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)


  1. I've got a question, what is the difference in between the Bergantina found on this page compared to the one on ( I'm highly interested in learning about sailing vessels and most ships in general but conflicting information like this can be quite a pain.

    1. Sorry it took me so very long to reply; life has had other plans the past two years.
      The problem with terms like "bergantina" is that, over time, they would shift. To my understanding, however, bergantina was applied to galley-craft only. It is possible that perhaps at some point bergantina may have been applied to pure sail craft, but based upon my research (Morison, et al) the term seems to have been applied strictly to an oared vessel. Such is the fun we have in maritime historical research.

    2. A little more research into the origin of the word bergantina has produced some interesting results. In its original definition, the Italian word "brigantino" (derived from "brigand", pirate) was used during the medieval period to describe rowed lateen rigged vessels, fast and maneuverable. By the 17th century that term had changed to describe a pure sail craft. It is possible that the Spanish word "bergantina" is a corruption of "brigantino", and in fact was later (possibly starting in the 17th century as well) used to describe the vessel that we would later know as the brigantine.
      Again, thus are the pitfalls of maritime etymology!

    3. Here's an example. This is Wikipedia's Spanish section and concerns the "bergantine". As it turns out, the word in Spanish now means "brigantine" (though for some reason it translates with Google to mean "brig'; a little further down, they mention "brig" (Bribarca) as a separate class). It seems that 'bergantine" became common usage after the mid 16th century to describe what we know as "brigantine" (and to a lesser extent, the brig). But the origin of both sets of words seem to be the same, originally to describe a mixed propulsion (sailed/rowed), highly maneuverable vessel, starting in at least the 13th century.
      This is the Wikipedia Espana article -ín