Warships Of The World To 1900

Warships Of The World To 1900

by Lincoln P. Paine
Warships Of The World To 1900

Warships Of The World To 1900

by Lincoln P. Paine


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Lincoln P. Paine's SHIPS OF THE WORLD: AN HISTORICAL HISTORICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA was honored as one of the best reference books of the year by the New York Public Library, and Library Journal described it as "clearly the most fascinating book of the year." Now, in two equally fascinating new books, Paine focuses on two of the most interesting areas of maritime history: WARSHIPS OF THE WORLD TO 1900 and SHIPS OF DISCOVERY AND EXPLORATION.
WARSHIPS OF THE WORLD TO 1900 traces the history of naval warfare through the stories of more than two hundred of the most famous and important fighting ships, from the earliest triremes and Viking longships to the Mary Rose, Wasa, Bonhomme Richard, HMS Victory, USS Constitution, USS Monitor, and Mikasa. Each ship is described in a vivid short essay that captures its personality as well as its physical characteristics, construction, and history, from the drawing board to the scrap yard or museum. Paintings and photographs show the grandeur and grace of these vessels that helped shape world events. An introductory essay, maps, and a chronology offer the reader a global perspective on the course of naval history from antiquity to the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395984147
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 11/15/2000
Series: Ships of the World Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Lincoln P. Paine, formerly editor of Sea History magazine and director of the Schooners Foundation, is a member of the national advisory board of the American Sail Training Association. He lives with his family in Portland, Maine.

Read an Excerpt


This book tells the stories of more than 200 individual fighting
ships built before 1900. For the most part, these ships represent a
naval tradition that has its roots in the ancient Mediterranean. The
reason for this particular focus lies in the historiography of the
subject: either the documentary evidence from other early naval
traditions is incomplete, or researchers have yet to unearth the sort
of information contained in this book.

The focus of this book is on vessels built or used primarily
for organized naval warfare as we understand it today, that is, ships
operating in concert with other ships or individually, but within a
discernible hierarchy of command and control determined by the state.
It should be stressed, however, that collectively these ships'
stories touch on only a few highlights of world naval history before

