Enlightenment Era Ships

Revolutions in sciences and naval architecture

This period is often regarded as an era of perfecting ships of the line, making frigates and corvette a more substantial part of the fleets, and of pre-eminence and rivalry of the great European military and commercial empires, on the world’s stage.

Civilian ships are still generally of modest size, following coastal routes (apart the Indiamans) but with an exceptional diversification of forms resulting from the know-how of this seafaring people that are the Dutch. All these merchant ships have artillery on board. Some were in effect hybride warships, like the Dutch, English and French Indiamans, war and trade vessels or updated version of the Galleons. Global Empires went with considerable fleets and private companies became vital component of this strategy.

The era of great explorations was not over either, La Pérouse and Cook will push further back the boundaries of maps, still quite incomplete on the South Pacific. British-Dutch, then British and Dutch against the French marked the end of the eighteenth-century tall ships, derived from the galleons of the previous two centuries. Shipbuilding treaties tended to standardize more than ever shibuilding, marking the transition between empiric traditions and baroque ornaments and cold mathematic concepts. A new, scientific approach to shipbuilding which was directly a result of the enlightenment. Faith in science, not in god or divine inspiration.

Brilliant engineers like Frederik af Chapman are cold typologists, who succeed to the old-time brilliance of the sculptors of the previous century. The ship of the line is rationalized, approaching pure functionality, an evolution which slowed down until 1850.

One can say that in the matter, these last great classical sailship battles would take place after the French revolution, in 1805 to Aboukir and Trafalgar, and by extension, at Navarin in 1827. But for the world’s culture, 1805 Trafalgar and Aboukir are the last major naval battles of the line fought by the greatest fleets of their time. The British, winning the seven-years war (some says the first true world war), and later the perile of Revolutionary France and Napoleon, securing a “pax Britannica” which endured until the end of the XIX the century, and the French and Spanish fleets, on the decline while the Dutch were just a souvenir.

Northern Europe Merchant Ships

Dutch Kat
The Dutch “Kat” is one of the most famous cargo ship of that enlightenment era, practicing deep sea shipping as cabotage in northern Europe.

If in the seventeenth century Holland fought incessant wars against Great Britain, the low countries gradually lost its supremacy over world maritime trade in the next. However the creative genius of its engineers and craftsmen still made the reputation of its building sites. Originally the creators of a large number of European cargo ships, the Dutch invented the “Cat”, “Kat” originally. This term appeared in the Middle Ages to designate an intermediary between the nave and the galley, often a mixed ship of more than 200 rowers per board.

However this name was also applied to a totally different ship built by the Dutch to find a good compromise between the Flute and the Boyer. Rigged with two masts, she is a modest ship, devoted to the transport of coal or wood. However she evolved in the eighteenth century in a three-masted form. Her rounded transom, barge-like, and shallow draught gave way to a straight deck, and the Cat could be confused with other cargo ships including the Indiaman, but was strongly differentiated by its riverine capabilities and characteristics as well as low artillery embarked.

3-mast Barque cargo
3-masted cargo barque
In the eighteenth century other merchant marines than the Dutch did not demerit. French and Great Britain merchant fleet recovered a bit of the market once held by the Dutch. This ship, shown here from 1750-70, is rigged in three-mast, even though many of the merchant ships of the time were satisfied with a Brick rig. Her crew was imposing. Pure cargo ship, her hull was particularly roomy, wide at the bow, the hull generally affecting almost a barge-like shape. Space had been made by removing artillery to further optimize the load, which indicated that the ship was limited to busy seaways in Europe, and probably had to be escorted. Very spartan aesthetically, her only concession to ornamentation lied in her transom.

Enlightment Era Warships

HMS Rose 1757
A reconstruction of English frigate.
The frigate HMS Rose was built in Hull in 1757. She was a “sixth rank” ship, barely superior to the corvettes of the same time. After a long service in the Channel and in the Caribbean, she was sent to the American thirteen Colonies in 1768. In 1774, under the command of James Wallace, she was sent to Rhode Island, in the Bay of Narragansett to put a stop to merchant traffic off Newport. As no American ship was at her level, she played her dissuasive role painstakingly.

From then on, Newport merchants petitioned their colonial legislature for a flotilla capable of attacking the British frigate. Financing the transformation of a merchant ship, they had a fast trading schooner chartered under the orders of John Paul Jones.

