Transportation and Shipping

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Transportation and Shipping


Trade Routes. European trade followed two “urban belts” that stretched east-west along the Mediterranean Sea and south-north from Italy to the Netherlands. The Italians played a central role in both trade networks and held almost monopolistic control of the southern east-west axis. Mediterranean trade was lucrative because of the high number of luxury items from Asia, such as spices and silk, that flowed through Italy. These items were carried over-land across Asia and placed on Italian ships in the eastern Mediterranean area known as the Levant. Venetian and Genoese merchants dominated Mediterranean trade as far west as Cadiz and Lisbon. The Italians used the Iberian ports to sell eastern goods and to purchase textiles from northern Europe. The Italians also played a major role in the south-north trade routes by shipping items north to England and Flanders or transporting them overland across France or through Alpine mountain passes. Overland travel was costly and thus was limited mainly to luxury items such as the vibrant spice trade. The northern end of the south-north axis consisted of cities with access to the North Sea. They also controlled a third, and less lucrative, trade axis that went west-east from the ports of the North Sea and the Baltic to the rivers stretching into the European Great Plain (Poland and Russia).

Political and Geographical Limits. The location and geography of the Italian peninsula favored shipping more than land transportation. In the early Renaissance, Italian territories and city-states were frequently in protracted wars that were often decided by battles fought at sea. The necessity of a strong navy and the lower cost of shipping by sea meant that resources were turned toward the sea and shipping as opposed to the development of overland routes. The Iberian peninsula on the far western shore of Europe was also better situated for sea than land travel. The Pyrenees, a mountain range that separated the peninsula from the rest of Europe, forced merchants in Iberia to turn to the seas for trade. North of the Alps and Pyrenees, the northern monarchs fought several long dynastic wars with neighboring rulers in the early Renaissance that discouraged overland trade. For instance, the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France disrupted trade and discouraged rulers from devoting money to the development of road networks. In Germany, the Holy Roman Empire was a jigsaw puzzle of local princes and lesser nobles who were more interested in personal gain than in the well-being of the empire beyond their own territories. Free Imperial Cities in the empire did form leagues to promote trade, but they were forced to travel through vast territories that were not participants in the confederations. The most famous of these leagues was the Hanseatic League or Hansa, a group of German and Baltic cities that dominated the northern trade until the sixteenth century, when Dutch merchants slowly gained dominance in the region.

Overland Transportation. Overland transportation was severely limited by the political realities of feudal society. There were few incentives for rulers to devote their limited finances to the development of road networks. Overland routes frequently followed the old Roman roads, but they were in a condition much worse than they had been during the Roman Empire. During the Renaissance, powerful dynastic families unified vast territories and created a potential for governments to invest in infrastructure such as roads. Instead, they

devoted their resources to the military and the construction of facilities for shipping. The Protestant Reformation polarized Europe and further stifled overland transportation. European governments did not construct strong networks of roads until changes in the military dictated a necessity for better overland transportation. Renaissance rulers who were reluctant to invest in a net-work for land transportation were quick to devote money and prestige to shipping and maritime trade.

Shipbuilding. The century after the Black Death (1347-1351) was a time of extensive innovations in the design of European ships. By the end of the fifteenth century, shipbuilders across Europe were constructing similar types of ships. The convergence of northern and southern styles of ship construction corresponded with a convergence of northern and southern methods of rigging. The resulting ships (caravels and naos) were designed to satisfy the commercial and military needs of the day, but they proved to be suitable for blue-water voyages across the ocean. Transoceanic voyages became possible when maritime explorers sailed Iberian caravels and naos on the famous early voyages to the Americas and India. The two vessels of discovery continued to dominate shipping throughout the sixteenth century when the rulers who supported exploration turned to conquest and colonization.