The history of the warship before 1900 can be divided broadly into
three periods. Although sailing ships are of great antiquity, until
the medieval period, naval warfare was confined chiefly to oar-
powered galleys that relied on sails only for auxiliary propulsion.
The end of the galley's domination coincides with -- but did not
result from -- the development of the gun in the fourteenth century.
At the same time, there was a synthesis of northern and southern
European shipbuilding traditions that gave rise to the square-rigged
warship from which the ship of the line and frigates of the early
1800s are direct descendants. The final stage in the evolution of
naval warfare under discussion was marked by unprecedented changes in
materials, ordnance, design, and, above all, propulsion. Taken
together, these affected the size, shape, handling, and function of
warships to a greater degree than all other previous developments
The development of the fighting ship alternately parallels
that of ships used for civil pursuits, chiefly merchantmen and
fishing vessels, and takes off on trajectories of specialized
refinement which end, inevitably, with the collapse of the
governments and military bureaucracies that standing navies require
for their maintenance. The earliest warships were doubtless
merchantmen requisitioned for military purposes, usually as troop
transports. Sea battles probably began when a defender first
attempted to prevent an aggressor from making a successful landing.
This could be achieved most easily by boarding an opponent's ship and
killing its soldiers and crew. Fought at close quarters on a drifting
battlefield, the first sea fights were not unlike infantry battles
fought ashore. Among the first weapons peculiar to sea fighting was
probably the grapnel, a hook that could be thrown onto an enemy ship
so that the two combatants could be joined hull to hull. One of the
most vivid accounts of such a battle is found in Snorri Sturluson's
thirteenth-century account of the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason,
whose Ormrinn Langi was the setting for just such a battle in the
year 1000.
This form of combat was essentially antipersonnel in nature.
Ships might be damaged, but they were rarely sunk in such a melee.
The easiest way to sink a ship is to punch a hole in it below the
waterline, which is hard to do with hand weapons. Before the advent
of long-range weapons, the easiest way to sink a ship was to ram it.
The earliest pictorial evidence of the ram dates from about the ninth
century bce. It may have begun as a forward extension of the keel,
but sailors soon began to fit a bronze ram to the end. To support the
weight of the ram, and to prevent the ramming ship from being
shattered by the impact of driving repeatedly into other vessels, the
hulls had to be more heavily constructed. A pentecontor (50-oared
ship, the largest of the period) with all the rowers on the same
level would be 100 feet or longer: such a vessel was heavy, difficult
to maneuver or defend, and an unnecessarily large target for enemy
ships. It is not surprising that the same period saw the development
of the first two-decked ships, which carried the same number of
oarsmen in a hull half as long. The earliest depiction of two-decked
pentecontors is in an eighth-century bce relief showing the
Phoenician evacuation of Sidon and Tyre to Cyprus. With stronger
hulls, ships could also incorporate a raised deck for infantry,
archers, and spear-throwers which gave them a further offensive
By the fifth century bce, the Mediterranean warship par
excellence was the three-decked trieres, or trireme, a vessel with
much greater strength, speed, and hitting power. It is estimated that
the trireme was as much as 30 percent faster than the pentecontor,
which remained the standard warship for smaller city-states lacking
the resources to build or man triremes, which had crews of 200 men.
Although larger vessels were built, the trireme seems never to have
been improved upon for speed. Exactly how the larger polyreme galleys
functioned is open to question. As types, they are referred to in
ancient literature by numbers: fives, eights, twelves, and so on, up
to a forty. Careful study of the constraints on design and
comparisons with better documented Renaissance galleys, such as those
of the Venetians, suggest that these polyremes never had more than
three banks (horizontal rows) of oars. The numbers probably refer to
the number of oarsmen in each column of oars. That is to say, a four
might have had two banks of oars, with two men per oar, and an eight
might have had three banks of oars, with the top and middle oars
pulled by three men each, and the bottom oar by two men. The maximum
number of oarsmen per oar was probably eight, and the highest such
rating in a single hull would therefore be a twenty-four.
Warship design in antiquity reached its apogee following the
death of Alexander the Great. The most notable innovator was
Demetrius the Besieger (336-283 bce), a Macedonian king who is
credited with being the first to put more than one man on each oar.
The immediate reason for the need for stronger, bigger ships was to
accommodate catapults, the first shipboard artillery. Alexander the
Great had used shipborne catapults during the siege of Tyre, but the
seagoing catapult did not come into its own until the development of
super-galleys by Demetrius and his successors. The most extreme of
these Hellenistic-era vessels was the unnamed forty of Ptolemy IV
Philopator (Macedonian king of Egypt from 210 to 180 bce), which
maritime historian Lionel Casson interprets as a catamaran warship
made up of two twenties with a raised platform deck spanning the two
hulls. The dimensions given by Athenaeus (who wrote in the second
century ce) seem fantastic but credible: 50 feet wide, 400 feet long,
with room for 4,000 oars, 2,850 marines, and 400 deckhands of various
sorts. It is also likely that thirties, and possibly some smaller
