F is for Fluyt

Ships. So. Many. Ships!

J. M. Turner “The Harbor at Dieppe,” from Wikipedia.

Apparently, ship painting is a huge sub-genre unto itself, which I was unaware of until I started sourcing pictures for this post. This post is about the Dutch ship, the fluyt, which turned the Dutch into the pre-eminent traders from the 15th century on. But it’s also a weensy bit about what ships came before.

Not so Tall and Stately

I mentioned with the Doge that the Venetians attacked Constantinople and used ships that ferried armor and horses. This is a view of the Venetian navy vessel. Not so cargo-based, is it?

Venetian war ship, painted by Francesco Guardi, wikipedia

Columbus Ships, Nimble & Trans-oceanic

Two of Columbus’ ships were caravels. These had moved from the larger Roman square sails to a combination with square and triangular sails. They had more flexibility and were nimbler. The third ship was a more standard cargo ship of the day: the carrack. If you’re really interested in ship history, I wrote about these before. If you’re ever near Portugal, Lisbon has a terrific maritime museum where you can see all the evolution of these ships.

Caravel, from Early Sailing Ships
The Carack, from Early Sailing ships

That year, the Flanders galleys came early to Bruges. In the first week of September, they floated under blue skies outside the harbour at Sluys, and the crowds on the headlands watched the light sails come billowing down. Then, straight and precise as if painted, in gold and red and blue and sparkling white, they rowed in to their berths, the light starring their trumpets.

Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising

The Big Imports: Pepper, Ginger, and TEA-A-A-A

Commerce was thriving before the Renaissance started, but the rising tide of ocean trade helped it really take off. Coastal Italian cities had an advantage, but so did other cities. Amsterdam, Bruges, and Ghent all had active ports and shipbuilding capabilities along with Southampton in England, Le Havre in France, Oslo, Dublin, Lisbon, and Copenhagen.

Goods were flying about the ports, traveling north to south, east to west, and round the horns of Africa and India. Ships went out in one season and returned in another, or a year later. The luxury list reads like a “where in the world” … anyone old enough to remember Carmen San Diego?

  • Cloves: Moluccas
  • Gum for perfumes: Java
  • Ginger: China
  • Camphor for drugs: Sumatra
  • Nutmeg/Mace: Celebes
  • Cassia (purgative): Java
  • Gems, cinnamon, brazil-wood, pepper: Ceylon
  • Pepper “the basis of the whole spice trade”: India’s Malabar coast
  • Indigo, brazil wood, other medicinal plants: India
  • Ivory, amber for medicine, perfumery: Africa
  • Salt: Venice
  • Sugar, wheat, barley, wine, and a central hub: Cyprus
  • Cotton, balm, sugar, date, emeralds and rubies: Egypts
  • Raisins, Olives: Aegean
  • Timber: North
  • Cloth, Dyed especially: Netherlands

AND of course Tea: Ceylon, India, China

The fluyt, cheap and full of tea. Photo from wikipedia.

Fills Great Without Cannonballs

The Dutch fluyt, designed early in the 1500s, differed from galleys and carracks. It had almost no armaments– cheaper to build with twice the cargo. Every other cargo ship could be converted into a warship, but the fluyt was merchant only. It had a shallow draft that allowed it to come closer to shore and to go down rivers, which competitor ships couldn’t reach. I could attempt to make trivial distinctions between mizzenmasts and fo’castles, but I can barely tell aft from port, so I’ll leave the technical differences to the many ship lovers out there. Who paint a lot of ships at war, let me tell you!

The ships were cheaper to build and operate and came back with more cargo. If they could avoid the pirates, their operating costs were so low that they’d earn a higher profit on the journey. Eventually, the Dutch would come to dominate commercial trade as the Renaissance ended and would launch the Dutch East India and West India Companies.

Fluyts were so cheap to build and design that other countries eventually copied the plans. By the time Magellan and Balboa had circumnavigated everything, most countries could use fluyts or flutes if they wanted to. The Mayflower was based in part on a fluyt design.

Turner, “Taking on Stores,” photo from wikimedia.

But now we’re getting way past the Renaissance.

Leave a Reply