The term galleon is well-known across the world. These were large, multi-decked sailing ships used from the 16th to 19th centuries. But which ship was the biggest?
The largest galleon in recorded history was the São João Baptista or Saint John the Baptist. It was a Portuguese galleon used in the Conquest of Tunis in 1535. It had 366 cannons and could carry 1,000 tons of artillery.
Why was São João Baptista considered the largest galleon? How did it compare to other galleons from its time? Read on to find out!
What Was The Largest Galleon Ever?
The largest galleon in recorded history was made by the Portuguese around 1530. The ship’s name was the São João Baptista or Saint John the Baptist. It was also known as Botafogo. This name means fire maker or spitfire in Portuguese.
The Botafogo was captained by Infante Luis, the Duke of Beja. He was the brother of King John III of Portugal and the brother-in-law of King Charles V of Spain. The Infante and Botafogo received notoriety after the Conquest of Tunis in 1535.
How Big Was The São João Baptista?
This ship definitely earned its title of the largest galleon in history. It could carry 366 cannons and 1,000 tons of artillery. This incredible amount of firepower was how it gained the nickname spitfire, from all the fire it shot from its guns!
Unfortunately, there aren’t many records that tell us exactly how big Botafogo truly was. But, we can compare its carrying capacity with that of other galleons to get an idea.
Botafogo vs. Other Galleons
The average galleon was approximately 210ft long, with a 50ft beam and a 30 ft draft. The draft is how far under the water the ship sits.
Historical records indicate that most galleons could carry approximately 500 tons of artillery, supplies, and personnel. So it was significantly larger than other galleons of its time!
What Happened to São João Baptista?
Unfortunately, the specific build date of Botafogo isn’t known. The earliest time it was mentioned was on a voyage to Guinea in 1532. However, we do know when its career ended.
Botafogo’s final voyage was in 1550. It left Portugal with other merchant ships as a protection detail. They were headed to the colony of Salvador, Brazil. Approximately one year later, colonists dismantled the ship in Pernambuco.
In the end, this beautiful ship had at least a 20-year career on the sea. It even helped the colonists once its career was over. The ship’s iron and wood were used to build homes and supplies for those settling in and around Pernambuco.
Why Were Galleons So Large?
The galleons weren’t the largest ships. They were designed to protect the larger cargo ships called carracks. Carracks were only lightly armored and couldn’t defend themselves during attacks. So they needed the galleons to protect them.
Galleons had to have a balance of size and speed. They must be large enough to hold lots of artillery and cannons but still small enough to out-maneuver their adversaries. Because they had multiple decks, countries could also use them to carry cargo if need be.
Why Were Galleons So Significant?
Galleons were an essential piece of naval equipment from the 16th century all the way up to the 19th century. They had three or more masts, allowing them to take advantage of the sea winds. They also often featured several rows of oars for close combat.
Because they had multiple decks and were so easy to maneuver, they were an excellent choice for explorers during the Age of Exploration. Many notable galleons distinguished themselves during this time.
Other Important Galleons
The Golden Hind is one such notable galleon. Sir Francis Drake used it on his voyage to circumnavigate the globe from 1577 to 1580. The Revenge was another of his flagships, but the Spanish sank it in 1591.
Many galleons were used in the exploration of the Americas. The San Salvador was the flagship vessel of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo during his exploration of present-day California. She was a smaller ship, only 200 tons, which made her very maneuverable.
The San Pelayo was another large galleon used in the establishment of St. Augustine, Florida. This galleon was so large that it wasn’t able to dock on the shore! The 906-ton galleon had to be offloaded in the sea and sent back to Hispaniola without ever entering the harbor.
Triumph was the Elizabethan galleon used to defend England against the Spanish Armada in 1588. This galleon was the flagship of Vice-Admiral Martin Frobisher during the battle. She had a carrying capacity of 1,000 tons but only 60 guns. This smaller size was vital to winning the fight.
The Decline of Galleons
The Battle of the Spanish Armada in 1588 against the British spelled the end for the galleon. While they would still be used as Spanish treasure ships for many more centuries, their days as warships were over. They couldn’t compete with the faster race-style galleons.
Galleons had also become an easy target for privateers and pirates. They were well-known as treasure ships and were unable to out-maneuver the smaller race galleons or frigates. Sir Francis Drake actually took the Spanish treasure ship Cacafuego in March 1579 as it was leaving Peru.
Galleons were ultimately traded in for a smaller, sleeker design. These ships were even easier to maneuver and less costly to manufacture. Some notable, sleeker vessels were the frigate, barque, and brigantine. These were the most popular starting in the 17th century.
Ultimately, galleons became victims of progress. As more ships traveled the sea, the large carrying capacity that set them apart actually made them easy targets. They just simply couldn’t compete with smaller, faster ships.
The São João Baptista is an incredible relic from this time. It showcases the best parts of human ingenuity: balancing speed with power. It was able to set itself apart in the history books, and we can still admire its story for years to come.