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D - 19: The End of Their History

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Did you ever wonder why the galleys, the Queens of the Mediterranean, suddenly disappeared in the 18th century? More than a hundred years before the arrival of steamboats and after 2’500 years of undisputed reign? Nothing had really changed. Why then? The weather pattern were the same, the Habsburg and the Ottomans still fought each other, guns existed already for 300 years, rowers were as difficult to find as ever. But the galleys disappeared. Just look at naval paintings from the 18th century. The galleys are gone. In the 17th century, they were all over them though.

French War Galley from the 17th century

Did the galleys have their Nokia moment? When they suddenly became irrelevant and everybody knew it? I remember the arrival of iPhones very well. First I thought, so what? It had similar technical features like my Nokia. Why would I switch? Well, once I held one in my hand and experienced the smooth integration of its many functions and the perfect touch screen where working with symbols and apps suddenly worked, I was sold. Am an apple person ever since.

So, what was the “product” that eclipsed the galleys? We have to look no further than the fleets Nelson and Napoleon commanded during their clash in the Mediterranean in 1798: big sails. But how was this possible? Galleys were always able to out-maneuver the sails when there was little wind and pummel them with their front guns from a safe distance. The painting below shows what changed.

English Ship of the Line, probably a 68 gunner

As shipbuilding in the Netherlands, England, Spain and France became more a science than an art, designs changed and sail ships grew larger. The engineers had mastered difficult challenges in structural engineering in order to create sufficient storage room for long-distance travel. In the 17th century the Dutch routinely sailed directly from Amsterdam to the Cape of Good Hope and then from there to today’s Indonesia. The larger sail ships had sufficient capacity to stow three to four small rowing boats on their deck – initially to do business with smaller ports for which the larger ships now had too much draft. Each of the small boats had about 20 rowers. You can see three of these on the painting above.

It did not take long for the naval officers to discover additional uses. They could use them for amphibious landings – from this moment every English Ship of the Line carried a detachment of Royal Marines. They could use them like tugboats in the harbors when there was little space to maneuver. Or to pull the ships during periods of calm. One more purpose was to use them during battle when there was no wind. Now the big, lumbering sail ships could be rotated and their broadside directed against attacking galleys. In the late 17thcentury a ship of the line had a broadside of about 30 guns – enough to sink attacking galleys easily. The lightly build galleys could not withstand a hail of 30 iron cannon balls and sunk quickly. Their days were gone once the naval officers of the big sails had figured out how to bring their broadside to bearing. None of the technology was new – only used in a new configuration. It changed naval history though. Suddenly the Ottoman Turks had to build sail ships and acquire a technology they thought was irrelevant when Turgut Reis recommended it (see blog D -43). But they never caught up. It was their Nokia moment.

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