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GALLEYS. Galleys, oared seagoing vessels, had been warships since ancient times but became important in Mediterranean warfare between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Around 1500 galleys were fitted with centerline hull-smashing cannons firing balls of thirty to fifty pounds, giving them firepower viable against contemporary sailing vessels like carracks. Although the last large-scale military use of galleys was at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, they continued to be important in eastern Mediterranean littoral warfare through the eighteenth century. They were eventually outmoded by ships of the line with large artillery.


By the fifteenth century galleys were typically at least 120 to 150 feet in length with around 25 banks of oars and crews of 200 to 300 men. Galleys had cannon that could fire at close range. Boarding parties attacked enemy ships from bow spurs that had grappling hooks and boarding bridges. Although galleys grew in size during the seventeenth century, their numbers declined.


The galley was ideal for coastal waters with variable winds and few great harbors capable of receiving large ships. It gave rise to a style of Mediterranean warfare characterized by the close integration of naval operations, amphibious warfare, and siege with few full-scale battles. The sixteenth century witnessed only a few major galley battles, notably at Prevesa in 1538, at Jerba (Djerba) in 1560, and at Lepanto in 1571. Although those were massive confrontations (Lepanto included at least 150,000 people on ships), their decisiveness has been a matter of controversy. Galley fleets could be rebuilt in a few months, but the logistical limitations of galleys prevented successful exploitation of the victories they achieved. After Piyale Pasha won at Jerba, for instance, he was not able to press his attack against the Venetian fleet. Two years after the cream of Ottoman galley forces were destroyed or captured at Lepanto, the reconstituted Ottoman fleet led by Uluç Ali conducted serious fleet operations along the Apulian coast. Control of the sea with galley fleets was always temporary and localized, making them tactical, more than strategic, assets.


Some of the last consequential galley confrontations took place between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the War of 17141718, in which, after naval defeats by Ottoman galley forces at Corfu, Lemnos, and Cape Matapan, Venice had to leave the Morea (in modern Greece) according to the 1718 Treaty of Passarowitz. From a technical point of view, the galley was gradually supplanted by the ship of the line with its massive artillery and high freeboard. One French ship of the line, Le Bon, fought off thirty Spanish galleys. Advances in naval tactics and strategy that made ships of the line their centerpieces started to develop in the North Sea and the Atlantic during the early seventeenth century as a result of technological advances during the Anglo-Dutch wars that soon spread to the Mediterranean. Even the Ottoman navy, a traditional bastion of galleys, began acquiring ships of the line to replace galleys as their main warships by the mid-eighteenth century.

See also Armada, Spanish ; Lepanto, Battle of ; Navy ; Passarowitz, Peace of (1718) ; Shipbuilding and Navigation .


Guilmartin, John F., Jr. Galleons and Galleys. London, 2002.

. Gunpowder and Galleys. London and New York, 1974.

Ernest Tucker