The latter became the very first ship of the future US Navy. Later, in May 1776, the colony of Rhode Island was shattered, followed two months later by the other colonies. During the war of independence that followed, the HMS Rose frigate participated in the New York landings, carrying out many raids and incursions far ahead of the Hudson. Wallace was made Chevalier by the crown. He pushed his action along the coast, recruiting civilian sailors for incorporation, capturing merchant ships, supplying garrisons, including Boston.

When the war reached a new level with the help of the French, turning in favor of the insurgents, the town of Savannah where the British frigate was anchored, was the object of a siege. The French fleet had planned a landing to take the city by sea, but the British had the frigate scuttled in the passage leading to the bay. As a result, the city supported the siege until the end of hostilities.

The Frigate was rebuilt in 1970 in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia under the direction of architect Phil Bolger, and has since been in constant representation. She made appearances in many films, sometimes repainted. For example, it was used for a full-size replica to be double the Surprise (Master and Commander).

Hemmemaa with latin rig (1781)

Hemmemaa was the first and most famous of the “frigates of the archipelago” with the Turumaa. Designed by famous naval architect Frederick af Chapman to replace classic sailing frigates, too massive with a draft too strong for the Baltic shoals, the type was the spearhead of the Swedish fleet during the Second Northern war. Baltic against Catherine of Russia. The latter, as in the past and its model Pierre de Grand, uses Latin architects and builds ships directly from the Mediterranean basin, which are well adapted to the conditions of the Baltic (see “Russians Galleys”).

Swedish ships were even more original. In order to reap the benefits of the galley that inflicted defeats on them during the first Baltic War, Chapman conceived a modernized and more rational version of the old Galeasses, the very one who had defeated the Turks in Lepanto 1571.

But the Galeass have powerful artillery but in return, a strong draft. Chapman wanted to create lighter ships. His solution was to design ships with a central battery, the rest of the bridge being occupied by banks of rowers. These frigates of the archipelago, however, have three men per bench offset, and 24 to 22 guns per side, for 40 or 38 oars. The second figures are given for the smaller Turumaa. The other main difference between these two types of ships is that the Turumaa was usually only square rigged, while the Hemmemaa was most often Latin rigged. Both had 3 masts, four counting the bowsprit.

These ships replaced traditional sailing frigates used by the Swedes so far. They were in operation in the heart of summer, with melting ice. Several battles marked the use of these ships during the Second Baltic War: In 1788, the Battle of Hoglund was an indecisive encounter. The Swedes were however forced to stop their offensive. In 1789, the same scenario was repeated, and the Swedes took refuge in their Karlskrona base. The Russians started a blockade. In August 1789, the first battle of Svenska Sund started, when a Swedish convoy stood in defense against a Russian attack and were sunk.

About thirty ships carrying troops were destroyed or captured, as well as eight ships. In June 1790, the Swedes tried to prevent the junction of the Kronstadt and reval fleets. They did not succeed, and the offensive turned to rout. Their ships took refuge in Vybord, where the Russians in numbers blocked them there.

A month later, the Swedish squadron will succeed in forcing the blockade, but at the cost of high losses: 7 ships and more than 20 small transports, the Russians on their side did loose 11 ships. The Swedes were in defensive position in front of Svenska Sund in July 1790. The Russian attack failed in front of the strength of the fortifications and turned into rout. The Swedes chased the fugitives and still managed to destroy many more ships. In total, this Russian defeat would cost 64 ships of all tonnages on the 140 total of the Russian fleet. Empress Catherine was obliged to sign peace…

Russian Lead Galley
Capped Lead Galley (1715)

During the first Baltic War, Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg, called on Italian engineers and architects to define his galleys, the ship most suited to the shoals of the Baltic which was to be the node of his clashes with Sweden. Three types of galleys were defined to constitute the Russian fleet: “standard” galleys, about 40 meters, directly inspired by the Genoese and Venetian models, also built in the Black Sea, with a swim of 27 oars per side and four men each, “a scaloccio”, which represented a total number of 216 men, three artillery pieces in chase, sometimes two in stern, and a company of marine riflemen. The largest galleys, as in the Mediterranean fleets, were divided between “patrons” and “admirals”. Thes were to command a detachment of galleys and were a little larger (46 to 50 meters, 30 to 36 oars as the illustration above), and five men per bench, as well as reinforced artillery.

