Friday, December 28, 2012

The Bergantina

Bergantina overtaking a felucca, by Henri Sbonski de Passebon,
ca. 1700.
Courtesy Harvard College Library
In maritime history, we are frequently faced with vessels for which no description beyond what type they are. Sometimes, there is just enough information to make informed guesses as to their appearance; caravels, for instance. Other times, you simply have a class name.
One such vessel is the bergantina. This vessel appears to fill the gap between pure sail and a oared. We know that they had one or two masts, and had anywhere between eight and sixteen benches with one or two oarsmen to a bench. This meant sixteen to thirty two oars, and seldom did these vessels reach more than forty feet (13 meters) in length. They were also shallow, drawing as little as eighteen inches (45 cm) of water. It was that latter attribute in particular that made the bergantina especially suited for exploration.*
It is likely that many bergantinas were built here in the New World in the first few decades after Columbus' arrival, but earlier they were probably carried over in knocked down form, and quite possibly consisted of only a keel, stem and stern, the rest being made from locally obtained sources.
Bergantinas played an important role in the European discovery of Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon needed one for his journey in 1513. He used three vessels on his voyage - 
Santiago - caravel, quite possibly square rigged.
Santa Maria De Consolacion - caravelon. This is a smaller caravel, though we do not know her rig.
San Cristobal - the bergantina.
We can at least guess as to how the San Cristobal appeared. In preparation for the five hundredth anniversary of the European discovery of Florida, I've begun a series of studies of these vessels. For the bergantina, I picture a single mast carrying a large lateen sail. A total of twenty oars provide propulsion when the wind is not strong enough, or for when sailing is not appropriate, such as exploring shallow waterways.
If we refer to the Sbonski de Passebon painting, it would be fairly easy to extrapolate the rest. Being as that painting is from circa 1700, it would be simply a matter of imagining what a less refined vessel would look like; oared vessels evolved differently than those that were pure sail, and many of their features were frozen in design centuries before.

Is it possible that this is how the San Cristobal appeared that spring day five hundred years ago as it approached this new found land?
(* - Morison, The European Discovery of America, The Southern Voyages 1492 - 1616, pages 549 - 550)

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Caravels of Rafael Monleon y Torres

(Elsewhere in this blog, I have mentioned the work of Rafael Monleon y Torres, but I feel that it is important to delve deeper into his ideas on the appearance of Columbus' vessels, mainly the Niña and Pinta - R.L)

In 1892, three replicas left Spain in hopes of sailing across the Atlantic to the Americas; only one of them did so. The replica of Columbus' flagship "Santa Maria" was capable of sailing, though it wasn't great at doing so. The remaining two, the Pinta and Niña, ended up needing to be towed.
The designs for these vessels came from the board of Rafael Monleon y Torres, an artist employed by the Museo Naval in Madrid. As an artist, he was talented. He was appointed by the Spanish Commission to assist in the design and construction of the vessels, as well as being an artist for the publications being produced. He concentrated on the two smaller vessels, and came to some interesting conclusions.
In the opinion of Monleon, caravels were not really a distinctive type of vessel. Instead, he felt that the word "caravel" was a blanket term applied to smaller vessels. In his opinion, even the Santa Maria could be considered a caravel, even though he also considered it to be a small nao. In his work on the Niña and Pinta this philosophy carried over with some interesting results.
There remains, though, some confusion as to what Monleon really believed the vessels to be. In a two part article he wrote for "El Centenario", "Las Carabelas de Colón", he states, repeatedly, that the Pinta left on the voyage as a lateener, which is to say with the large, triangular sails instead of square rig. This is not really unusual; the most common copy of his log at that time mentions that the Pinta was re-rigged in the Canaries. Later copies of the  Columbus' "Diario" corrected this mistake, and in various places so did Monleon. But in the article in context here, he refers to the Pinta as the lateen rigged vessel.
Monleon felt that this square rigged Niña was nothing more than a smaller nao, and rigged her thus. His lateen reconstructed Pinta, however, looked more like what a caravel should. In fact, on paper (and canvas) it doesn't look bad at all. Henceforth, we shall refer to Monleon's initial concept as the caravela latina, and it will be the primary focus here.
Before we look at his reconstruction, however, it must be necessary to look at the other sources he had on hand at the time. There are many images from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century that show caravela latinas, including one on a chart of the island of Hispaniola. The image, brown with age, is faded in places. When the Commission recreated the image, they added details, namely a bowsprit. It is unclear whom the artist was who did this copy. The caravela latina is the vessel to the left.

