Portuguese vs Spanish Shipbuilding Practices

By Paulo Monteiro

Portugal created a maritime empire, an empire that relied not on the conquest of land and territories but rested on naval superiority, an empire formed by ephemeral sea routes and fragile harbours of support, like those of Ilha de Mozambique, Santa Helena and Terceira. So, unlike the Spanish empire, nothing substantial remains of this former empire on land. Till now, the Portuguese colonial expansion has been studied principally from its architectural evidence and from the documentary evidence left by its major participants or by the contemporary observers of the process. But nothing is known about the true instrument of the Portuguese expansion: the Portuguese built ship.

Spanish shipfinds

The Emanuel Point (0), Rye A wreck, Cattewater  wreck (1), Molasses Reef wreck  (2), Highborn Cay wreck (3), Western Ledge Reef wreck (4), San Esteban (5), San Juan (6) and the San Diego (7) are all examples of archaeologically researched Iberian vessels that represent the Spanish part of the Peninsula.

Spanish galizabra, 1589. Archivo General de Simancas

Portuguese shipfinds

All Portuguese shipwrecks discovered so far – Boudeuse Cay wreck (8), Santo Antonio (9), Santiago (10), São Joao (11), São Bento (12), São Gonçalo, Santissimo Sacramento A, Nossa Senhora da Atalaia do Pinheiro (13) – either do not have any substantial wood remains or the structure was not recorded as has happened with the Santissimo Sacramento B (14).

Four-deck portuguese nau, 17th century. In Manuel Fernandes' "Livro de Traças de Carpintaria", 1616, BA

So, in the end, the only Portuguese ship that has undergone a proper archaeological record and that had enough structural evidence to give us an insight into Portuguese shipbuilding practice is the frigate Santo Antonio de Tanna (1697), sunk at Mombasa, Kenya (15). Unfortunately, this ship was built at Bassein in India and dates to a period of decadence in the Portuguese Empire. The period during which a cycle of crucial transformations begun at the end of the medieval era in the history of the techniques of European naval construction is simply not registered until yet in Portuguese shipbuilding.

Only now, some wrecks found in mainland Portugal have begun to cover that gap. Still unidentified, but with a strong presumption that all were Portuguese built, Aveiro A (16), Corpo Santo (17), Cais do Sodré (18) and São Julião da Barra 2 (19) have confirmed some data that was present in some of the naval treatises written by Portuguese scholars.

Hull planking from the São Julião da Barra 2 wreck, most probably the Portuguese nau Nossa Senhora dos Mártires (1606). Please note the lead roll inserted into a plank crack. Photo: Augusto Salgado.


These documents (20) include theoretical treatises – the Latin book “Ars Nautica” (c. 1570) and “Livro da Fabrica das Naus” (c. 1580) (21) both by Fernando Oliveira – the theoretical-practical texts – the anonymous “Tratado do que deve de saber um bom soldado para ser bom capitao de mar e guerra”, the “Livro Primeiro da Architectura Naval” by Joao Baptista Lavanha (c. 1614) (22) and the “Advertencias de navegantes” by Marcos Aguiar (c. 1640) – and the practical texts – “Livro de Tracas de Carpintaria” by Manuel Fernandes (1616), the compilation “Livro Nautico” (c. 1590) and the manuscript by Gonçalo de Sousa “Coriosidades” (c. 1632).

The majority of these documents were written while Portugal was united with Spain (1580-1641). How did the Iberian union affected both nautical schools? How was the Iberian shipbuilding affected by the new materials and the new techniques found all over the known world? To resume it all, what does constitute a true Portuguese shipbuilding tradition if there is such a thing?

To complicate further an already complex subject, the constructive place of origin of a ship – the place where the ship was actually built – may differ from the place where the ship was registered, or even where the owner lived – the ship legal place of origin. Even these two definitions might not agree with the economic place of origin – the place where the ship was fitted out for her last voyage and where the crew embarked (23). So, when a Spanish owned ship is found it does not mean that it was built in Spain. As an example, the Spanish used ships from as different origins as Naples, Venice and Ragusa/Dubrovnik from the 1588 Armada (24). Also, between 1550 and 1650, Spain used on the Carreira das Indias ships from the Low Countries, Caribbean, North America and Central America, Portugal, England, France and Northern Europe (25). Anyhow, wreck artefacts, as clearly demonstrated by Piet Kleij mostly point out only to the economic place of origin, although some low rate of circulation artefacts carried on.

So, where does all of this lead us?

The bottom line is this: the situation of the archaeological discoveries relative to ships of Iberian origin is greatly biased towards the Spanish construction techniques. Even when a wreck presents what has come be known as distinct features of the Iberian-Atlantic shipbuilding tradition (26), one will have a very difficult time trying to ascertain her constructive origin.