The total width was around 9 meters. The above illustration shows five artillery pieces, four 4-pounders and a 24-pounder, as well as six side pieces in the quarterdeck and two 18-pounder at the sterns, as well as 14 culverins. The smaller 3-pounders on mobile mounts were located on the side rails. These galleys-admirals were supreme command units to lead a squadron, likely to bear the Tsar’s mark in person. They were 50 meters long and over, with a crew of 380 rowers distributed by five out of the 38 oars per side, and using a mixture of bombards and 24, 18 and 12 pounders.

This same type of galley was still in use during the Second Baltic War led by Sweden’s King Gustav III against Catherine of Russia. Rarely armed in comparison to their size, the great Russian galleys could not seriously worry the Swedish ships except for ramming, thanks to a speed of 7 knots, quite formidable in calm weather. These are the “half galleys”, xebecs and half-xebecs, and the famous Skampayevas who were the most effective.

Bomb Galiot
French Bomb Galiot like the Salamandre (1715)

A French galiot, one of those which entered the composition of the fleet.
This type of very specific and specialized siege shipe is born from the punctual need to have a heavy artillery capable of overcoming terrestrial objectives, including coastal fortifications and Vauban-style citadels. Their curved mortars placed in a central housing of the deck could if necessary also serve in battle, firing heavy incendiary bombs.

The name “galiot” is derived from flat-bottomed vessels used by the Dutch. The rig also was specific with a large mast very far back to clear the range of the mortar. Their artillery was completed by small side guns.

Normandy Flambart of the XVIII-XIXe cent.
With her pansy air and auric rig, the Flambart has something of a “fishing coaster”. It was a Norman traditional ship, which is derived from the French term “flamber” in reference to the will-o’-the-wisps which sometimes clung during storms to the apple of the mast, also called St. Anselm fires, and which frightened superstitious sailors, as warning signs of disaster. This was a fast vessel for paddling (line or trawl) characterized by two masts, with the foresail leaning forward and the main mast rearward, very close.

They carried a horn sail and a foresail to the third, and a jib on the bowsprit. Saffron was small in size, so the maneuver was most often done in sailing. They fished by trawl and line, and occasionally by cabotage, since the eighteenth century. The Seine Bay shoals were also called flambarts in the same way. Flambart is also known as the Sailing Boat of the Bretons (from Britanny), carrying a large boom: The Dagou Jaguen is a small one.

Russian Half Galley
Russian Half Galley during the battle of the Gulf of Bothnia in 1714.
If the great galleys inspired by the Genoese and Venetian models had some success, the models of galleys by far the most widespread in the Russian navy were the “half galleys”. Inspired by Mediterranean galiots and half-galleys, the latter simply presented themselves as shortened galleys, with fewer rowers (on average three men per bench, and from 18 to 25 oars per board, or a maximum of 150 rowers).

They had only two masts and large lateen sails. Their fellows seemed more important in proportion, and these ships had a modest artillery, limited to three pieces in chase, 6 and 18 pounders. But what seemed to be a weakness was counterbalanced by great maneuverability, which was lacking in larger models. With a maximum of 30 meters long by 5 wide, these half-galleys sneaked more easily and could interfere with the maneuvers of the opponent. They inspired a model of galley proper to Russia, even more modest, the famous Skampaveyas. The latter won many battles against the Swedes during the first Baltic War. The half galleys were still considered the spearhead of the navy of Catherine II of Russia in 1780.

Russian Xebec
Russian Xebec in 1789

Russian Half Xebec

It is unusual to see the racy silhouette of these typically Mediterranean hybrid ships, symbols so feared by the Westerners as immediately associated with barbary pirates who raided the southern coast of Europe and merchant ships at the beginning of the Renaissance. True thoroughbred, the elegant xebec was a derivative of the galley, with the difference that the oars had been removed in favor of a very consistent sail, Latin, then by evolution, mixed, entirely square alternately to a Latin sail.

Related to the Polacca, which is a modern evolution, but also to the smaller Tartanes, the Spanish Felucca, the Mistic and the Warbler, the Pinque, the Xebec (Sciabecco in Italian) remains one of the symbols of the Mediterranean. Continuing to draw on this heritage in order to try to adapt it to the Baltic Sea, closed sea a priori suitable for this kind of ships, Catherine of Russia, inspired by Peter the Great, called on Spanish builders to build a few dozen of these boats and half-xebecs to oppose the heavy Swedish ships during the second Baltic war in 1788-90.

