The Spanish Galleons

The riches that the Spanish were garnering in the New World needed to be transported back to Spain. This required ships that were capable of making long voyages across the ocean, carrying huge cargoes while also possessing the means to protect themselves from pirates. The galleon (from the Old Spanish word galeon) was built to meet these needs, basically those of a cargo-bearing warship, and combined the best design elements from two other Spanish ships. The first was a caravel, a large but narrow double or triple-masted vessel with a flat stern and lanteen sails.

A lanteen sail is a triangular sail, which is suspended on a long arm, also known as a yard or a yardarm, that is set at a forty-five-degree angle to the ship's mast. The lanteen sail allows a vessel to tack, or maneuver toward the direction the wind is blowing.

The second vessel Spanish shipwrights used for inspiration was a car-rack, a light but fast ship with a sturdy hull, a high-rounded stern, and either three or four masts. Shipwrights made use of features such as the caravel's fixed rudder and the carrack's solid hull design and created a galleon that weighed about 400 tons and could carry between twenty and forty cannons (see Chapter 10).

Rough Sailing

The lure of treasure contained within a Spanish galleon was so great that few pirates or privateers could forgo the chance to capture one. The cargo of these galleons varied, but typically they transported silver, gold, coins, gems, and silks. The capture of a large galleon, which to pirates were the Concordes of the sea, could provide a pirate with wealth for the rest of his life. As such, galleons were in constant danger when returning from the New World, both from pirates and from the vicious storms and high seas of hurricane season. Ironically, the modern-day benefit of those hurricanes is that many galleons sank in bad weather, taking their treasure to the sea floor with them and providing treasure hunters a virtual candy store of priceless artifacts.

The Treasure Fleet

The Spanish couldn't do much about the rough weather, but they soon decided that they needed to do something about the raiders who were pillaging their treasures. As a result, they began building larger galleons capable of carrying not just treasure but more guns and munitions, and plenty of soldiers to fire them. At one point, they even began carrying passengers. Regardless of their cargo, the larger ships continued to be threatened by pirates, so the Spanish finally began sailing their galleons in convoys.

From the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, large fleets, or flotillas, of ships would band together in a show of mutual protection, leaving Spain and traveling en masse to the Spanish Main. Once they arrived at their destination, they would split into groups, each group traveling to a specific section of the Main to collect stored treasures that were waiting for them in warehouses.

After the ships were loaded with their intended cargo, they would meet in Cuba to once again band together and complete their journey home. While this helped the Spanish successfully transport more of their treasure back to Spain, pirates soon became adept at attacking the ships when they were sailing in smaller groups, or even attacking the mule packs on land that were hauling riches to the warehouses. The treasure fleets continued to operate for almost 200 years, dying off only when silver had devalued and inflation became rampant in the mid-1700s. After that, treasure was once again shipped back to Spain on individual warships.

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