Some preliminary thoughts:

  1. The units of measurement varied between Spanish and Portuguese shipbuilders. The Spanish used the “codo normal” until c. 1590 (0,5573 m) and from 1590 onwards the codo de ribera (0,5747 m) as well as the Spanish “vara” (0,8359 m), the “palmo” (0,209 m), the “dedo” (0,0174 m), the “Pie de Burgos” (0,2786 m) and the “pulgada” (0,0232 m). The Portuguese used the “rumo” (1,67 m), the “palmo de goa” (0,278) and the “palmo normal” (0,209 m). (27) According to Oliveira, in Portuguese naus of more than 300 tons “the frames are one goa palm square, that is, one palm to each face” (21) that is, c. 28 cm moulded and sided for floors and futtocks. According to an anonymous Spanish author, probably Pedro Lopes de Soto (c. 1630), the Spanish ships of the same tonnage used half of codo (29 cm) in their floors, but only a third of codo (19 cm) in the second futtocks (28).
  2. Also according to Oliveira, for a nau with a keel length up to 15 rumos there was one single master frame; between 15 to 18 rumos, two master frames; from 18 rumos, three master frames (29). Although this characteristic is not unique to Portuguese shipbuilding, being found, for instance in 18th century French men o’war (30) it is not referred to in Spanish shipbuilding, IIRC.
  3. The sternpost “couce de popa” does not scarf with the keel . The sternpost heel, in Portuguese shipbuilding, was usually done with a single piece of wood that scarfed with the keel in “elbow-fashion” (16), curved down to the point where the skeg juts out.
  4. The existence of a “dente” or deck beam teeth, known only in theory up to now, seems to be unique to Portuguese shipbuilding tradition. The “dente”, as defined by Richard Barker, is an integral corbet marked on templates on the second futtock, and cut on the inside of the frame timbers at regular intervals, corresponding to the decks. The beam shelves would rest on these corbels, or “teeth”, which thus served as a major point of alignment for the frames, too (22).
  5. Portuguese tradition emphasises the use of cork oak (Quercus suber) as the key material for the ships of discoveries, although apparently practice does point to some use of some other wood species such as European oak from Poland and the Low Countries for the keel and frames of Portuguese ships (31).
  6. The presence of Roman numerals on the – probably – pre-assembled frames, at the surfaces facing the bow. The numerals might directly correlate with the specific method for the system of design of the hull configuration, well known through the classical sources of Portuguese naval architecture, above cited (19). This kind of inscription was only found on the Cais do Sodre and Culip IV (29) wrecks, IIRC.
  7. Caulking with thin sheets of lead, rolled up, placed during the assembly of the hull planking, as system observed at Boudeuse Cay wreck (8) and São Julião da Barra 2 (19). For one who has dived the SJB 2, these lead rolls were the most noticeable feature of the site (besides the hull, that is…)

Ending this, fact is more Portuguese wrecks need to be studied until we can reach to any general conclusion regarding Iberian shipbuilding practices.

Frame of a Portuguese nau. Please note the "dente" rising from the inside face of the second futtock. In João Baptista Lavanha's "Livro Primeiro de Architectura Naval", circa 1610.

Cross sections of a mid/late-16th century Spanish nao of 400 tons, at the almogama de popa (last dovetail morticed floor/futtock assembly counting from the bow), master frame and almogama de proa (first dovetail morticed floor/futtock assembly counting from the bow), all measurements in codos. Please note the different manga (beam) dimensions, the puntal (depth of hold) and the plan (floor length at the master frame). In PALACIO, Diego Garcia de (1944) Instrucción Náutica para navegar. Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispanica, facsimile of the 1587 edition.


(0)    SMITH, R., SPIREK, J., BRATTEN, J. & SCOTT-IRETON, 1995, "The Emanuel Point Ship, Archaeological Investigations,1992-1995", Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, Bureau of Archaeological Research

(1) REDKNAP, M., 1984, "The Cattewater Wreck - The investigation of an armed vessel of the early sixteenth century", BAR, 131, Londres

(2) OERTLING. T., 1989, "The Molasses reef wreck hull analysis: final report", The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, IJNA, (1989) 18.3: 235

(3) OERTLING. T., 1989, "The Highborn Cay wreck: the 1986 field season", The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, IJNA, (1989) 18.3: 244-253

(4) WATTS, G., 1993, "The Western Ledge wreck: a preliminary report on investigation of the remains of a 16th-century shipwreck in Bermuda”, IJNA (1993) 22.2: 103-124

(5) ARNOLD, B., 1978, "The Nautical Archaeology of Padre Island: The Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554", Academic Press, Nova Iorque

(6) GRENIER, R., 1996, "Basque Whalers in the New World" in BASS, G., ed., "Shipwrecks of the Americas – A History Based on Underwater Archaeology", Thames and Hudson, Nova Iorque

(7) CARRÉ, D., DESROCHES, J.-P. & GODDIO, F., 1994, "Le San Diego. Un trésor sous la mer", Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris

(8) BLAKE, W. & GREEN, J, 1986, "A mid-XVI century Portuguese wreck in the Seychelles", IJNA, vol.15, nº1, Londres, Fevereiro 1986, pp.1-23

(9) CHYNOWETH, J., 1968, “The Wreck of the St. Anthony”, Journal of the Royal Institute of Cornwall, 5:4, pp. 385-406

