Spanish Galleon


Mark Cartwright
published on 02 November 2021
Available in other languages: French, German, Spanish, Ukrainian
Spanish Galleon Firing Cannons (by Cornelis Verbeeck, Public Domain)
Spanish Galleon Firing Cannons
Cornelis Verbeeck (Public Domain)

The Spanish Galleon (Spanish: galeón, nao, or navío) was a particularly large type of galleon used for both carrying cargo and as a warship armed with up to 60 cannons. Used from the mid-16th century until the early 19th century, Spanish galleons had three or four masts which were square- and lateen-rigged, a distinctive beak at the prow, and a high sterncastle.

Spanish galleons were particularly adapted from the standard galleon design to increase their cargo capacity for when they transported the riches of the Americas to Europe in annual treasure fleets and precious Asian goods to Mexico in the Manila galleons. Galleon warships were ultimately replaced by faster ships like frigates, but galleons continued to be used as treasure ships until 1815.

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Galleon Ship Design

The name 'galleon' is derived from 'galley', the term associated with warships of any kind ever since antiquity but especially those propelled by a combination of sails and banks of oars. Galleons did not have any oars, but the generality of the name continued as 'galleon' was often used indiscriminately in the early modern period to mean any large, high-sided ship with three decks and a high sterncastle.

Galleons evolved in the 1530s (or slightly earlier) from ships like the caravel and carrack and had lower superstructures to make them more manoeuvrable in heavy seas (although later galleons increased these structures again). Other common features of the galleon were the beaklike prow, the setting back of the forecastle from the prow, a flat stern, and a smooth carvel hull. There were different types of galleon, and no standard design was followed. The galleon was used as a warship but evolved into the race-built galleon which had one deck removed and a more tapering hull – features that made the ship much faster and more manoeuvrable than a standard galleon.

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The larger galleons required an incredible 2,000 trees & up to two years to build.

The Spanish galleon, in contrast, compromised speed for size, particularly to increase the capacity to carry more cargo and more armaments. Spanish galleons had thicker hulls to better withstand cannon shots. A typical Spanish galleon was 100-150 feet (30-45 m) in length and 40-50 feet (12-15 m) wide (the preferred ratio was 3:1 or 4:1). The hull on either side tapered in towards the centre to create a more stable ship, particularly useful when firing its cannons. Atlantic galleons were around 500-1,000 tons, but the Manila galleons in the Pacific could be up to 2,000 tons. The larger galleons required an incredible 2,000 trees and up to two years to build.

English & Dutch Galleons in Combat
English & Dutch Galleons in Combat
Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom (Public Domain)

Spanish galleons were built on the Basque and Andalucian coasts of Spain, in Havana, and in the Philippines, amongst other places. The wood of choice used in European shipyards was oak, in Havana mahogany, and in the Philippines, various local hardwoods were employed. To protect the wood below the waterline, the hull was coated with a tar mixture that deterred marine worms. Galleons operating in tropical waters were even more vulnerable to degradation and their hulls were often covered with lead sheeting. Despite these precautions, the lifespan of a galleon in tropical waters was only around ten years.

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Royal Spanish galleons always had a figurehead of a golden lion wearing a crown.

A Spanish galleon combined the use of square and lateen or triangular sails on their three or four masts. The foremasts had three square sails each, while the mizzenmast (rear) had two square sails and a lateen sail. If there was a fourth mast (the bonaventure), it was set at the very stern and also carried a lateen sail, but one smaller than that on the mizzenmast. In addition, there was usually one or two small square sails on the bowsprit. This mass of sails allowed a Spanish galleon to sail at a respectable eight knots in optimum conditions. Decorative elements included gilded additions to the stern and a figurehead, for royal galleons always a golden lion wearing a crown. Galleons were often named after saints, and these were painted on the stern. Finally, each mast carried a flag such as the royal coat of arms and the pennant of the commander of the Spanish fleet.

