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Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (47) - The Caravel

Today is one of the oddest, I think, holidays of record. Here we know it as Columbus Day, but it has other names in other parts of the Americas. Most Americans simply regard it as a day in which we don't get our mail, since, in 1934, our famous Progressive president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declared it a federal holiday, but forgot to give the rest of us the day off. But loyal Italian-Americans have some nice parades and festivals in honor of the great Italian explorer, Cristobal Colon, otherwise known as Christopher Columbus, who in 1492, sailed the ocean blue, and crash-landed on a rock on an island that came to be called Hispaniola.

In the ensuing five hundred and twenty-one years, Columbus and his feats have become the focus of perhaps the most far-reaching and widely-disputed discussions on the beginning of what we now refer to as "globalism". To some groups, Columbus is the hero that led the rise of European civilization in the name of God, as depicted in the famous painting above that went along with our American elementary-school education. To others (represented by the three nervous natives in the shadows) Columbus was the first of many invaders who brought slavery, disease, and death to a civilization that had been, up until then, one of the greatest and most populous on the planet.

A more balanced view is that as presented by our friend, the author Charles C. Mann, in the sequel to his enlightening exploration of the western world before white man, 1491. In 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Mann summarizes this event, which he borrows from the historian Alfred W. Crosby in calling "the Columbian Exchange", in the following light.
"The Columbian Exchange had such far-reaching effects that some biologists now say that Colon's voyages marked the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene. The term refers to homogenizing: mixing unlike substances to create a uniform blend. With the Columbian Exchange, places that were once ecologically distinct have become more alike."
Even today, the homogenization of the worlds populations, cultures, and species continues to be controversial and the primary source of disagreement between peoples in all corners of the world.

But in his day, all Admiral Columbus was hoping for was to find a short cut to the fabulous wealth of India and China, by sailing westward into the unknown. And the only way he had to get there was an unassuming little ship called a caravel.

A caravel. Source:
The Iberian workhorse known as the caravel was one of the most important ships not only in Iberian history, but in the history of the world. The caravel was a vessel of paramount importance in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was used to traverse the immense barrier to the New World. During these centuries, the caravel was a ship with a distinctive shape and admirable qualities. A gently sloping bow and single stern castle were prominent features of this craft, and it carried a mainmast and a mizzen mast that were generally lateen-rigged. Along with its shallow draft and ability to sail windward, these qualities helped the caravel achieve fame as it was propelled across the Atlantic and southward along the rocky western coast of Africa. This is the vessel that was used for the majority of transatlantic exploration as well as other famous expeditions, such as the numerous journeys made to circumnavigate South Africa in attempts to reach India during the Age of Discovery. Popular explorers such as Bartolome Diaz, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus relied on the caravel in their many sojourns into the unknown. Why did they choose this diminutive vessel, with humble origins in the 13th century as a coastal fishing boat, for the vanguard into the New World and other unexplored realms?"
 - George R. Schwarz
The simple answer to that question, in Columbus' case, was that he used what he had.  The King and Queen of Spain had given Columbus three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the larger Santa Maria, on a flyer somewhat the modern equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. They didn't expect the crazy Italian to have any success, but if, for some reason, he was right, the Spanish could corner the market on trade with the East. He did, and they did, and the rest is a crazy, chaotic mix of local cultural and ecological histories.

Modern replica of the Nina. Source:

Modern replica of the Pinta. Source:

Modern replica of the Santa Maria. Source:

Now, finally, we get to the key issue for Go Wood readers. What type of wood were these famous ships built of? And here we find the most likely answer a somewhat surprising circular reference back to one of our previous posts.  Researcher George Schwarz shares a summary of a 16-century treatise on the construction of such ships, and interesting enough, we find the author of O Liuro da Fábrica das Naus has dedicated two entire chapters on the type and harvesting of the best woods for such ships.
"Chapter 2: On the Types of Wood that are Suitable for the Building of Ships
Chapter 3: On the Time when Woods Should be Cut: and the Manner in which they Should be Cut

Chapter two describes the types of woods that are suitable for shipbuilding, and Oliveira suggests the two most appropriate kinds of wood for a ship were cork-oak (Quercus suber) and pine (Pinus pinea). The cork-oak was used for frames, and the pine for planking."
- George R. Schwarz
Naturally, we wonder if the cork-oak (the wood, not the bark) had any qualities that made it the choice over other oaks or woods of similar strength; and we wonder what made pinus pinea, the Italian stone pine, especially preferred for the planks. The obvious answer, is, that these two species just happened to be the oak and pine species most abundantly available to ship builders on the Iberian peninsula, and like other oaks and pines the world over, are exceptionally useful and reliable where superior strength to weight ratios are required.

And so, Columbus set off in these oak and pine space shuttles, determined to prove that he wasn't crazy.
"On Christmas Day, 1492, Colon's first voyage came to an abrupt end when his flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground off the northern coast of Hispaniola. Because his two remaining vessels, the Nina and Pinta, were too small to hold the entire crew, he was forced to leave thirty-eight men behind. Colon departed for Spain while those men were building an encampment - a scatter of makeshift huts surrounded by a crude palisade, adjacent to a larger native village. The encampment was called La Navidad (Christmas), after the day of its involuntary creation (its precise location is not known today). Hispaniola's native people have come to be known as the Taino. The conjoined Spanish-Taino settlement of La Navidad was the intended destination of Colon's second voyage. He arrived there in triumph, the head of a flotilla, his crewmen swarming the shrouds in their eagerness to see the new land, on November 28, 1493, eleven months after he had left his men behind.
He found only ruin; both settlements, Spanish and Taino, had been razed. 'We saw everything burned and the clothing of the Christians lying on the weeds,' the ship's doctor wrote. Nearby Taino showed the visitors the bodies of eleven Spaniards, 'covered by the vegetation that had grown over them.' The Indians said that the sailors had angered their neighbors by raping some women and murdering some men. In the midst of the conflict a second Taino group had swooped down and overwhelmed both sides. After nine days of fruitless search for survivors Colon left to find a more promising spot for his base."
- Charles C. Mann, in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Certainly an inauspicious start for an inauspicious holiday. And wood made it all possible.

I bet Native Americans of both continents (and Africans, and Chinese, for that matter) wish Europe had been one immense grassland. A thought shared in sentiment, I presume, by those thirty-eight sailors that watched the Nina and Pinta sail away.

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