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Beginnings of world trade

Sailing and exploring

From the 13th to the mid 16th century, the caravel was probably the most advanced pure sailing ship in southern Europe, being particularly associated with Portugal.  Voyages made in caravels helped change the world.

A caravel was of a similar size to the cog, had a built up ‘castle’ aft, and a rudder.  However, with its Mediterranean origins, the caravel had a very different rig.  Let us explore why.

Although square sails were used in early Mediterranean vessels, they died out during the first millennium AD in favour of the lateen sail.  The lateen was a triangular sail, supported by a very long pole or yard which was angled forward at about 45 degrees.  The lateen was better than a square sail when sailing towards the direction of the wind.  However, one of its disadvantages was that the sail could not be partially taken in if the wind increased.  A large square sail, in contrast, could be reduced in size by reefing.  Reefing points were sewn into the canvas which allowed the sail to be progressively folded, reducing its size.  With a lateen sail, it was all or nothing: it had to be taken in completely if the wind was too strong.

Possibly for this reason, the caravel had three or four masts, each with a lateen sail of different sizes.  The tradition of having more than one sail had been established in the Mediterranean, beginning with the Greek sail called the artemon which was rigged to a second mast right forward.  The multi-masted lateen rig of the caravel was in complete contrast to the cog and the northern tradition of just one square sail.  The story of how the two traditions came to be merged is told on screen DS3E.

The caravel was the most important sailing ship of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts as far north as Brittany up to the early 16th century.  Using caravels, some bold Europeans started to explore parts of the world unknown to them.  The Portugese Prince Henry the Navigator began his voyages in the 15th century.  In 1492 one of the most momentous voyages ever involved the caravel Nina, part of Columbus’ expedition which made its landfall on the continent of America.


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