Galleys and Cogs. Mediterranean ships had rudders, which allowed precise handling of the vessels, and three-sided sails (lanteen sails) that allowed ships to utilize wind from any direction. Mediterranean navies since late-Roman times divided shipping between a long ship, or galley, and a round ship. Galleys relied on human power to row the boat and thus had less room devoted to cargo. They were used for the military and to ship luxury goods in the Mediterranean but were unsuitable for the Atlantic. Round ships, on the other hand, relied on winds and thus had a smaller crew. They were the main cargo ship in the Mediterranean. Virtually all Mediterranean ships had curved keels that were well suited for a sea without tides. The Mediterranean ships experienced rough sailing on the waves and strong winds of the Atlantic Ocean. The cog, a northern ship developed on the ports of the Baltic Sea, had a straight keel that provided more stability. Cogs were built with overlapping planks that were frequently strengthened by internal frames. They were steered with an axial stern rudder and powered with a single square sail. Clumsy and slow, the cogs were also able to carry an extremely large cargo with a small crew. They immediately caught the eye of sailors when they first arrived in the Mediterranean Sea.

Riggings. The square sails of the Baltic cogs prevented ships from sailing into a head wind, whereas the lanteen sails allowed sailing with less favorable winds. Most Mediterranean ships had rectangular sails until the Arab lan-teen sail was introduced. The lanteen provided maneuverability and the ability to sail into partial head winds by tacking, or zigzagging, back and forth. The lan-teen sail also prevented ships from putting about, but the size of the sail was limited because it was difficult to control. Mediterranean sailors increased the number of masts to three, but they eventually turned to the square sails of northern ships to remedy the problem. Initially they used square sails on two masts and a lanteen sail on a third mast, but later they combined the sails into complicated riggings on three-mast ships.

Caravels and Naos. Iberian mariners wisely combined the best aspects of northern and southern seafaring traditions and created two boats that could carry a large cargo, steer well, and sail in either the Mediterranean or the open seas: the caravel and nao. Caravels were developed in Portugal for use along the West African coast. Three or four masts carried a complicated rigging on ships with one deck. The caravels were rather small and cabin space was limited. Naos were larger than caravels and functioned as square-rigged cargo carriers. Columbus brought one nao and two caravels on his initial journey across the Atlantic. Naos armed with cannons were used during voyages of exploration to carry extra supplies and, later, colonists.

Galleons and Fluyts. The combination of northern and southern rigging and shipbuilding culminated in the military galleons and the cargo-carrying fluyts of the sixteenth century. Longer and narrower than the caravels and naos, the three-masted galleons were developed by the Italians. The ships were capable of transoceanic travel but had limited cargo space. The Spanish, English, and Dutch built large fleets of galleons for use as specialized warships. The Dutch fluyts, or flyboats, used innovative hull design to create long ships with fairly flat bottoms. They became a vital part of the late-sixteenth-century expansion of Dutch trade. The galleon was a precursor to frigates and ships of the line, whereas the fluyt was a precursor to commercial freighters.

Warships. By 1450 the differences between Atlantic and Mediterranean ships were insignificant because the northern and southern styles had merged into the caravels and naos. Yet, Atlantic navies did develop a different notion of how. a ship could be used in warfare. Mediterranean navies since late Roman times split shipping between a “round ship” and a “long ship.” The long ship, or galley, was equipped with oars and used as a warship, whereas the “round ship” depended on sail to carry cargo. The Venetians developed the galleass, or “great galley,” a hybrid that combined oars and sails. Galleasses became popular but still required a crew that could row them. The large crew of the galleasses made them more expensive to operate and limited their operational range. The galleys remained the most common Mediterranean war vessel until the seventeenth century. However, these galleys were not suitable for the choppier and windier Atlantic Ocean. Atlantic war fleets were forced to modify their sailing ships for military purposes. Henry VII of England built two sailing ships manned with guns in 1487 and King John II of Portugal simultaneously experimented with cannons on small caravels. This new approach allowed Atlantic navies to replace rowers with sails and guns. The shift from human energy to wind power on warships provided Europeans with sufficient protection to turn their sails to the most distant seas. Sixteenth-century developments with the galleons and fluyts allowed Europeans to expand maritime trade to a global scale.


Carlo Cipolla, Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700 (New York: Minerva, 1965).

Jan Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London: Routledge, 2000).

J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (Cleveland: World, 1963).

J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

William D. Phillips Jr. and Carla Rahn Phillips, The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Geoffrey Vaughan Scammell, The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion, c.1400-1715 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

Roger C. Smith, Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Richard W. Unger, The Ship in the Medieval Economy, 600-1600 (London: Croom Helm, 1980).

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Transportation and Shipping

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