(10) L’HOUR, M., RICHEZ, F. & BOUSQUET, G., 1990, “Decouvert d’un East Indiamen de l’ E.I.C. a Bassas de India, atoll francais de l’Ocean Indien: le Sussex (1738)”, Cahiers d’Archeologie Subaquatique, 10, Frejus, 1991, pp. 175-198

(11) MAGGS, T., 1984, "The Great Galleon São João: remains from a mid-sixteenth century wreck on the Natal South Coast", Annals of the Natal Museum, vol. 26 (1), Dezembro, Pietermaritzburg, pp: 173 – 186

(12) AURET, C. & MAGGS, T., 1982, "The Great Ship São Bento: remains from a mid-sixteenth century wreck on the Pondoland Coast", Annals of the Natal Museum, vol. 25 (1), Outubro, Pietermaritzburg, pp: 1 – 39

(13) AXELSON, E., 1985, “Recent Identifications of Portuguese Wrecks in the South African Coast, especially of the São Goncalo (1630), and the Sacramento and Atalaia (1647)”, in Estudos de Historia e Cartografia Antiga, Memorias, 25, Lisboa, pp. 43-61

(14) MELLO, U., 1979, The Shipwreck of the Galleon Sacramento – 1668 off Brazil. IJNA. Londres. 8:3, p.211-223

(15) 1991, “The Mombasa Wreck Excavation”, INA Newsletter, 18:2, Summer 1991, pp. 2-29

(16) ALVES, F., 1998, “Ria de Aveiro A - a mid-15th century shipwreck from the west Portuguese central coast“ in Pré-Actas do Simpósio Internacional Arqueologia dos Navios Medievais e Modernos de Tradição Ibero-Atlântica”, ed. ALVES, F., CNANS, Lisboa

(17) ALVES, F., 1998, “The remains of the Corpo Santo, a 14th century shipwreck and the remains of a shipyard at parça do Municipio, Lisbon, Portugal“ in Pré-Actas do Simpósio Internacional Arqueologia dos Navios Medievais e Modernos de Tradição Ibero-Atlântica”, ed. ALVES, F., CNANS, Lisboa

(18) RODRIGUES, P., 1998, “Cais do Sodré - une épave de la deuxiéme moitié du 15ème/debut 16ème siécle à Lisbonne, Portugal“ in Pré-Actas do Simpósio Internacional Arqueologia dos Navios Medievais e Modernos de Tradição Ibero-Atlântica”, ed. ALVES, F., CNANS, Lisboa

(19) ALVES, F., CASTRO, F., RODRIGUES, P., GARCIA, C. & ALELUIA, M., 1998, "Archaeology of a shipwreck", Catálogo do Pavilhão de Portugal na Expo'98, Lisboa, pp. 183-215

(20) BARATA, J., 1989, "Estudos de Arqueologia Naval", 2 vols, Imprensa Nacional - Casa da Moeda, Lisboa

(21) OLIVEIRA, F., 1991, "Livro da Fabrica das Naos", Academia de Marinha, Lisboa

(22) LAVANHA, J., 1996, "Livro Primeiro da Architectura Naval", facsimile da ed. de 1608 - 1616, Academia de Marinha, Lisboa

(23) KLEIJ, P. (1997) The Identification of a Ship’s Place of Departure with the Help of Artefacts. In REDKNAP, M., ed. (1997) - Artefacts from Wrecks: Dated Assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Exeter: Oxbow Monograph 84, p. 181-190

(24) MAARLEVELD. T., 1998, "Archaeological heritage management in Dutch Waters: exploratory studies", Scheepsarcheologie V, Nederlands Instituut voor Scheeps - en onderwaterArcheologie/ROB (NISA), s/l, p. 87

(25) CHAUNU, P. 1977, “Seville et l’Amerique aux XVIe et XVIIe siecles”, Paris: Flammarion

(26) OERTLING. T., 1989, "The few remaining clues...", in ARNOLD; B., ed., "Underwater Archaeology Proceedings for The Society for Historical Archaeology Conference, Baltimore

(27) SERRANO, J., 1991, "Arquitectura de las Naos y Galeones de las Flotas de Indias", tomo II, Ediciones Seyer, Malaga, p. 24

(28) VICENTE MAROTO, M., 1998, “Dialogo entre un Vizcayno y un Montanes sobre la fabrica de navios”, Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, p. 172

(29) RIETH, E., 1996, “Le maître-gabarit, la tablette et le trébuchet: essai sur la conception non-graphique des carènes, du Moyen-Âge au XXe siécle”. Paris: Comité des travaux historiques et scientifiques, p. 113

(30) GEROUT, M, RIETH, E., GASSEND, J. & LIOU, B., 1989, “Le navire genois de Villefranche – un naufrage de 1516?”, Archaeonautica, 9, Editions du CNRS, Paris, p. 40

(31) COSTA, L., 1997, "Naus e Galeões na Ribeira de Lisboa - A construção naval no século XVI para a Rota do Cabo", Patrimonia Historica, Cascais

Paulo Alexandre Monteiro

Centro de Nacional de Arqueologia Subaquática nos Açores
Caminho de Baixo, 68, São Pedro
9700 Angra do Heroísmo


May 1999

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