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From Wooden Wonders to Cannons’ Fury: Europe’s Dominance in Age of Exploration Ships pen_spark

In March 1521, a towering mast pierced the eastern horizon. Like a big bird, its wings filled with wind, flying halfway around the world – this is the Spanish galleon, the miracle of the times, the nightmare of Asia.

500 years ago, European sailing ships were extremely high-tech, comparable to today’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
More than 200 ships cannot defeat one.

In 1498, the Portuguese fleet came to India for the first time. In just 20 years, they wiped out the rest and occupied all the major ports. When Magellan took his fleet around the world, he liked to invite the natives along the way to visit the ships and show off his military power. At that time, Europeans could conquer a country simply by setting up cannons on the coast.

In 1504, Calicut, a powerful country on the west coast of India, organized 80,000 men and 260 ships to attack Portugal’s 150 defenders and 4 ships. After seven months of fighting, the Portuguese did not lose a single ship, and Calicut was finally defeated.

In 1526, more than 50 ships from Calicut surrounded two Portuguese ships and fired thousands of cannons without damaging the Portuguese ship’s bones. When the Portuguese fired a cannon, the Indians sank a ship.

In 1596, the nation of Aceh on the island of Sumatra used more than 240 ships to surround a Portuguese ship. After three days of fierce attack, the Acehnese retreated in anger with only 40 intact ships left.

Among Magellan’s 5 ships, there were 4 Karaks and 1 Caravel (a light version of the Karak), which were like the aircraft carriers of the year. To use another analogy, if Zheng He’s treasure ship on his voyages to the West is a bus, the Karak is a tank, the Caravel is a Hummer Jeep, and another small rowing boat commonly used by Europeans is an off-road motorcycle.

Decades after Magellan’s death, the Carrack evolved into a Galen ship, also known as the “Spanish Galleon”, which performed more stably and played a leading role until the First Opium War.

Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Magellan relied on Caravel and Carrack to sail across the oceans. As soon as they appeared in the Indian Ocean, Asians were amazed.
The southern ship and the northern ship are combined into a large sailing ship.

500 years ago, many handicraft products in Asia were superior to those in Europe, but high-end shipbuilding was monopolized by Europeans. Modern sailing ships have two major origins: one is the Mediterranean. Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Greece, and Rome successively took the lead in the shipbuilding industry. After 1000 AD, the Venetian galleons were fast and strong and invincible in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the Arabs began to introduce triangular sails, which were more maneuverable than traditional square sails and could even travel against the wind. The number of masts also increased from one to three or four. The second is the North Sea. The Vikings introduced the “keel + ribs + laminated wooden planks” structure, which is particularly strong. Later, slow-speed, large-capacity cargo ships were developed. In order to be able to shoot arrows and throw stones to suppress the enemy during naval battles, they built tall buildings on the decks, building them up layer by layer, creating three or four decks.

In the 14th century, the two types of ships began to merge – the hull structure of the north + the sail control of the south. In the 15th century, the Portuguese recruited skilled craftsmen and improved the carac and caravel. The former is strong and tall, suitable for naval combat and cargo transportation; the latter is light and flexible, suitable for exploration and reconnaissance. From then on, Europeans dared to cross the ocean to find India.

Beginning in the 14th century, Genoa and Castile caught up with Venice; in the 15th century, Portugal became the new star of shipbuilding; and half a century later, the Netherlands and Britain became the leaders.

Asia can also build large ships, and ships with displacements of hundreds of tons are not uncommon. However, compared with European ships, it is like civilian products compared with military products. The former is economical and affordable, while the latter is sturdy and brave.

The sturdiest ships in Asia are the Arabian sailing ships, which are somewhat primitive and crude compared to the large European ships. The military ships in Southeast Asia (called Guangzhou and Fuzhou by the Chinese) are even thinner. It uses cheap wood, has a simple structure, uses cheap ribs to strengthen the hull, and uses bamboo strips to make louvered folding window-style square sails. The cost is only a fraction of that of a European sailboat.

Junk ships did not dare to go far from the shore because they could not withstand the strong wind and waves, and they did not dare to carry heavy artillery on board. Its structure can only install one deck, and it is helpless to fight back against the towering European shipbuildings. Its bamboo hard sail is far inferior in area and maneuverability to European soft hemp sails.