vessels, were also twin-hulled. Nor were such vessels complete
rarities. The only catamaran galley known by name is Demetrius's
eight, Leontophoros, of the early third century bce, but the 336
vessels in the fleet of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 308-246 bce)
included two thirties and a twenty.
At this time, the focus of naval activity was shifting to the
west, where Rome vied with Carthage for control of Sicily and the
western Mediterranean in the three Punic Wars (264-41, 218-201, and
149-46 bce). Originally a Phoenician trading colony with roots in the
eastern Mediterranean, Carthage dominated the trade routes of the
western Mediterranean. After three years of inconsequential fighting
on land, the Romans -- never enthusiastic seamen -- decided to build
a fleet of 100 quinqueremes (with 300 crew per ship) and 20 triremes
(170). The Carthaginian ships were better built and their crews more
experienced, so to take advantage of their infantry, the Romans
invented a combination grapnel and boarding plank called a corvus.
When lowered onto the deck of the opposing ship, it held fast while
soldiers rushed across. The corvus was used to brilliant effect at
Mylae, in August 260, when the Romans captured 44 ships and killed or
took prisoner 10,000 Carthaginian sailors. Through imitation and
persistence and an almost endless supply of men and materiel, the
Romans eventually defeated the Carthaginians, the decisive blow
coming at the Battle of the Aegates Islands in March of 241.
For hundreds of years, Rome relied on naval power to keep the
Mediterranean free of pirates and open to trade, especially along the
vital grain ship route from Alexandria to Rome. Octavian consolidated
his position in a brilliant naval campaign that culminated in the
Battle of Actium in 31 bce, and as the emperor Augustus he
established Rome's first standing navy, with bases at Misenum on the
west coast of Italy and Ravenna on the Adriatic. As the empire
expanded, subsidiary naval bases were established in the eastern
Mediterranean, in the Black Sea, and on the Danube and Rhine Rivers.
Excavations at Mainz, Germany, have yielded the remains of fourth-
century patrol craft typical of these imperial riverine outposts.
The economic downturn that accompanied the decline of the
Roman Empire forced Constantine (285-337) to adopt smaller thirty-
and fifty-man ships, which evolved into the dromon ("racer") of the
fifth century, and later still the moneres and galea of the Byzantine
navy in the tenth century. Designed for fighting at close quarters,
their armament included antiship weapons such as catapults and Greek
fire. This seventh-century flame-thrower consisted of a flammable
liquid pumped from a bronze siphon, and it is credited with having
given the Byzantines a crucial edge over Arab fleets in the Aegean
Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
Like the Romans, the Arabs did not have an indigenous naval
tradition to draw on, but they were masters of recruitment and
imitation. In 641, an Arab army captured the Byzantine navy's
homeport at Alexandria. Arab fleets captured Cyprus and raided Rhodes
and Sicily, and in 655 a Syro-Egyptian fleet of 200 ships routed a
Byzantine armada of 500 ships in the Battle of the Masts, or dhu-al-
Sawari, off the coast of Lycia in Asia Minor. In an engagement
reminiscent of the Battle of Mylae, the lubberly Arabs triumphed by
creating a situation in which their superior infantry might prevail.
Lashing their ships to those of the enemy, the Arabs carried the day
in a series of classic boarding actions that left "the water of the
sea saturated with blood."1 The fleets of the Caliph resumed their
assault on the heart of the Byzantine Empire in 669, and Arab fleets
threatened Constantinople off and on until the early 700s.
The campaigns against the Byzantine Empire had been conducted
by a unified caliphate. After 750, Islamic states on the periphery
began to break away, the first to secede being the Ummayad Caliphate
of Córdoba in Spain. The development of an Umayyad fleet could not
have been more timely, for in 844 a Viking fleet of some eighty ships
sailed up the Guadalquivir River and looted Seville. The Muslims
reacted swiftly: they sank thirty Norse ships in a battle off
Scandinavians had begun to expand out of the Baltic and its
tributaries in the eighth and ninth centuries. In the east, they
established trading centers at Novgorod, which gave them access to
the Dnieper River, which flows to the Black Sea, and the Volga, which
flows to the Caspian. Westward expansion began in 793, with the raid
on Lindisfarne Abbey in Scotland and soon, as the Annals of Ulster
record, "no haven, no landing-place, no stronghold, no fort, no
castle might be found, but it was submerged by waves of Vikings and
pirates."2 On the Continent, Charlemagne ordered the creation of a
defense force to guard the Frisian coast, but after his death the
Norse exploited his divided legacy ruthlessly, sailing their ships up
the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Seine, the Loire, and the Gironde to
conquer such prosperous centers as Hamburg, Utrecht, Paris, Nantes,
and Bordeaux. By the time the seafaring Vikings reached the
Mediterranean, via Muslim Spain, they had overreached themselves. The
Vikings tended to move in relatively small numbers, and a relatively
high proportion of them settled among the people they raided.
However, they retained the seafaring skills honed over generations.
During the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, William the Conqueror
sailed with his Mora and perhaps one thousand other vessels to seize
the English throne then occupied by Harold. This was a logistical
triumph, but by no means the first such seaborne invasion. Julius
Caesar had achieved much the same end in Britain in the first century
bce, and there are numerous other examples of seaborne invasions from
antiquity and the medieval period throughout the Mediterranean and in