Galleon Warships

Heavy cannons were arranged below decks on both sides of the ship. When required for battle, the muzzles of the cannons were rolled out to point through gun ports, wooden windows in the deck, which could be closed when not in use. These gun ports ran down both sides of the ship, sometimes with multiple levels. There were additional cannons at the bow and stern. A large Spanish galleon could carry at least 40 cannons of various sizes. The biggest cannons had a 6-inch (15.2 cm) bore. Additional smaller cannons were mounted on swivel posts at various points on the top deck. The master gunner was responsible for the four- or five-man teams that operated each cannon. A war captain led a large contingent of marines (up to 125 or so depending on ship size) who did not participate in manning the ship but who were there to repel boarders. Other defences included long crescent blades attached to the yardarms to slice the rigging and sails of a vessel that came alongside and two enlarged crow's nests from where archers could fire down on an enemy ship.

1607 Battle of Gibraltar by van Wieringen
1607 Battle of Gibraltar by van Wieringen
Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (Public Domain)

In the 16th century, Spain's war galleons were used as means to transport highly trained infantry and to allow them to board an enemy vessel. In the 17th century, naval tactics switched to using a ship's firepower to sink an enemy vessel from afar. Galleon warships were also used to escort treasure fleets, act as a convoy for other merchant fleets, as patrol fleets, as troop carriers for amphibious operations, and any other military purpose anywhere in the Spanish Empire such as boarding pirate vessels and bombarding enemy-held coastal fortifications.

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Galleon Treasure Ships

The Spanish favoured galleons for the transportation of valuable cargoes over long distances. The two annual treasure fleets stopped off at specific collection points: the treasure ports of the Spanish Main. One fleet sailed to the Caribbean coast of South America, and the other to Mexico. The main treasure ports included Portobelo, Cartagena, and Veracruz. The galleons and merchant ships then assembled at Havana and took their riches of silver, gold, gems, pearls, silk, porcelain, and spices, as well as wealthy passengers, from the Spanish Empire to Europe. Treasure in the form of metals and gems was stored in a special room on the lower deck which was sealed off and kept under constant armed guard.

The annual Atlantic treasure fleets began in the 1520s and continued until the 1730s, with a small fleet continuing from Mexico alone between 1754 and 1789. At their peak, a treasure fleet (flota) could consist of up to 90 merchant vessels and at least eight galleon warships. The fleets were tempting targets, but neither the buccaneers of the 17th century nor the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy in the 18th century ever had much success against them. The convoy system worked well, and only straggling merchant vessels could be picked off by the villains of the sea.

Spanish Colonial Empire in the Age of Exploration
Spanish Colonial Empire in the Age of Exploration
Simeon Netchev (CC BY-NC-SA)

In the early days, when the Spanish had not bothered to fully arm galleons thinking the Pacific Ocean their own personal playground, some privateers gained successes. One notable capture was made by Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596) on his epic 33-month circumnavigation voyage. Drake took the Cacafuego in March 1579 off the coast of Peru. The galleon was plying the Peru-Panama route, and its massive cargo of Inca gold and silver was one of the richest prizes taken by the Elizabethan privateers. Later European naval fleets, attacking in force, did make a handful of captures amongst the Atlantic treasure fleets, but in reality, by the 17th century, the Spanish treasure ships were at much greater risk from the elements.

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Manila Galleons

The Manila galleons transported precious Asian goods such as silk, porcelain, carpets, and spices from Manila in the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, to Acapulco in Mexico, a voyage across the Pacific Ocean of 4-8 months, depending on sea and weather conditions. The galleons were built in the Philippines (with a few exceptions) and operated from 1565 to 1815. The Spanish themselves called these floating treasure houses the naos de China or 'Chinese ships'. Some goods like silk, porcelain, gold, and spices were then transported over land to be loaded onto the Atlantic treasure ships. Once emptied of their eastern cargo, the Manila ships returned across the Pacific carrying vast amounts of silver to be exchanged for a new load of goods. This journey took around three months and was far smoother than the Acapulco trip.

So well-armed and difficult to find in the vast Pacific, only four Manila galleons were ever captured in over 250 years of service. One famous capture was made by the English circumnavigator and privateer Thomas Cavendish (1560-1592) who grabbed the Great Santa Ana on its way to Acapulco. The ship, personally owned by Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598), was loaded with 22,000 gold pesos and 600 tons of precious silks and spices. As in the Atlantic, a far more serious threat was not being captured but shipwreck. At least 30 Manila galleons met their end because of storms, hidden reefs, and accidental fires.

