The Military Revolution - 2

Battle of Lepanto (1571)

Battle of Sole Bay (1672)


Before the seventeenth century most warships were galleys - i.e. a single deck ship with masts, but primarily propelled by oars. The great naval battles of classical history had been fought between galleys - the object being to row as quickly as possible and then ram the opponent's vessel. If this did not sink the vessel immediately, armed men swarmed aboard and fought hand-to-hand.
Early-modern galleys advanced somewhat, but still depended on rowing to achieve speed, aimed at boarding their opponent's vessel, and concentrated their armaments - cannon - in the bow.
The Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571) in which Ottoman sea power in the Mediterranean was broken, was the last important sea battle between galleys. The Turks had about 270 galleys, which were lighter and less well armed than the 200 Venetian galleys; and they lost about 20,000 men as against roughly 8,000 Europeans.


A Venetian galleass of about 1650
(August Crabtree model, VA Mariner's Museum)


The galleass (or galliass) was a larger, heavier form of galley, with three masts and often with a raised, protected platform at the stern and bow from which cannon were fired. Like all galleys it was very vulnerable to fire from the sides at the rowers and their oars.
The large number of rowers made the galley an expensive ship to supply - Don John's Flagship at Lepanto, The Real, required about 250 rowers. Complements of 400 men were not unusual. Even when galley slaves (often convicts) were used, the galley still represented a major investment. The large amounts of food and fresh water needed for so many men meant that the galley could not stay long at sea.

Spanish galleon

The galleon was a heavily armored sailing ship. It had no oars, leaving the side of the ship free for guns. At first cannon were fixed in place and loaded from the back, but during the sixteenth century wheeled mounts were developed and the guns were loaded at the muzzle.


It was also during the sixteenth century that hinged gun-ports were developed, thus allowing guns to be placed below decks near the waterline.
Even after the development of the galleon, the Spanish initially clung to the tactics that had triumphed at Lepanto - bringing their large, heavily-armed ships into close contact before firing and boarding. The English defeated the Spanish Armada (1588) by refusing to engage in these tactics. Their smaller, lighter, more maneuverable vessels kept their distance from the Spanish ships and pounded them with cannon fire.
During the seventeenth century, the Dutch developed this policy further and developed light shallow-draft ships. (The waters around the Netherlands were very shallow and could not be navigated by deep-draft ships). At the Battle of Gibraltar Bay (1607) a Dutch fleet under Admiral Jacob van Heemskirk (Heemskerck) defeated a Spanish force which included ten heavy galleons. Twenty-six small Dutch ships destroyed all twenty-one Spanish vessels without losing a vessel, although Heemskirk was killed.
Dutch men-of-war scored another victory over the Spanish in Battle of the Downs in 1639 - this time by the use of fireships, which were ignited and sent amongst the closely-packed Spanish fleet with devastating effect.

Maarten Tromp (1598-1653)

The First (1652-54) and Second (1665-67) Anglo-Dutch wars were fought between the English and Dutch in pursuit of commercial and trading interests and were largely fought at sea.
Maarten Tromp defeated Robert Blake at Dungeness in 1652, but lost to him at Texel (Terheide) in 1653.
In the Second War the English fleet was victorious at the Battle of Lowestoft (1665), but was beaten in  a number of subsequent engagements - including the humiliating loss of the flagship, Royal Charles in a bold Dutch raid.


Seventeenth-century warships carried a large number of guns - seventy-four guns each weighing thirty-two pounds was common in the English Navy. Maarten Tromp was important in introducing a sailing formation known as "line ahead": - each ship traveling in the wake of the one before it, so that all could simultaneously fire a "broadside". The Dutch and English also led the way in devising a system of signaling by flags to coordinate ships' movements. The Fighting Instructions issued in 1691 to the Royal Navy listed 45 flag codes. A French priest, Paul Hoste, in his l'Art des armées navales outlined a similar system for France's fleet.


Capital ship construction: 1689-1698

  Dutch English French
36-60 guns 39 42 35
60-76 guns 31 23 14
Over 76 guns 8 4 25

[Based on figures from J.S.Bromley & A.N.Ryan]

French sea-power was developed by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (minister of the navy, 1669-83). He built up the French navy to over 200 ships by 1677 (buying many of these from the Dutch whom they were later used against).
The Dutch navy declined in numbers relatively but still managed to defeat the combined French and English fleets at Solebay (1672).
The English responded by building up their own fleet. England built more naval tonnage in the years 1670-75 than in any earlier five year period. By 1697, the English navy numbered 323 ships.

Peter the Great created a Russian navy single-handed by sheer determination in a country whose language until then did not even have a word for 'navy'. He revived the oar-driven galley and used 100 of these highly effectively against the Swedes at the Battle of Gangut (1714).
Suitably, given Peter's love of drinking and navies, he was presented with this beautiful silver goblet in the form of a ship.


Privateers and professionals

Techniques of shipbuilding improved but it was some time before Europe's navies became professional institutions.
During the seventeenth century, governments often commandeered civilian vessels in time of war. Much naval warfare was carried on by privateers - civilians commissioned by so-called "letters of marque". Letters of marque were not only issued by states, but also by companies. The Providence Island Company, for example, issued letters of marque. During the years 1689 to 1697, 420 letters of marque were issued in London.
Many of these privateers differed little from pirates - the famous pirate, Sir Henry Morgan, early in his career sailed under letters of marque from the governor of Jamaica.

Louis XIV encouraged French privateers or corsairs to prey on Dutch and English shipping - Réné Duguay-Trouin and Jean Bart made ports such as Dunkirk and Saint Malo wealthy with the profits from seized ships and their cargoes.
The English retaliated by attacks on France's West Indian commerce - undermining the trade of these colonies.

Born in Dunkirk, Jean Bart (1650-1702) learnt his trade in the Dutch navy but used his talents in the service of Louis XIV.


States did try and reduce the number of private vessels in their battle fleets - the English admiral Robert Blake hoped to reduce the proportion to less than half. Even the Netherlands at the height of its seapower had to call on private vessels - two-thirds of Maarten Tromp's ships at the Battle of the Downs were hired or taken over from private hands. The Swedish navy eliminated hired ships after 1679.
Attempts to professionalize the navy also foundered on the difficulty of recruiting and training quality seamen. Naval pay was so poor in many countries that governments had to resort to impressment of sailors. Not only was this unfair and deeply resented by its victims, but it tended to produce very poor quality crews.
In France, Colbert organized the inscription maritime system which attempted to register all competent seamen and enforce periodic service in the navy. But continued problems of poor and unreliable payment led French seamen to make feverish efforts to avoid naval service - in the period 1706-08 at least 30,000 were thought to have evaded their obligation.
Recruitment of officers was easier because they had greater possibilities of turning a profit from prizes and commissions (bribes) for allowing merchants to transport valuable goods in navy ships. However many of these officers were simply young gentlemen with good connections but no knowledge.

"There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles the Second. But the seamen were not gentlemen; and the gentlemen were not seamen."

 Macaulay, History of England


In 1669, Colbert established a system of colleges, gardes de la marine, to train potential naval officers. In England, Samuel Pepys (the diarist and Secretary of the Navy) introduced in 1677 an examination in basic seamanship for the post of lieutenant.


The seventeenth century saw European armies and navies grow larger, become better trained and disciplined, and steadily develop their armaments. The European colonists and traders who began to enter Asia and America in increasing numbers were backed up by a level of military technology and institutional organization far in advance of most of the indigenous peoples they encountered.


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