The period from the 1100s to the 1400s saw a number of
complementary developments that together would make the conduct of
naval warfare almost unrecognizable to any previous generation of
sailors. The Crusades opened the commerce of the eastern
Mediterranean and Black Seas and the spice trades (among others)
beyond. The primary beneficiaries of this expansion were the
Venetians and Genoese, who built large merchant fleets and navies to
protect them. They also began trading with northern Europe, first
overland and then, by the 1200s, by sea to the Low Countries.
This brought about the first direct meeting of the distinct
Mediterranean and northern European shipbuilding traditions, and a
technical revolution in ship design. Two distinct ship types had
evolved in the Mediterranean, the galley, or long ship, used for
warfare (and in the medieval period as merchant ships), and the round
ship, a wide, high-sided vessel with large volume and
multitiered "castles" fore and aft. As important, Mediterranean
shipwrights built ships by constructing a skeleton frame to which
they fastened the outer skin of planks laid edge-to-edge.
Mediterranean sailors had also abandoned the square sail common in
antiquity in favor of the fore and aft lateen sail, and the largest
ships had two or even three masts. Although such a rig enabled ships
to point closer to the wind, they were cumbersome when tacking and
required large crews.
In northern Europe, the hull was formed first, with
overlapping planks fastened to one another with clenched (bent)
nails. This technique, which resembles a clapboard house, is known as
clinker or lapstrake construction. When the shell was complete,
framing pieces were inserted in the hull to provide stiffening. This
method can be traced from the Viking-era ships to the more capacious
and deeper-hulled merchant cogs favored by the traders of the
Hanseatic League. Driven by a single square sail, northern European
ships also featured a centerline rudder, a new invention in the west
that made ships more maneuverable. Prior to this, European boats and
ships were turned by steering oars mounted singly or in pairs on
either side of the hull at the stern.
The hybrid that resulted from this combination of techniques
was called a carrack, the original full-rigged ship. This can be seen
as a framed cog, with a centerline rudder and a rig that incorporated
both square and small lateen sails on two or more masts. This blended
rig made it possible for carracks to sail somewhat into the wind and
tack more easily, and better able to make use of a following wind.
Their greater capacity enabled them to carry more provisions -- and
trade goods -- for longer, more profitable voyages. Their high fore-
and sterncastles, in which archers and soldiers were stationed in
combat, were also an integral part of the hull. By the end of the
1500s, the high-charged carrack had given way to the race-built
galleon, which eliminated the towering forecastle. The galleon, in
turn, evolved into the ship of the line and frigate, which were the
mainstay of the world's navies through the first half of the
nineteenth century.
The second major development was the invention of the gun and
its adoption for use on ships in the 1300s. At first, guns tended to
be relatively lightweight weapons for use against people at close
range; sixteenth-century English inventories include guns
called "murderers." Like the ram in antiquity, guns were heavy, and
the recoil from them created enormous stresses on the fabric and
joinery of the ship, a problem that the builders of the heavily built
carrack could take in stride. The increased weight of ships' guns
also required that they be situated as low in the hull as possible, a
problem not satisfactorily overcome until the development of the
watertight gunport in the early 1500s. But gunports were something of
an Achilles' heel for the capital ships of the day. The Mary Rose and
Wasa are only the best known ships to have sunk because of water
flooding through their open gunports.
The Portuguese, thanks especially to the Genoese seamen in
their employ, had mastered the wind systems of the mid-Atlantic
latitudes sailing mainly in the small fore-and-aft rigged caravela
latina. When they entered the Indian Ocean, it was in the larger
carracks, or as the Portuguese called them, naos. The merchant
sailors of Gujarat and the Persian Gulf, among others whom they
encountered, were superb seamen who had pioneered seaborne trade with
China in the seventh century. The Portuguese advantage in the Indian
Ocean was based not on superior seamanship but on their opponents'
lack of an offensive technology comparable to their own. Even when
the mariners of the Indian Ocean did adopt guns, their sewn ships
could not withstand the recoil, although the coir rope used to fasten
their so-called sewn boats was quickly replaced by iron fastenings.
With technological parity, they could prove formidable opponents.
From the 1620s to the 1660s, the Sultans of Oman challenged the
Portuguese along a broad arc from East Africa to India almost
The Europeans also had the advantage of impeccable timing,
especially in East Asia. In the first three decades of the fifteenth
century, the Chinese had dispatched seven enormous fleets of treasure
junks that sailed as far as the Red Sea and East Africa. From the
1430s, though, China's formidable sea power went into recession,
prompted by dramatic changes in domestic priorities. Nor did these
elaborate trade missions represent an isolated phenomenon in the
history of Asian naval endeavor. In the late thirteenth century,
Kublai Khan mounted two major invasions of Japan. Both failed when
his Chinese-Korean fleets were destroyed in typhoons, which the
Japanese called kamikaze, or divine wind. He also launched seaborne
invasions of Vietnam and Java. Later still, between 1592 and 1598,
Korea's Admiral Yi Sun-shin waged an ultimately successful naval
campaign to rid his homeland of a Japanese invasion.

