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C - 15 : How much did a Venetian Trader make

Updated: May 2, 2021

One of the many things we will notice on this year's trip along the Dalmatian coast is how small the Venetian harbours were. I wondered about this already 20 years ago when I visited Hvar for the first time. I knew that a good part of the Venetian fleet was permanently stationed there. But how could you squeeze 100 galleys into such a small port?

Hvar with dry dock and storage facilities seen from the Trvdava Fortress

Did not grasp at the time that Venice's peace time fleet never counted more than a dozen galleys. Only after mobilisation did the fleet reach the size of 120 galleys. - when the entire merchant navy was converted and 25'000 men went to war - almost a quarter of Venice' inhabitants or half of its men. The formidable Arsenal of Venice could convert galleys at lightning speed, specifically before the time of naval guns. Their arrival in the 16th centuries made it more challenging. We are going to talk about the Arsenale in a separate blog.

Plus minus 100 galleys were thus free to roam the Mediterranean and do business. Given that a galley could travel 6 - 8 hours a day at a speed of 4 - 5 kt, they covered about 30 nautical miles per day - the same distance we are going to travel this summer. But we do it with engine support at a speed of 8 - 10 kt and thus have more excursion / leisure time. It took the galleys 9 weeks to cover the distance Levante - Venice but less than half the time on the east bound leg since they benefitted from the prevailing north wind.

A galley was and is a fragile ship. About 35m long and 6m wide, it had usually 25 rows with 3 rowers on each side. The total number of oarsmen amounted to 150. They were Venetian citizens hired for the trip. Whilst salaries were unattractive, every oarsman was allowed to trade and had a small cargo allowance for personal use (could not find out how much)

Typical 16th century galley with seven guns - one heavy - in front

Add to the 150 about 50 men for steering, cooking, archery, navigation, gunnery, carpenters and medical personal and you get to about 200 per galley. The entire crew was trained to fight as infantry in case of need. A galley could quickly turn from commercial into a war ship.

The total tonnage of these galleys ranged from 150 to 300 tons. There were few very large galleys thou. Most were in the 150 tons range. Roughly half of the tonnage was for cargo. Galleys carried few supplies since they landed in a harbour every night. This was quite different from Columbus' caravels which travelled for 3 months without seeing a harbour. A galley carrie water and food for maybe a week.

The truly limiting factor for galleys was their crew which needed to rest every night. There is no space for sleeping on a galley. This need for harbours explains why Venice maintained a string of colonies all the way to the Middle East.

Space allocation in a typical Venetian galley

Commercial shipping during Roman time was different. The smaller boats were 300 tons, the big ones 3'000 tons. Only the warship were galleys. The "Mare Nostrum", (Our Sea) as the Roman called the Mediterranean, was indeed their sea - no pirates - no external powers who could interfere with the shipping. But given the threat of Ottoman backed pirates every where or even running into the big Ottoman fleet, the Venetians had to put their high value cargo on galleys. Sail ship were for bulky goods only. The galleys had to have the ability to "run".

The travelling season was limited from mid May to mid September given the galleys fragile nature. A galley did not do well in a winter storm. Galleys could thus do max two turns per year, often only one. Assuming that all galleys left within one month, 3 would be arriving at a harbour like Hvar per day. A number that the town could comfortably accommodate - 600 hungry sailors were good business for the town during the sailing season.

How valuable was the cargo the Venetian galleys brought home? 100 or 200 times 75 tons = 7'500 - 15'000 tons a year. Compared to Roman times when 500'000 tons of grain arrived every fall in Ostia, these are tiny numbers. But we talk about high value cargo.

Finding historical prices is always challenging and I did not find much. Here is how far I got. A pound of pepper cost 6 pence in the 15th century = 0.5 shilling = 0.025 pound sterling. Assuming 25% of the goods arriving in Venice were pepper, the number would translate into pepper imports of 1'850 - 3'700 tons. The total value of this cargo would be somewhere between 90'000 and 180'000 pounds sterling. For this amount of money one could buy:

- 36'000 to 72'000 war horses

- 25'000 to 50'000 complete lance armour

- hire 13'000 to 25'000 knights for a year

- build 600 large houses with court yards in London

All of these calculations have to be taken with a grain of salt. Took the pepper price in London for Venice. It may have been twice as high and the numbers come down. But it illustrate the sheer amount of wealth that Venice was getting through its trading. Also excluded cost since I simply do not know. But I guess these huge numbers make us understand why so many beautiful marble palaces line the Canale Grande,

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