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  • A. Jorge Aguilera López

Fireproof wooden ships?

Fire has been and continues to be one of the greatest enemies that ships have had throughout history. That is why a good way to destroy an enemy fleet was by setting it on fire. We have records of such practices in Europe, Asia and Africa since ancient times. The so-called "Greek fire" being the most striking and well-known method today (being the inspiration of the "Valyrian fire" present in the popular fiction of George R. R. Martin). Of course, there were other igneous methods –especially since the incorporation of gunpowder into military tactics– employed to destroy or at least immobilize or disable enemy ships: in this short post, I mention some of them.


Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 8 August 1588 (1796) by Philip James de Loutherbourg [National Maritime Museum, London]


However, the most widespread system both chronologically and geographically was the use of other ships that loaded with flammable or explosive material (tar, sulphur, gunpowder, pitch...), were launched against the enemy navy. These types of ships known as fireships, were frequently used by both Dutch and English against the armadas of the Catholic King. These weapons stood out both in the frustrated invasion of England in 1588 against the Gran Armada,[1] or in the disastrous Battle of the Downs of 1639, where the Dutch –with hardly any casualties– destroyed the Spanish armada led by Antonio de Oquendo. This method was not only used against the fleets. In the great siege of Antwerp (1584-85), the Dutch rebels employed a new and damaging explosive ship called the hellebrander ("hellburner") designed by the Italian Federigo Giambelli (funded by England). These fireships were launched against the siege works carried out by the Spanish (Farnese Bridge) causing great damage, but even so they did not manage to prevent the troops of Philip II from retaking the city.


Floating bridge over the Schelde near Antwerp (16th c.), by Frans Hogenberg


For all these reasons, it should not be strange to us that they looked for ways to counter those harmful weapons, and especially it should not surprise us, that the king and his ministers received with open arms any proposal in this regard. I came across this document on my last visit to the General Archive of Simancas (AGS). It is a consultation of the Council of War to the king dated in 1593 on a certain experiment capable of making fireproof ships:

The [War] Council consulted Your Majesty about the approval of the Count of Santa Gadea [captain of the galleys] on the proposal that the Genoese Lucian Dalfin, has made concerning a certain pitch that he has and whereby ships cannot be burned. [Santa Gadea] says that he [Dalfin] had successfully made the experience in his presence and that this being so, it would be very convenient for Your Majesty to make to the said Lucian Dalfin to finance and hire him in these kingdoms for the rest of his life. (…) A report has been sent to the Council (…) that says he successfully showed the experiment in the presence of Your Majesty and he pleads (…), for a reward and for some money for all his expenses and to receive a pension henceforth. Having seen it the Council, we propose to Your Majesty that even if the test (…) that was made of this secret [invention] is not conclusive yet, Your Majesty could grant to the said Lucian 100 ducats to go to Lisbon to do the experiment (…) using an out of order ship.


Although I would like to have more details about this experiment and this guy, for now, this is all I have. Perhaps on my next visit to Simancas I can obtain more information. I promise to inform you.


On the other hand, and given the type and content of the document, I take this opportunity to make a brief reflection on this topic. It SEEMS that between the death of Leonardo da Vinci and the arrival of Isaac Newton –except for Copernicus and Galileo– there is a 150-year gap in terms of great scientific and technological discoveries. "Coincidentally" is the period of time in which the pioneering Catholic Iberian empires dominated the international scene. Why does this happen? It may be because the academic field is currently –and deservedly– dominated by the Anglo-Saxon world; maybe it is because the Iberian societies may not have publicized or kept in secret many of these contributions; maybe it is because these same societies would eventually languish hopelessly against the Protestant empires and states that continue to dominate the international scene; it may be because of the effective Spanish Black Legend; it may be due to pure ignorance and lack of interest; or it can simply be a cluster of all those and many other reasons. What is certain is that many of the Iberian contributions –and in general from Mediterranean Europe– to the known as the scientific revolution (the embryo of the Enlightenment), have been and are still ignored by that dominant academic world, despite the fact that many of them have been effectively studied and demonstrated. On this topic, I recommend you this interesting article: “Iberian Science in the Renaissance: Ignored How Much Longer?” by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra from the University of Texas.



[1] To clarify: although the English fireships did not cause direct damage, they did manage to provoke panic and disorganize the Gran Armada (who thought they were the feared hellebranders). That gave way to the battle of Gravelines, where the English were victorious.


Tags: #England #Flanders #Dutch #ships #inventions #PhilipII #16th #science

  • Aguilera López A. J. (2020) "Fireproof wooden ships?", in Rowing through History [online].

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