The primary challenge to Europeans operating in Asia, the Americas,
and home waters was other Europeans. The early sixteenth century
witnessed a trend toward gigantism in northern European ships. One of
the first examples of this was James IV of Scotland's monumental
carrack Michael. "The greattest sheip and maist of strength that ewer
saillit in Ingland or France" is thought to have influenced the
building of Henry VIII's better-known Henry Grace à Dieu among other
ships. As had happened in antiquity, though, these immense ships
quickly gave way to smaller, more compact vessels with better sailing
qualities and stouter construction.
Henry's greatest contribution to the English navy, and by
extension those of other northern European countries, was not merely
the construction of large ships and large numbers of them. In his
reign can also be seen the nascent bureaucratic infrastructure that,
once in place, would maintain the fleet in both war and peace.
Whereas Scotland's ambitious naval buildup died with James IV, the
English navy remained on a solid footing through the sixteenth
century and after. No longer an extension of personal power and
prestige, navies were evolving into a reliable instrument of national
policy. This does not mean that the Crown no longer exercised its
personal prerogative: Elizabeth had no compunction about lending her
ships for private commercial ventures, which could prove quite
profitable. Private initiatives also enabled the Queen to challenge
her enemies covertly, as she did through John Hawkins's voyage to the
Spanish Caribbean in the Jesus of Lübeck, and through Francis Drake's
circumnavigation in the Golden Hind seven years before the Spanish
Privatized naval warfare probably reached its apogee in the
United Provinces, where the United (Dutch) East India Company, or VOC
(for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), and its less heralded sibling
the West India Company had the authority to maintain navies and use
them freely. The intent of this policy was to enable these companies
to protect their own trade, especially in Asia, without being a
burden on the state. In its first decade, the West India Company's
notion of opening trade included attacking the Portuguese settlement
of Bahía, Brazil, and plundering the Spanish treasure fleets in the
Caribbean. Its greatest coup came in 1628 at the hands of Piet Heyn.
Sailing in the Amsterdam at the head of a fleet of thirty-five ships,
Heyn corralled a Spanish treasure fleet in the Bay of Matanzas, Cuba,
and looted the ships of about forty-six tons of silver, as well as
gold and other commodities bound for Spain.
Naval warfare in Europe passed a watershed in the sixteenth
century, which saw the last major sea battle fought between fleets of
galleys at Lepanto in 1571, and the first between fleets of square-
rigged ships, the weeklong match between the Spanish Armada and the
English fleet in 1588. There were material differences between the
two fleets that would fade significantly as this sort of naval
warfare matured. The English ships tended to be smaller -- 150 tons
on average, compared with 350 tons on the Spanish side -- and so more
maneuverable. The longer range of their guns frustrated Spanish
attempts to close with them to exchange gunfire and, ultimately, to
board their ships.
Even as naval guns and gunnery improved, boarding actions
remained a mainstay of sea fighting in the age of sail. The artillery
mounted on wooden ships was well suited to reducing an opposing
ship's effectiveness as a fighting or sailing unit and to killing
people; most casualties resulted from wounds caused by splintered
wood. Sinking a wooden ship was still not easily accomplished, and
most ship losses in this period were due to accidents -- fire,
wrecking on shore, or foundering at sea. Battle damage often
contributed to the latter. In the Armada, only four Spanish ships (11
percent of the total confirmed losses) were captured or destroyed
outright by English gunnery, three of them after they had run aground
or been abandoned. Of the 151 ships that originally set out, 91
returned to Spain and 31 were lost in storms; the fate of the other
25 is unknown.3
These figures are comparable to statistics for the Royal Navy
from the time of the Dutch Wars through the end of the Napoleonic
Wars. In the course of ten major wars fought between 1652 and 1815,
the Royal Navy lost 1,452 ships. Only 204 (14 percent) were lost in
action, a figure that includes ships that blew up, caught fire or
burned, were intentionally scuttled or expended as fire ships, or
