Shipbuilding Treatises


barcoCaravels were built differently throughout the course of their existence. In the 13th century, these vessels were used primarily as coastal fishing boats, and may have been adapted from a variety of small water craft. These include the Arab qârib, as well as other Muslim Algarvian and Maghrebine models of lateen-rigged craft made to suit Atlantic sailing conditions. As they became more adept at voyaging in the high seas, the caravel became larger and sturdier. Consequently, methods of construction changed with the morphological alteration of the ship. Unfortunately, these early shipbuilding techniques are largely unknown. Until records of shipbuilding practices were kept, such information was safeguarded in the minds of skilled masters who passed on the traditions orally from generation to generation, and by shared work experience. However, the rigid secrecy that was practiced regarding this specialized knowledge ensured that these traditions would not survive in writing.

Before the reign of the Christian kings, there was little mention of shipbuilding in Castilian documents, and when ships do appear it is usually only with regard to their names, types, and occasionally tonnage in “barrels”. However, with the reign of Charles V (1516-1558) and the expansion of foreign policy, there was an increase in management techniques. By the time Phillip II became king, the Spanish bureaucracy reached maturity. During his reign (1556-1598), he regulated navigation in convoy, set a standard for mercantile shipbuilding, and introduced technical specifications that led to improvements in safety. He gave incentive to shipbuilders by exempting sales tax for the purchasing of shipbuilding materials. Phillip II also established an efficient system for measuring the hulls and capacities of ships, and was the first European monarch to use a prototype to build ships for the armadas, choosing the galleon as the model. It is during his reign that the production of documents recording shipbuilding techniques grew the most. The following are some of the documents that have been published:

1536, Alonso de Chavez: Espejo de navegantes Phillip II
ca. 1560, President Visitador: Papeles
1568, Domingo de Busturria: Memorial
ca. 1570, Rodrigo Vargas: Apuntamiento
1575, Juan Escalante de Mendoza: Ytinerario de navegación de los mares y
tierras occidentals

1581, Crostobal de Barros y otros: Discusión de prototipos de galeón
1587, Diego García de Palacio: Instrucción nautica para el buen uso y
regimiento de las naos, su traza y govierno

1607, Ordinanzas de fábricas de navios
1611, Tomé Cano: Arte para fabricar, fortificar y aparejar naos

1613, Ordinanzas de fábricas de navios
1618, Ordinanzas de fábricas de navios

These documents are useful tools for studying the history of shipbuilding, but caution must be taken when interpreting them. The various authors were influenced by their professions and the extent of their experience in shipbuilding is largely unknown. Nevertheless, they give information on raw materials needed for shipbuilding, as well as dimension and tonnage of ships.

From Lavanha's Livro Primeiro da Architectura Naval Figure 1Manuscripts and treatises concerning shipbuilding during this period may be more helpful in understanding how Iberian ships were constructed. These materials are generally more descriptive (than mere documents) on how to construct various types of vessels, and appear to be written by individuals who spent at least some time in the shipyard. For the purposes of investigating an Iberian caravel, there are four works in particular that deserve attention: Instrucción Náutica, Livro da Fábrica das Naus , Livro Náutico, and Livro de Traças de Carpintaria. These shipbuilding treatises will be discussed in order to ascertain the methods involved in constructing a 16th and 17th century caravel. Since shipbuilding treatises either do not exist, or have not survived from earlier centuries, it is impossible to comprehend exactly how earlier vessels were constructed at this time. Nevertheless, shipbuilding trends can be examined via the analysis of these treatises, and hence it may be possible to acquire vestiges of more ancient techniques through the corroboration of other lines of evidence. Examples of other sources include archaeological remains of other Iberian ships and ethnographic examples of surviving techniques from the distant past.

Although there is a dearth of information concerning the exact procedures for constructing a caravel of discovery, it is possible to extract information from the various available shipbuilding treatises and evaluate the data by comparison. Such an analysis can provide scholars with at least a rough idea of how such ships were built according to contemporary literature on the subject. It is important to understand that the information gained from these ancient sources must be taken with the consideration that many affluent characters throughout history have taken the liberty to write about subjects in which they, in reality, know very little. For this reason, background information about the authors of the treatises is included when available. For some treatises the authors are unknown, for others there is a considerable amount of biographical information.

The purpose of the following descriptions on Iberian nautical treatises is to elucidate the particular information that applies directly to the building of a caravel. Some of the information presented is general and concerns Iberian shipbuilding as a whole, but since specific trends are applied to caravels as well, it is essential to highlight such information. An overview of each manuscript is given, as well as the previously mentioned biographical information (if it exists), and finally caravel related data are brought to light.


O Livro da Fábrica das Naus by Fernando Oliveira, AD 1580

O Livro de Traças de Carpintaria by Manoel Fernandez, AD 1616

Livro Primeiro de Arquitectura Naval by João Baptista Lavanha, circa AD 1610

Livro Náutico Author Unknown




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