Aemilia (1631) Galleon of Dutch East India Company

This rude looking word is the name of a Dutch town.  It gets its name from a dike (dijck) built on the river Sloter or Slooter, to prevent flooding from the Zuider Zee.

In the 17th Century the name was adopted for one of the 9 Dutch Galleons which fought the Ming navy for control of the Taiwan strait back in 1633.  The Dutch lost.  Three galleons were sunk and Slooterdijck was boarded and captured by the Chinese.

Slooterdijck was notable because she was a “Kit Ship”, essentially a Flat Pack vessel that was shipped out from Holland and assembled in the Indies.

The Galleon was a development from two earlier ships of exploration.  The Caravel was a small, lateen rigged, shallow draught ship (think of the Niña & Pinta of Columbus).  The Carrack or Nao (Santa Maria for instance) was a larger, square sailed, less stable and unwieldy ship more suited for cargo.  The Galleon combined the best of both.  By lengthening the keel and lowering the forecastle the Portuguese developed a faster and more stable ocean going ship.  Smaller and more maneuverable than the Carrack, the Galleon rapidly developed a reputation as an effective all-rounder for exploration, trade and battle.  Big enough to carry significant armament and stable enough to fight, it became the battleship of its day.

From the mid 16th century Galleons were adopted by Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch and English fleets.  They remained in service until they were replaced by more specialised vessels in the 18th Century. Hence, the Galleon ruled the waves for 150 years more or less.  Though the early voyages of discovery were made in Naos or Carracks the great sea empires were built by the Galleon.

As time went by galleons developed for more specialised roles.  Some became larger and more suited to cargo carrying, and evolved into the East Indiamen.  Others were strengthened and became specialised military ships of the line.  Razed galleons were cut lower and lower to the waterline for increased speed and stability and evolved into frigates.

The reasons for these evolutions have more to do with the guns than with the Galleons themselves.  The primary ship to ship battle tactic of the Galleon was boarding.  The guns on board were slow to load and fire.  During the battles of the Spanish Armada it is calculated that each Spanish Gun fired on average only once per day.  By contrast the smaller English ships and their lighter guns could fire once per hour.

As gun technology advanced the gunners designed specialised trucks to carry shipboard guns, which the gun team could haul inboard for reloading, and push outboard for firing.  As the rate of fire increased ship to ship actions developed more into shooting matches than boarding actions.  This culminated in the invention of the broadside, firing of all guns simultaneously to disable an enemy both physically and mentally.

By the Napoleonic wars the Royal Navy had given up on the idea of firing accuracy in favour of reloading speed.  While the French and Spanish ships wasted their effort targeting the masts of British ships to disable them for capture, the British concentrated on closing up to bring the full impact of the broadside to bear.  Once beside their foe the British ship had the advantage of a higher rate of fire.  Even with smaller guns that was often enough to carry the day.

In a gun to gun action the high fore and stern castles of the Galleons, so useful for boarding,  became a liability.  They presented larger targets and made the ship more susceptible to cross winds than a lower vessel.

The only surviving original galleon is the Vasa in Stockholm which sank in 1628 all of 1,400 yards into her maiden voyage, in full view of her audience.  In an incident similar to the sinking of that other famous preserved wreck, the Carrack Mary Rose, it seems she had her lower gun ports open to fire a salute.  A gust of wind caught her by surprise and the gun-ports dipped below the waterline, flooding the ship.

If you have read this far, well done you salty old sea dog.  You are clearly a lover of all things nautical.  So here is another treat for you.

Psalm 107:23 (KJ V)

 They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

 These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.

 They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end.

Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.

He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.

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