A galleon is the term for a sixteenth or seventeenth century large, wooden, sailing ship, usually a fighting ship or merchant vessel. These ships were built all over Europe at this time but Spain can be credited with the first, developing the galleon from earlier ship called carracks, and also for giving the galleon it's name. The most important part of a galleon would be the keel, the wooden backbone of the ship, this is the first part of the ship to be laid in the shipyard and the rest of the ship would be built up from this base. A large galleon would have several levels, or decks, from the hold at the bottom to the crows nest at the top of the mast. The hull would be made out of hardened wood, gaps between the planks would be sealed with tar soaked ropes, making the ship watertight. The front of the ship, the prow, would often be adorned with a figurehead, a symbol such as a nubile young woman. (nudge nudge wink wink). Apart from the decorative value of the prow it was often coated in metal to form a ram to be used in combat.

The threat of piracy meant even merchant ships were equipped to fight a sea battle. A warship would have as many as 20 cannon on each side, firing a broadside of cannon balls, or grapeshot. On a long cruise metal grapeshot would often run out and be replaced with rounded pebbles collected from the shore. Other weapons on board would include smaller, swivel mounted guns known as "murderers", these weapons were loaded with smaller buckshot and were usd to repel boarders. Their name came from the deadly havoc that a spread of shot at close ranger into a crowd of boarders would wreak. Most crews on a fighting ship were multi-tasking, they were both sailors and soldiers, sailing the ship and fighting when necessary. Common weapons for seamen included cutlasses, pikes, axes, muskets and grapnels to hook ships togeher while they were boarded. Spanish warships, followed a different ethic, often as wel as the seaman they would carry a cargo of infantry soldiers who would fight in battles.

With space on board limited the crew slept anywhere they could find a space, in warm weather they would crowd together on deck, in bad weather they would huddle below decks. Conditions below decks were cramped and the seawater which constantly collected in the bilges between hull and keel would smell constantly. As constant as the smell would be te sound of the pumps, these pumps worked constantly to keep the level of water down and the ship afloat. Stores of spare sails, food supplies, water caskets, gunpowder and cargo took up the rest of the space below decks. A complete set of sails was usually carried as they were often damaged in bad weather or enemy action. A second use for the spare canvas would be to stitch shrouds for dead seamen, they would be dropped over board with a cannonball stitched into the canvas as their crew said a prayer for them.

One of the biggest dangers on board a galleon was fire. Entirely made of wood, saoked in pitch, with canvas, ropes, and stores of gunpwder everywhere a ship was highly combustible, strct rules governed the use of candles and lanterns. Also at risk from mutiny, captains would keep weapons locked away, arming the crew only when fighting was imminent. With no weapons the crew had no chance for rebellion and theft was almost unheard of too, there would be nowhere on board for a criminal to hide, and floggings were common as punishments. A common ploy used by ships carrying bullion and other valuable cargo would be to place it at the very bottom of the cargo hold, beneath the heavier cargos of timber, barrels etc. this discouraged thieves better than any threats from a captain.

In this node I have tried to provide a summary of information about galleons, i realise galleon is a generic term and that not all this information is correct for every ship but I hope it provides a reasonably accurate overview. Any corrections or oversights and I'll be happy to add them. Thanks.

Gal"le*on (?), n. [Sp. galeon, cf. F. galion; fr. LL. galeo, galio. See Galley.] Naut.

A sailing vessel of the 15th and following centuries, often having three or four decks, and used for war or commerce. The term is often rather indiscriminately applied to any large sailing vessel.

The gallens . . . were huge, round-stemmed, clumsy vessels, with bulwarks three or four feet thick, and built up at stem and stern, like castels. Motley.


© Webster 1913.

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