From "La nao Santa María, capitana de Cristóbal Colón"

However, other recreations of that image are different. In E.A. d'Albertis' "Le Costruzioni Navali e l'Arte Della Navigazione al Tempo di Cristoforo Colombo", the same caravela latina is drawn without the bowsprit.

From "Le Costruzioni Navali e l'Arte Della Navigazione
al Tempo di Cristoforo Colombo

A closer examination of the original also reveals that a bowsprit simply is not present.

From Casa/F. Colon map in the Biblioteca Columbina, Seville;
Image edited from National Geographic, November 1986

Consider that few other images of caravels rigged thus exist. Regardless, it was this style rig that Monleon used when he came up with some of his initial artwork showing such a vessel.

By the time the Spanish Commission began construction of the replicas, Monleon had returned to considering the Niña the lateen rigged vessel and set about designing it. In their initial designs, both the Niña and Pinta had the potential to be good sailers. When it came time to building them, however, short cuts were taken.
The person who oversaw their construction, an American naval Lieutenent C. McCarty Little, found that the budget would not allow for full construction. Working with the Miguel Cardona shipyard in Barcelona, they found two small vessels that had made trans-Atlantic passages before. In appearance, though, they were far from looking correct, so their hulls were shortened astern.
The end effect was dreadful. Both vessels proved difficult underway. Ultimately, they ended up being towed by naval ships to the Americas.
A quick look at the caravela latina, which was now the Niña, shows that while it looks good in profile and in rig, the hull, and in particular the below waterline and stern, are the wrong shape. This is actually the case with both vessels; their flat sterns go too deeply below the waterline, cutting the runs and producing poor qualities. The larger Santa Maria, while square sterned, did not have this problem.

The profile of the caravel found at the New York Public Library reveals much about the original thinking. 

Based upon the run of the wales, the stern appears to have been planned to end above the waterline. If the Segal Niña plans are acceptable evidence, that was the original intent.

The lines on the Segal drawing also appear to show a good run, certainly better than the replica, and the proportions are acceptable, though closer to a nao than a caravel.
That was not the fate that awaited the 1892 Niña. Instead, due in no small part to shortcuts taken, it was a miserable vessel. We have to rely on what information remains available to deduce whether the original plans could have produced much better results.
Just a little over twenty five years after being launched, both the 1892 Niña and Pinta were gone, followed in a few years by the larger Santa Maria. Oddly, these replicas left an unexpected legacy, in the form of artwork and models based upon the work of the Spanish Commission. 
In that sense, the Monleon caravel latina lives on.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mislabeled Caravels

When it comes to maritime historical research, one can never be too cautious. 
Living as I do in northeast Florida, I lack access to many sources of information locally. Simply put, there is a serious dearth of such here in Jacksonville. Therefore, I rely on books and the Internet, as well as the libraries (which, sadly, seem to be on the decline lately). In any field, primary source information is always preferred, though not always practical to obtain.
In trying to confirm the validity of lateen rigged caravels with bowsprits, I made a mistake that many of us make.
That is to say, I took an Internet source at its word.
In truth, the source is probably unaware of the error as well; it is likely that this error has been propogated for a few years, and typical of such, has effectively developed a life all its own.
The problem to which I am referring is my recent discovery of a model of the caravel Niña that was attributed to a design by Julio F. Guillen y Tato, who is generally known for an interpretation of the Santa Maria. I did some research and located plans by Luis Segal for the same version of the Niña, and in examining them, felt that they looked feasible.
There remained an issue with confirming their authenticity, however. As much as I searched, I could find no evidence that Admiral Guillen y Tato ever made such a study.
Amazingly, whilst looking for something else at the New York Public Library Digital Collection site, I stumbled upon this - 

Below the image of Columbus you find two ships. On the left is the Santa Maria, and to its right you find a caravel, labelled "The Original Rig of the Niña and Pinta". This caravel looks familiar, and indeed appears to be the source of the Segal Niña plans. The image of the Santa Maria is of the Rafael Monleon y Torres interpretation. The style of both ships is similar.
As it turns out, the collections to which the image belongs predate Guillen y Tato's work by a few decades.
That is to say, the Niña that we see there is the Monleon y Torres version. If you compare an image of the 1892 replica to the Segal drawing, you can clearly see the strong similarity.