The Russians were thus barely modified copies of these ships which were also built and used in the French navy. Their draft was weak, their hulls narrow but without making them an unstable ship, their masts short, not composed or “to pible” and light carrying large Latin sails on antennas completed by jibs on the “bowsprit”, or a partially square sail, with a Latin veil at the front, a light square in the middle and a brigantine aft.

The demi-xebec was a shortened version, with two masts instead of three, wearing a Latin sail at the front, a brigantine aft surmounted by a square topsail. All were also maneuvering to rowing in case of flat calm, very practical to move in the sandy shallows of the islands of the Gulf of Bothnia. The crew of these ranged from 200 to 240 men, the half-xebecs with less than 150 men on board. The latter, more agile, carried an artillery reduced to 8 pieces of iron or advantage, while the xebecs aligned as standard 24 guns. They had the advantage of more artillery than the galleys.

Mediterranean Ships

Reconstitution of a Greek Sakouleiva

Known originally as the Saccoleva in Italian and Sacolève in French, but derived from Sakouleiva in its original Greek, she was a low tonnage decked vessel, a wide coaster (15 meters by 5 for the largest) with a curved bow, narrow saffron rudder, while the deck and the freeboard are so low and smoothed that it is necessary to raise a pavise to prevent the sea from invading the deck and hold. The Sakouleiva is a fast and large-capacity merchant ship for its size, widely used from the beginning of the 17th century, resulting from the synthesis of different types of Western and Arabic types, with quite unique features, such as the leaning front mast, jibs on a bowsprit, the combination of Latin and square sails, as well as a livarde (as the illustration above).

The serration patterns of the bow and stern are also recurrent features. During the eighteenth century, this type of ship became widespread with combinations of rigs from Bricks, schooners, and are sometimes called Kalandiccios or barges. The first Sakouleivas were small and fatty (8 meters by 3), and equipped with a single sail on livarde and a jib rigged on an outer spar, with one or two masts, the one of the back bearing a Latin sail. Other more important Sakouleivas, ranging from 10 to 12 meters to 4 ratio, wore two lug sails and were often called runners (“trikandiris”).

To Come (Complete List):

Galleys and oarships:
Late galleys (general)
The Lead galleys: La Dauphine
Royal Galleys: La Reale de France
State galleys: The Bucintoro
Russian galleys
The Skampaveya
The Russian half galleys
The Swedish galleys

Other Mediterranean vessels:
The Barbary Xebec
The French Xebec: The Shark
The Spanish xebec: Frigate El Gamo
The Venetian Sciabecco
The Square Xebec > (plans from François-Edmond Pâris)
The French Polacre
The Tartane
The Mediterranean Pinnacle
The Felucca (Western)
The Tchektirme
The Skapho
The Sakouleiva
The Warbler
The sloop
The Topo
The Luzzu
The Patache
The Latin Allege

Northern Ships:
The Trade Pink
The three-masted Trade ship
The Dutch Kat
The Senau
The Hagboat
The Trade Frigate: HMS Bounty
The Brick
The Foncet
The Ketch
The Huker
The brigantine
The Xebec and Half-Xebec (Baltic)
The Shkoat
The Flambart

The bomb galiot and Bombard: Salamander
The American frigate: USS Constitution (1797)
The light frigate: HMS Rose (1757)
The French Light Frigate: La Railleuse, 18 guns
The English Corvette: The Endeavor and James Cook’s Expeditions
The Dutch lineman: Delft 1783
The French Corvette: The Astrolabe and the expeditions of F.G Lapérouse
The Prame
The pirate brig
The brig of war: HMS Sysmondiet
The Cutter: Aldebaran
The corsair cutter: Surcouf
The Ship of 74 Guns: The Redoubtable (1791)
The Vessel of 80 guns: The Superb

Ships of the line:
San Juan Nepomuceno
Santissima Madre
The States of Burgundy

Arab-Indian ships:
The Boutre
The Djerme
The Boom
The Doni
The Baghala
The Dungyiah
The Dhow
The Dinghy

Upcoming poster of the Enlightenment era ships

enlightenment era Kat
Three masts barque
HMS Rose
Russian Galley
Bomb Galiot
Russian half Galley
Russian Xebec


French voyages of exploration and science in the Age of Enlightenment: an ocean of discovery throughout the Pacific Ocean
By Marthe Melguen – Ifremer (EN pdf)