were sunk in battle. More than half of the navy's losses were the
result of accidents -- mainly shipwreck and foundering -- and
captures accounted for one-third of the Royal Navy's lost ships.4
That such figures do not square with modern impressions of naval
warfare is perfectly understandable. During World War II, for
instance, 1,694 surface warships were lost by all combatants; 81
percent were sunk as the result of enemy action, 9 percent were
scuttled, 5 percent were lost in accidents, and 5 percent were
By the seventeenth century, the ships and guns of the major
navies had attained a form that would change relatively little over
the next 200 years. Improvements in naval architecture -- which
gradually became more scientific -- led to an increase in the size
and strength of ships. By the time of the Anglo-Dutch Wars in the
1650s, the line of battle was the preferred tactic for fleet
engagements, as it allowed a heavy concentration of broadside fire on
a specific part of the enemy's line. The preferred maneuver
was "crossing the T," so that one's broadsides raked the enemy ships
from stem to stern while the enemy could respond with only a handful
of guns mounted in the bows. Fleet administration also became more
systematic, with the establishment of rates and classes of ships. In
their heyday, the largest ships of the line (first rates) had three
full gun decks and mounted 100 or more guns, although the backbone of
the battle fleet was the two-decker of 60 to 90 guns. Fleet actions
were only one aspect of the navies' mission. The increased size of
individual fleets reflected the expansion of imperial commitments and
a broader range of assignments. If battle tactics remained relatively
unchanged after the seventeenth century, strategy became ever more
complex, involving not just the occasional fleet action but convoy
protection, extended blockades, commerce warfare, scouting, patrols
in remote corners of the empire, and diplomatic missions. Much of
this work was taken up by frigates, fast, one-deck ships too small
for the line of battle but capable of extended assignment on
independent duty.
The operational heyday of the sailing warship reached its
acme during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815),
although ship design continued to improve in the decades of peace
that followed. However, the emergence of completely new and distinct
technologies in the 1800s rendered the sailing warship obsolete by
mid-century. The most obvious was the development of the steam engine
and, toward the end of the century, the steam turbine. First
harnessed to the paddlewheel and later to the less exposed screw,
steam power made ships faster and more maneuverable than they had
ever been. One drawback was the need for coal, which had a
significant impact on operational endurance and gave a decided
advantage to countries with forward bases overseas where coal could
be stored. This necessity, coupled with the inefficiency and
unreliability of steam engines, led to a generation of auxiliary
steam sailing ships that ended with the launch of the first mastless
capital ship, HMS Devastation, in 1871. Steam power also made
possible the development of the rotating turret, which increased the
arc of fire of individual guns. Most ships with two or more turrets
could fire across a total combined arc of 360 degrees without
reorienting the hull as was necessary in sailing ships with fixed
broadside batteries.
The application of iron and, from about the 1880s, steel to
ship construction had a twofold effect on ship design. Both metals
have greater tensile strength than wood, and it became possible to
build much bigger ships. At first, the use of iron was limited to
composite construction, wood planking over an iron frame. Later, iron
hull plates were mounted to iron frames. Whereas the all-wood HMS
Victory (1765) was only 226 feet, the French Gloire -- an iron-clad
composite hull -- was 256 feet, and the first iron-hulled warship,
HMS Warrior (1861) was 418 feet long. Iron also provided greater
protection against gunfire, and in the American Civil War, it was
used extensively in ship construction either by itself or as armor
plating for wooden hulls. Its efficacy in this regard can be seen in
the casualty figures from the four-hour Battle of Hampton Roads in
1862: USS Monitor had one wounded, and CSS Virginia lost two dead and
nineteen wounded. By comparison, the fifteen-minute engagement
between the frigates USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon in 1812 left 78
dead and more than 150 wounded.
Although explosive shells were first developed in the early