What does this mean for caravela latinas with bowsprits? There is still enough evidence to support an argument for their existence. However, there are other issues with Monleon's research that remain, and we will examine these later. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The First Caravel Replicas

All three of the 1892 replicas, circa 1905
Background to foreground -
PintaNiña Santa Maria - All images courtesy
U.S. Library of Congress

As previously mentioned in this blog, a caravel replica is under construction in St. Augustine, the Espiritu. This is being converted from the former fishing vessel "Apple Jack", and in many aspects looks like a decent enough project.
The first time caravel replicas were made from existing vessels, though, the results were less than satisfactory. 
We have to go back to 1892 and the work being done in preparation to the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus' voyage. The Spanish Commission, under its chairman Fernandez Duro and chief researcher Rafael Monleon, had arrived at a final design for the replica Santa Maria. The caravels were treated almost like a secondary consideration. Monleon, an artist by training, felt that caravels were really just smaller vessels, not a separate class altogether. While quite a bit of attention was paid to the Santa Maria, little thought appears to have been given to the Niña and Pinta.
As the date approached, it was apparent that there were insufficient funds to build replicas of the two caravels from the keel up. An American naval officer attached to the project, Lt. C. McCarty Little, worked with the main shipyard involved with the project and found a simple solution. They chose two coaster vessels that had already proven capable of crossing the Atlantic. They were deemed satisfactory for the project, and the conversions commenced.
The problems began with the hull modifications. To make them appear more fifteenth century, the hulls of both vessels were shortened. The effect was a change in the runs below the waterline. The resultant vessels ended up being miserable sailers as a result.
Other problems also existed. 

Niña of 1892

While the Niña at least looked like a caravela latina, the Pinta more resembled a nao or small ship. It looked more like a smaller version of the Santa Maria, from the forecastle to the topsail. Again, this is in keeping with Monleon's belief that caravels were just smaller ships, not a different class.

Pinta of 1892

All three vessels proved to be difficult; while the Santa Maria did make the voyage under canvas, the caravels ended up being towed across the Atlantic. After the 1892 Columbian Exposition, they were to languish on the Great Lakes for the remainder of their days. By 1919, both caravels were gone, one being lost to fire, the other sinking.

Pinta, partially submerged

There are certain lessons here. First was Monleon's insistence that caravels were not a distinct class of vessel. His contemporary, Enrico d'Albertis, considered the caravel to be a wholly different type of vessel, distinct from naos, the class to which the Santa Maria belonged. While d'Albertis worked with the various commissions for the Columbus anniversary, his were not made in replica form, aside from models, though clearly being superior. It appears as if this lack of consideration led to the Niña and Pinta replicas being given secondary status in the reconstructions.
The next lesson has to do with the way sailing vessels operate. By this point in the 19th century, a better understanding of ship design certainly existed. Simply cutting off the rear of vessels, and as a result having runs that ended abruptly and fairly deep at flat sterns, is going to result in poor sailing. Even the flat sterned Santa Maria replica of 1892 had a run that ended closer to the waterline than did the two caravels. Somebody at the shipyards involved should have changed the hull runs; simply tucking the planking below the waterline up and narrowing off the sterns of the vessels would have resulted in better performance under sail. There were still plenty of caravel-like vessels afloat that should have served as reminders. Alas, they did not.
In the case of our Espiritu, the hull is fairly similar to what we might expect a caravel's to be. One major advantage, though, is the engine, something the 1892 replicas could have used but a necessary anachronistic consideration. 
It is not known if the Espiritu is going to be capable of truly sailing, but if the lessons of 1892 are an indicator, it is certainly superior, at least in hull build.