Manila Galleon Passenger Luggage
Manila Galleon Passenger Luggage
Alejandro Linares Garcia (CC BY-SA)

Life on Board a Galleon

As the historian A. Giraldez notes, "No matter the route, until the era of steam, intercontinental voyages took months, were extremely uncomfortable, and presented many dangers" (119). The captain, pilot (navigator), chaplain, officers, and officials had the most comfortable experience since they had the best cabins located in the galleon's sterncastle. Ordinary crew members (anywhere from 100 to 250 men) slept in cramped conditions below deck wherever they could find some space not taken up by the cargo or cannons. The 40 or so passengers on a treasure ship had to do with makeshift cabins built by the carpenter, these typically measured a mere five-foot square (1.85 m²). Luggage was usually restricted to two trunks per passenger, although they could bring their own cot and food items, including live animals, to delay the inevitable moment when they had to eat the ship's rations like everyone else. The cramped conditions and lack of possibility to bathe properly meant that a galleon was rife with all sorts of other, highly undesirable passengers. Rats in the hold, cockroaches on the decks, worms in the soup, bugs in the bedding, and lice on the body were all then part and parcel of sea travel.

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The ship's cook was way down on the lower deck where his fire was placed in a brick-lined pit with a sand bottom for safety. Fire on a wooden ship was a major risk, and there were regulations for just who could use lamps and candles below decks and when. A warning to all was the loss of the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción in 1552 when over 300 people perished after a fire raged through the ship.

The food for passengers and crew on a galleon consisted of salted meat, dried fish, and biscuits. The first part of voyages at least had some fresh food provided by live animals and birds taken on board such as chickens and pigs. Fruit and vegetables had to be consumed in the first few weeks. Cheese was served instead of meat when bad weather made lighting the ship's fires too risky. Freshly caught fish were a welcome addition to a diet that deteriorated as the months wore on, and rice was available in the Pacific galleons. There was wine, including a daily ration for the crew that was a little over 1 litre or two pints per day. Water was stored in casks and earthen jars, although some galleons did have a cistern to collect chance rainwater. Toilet facilities were rather crude. The crew used a simple wooden framework set out over the prow. Officers and passengers used facilities in a corridor in the stern which were euphemistically called 'gardens'. The poor sanitation and cramped conditions led to diseases spreading quickly, and a 20% mortality rate amongst all those who had boarded a galleon was not at all uncommon.

The Spanish Armada of 1588 CE By van Wieringen
The Spanish Armada of 1588 CE By van Wieringen
Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (CC BY-NC-SA)

There was not a whole lot to do on a galleon for the passengers. There were sometimes entertainments such as theatrical performances, dancing, music, book readings, chess, and card games (although the ordinary crew were forbidden to gamble). There were regular Catholic services and celebrations of notable dates like saint's days. Still, time, no doubt, moved as slowly as the sands in the ship's hourglasses, turned each half-hour by the cabin boys to keep track of time on the long, long voyage. When the galleons finally reached port, they were greeted with drums, trumpets, and the ringing of church bells, and it would have been difficult to judge who was happier, the beleaguered passengers finally stepping on to the wharf or the merchants rubbing their hands in anticipation of the bountiful trade coming their way.

The Decline of the Galleons

Other European navies used galleons, although they rarely called them this, such was their intense rivalry with all things Spanish. The British, Dutch, and French navies, for example, had large galleons, and they also adapted galleons to the race-built design. The English navy reaped the rewards of having these faster ships in 1588 when they met and defeated the Spanish Armada of King Philip II of Spain in 1588. Greater firepower and stormy weather were additional factors in England's favour. This defeat saw the Spanish finally evolve the design of their own galleons with a new slimmed-down version called the galizabra. Although treasure fleets continued to use galleons for their large cargo capacity into the 19th century, by the mid-17th-century, the trend in warship design was for much sleeker vessels like the brigantine, barque, and frigate.

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About the Author

Mark Cartwright
Mark is a full-time writer, researcher, historian, and editor. Special interests include art, architecture, and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the WHE Publishing Director.


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APA Style

Cartwright, M. (2021, November 02). Spanish Galleon. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Spanish Galleon." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 02, 2021.

MLA Style

Cartwright, Mark. "Spanish Galleon." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 02 Nov 2021. Web. 14 Jun 2024.