nineteenth century, they were not terribly effective. The
introduction of armor spurred the need for improved antiship
ordnance, as distinct from the solid-shot or antipersonnel canister
and grape used to repel or clear the way for a boarding action. The
shell-gun came into its own thanks not only to more destructive
shells but also to the switch from muzzle-loading to breech-loading
guns and from smoothbore to rifled gun barrels, and to improvements
in the chemistry of propellants. By the end of the nineteenth
century, however, the ship's gun was entering what would prove to be
the final stages of its 600-year development. The ship's gun would
reach its apotheosis in the twentieth century, but by the end of the
nineteenth century, entirely new weapons had emerged to threaten its
primacy: the submarine boat, the mine, and the torpedo.
The submarine made its first operational debut during the
American Civil War. The best known was the Confederate Navy's H. L.
Hunley, the first submarine to sink a surface ship, the USS
Housatonic, although the Hunley was herself sunk in the attack. The
weapon employed was a spar torpedo, which consisted of an explosive
charge carried on the end of a long spar and detonated when placed
alongside the opposing ship's hull. (In this period, a torpedo
referred to what we now call a mine.) Whether delivered by a
submarine or a half-submerged "David" boat (so called because it
stood in relation to the larger ships of the U.S. Navy as David did
to Goliath) or left on moorings, torpedoes were a cheap and
reasonably effective means for an inferior naval power such as the
Confederacy to combat a superior one such as the United States. But
the Confederacy waged a defensive naval war largely confined to
rivers, harbors, and bays. To achieve their potential as offensive
weapons, both submarines and torpedoes required mechanical propulsion.
The first "locomotive torpedo," driven by compressed air, was
devised in 1866. It was quickly realized that this new weapon was an
inexpensive and potent threat to even the largest capital ships.
Torpedoes could easily be mounted on purpose-built torpedo boats that
were smaller and faster than their prey and difficult to hit with
guns designed for use against other capital ships. Ships therefore
had to be armed with smaller-caliber guns to counter these smaller
boats, and an entirely new class of ship, the torpedo boat destroyer,
was developed to protect the larger ships against this new threat. In
time, ships of all sizes would be armed with torpedoes, and in the
twentieth century, destroyers would be the primary defense against
the ultimate torpedo boat, the submarine.
Development of the submarine proceeded steadily in the
nineteenth century. Robert Fulton designed and built one in 1801,
though the Royal Navy was steadfastly against its further
development. Referring to the prime minister's interest in Fulton's
machine, First Sea Lord Admiral the Earl St. Vincent declared, "Pitt
was the greatest fool that ever existed to encourage a mode of
warfare which those that command the sea did not want, and which, if
successful, would deprive them of it." One consequence of this
entrenched opposition was that development of the practical submarine
remained almost exclusively the preserve of private enterprise until
the end of the century. Although the first steam-powered submarine
was built in England, the world's leading designer was the Irish-
American John P. Holland, who built six submarines between 1878 and
1898. The last, the Holland, was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in
1900 and was the prototype for many of the world's first generation
submarines. Future events would prove Lord St. Vincent's fears more
than justified.
One unanticipated consequence of the industrial age was the
rapid diffusion of naval shipbuilding technology. By the end of the
nineteenth century, Britain and France were exporting large numbers
of ships to Latin America and Asia, especially China and Japan.
Likewise, the United States and to a lesser extent Russia, Italy, and
Germany embarked on ambitious programs to cultivate their own
shipbuilding industries. The resulting competition would ensure that
naval warfare would remain savage and brutal, as it had always been,
but savage and brutal in entirely new ways.

Copyright © 2000 by Lincoln Paxton Paine

Table of Contents


Illustrations ix Preface xi Introduction xiii Warships of the World to 1900 1 Maps 205 Literary Warships 217 Naval History: A Chronology 219 Glossary 227 Bibliography 232 Index 241

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