George R. Schwarz

A Short Introduction to the Caravel

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? This answer to this question involves intensive research of a variety of sources. From the perspective of nautical archaeology, far too little is known about this amazing exploratory vessel, for there is no archaeological evidence (in terms of extant hull remains) to rely on. What must be studied and interpreted instead are historical documents, the iconographic record, archaeology of similarly built craft, ethnographic parallels, and the few remaining shipbuilding treatises that deal with caravels and Iberian shipbuilding.

This site is dedicated to obtaining a clearer picture of the caravel, and will investigate many sources in order to clarify some of the research questions about this ship and Iberian ship construction in general. Consequently, aspects of maritime activity and seafaring life in general during the 15th and 16th centuries will be brought to light. The pages contained in this site show examples of the type of scholarly research that is entailed in this objective. The site will be under construction indefinitely, new information being added frequently as it becomes available.



Caravel History



Shipbuilding Treatises



Caravel Site by George R. Schwarz

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