Eighteenth Century Galleys

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    Jonathan Harlow

      I am editing some accounts of voyages out of Bristol in the eighteenth century. I find some vessels which voyaged to West Africa and/or the Americas described as gall[e]ys although I cannot believe that they were designed for rowing. Can anyone help in supplying just what might have been meant by this designation in this period?

      David Hepper

        I believe that during the 18th C. it was not uncommon to use the term galley for a merchant ship. In the article ‘Galleys and Runners’ in the Mariners Mirror vol.7 p133-135, Sir Julian Corbett defined these as a ship which may sail or use oars; they were… “broad and sharp and carries twice the breadth in sail of common sailing ships”. It was further defined in a later Answer to a Query in Mariners Mirror (MM. vol.13 p.383) as being a ship that is built to sail or row with oars with large cargo space. It meant that although rigged as a ship/brig, they could revert to the use of sweeps, which meant that they would have a line of row-ports which would allow them to be rowed in calms.

        See also Howard Chappelle “The Search for Speed under Sail” (1983 edn p.35- 36) in which he defines the ‘Galley Ship’ as being a cargo vessel designed primarily for speed, and used extensively in British North America. He goes on to explain that they were usually rigged as ships or brigantines

        The Royal Navy had several ‘Galley Frigates’ in the late 17th/early 18th century that used the same principle:

        The Charles Galley may be seen here, with the line of row-ports visible:


        Susan Rose

          ALL GALLEYS from medieval times on carried sails as well as oars; sailing was the usual method of propulsion except near the shore in harbour or in adverse wind conditions. Susan Rose.


            Another characteristic feature of the galleys which sailed out of Bristol in the early eighteenth century was that they were flush-decked. The ‘Dutchess’, which sailed with the ‘Duke’ on the Woodes Rogers voyage of 1708-12, was described as a galley but may well have been a so-called Bristol runner described admiringly by the commissioner for Plymouth in 1712 (NRS,1961). Both the Duke and Dutchess had rowing ports and used them to great effect during their successful expedition.

            Tim Beattie

            I.M. Bates,

              The Royal Navy Coventry class frigates were certainly equipped to use sweep oars in emergencies. HMS Medea (28) escaped attack by French ships of the line twice and captured a smaller ship in 1783 in India using sweeps. See Bates IM, Champion of the Quarterdeck: Admiral Sir Erasmus Gower (1742-1814) pp. 139, 140, 144.

              Sam Willis

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                Sue Paul:
                Not only did galleys use oars when becalmed or entering/leaving port, other types of vessels did as well. A French privateer snow was recorded as rowing into Portsmouth and tryng to head off the “Mary Galley” by the galley’s commander, Joseph Tolson in 1705. The galley, however, made better time and avoided being taken by the privateer. Toson was pleased that she could reach two knots under oars.

                Peter Nack:
                Peter Nack Describing vessels by rig didn’t become the norm into later in the century. The term galley, as I recall, would refer to a flush deck, long and low hulled vessel. That said, oars were carried on smaller vessels, even naval vessels; not much used, but carried.
                Then there were the galleasses — hull built heaver than the galley, with a better sailing rig and qualities, and gun on the broadside, yet also more row-able than a purely sailing vessel its size. Galleasses led the Christian lines at the Battle of Lepanto in 1570. I am speculating. I don’t think the “Mary Galley” of 1705 would have been a galleass, rather a galley-built hull sailing vessels.

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