In short, European ships are more advanced and more expensive. The annual operating cost of a luxury gunboat launched in Scotland in 1511 cost one-tenth of the national treasury. Moreover, European ships are also complex to maneuver.

Junk ships were cheap, large in capacity, and could be operated by novices. The Portuguese also liked to use Junk ships to transport goods on the Eastern Sea.
It imitates the structure, but cannot imitate the craftsmanship
India and Southeast Asian countries never built European-style galleons.

There are many processes involved in building a large sailing ship. The advantage of European shipbuilding lies in the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of years in each link.

The structure of the ship can be imitated, but the craftsmanship cannot be learned; if it is barely built, it will fall apart when launched into the water.

Not to mention there is the issue of materials. Europeans used high-quality hardwood to build ships. Before the age of steel and steam, they had been searching for high-quality hardwood all over the world and monopolizing the production areas. There are not that many hardwoods in Asia, and hardwoods are not suitable for mortise and tenon joints. High-quality and cheap iron nails must be used for riveting. 500 years ago, the output and quality of European iron nails could not be matched by Asia.

Many technologies also require supporting systems. For example, the British used copper cladding to solve the problem of ship hulls being constantly damaged. If the French wanted to imitate it, they had to import British equipment and craftsmen to roll copper plates and make copper bolts and copper fasteners.

Japan has successfully imitated it once. The Englishman William Adams lived in Japan and worked for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Under his command, Japan built a large sailing ship in 1604 and sailed across the Pacific to Mexico. However, Japan quickly closed its doors and did not build a second ship.

Magellan’s five ships, carrying three heavy cannons and dozens of light cannons, dared to provoke any opponent he saw along the way (of course he had to avoid the Portuguese). However, in Europe, he is not ranked high.

At the same time, Italian galleys added heavy cannons to the bottom of the bow, used wooden slide rails to buffer the recoil, and fired head-on at the enemy ship, like a heavy hammer crushing the opponent. However, as the status of the Mediterranean declined, Venice and its oars reached a dead end. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands and other countries began to drill holes in the side of the ship and bombard them sideways. A British warship launched in 1512, carrying 43 heavy guns and 141 light guns, with a total gun weight of 100 tons.

In Europe, competition in shipbuilding technology is brutal. Some researchers pointed out that since the 14th century, European shipbuilding technology has been eliminated at a rate comparable to today’s high-tech industry. The force gap that existed when the Indians first encountered European fleets in the 15th century widened rather than narrowed in the following centuries.
The gap between Asia and Europe is not only in manufacturing

The gap between Asia and Europe is not only in manufacturing. Even if it uses original European ships, the Indian Navy is still unable to meet its requirements.

In 1507, the Venetians were worried that the Portuguese would steal business, and encouraged the Egyptians to spend money to buy 6 karaks and 6 galleys. They were first dismantled into parts and then shipped to the Red Sea for assembly. Together with more than 1,000 European and Ottoman employees Soldiers were sent to India together to aid India in resisting Portugal. In less than two years, the Indians had lost all their assets. The biggest reason is that Indians are not good at using Western ships. In several sea confrontations, the Indian sailing ship was swaying. Although it used the latest European artillery, it could not hit the enemy; while the Portuguese’s cannon, although smaller, was able to interfere with and restrain the opponent. This is like the Soviet tanks that were a torrent of steel that devastated Europe in the hands of the Soviets; they were sold to the Iranians and Iraqis, but were used as fixed artillery batteries.

The naval warfare skills of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British were developed over hundreds of years. They have long been accustomed to jumping on enemy ships and fighting hand-to-hand, with blood splattering three feet away. The high-intensity wars in Europe have long eliminated troops with insufficient willpower and poor training.

An English-French fleet battle that took place in 1340 was evaluated as “extremely dirty and horrific, much more cruel than a land battle, because there was no way to escape or retreat.” The shot arrows fell like clouds, and people stood on the ship building and threw stones. Nearly 20,000 French people died that day.

In 1571, during the famous naval battle of Lepanto, the commander-in-chief of the European coalition asked his staff when it was appropriate to fire a cannon, and the answer was “so close that the enemy’s blood spills on us.” In that battle, blood and broken wood covered the sea, and 30,000 Turks died.

Such a tragic conflict could not have been imagined by the Asian navies in Magellan’s time.

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