14. The Myth of the Inadequacy of Pre-Columbian Watercraft
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14 The Myth of the Inadequacy of Pre-­ Columbian Watercraft Vessels large may venture more, But little boats should keep near the shore. —Benjamin Franklin, 1757 Another major maritime myth is that the larger the body of water crossed, the larger the vessel must be to cross it. This myth includes the contention that the watercraft available to pre-­ Columbian peoples were too tiny to permit long-­ distance voyaging, were too weak and unstable to survive ocean waves, and lacked the kinds and numbers of sails and the appropriate rigging needed for sufficiently expeditious crossings. As described in the previous chapter, in this view the Atlantic was an insuperable obstacle until the fifteenth century, when improvements in ship design, specifically the development in Portugal of the ocean-­ going caravel, allowed the inception of the Great Age of Discovery. Like many an author before him, in his generally well informed book The Discovery of the Sea the Harvard historian J. H. Parry argued that relatively large ships like the caravel and the carrack were required, to be safe enough as well as capacious enough to carry sufficient supplies to permit long-­ duration voyages, as did the Canadian historian Richard W. Unger in The Ship in the Medieval Economy: “The full-­ rigged ship was the great invention of European ship designers in the middle ages,” involving the sternpost rudder, three masts with shortenable square sails plus, on the mizzen, an improved lateen sail for tacking , and a bowsprit sail to aid maneuvering.1 There are at least two kinds of response to the unsupported contention that earlier watercraft were not large enough to be suited to ocean crossings: (1) determination as to whether sizable craft did exist in the relevant time periods, and (2) determination as to whether large size actually conveys criti­ cal advantages in the realm of seaworthiness or supplies. Sizes of Watercraft during the Great Age of Discovery Many imagine that the ships of the great age of European exploration and early colonization were quite large, but in fact none was exceptionally so, and some Inadequacy of Pre-Columbian Watercraft / 153 were distinctly small. The Portuguese ships of Bartolomeu Dias’s fleet that rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 were of about 50 tons’ burden. Vasco da Gama’s 1497 flagship Gabriel, which went on across open ocean to India, had a length of about 125 feet. Columbus took three ships on his 8,000-­ mile first transatlantic probe. Although actual measurements no longer exist, his flagship , the two-­ masted Santa María, is thought to have been about 75 to 85 feet long and of 90 to 100 tons burden, with a crew of thirty-­ nine; the Pinta, some 69 feet long and about 60 tons; and the “Niña” (Santa Clara), approximately 55 feet or a bit more long and with a capacity of 50 to 60 tons (Columbus used Niña again on his sec­ ond voyage; John Cabot’s Matthew was probably about the same size). The tonnages of the principal ships of the third voyage were comparable , being circa 101, 70, and 60, but Columbus had come to conclude that smaller ships were preferable for exploration. Those on his sec­ ond voyage included several Cantabrian barks, probably much smaller than the Niña. Later ships of the Spanish treasure fleet ran about 100 feet long. Francis Drake, terror of the seas of Spanish America, sailed 30,000 miles with a crew of sixty+ in the Pelican (renamed Golden Hind en route), in­ clud­ ing 7,000 miles across the Pacific in 1577. The Pelican ran 70 to 100+ feet from stem to stern and had a capacity of from 85 to 150+ tons; the expedition’s Christopher, which crossed the Atlantic but did not reach the Pacific, weighed in at a mere 15 tons. The even-­ smaller frigate Squirrel, in Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 fleet of transatlantic exploration of the North Ameri­can northeast, was of a mere 8 tons. Alvaro de Saavedra Cerón took the Florida, a vessel of perhaps 40 to 50 tons, across the Pacific in 1527–28. Henry Hudson’s Discovery (1610) was a bark of 55 tons that crossed the Atlantic and back, carrying on explorations during arctic-­ winter conditions. The flagship of the 1684 expedition of Robert de la Salle, which went from France to Texas, measured only 51 by 14 feet. Even Captain James Cook’s bark Endeavour, which explored the Pacific and encircled...


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