Portuguese ships (Age of Exploration)

Ricardo da Silva
Published on Aug 17, 2015

The Portuguese navy of the 16th century.

Portugal reformed naval warfare worldwide after creating several new tactical developments and new types of vessels, strictly intended for warfare, trade and exploration, such as the ‘caravels’, the ‘round caravels’, and the ‘naus’.

Portugal was known during the 16th and 17th centuries for having the biggest and most powerful warships in the world, as well for having the most well prepared fleets for long voyages of exploration. After the Portuguese distinguished themselves worldwide with their navy, its new vessels and tactics would be adopted by every other state in Europe and Asia.

Portugal’s new style of naval combat allowed the Portuguese to be able to fight off much larger fleets with only a handful of vessels. The Portuguese were also the first to use cannons on their vessels. Chronicles from various different sources worldwide often mention how the Portuguese navy sometimes required just one single warship to battle and defeat 30, 50, and sometimes even 100 Asian vessels.

Portuguese ships were deemed gigantic for its period, since no one was used to see such long, so very tall warships. This was one of the reasons that allowed their navy to beat fleets that were far larger in numbers, as well for its artillery, which was among the best in the world. Portugal also focused on developing several new weapons and artillery, to further complete their military power, which was followed by a huge amount of victories.

One must be aware that the Portuguese knew they were always outnumbered, a certainty that led them to employ all their courage and determination in the fights and battles they engaged. In many cases, just mentioning the Portuguese would distress an entire army or fleet, knowing the fierceness and bravery of the Portuguese warriors.

In 1534, the Portuguese finished building what would be known as the most powerful and biggest warship in the world, named São João Baptista, a.k.a. Botafogo. This ship could carry 366 bronze cannons, and had an artillery power of 1,000 tons. For this reason, it became known as Botafogo, literally meaning “fire maker” or “spit fire” in popular Portuguese. A warship with 100 cannons would already be considered a very powerful vessel, this ship hat 3 times as many. During the Christian alliance in the conquest of Tunis, Portugal would distinguish itself during the assault due to this vessel.

These new types of vessels the Portuguese developed, were one of the reasons that would turn Portugal into the 1st global sea power in History and the first modern colonial power from Europe, and its explorers the leaders in the voyages of exploration. Because of this, Portugal’s cartographers were very coveted, a result of its successes in the overseas.
The Portuguese are deemed as the discovers of 2/3 of the at the time unknown world to Europeans, and for this, their vessels were of the utmost importance.


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