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Ancient Ships That Changed The World

Updated on August 18, 2014

On a cruise to Mexico, sometime near daybreak, I woke up and ventured outside our ship's cabin to the balcony and stared in amazement at the sheer size of the island of Cuba. One could be easily fooled about it's size looking at maps of it compared to the United States. However, off shore, it looks very large. Furthermore, it took a long time to pass by it cruising by sea.

I wonder if many of my Louisiana Acadian and French relatives saw Cuba from the distance when they were bound for New Orleans in the early and late 1700s? What would have been their take on the size of the island? Did they even pass it?

As I watched a glorious sunset, other thoughts about ships, the men who worked on them, the passengers, and shipwrecks came to mind.

What were the ships like? What was life like for the crew? How many days did it take to cross the Atlantic?

When I look back on my own family history, I know that some of my French ancestors were on this continent as early as the 1500s (with native ancestors ready to greet them). I know that during the wretched time of Acadian expulsion by the British, many of them lost their lives, their loved ones, and everything they owned. Then, there was the Acadian trans-Atlantic migration of 1785 -- when the King of Spain rescued some of our wandering people to help colonize Louisiana.

For example:

What was it like those of my family who traveled on La Bergere in 1785?

It was a ship of three hundred tons, with only one cannon to defend it, two decks, and a crew of 25 men. Two hundred and seventy-three people sailed upon this small ship. It took them ninety-five days to cross that ocean. Seven woman gave birth on that voyage. Six elderly Acadians died on that voyage.

Now, I love a cruise, but I'm thinking over three months on a crowded small ship (no doubt filled with life drama) must have been a very frightful, noisy, and uncomfortable time. It's thoughts like those that sent me researching for years all that I could find about the ships, the crews, and life traveling by sea.

Let's Take A Look At Some More Of The Early Ships

Art by ~ Jerilee Wei
Art by ~ Jerilee Wei
Art by ~ Jerilee Wei
Art by ~ Jerilee Wei

The Viking Ships

I thought about how during the Middle Ages, the Norsemen or Vikings, became the terror of the northern seas.

They were long, narrow vessels, propelled by sails and oars, carried them on raiding expeditions along the coasts or northern Europe and the British Isles -- and even into the Mediterranean.

I'm thinking those ships and their crews must have been terribly strong. Around the tenth century A.D. their dragon-powered ships dared the bleak and stormy North Atlantic, and the Vikings soon colonized Iceland and Greenland and even reached the shores of North America.

Viking Ship Museum - Oslo Norway

The Ships of the Crusaders - Round Ships

In the dark ages following the fall of Rome, ship building made little progress in southern Europe. Seafaring was limited. Then came the Crusades. The demand for vessels to transport vast numbers of men and quantities of supplies to the Holy Land created a sudden boom in shipping.

Fleets of Genoese and Venetian rowing galleys, not very different from the slim galleys of ancient Greece, began to ply the Mediterranean.

Countries of northern Europe, as well, took a new interest in ship building. Merchant ships grew shorter and wider to accommodate more cargo. Their stubby, tub-like outline earned them the name "Round Ships."

Improvements in Ship Building

After the Crusades ended, in the thirteenth century -- oar-less all-purpose sailing vessels rapidly developed. Rudders, which had been invented earlier, replaced steering oars.

Ships were equipped with two or more masts and so could carry more sail.

When the triangular sail known as the lateen was adopted and used along with the square sail, navigators had almost complete control of the wind. They could sail before it, at an angle to it, or they could beat into the wind.

By the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, many different types of round ships appeared on the seas -- carracks, caravels, pinnaces, hulks, galleons, and others.

The compass had come into more general use, and longer and longer voyages became possible.

Although some large vessels of nearly a thousand tons were being built in this period, the ships in which early mariners braved unknown oceans were often amazingly small.

Think about this:

  • The Santa Maria, which carried Columbus and a crew of fifty-two to the shores of the New World, was a caravel only one hundred feet or less in length.
  • The vessels in which Vasco da Gama and his men round the Cape of Good Hope was of a similar type to Columbus' and not much larger.
  • The ship in which John Cabot discovered Newfoundland, must have been very small indeed, for it only had a crew of eighteen men.

Now, I don't know about anyone else, but to my way of thinking having been on a number of cruise ships -- you'd be but a dot in the sea in ships that small. That's not where I'd want to be in a big storm.

Christopher Columbus

Art by ~ Jerilee Wei
Art by ~ Jerilee Wei

The Beginning of the Glory Days of Ships

Both merchant and naval ships increased in size and numbers during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I of England.

Carracks were used as merchant craft by the the Spanish, Portuguese, and Venetians were often of one thousand tons burden and were over one hundred and fifty feet long.

The largest warships of the time were four-masters of fifteen hundred tons.

The French became very skillful naval architects. Then, as well as later in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, their ships were leading those of other nations in both speed and size.

The Invincible Armada

Seagoing vessels were armed with cannons as early as the 1300s. As armaments improved and more cannons were carried, many changes took place in warship construction.

When the Invincible Armada was defeated in 1588, some of the English ships opposing the Spaniards mounted as many as fifty-five guns. By the mid-1700s ships were being built that could accommodate more than one hundred guns -- with the guns mounted on several decks.

The Frigate

The general trend of seventeenth century ship building was toward frigate type vessels. The frigate, a fast cruiser with low bow and stern structures and most of the guns on the main deck -- marked a great change in ship hull design.

The frigate was primarily an English development. The first in its class was the Constant Warwick, launched in 1647.

This allowed trade across the Atlantic to increase during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Portuguese, Dutch, and the English began seeking more of the products of the Orient. European nations formed rival trading companies, which were forerunners of our great modern shipping concerns.

The most famous of these was the English East India Company, chartered in 1600. Later cargo ships were usually broader and slower than warships of the day and were less heavily armed.

Ship of the Week - The Frigate


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    • Taranwanderer profile image


      3 years ago

      Awesome - seems like these great ships were a build-up to the magnificent ocean liners and cruise ships of today.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks sukhera143!

    • sukhera143 profile image


      9 years ago from Home

      Great info

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks maryladd! I would have loved flying to Belize on a smaller plane. We flew down in a big one and flew all over Belize in their local small ones, including one that missed the runway and landed in a body of water.

    • maryladd profile image


      9 years ago

      wow I really liked this...ships that changed the world who would have thought it..and like you we flew pass Cuba on our way from Belize ...we were in a 4 passenger plane a Cessena 182 rg and Cuba is huge..enjoyed the article and your photos were just perfect..maryladd

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks BrianS! I will eventually get to the Titanic but first wanted to cover some of the earlier ships leading up to it and others.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      I found this really interesting and in my anticipation I fully expected to find something about the Titanic, thinking about it though it didn't really change the world it just sank.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Lgali!

      Thanks shamelabboush! I think far too few of us know anything about ships.

    • shamelabboush profile image


      9 years ago

      This is fascinating really.

    • Lgali profile image


      9 years ago

      very informative hub This is lot of info

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Nancy's Niche! Even more amazing is the craftman ship without today's high tech tools and the accuracy.

      Thanks GustheRedneck! I aim to please.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Jerilee - A very informative article and fun to read. Gus

    • profile image

      Nancy's Niche 

      9 years ago

      It is amazing how, with no formal training, they designed and built the sturdy ships of their time.


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