Small sailing vessels, originally developed by the Portuguese, that incorporated important advances in ship-building technology that made possible the great voyages of European exploration in the late 16th and 17th centuries and, more important, gave European (Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, and French) sailors advantages in sea-borne trade that allowed them to dominate the “carrying trade” of much of the world.
The original caravela latina first appeared in the Mediterranean in the 14th century as a large boat with two lateen-rigged masts that incorporated important advances in hull design. These included replacing the beakhead (the open section of the bow forward of the forecastle) with a simple curved stem (the timbers forming the bow where it meets the keel), as well as replacing the stern castle with a plain transom stern (timbers bolted athwart the stern post, from which the rudder was hung), giving the ship a flat stern and a platform for overhanging galleries. The result was a ship much stronger and able to sail closer to the wind (that is, more directly into it).
The caravela latina‘s lateen sails were too cumbersome and inefficient for long ocean voyages in the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea. The result was the creation of the caravela redonda, a three-masted vessel with square sails on the fore and main mast and fore-and-aft rigged sails on the mizzen. This proved to be an extremely “handy” (maneuverable) rig capable of impressive speed and responsiveness. The caravel quickly became the dominant ship type used in Europe. Although popular, the ships remained small, rarely more than 100 feet long (they averaged 75–80).
All of Christopher Columbus’s ships on his voyage of 1492 were caravels; the Santa María (95 feet) and the Pinta (58 feet) were caravela redonda types, but the Niña (56 feet) began the voyage as a caravela latina. Its rigging was changed during a stop at the Canary Islands en route and afterwards, because of its shallow draft and good sailing qualities, became Columbus’s favorite. The Portuguese explorations down the west coast of Africa were generally made in caravels, and the explorer Bartholomeu Dias became the first European to round Cape Horn in 1488 in one. The five vessels of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet with which he attempted to circumnavigate the globe for Spain (1519–22) were all caravels, but only one, the Victoria under the command of Juan Sebastian de Elcano, finally returned.
Roger Gardiner, ed., Cogs, Caravels and Galleons: The Sailing Ship 1000–1650 (Annapolis, Md., Naval Institute Press, 1994);
Peter Kemp, ed., The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (London: Oxford University Press, 1976);
Roger C. Smith, Vanguard of Empire: Ships of Exploration in the Age of Columbus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):
Dunscomb, Paul. “caravel.” In Mancall, Peter C., and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: Three Worlds Meet, Beginnings to 1607, Revised Edition (Volume I). New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EAHI065&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 30, 2015).
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