Golden age of sail

From the Spanish Armada, through the wars against Napoleon, to the great clipper ships of the 19th century – this was called the “Golden Age of Sail”.

Portuguese and Spanish explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama set out on their long voyages across the Atlantic in ships of an earlier age. Their caravels or carracks were small and unwieldy, and yet they somehow managed to find themselves in the Caribbean (Columbus in 1492 – although he thought he was in the East Indies) or around the treacherous Cape of Good Hope (Da Gama in 1497).

Other European trading states like France, England, Genoa and Venice made huge advances in merchant ship design and construction, creating carracks up to 1,000 tons and 165 feet long. But much of their effort went into building warships that could defend their trade routes, their homelands, and their wealth.

Battles at sea

Two great sea battles mark the beginning of the golden age. First, the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, in which the fleet of Venice and her allies was made up of 208 galleys, smashed the Ottoman Empire’s armada of 300 ships, including 250 galleys. It was the last major battle fought by oar-powered fleets, although the Barbary States and the Knights of Malta continued to use slave galleys for centuries to come.

Then, in 1588, the Spanish Armada took on Queen Elizabeth’s fleet. The Spaniards had brought together 132 ships – only four of them were galleys. The English fleet of 197 ships were almost all begged or borrowed from private merchants or privateers (the Royal Navy at that time could only muster 34 ships). Among the victorious English captains was Elizabeth’s favourite pirate, Francis Drake.

The Armada might never have set sail if it wasn’t for the fact that English privateers were so successful in raiding Spanish ships that they were driving King Philip crazy.

But the defeat of the Spanish Armada was the first major sea battle between two fleets under sail.

From 1588 right up until World War I, battles between sailing ships became a critical part of nautical warfare – and the defence of ships against piracy was one of the chief headaches for admirals, captains, governors and monarchs.


In the 18th and 19th centuries, many people in Europe were desperate to find a new home. Changes to the way that land was owned and managed, and new developments like factories, led people to believe they’d be better off somewhere else.

They may have been poor and unable to find enough food for their families. They may have been fleeing religious persecution, or political upheaval. They may have heard stories about country that was free for the taking, new cities and prosperous towns, wide acres of farmland and tall timber, just across the ocean. For many, emigration seemed to be their only chance of a new life. Europeans flocked to South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Some didn’t have much choice. Convicts from Britain were sent to new colonies in North America and Australia as part of their penalty, even for crimes as petty as stealing a handkerchief or a loaf of bread. Transported in disgusting ships, kept below for months on end (in conditions almost as bad as slave-ships), whipped and mistreated, the convicts eventually found themselves in a harsh new land where they had to scrape a living from inhospitable earth.

Others left home in a spirit of adventure. A voyage to the new colonies might take nearly a year – they would never be able to afford to go back to Ireland, Germany, Russia or England, so they knew they were leaving for good.

For many, the dream was a nightmare, especially in the early days. Others prospered, and as the settlements became more established, so even more people arrived to stake their claims. Even in places where the indigenous people fought to kept the settlers out, governments would offer money or other incentives to new migrants, to work as police or soldiers or to take up farming.

It was a time of great change in the world, as the old cultures of Europe sent people sailing all over the globe – and the world would never be the same again.

Big jib

Slavery and sugar

There were some parts of the Golden Age that were far from glorious. In the new colonies, local people were often treated badly, their land was taken from them, and many died of illness or from fighting to stop their lands from being invaded.

In Africa (and other places) a long-lasting tradition of slavery suddenly became big business. Slavery had been part of trade and life throughout northern Africa and the Mediterranean since history began. Defeated soldiers had been sold as slaves in the days of the ancient Greeks. The economies of nations such as Malta, Venice, and the Ottoman Empire had for centuries relied on slave labour to power their ships, fight their wars, and work in their fields – just as the Roman Empire had done. Arab slave traders had taken generations of African people north to work in Algiers or Tunis. The famous Christopher Columbus sent hundreds of slaves to Spain from his newly-discovered Caribbean.

But in the 17th century, demand for slave labourers exploded, particularly in the new cotton and sugar plantations of the Americas and the West Indies. The British needed workers for their plantations – between 1680 and 1786 more than two million people had been rounded up, shipped across the Atlantic and sold like cattle. After the American War of Independence, the trade continued, with even more slaves each year being sold directly to plantations and households in North America, and a continuous supply of ships bringing people to the Caribbean.

The slave ships were horrible. People were crammed in below deck, with little food or water, no fresh air, no doctors if they fell ill, and not even a toilet. Many died on the long voyages – and many more died of harsh treatment once they arrived in Jamaica or Virginia.

By 1798, people in England and in Europe were crying out for an end to the slave trade. The British parliament set up an inquiry and many times began to amend the laws, but never quite did. People showed their disgust by boycotting sugar, hoping that the sugar plantation owners would get the message.

Denmark abolished slavery in 1792, and banned any of its citizens from buying or selling human beings. Britain didn’t achieve a ban on the shipping of slaves until 1807, and the United States until 1808: but even then it was another generation before slavery itself was abolished.


  1. Your blog seems really generic and just barely scratches surfaces. Is this a school assignment or something?

    I disagree on your comments about the Armada being the largest battle between fleets up to that time.

    Is that maybe just because its the one most widely taught in modern textbooks?

    What about the Battle of Sluys 1340? What about the Battle of the Solent 1545? – with a French Armada that was actually significantly larger that the Spanish one 43 years later. That battle was the first true large scale action of the newer style carracks with larger naval guns mounted. There are several more good examples of larger naval battles as well. What about The Battle of Lepanto 1571 – the defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire’s fleet in the Mediterranean by the combined fleets of Christendom?

    It simply requires a little historical research.

    In your comment on Emigration you say 18th and 19th century. What about the 16th and 17th centuries? The massive Spanish migration and settlement of the Caribbean throughout the 16th century. The English and northern European’s incursion into the Caribbean in the 17th (largely due to the defeat of the TWO Spanish Armadas – other in 1607) and into North America. New Netherland/New Amsterdam, Jamestown, Plymouth Colony/Massachusetts Bay?

    If you’re gonna write about history you should really research a little and try to get your facts straight.

    • Hi and thanks for your comments. It’s always great to have comments and debate on blogs, but even better is for people commenting to be respectful of one another – especially on a site like this which is often used by younger people.
      So thanks for offering these other examples of major naval battles and emigration. This site is merely trying to sketch an outline of some trends in history that form the background for a series of books for young readers. I hope that anyone who is interested in pirates or sailing or maritime history will do more research and reading on these fascinating times.
      That said, if you read the page again, I’m not making any “biggest ever” claims about the Armada (Lepanto is mentioned first) but both those battles are relevant to the story and the history of legal piracy. I certainly am not making any exclusive claims about emigration either – it’s just focused on the period of the books. People have always moved across the seas and lands, often forced by hunger or climatic changes or war to face long sea voyages and dangerous mountain trails.
      They still do. Perhaps always will, although hopefully one day we’ll get to the point where people move in a spirit of adventure rather than terrible need.

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