military experience was primarily land-based. (The Spanish King himself appointed these men.) Sea-going experience was helpful in obtaining such a post, but few career mariners ever commanded a treasure fleet.

The Spanish were discontent to put the onboard companies of troops under the command of sea captains. So they were commanded by an infantry captain and the Spanish galleons thus had a divided chain of command. That is not to say that Spain did not produce some great seamen. But Spain’s predominantly land-based military philosophy was to heavily influence the way it waged war at sea.

Spanish Naval Tactics

The key tactic of the Spanish navy was to close quickly on the opponents, board their vessels, and attempt to overwhelm them with infantry in hand-to-hand combat. The purpose of the gunnery was to weaken the enemy’s resolve with a powerful broadside at point blank range just prior to boarding.

On the other hand the English navy, for example, pursued a strategy of standing off from the enemy and firing their longer range more accurate cannons at a distance. These conflicting strategies obviously favored the combatant who had the quicker, more maneuverable ship since he could determine the strategy. Unfortunately for the Spanish, their galleon design was neither speedy nor maneuverable. In large part this is why the Spanish were at a disadvantage when they sent their powerful Armada against England in 1588.

The cannon is from The Galeon Andalucia, a replica of a 17th Century Spanish Tall Ship. ~ SOURCE

Deficiencies in Spanish Cannon Shot & Carriages

Another problem for the Spanish, which has come to light in recent years, is the quality of shot used in their gunnery. Hints that there were problems can be found in following historical accounts:

  • Battle of Gravelines (1588) -- here at the climactic stage of the defeat of the Spanish Armada sent against England, Spanish and English vessels traded broadsides at point-blank range with English vessels suffering minimal damage.
  • Battle of Port SanVincente (1583) -- a 400 ton English fast galleon engaged three Spanish galleons in a fierce, short range fight. One of the Spanish galleons was sunk, and the English vessel escaped with minimal damage.
  • Battle of Flores (1591) -- Sir Richard Grenville in the English fast galleon Revenge engaged half a dozen Spanish war galleons from the treasure fleet off the Azores. By Spanish accounts two of their own galleons were sunk and two more badly damaged before the Revenge, which was out of shot but still afloat, surrendered. 
  • Battle off the Peruvian Coast (1593) -- Two Spanish ships hammered the English vessel Dainty for three days and two nights before the English ship surrendered, again still afloat. 

Spain and England fought for thirty years in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but during that time there is not one recorded instance of an English ship being sunk by Spanish gunnery. (Although a good many were captured.) In part this may reflect the Spanish strategy of avoiding prolonged artillery engagements, but that doesn’t seem to be the only reason since there were a number of long, long duels exchanging broadside after broadside.

Historical and archeological studies suggest that much of the shot the Spanish used during the era was of poor quality. (For a detailed account see the book Full Fathom Five, Colin Martin, The Viking Press, New York, 1975). Spanish iron smelting foundries produced work that was inferior to most of the foundries in Europe at that time. Principally this was due to their practice of “quenching” or cooling down the shot immediately after casting it. The result was a brittle cannon ball that cracked upon firing and disintegrated upon impact.

Another point to note is the Spanish often mounted their shipboard guns on the same type of two wheel carriage the gun would use if it were a piece of field artillery. This seriously limited the accuracy of such weapons because it limited the ability for their aim to be adjusted to the right or left.

Infantry Weapons and Firearms

The principal weapon of the seaborne Spanish infantryman at sea was his sword—usually a rapier. Other weapons included the pike, cutlass, and dagger.
Two firearms were predominant:

  • Musket—a long, heavy weapon that fired a 2-ounce ball. These were not popular in close action since they were clumsy to handle and typically had to be fired when balanced on a forked rest.
  • Arquebus—the principal firearm of Spanish infantry, it was long but relatively light. It fired a 1\2-ounce ball. 
  • Most of these weapons used a matchlock firing mechanism until the mid-17 century when the flintlock became predominant.

 The information on this page is reproduced here with the kind permission of Michael Imig for educational purposes.
© Michael Imig,  Visit his web site
The Era of the Spanish Galleons

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