The Eight Galleons

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Pablo Edronkin

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As any good faktor of his time, François de Schoenenberg not only acted as a diplomat, but also as an arms dealer; according to documents written by king Louis XIV and de Blecourt, his agent in Madrid, Schoenenberg at one point assisted Spain in purchasing eight warships with about 55 cannons each.

"From a successful man even the devil runs away." - T. Shapira[250].

Banking, diplomacy and arms dealership were common trades in the family of the Skowronek bankers in the twentieth century, but surviving documents indicate that their ancestors in the seventeenth century already were engaged in those same activities.

François de Schoenenberg represented the English king and the Dutch States-general as ambassador in Madrid during the last years of the XVII and the first years of the following century. Naturally, that position enabled him to intervene in large transactions for the benefit of the states he represented. States either get commercial deals for companies under their jurisdiction, or do business themselves. The agents that arrange such dealings, naturally obtain some benefits and perks, and in some cases, fixed payments or commissions.

One of such deals was arranged by François de Schoenenberg in order to provide Spain with eight ships equipped with 50 to 60 cannons each, at a cost of 36.000 ecus per vessel. Considering that this transaction was arranged thorough diplomatic channels, it would be one of those in which the Spanish navy purchased Dutch ships.

While in Spain they were able to produce their own ships – at least until the Inquisition prohibited the use of naval engineering manuals printed in non-Catholic countries -, sometimes there were reasons to buy vessels abroad. The Dutch were very active in the construction of ships, and usually provided assistance in projects such as the Vasa, built in Sweden – the only actual galleon that survived to present days -, or simply built them for export in their own shipyards.


Spanish galleon.
Spanish Galleon, engraving frequently credited to Albrech Dürer.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[70].

King Louis XIV and de Blecourt commented on the transaction and their general impression of Schoenenberg, whom they did not like at all since he was a stumbling block for French design in Madrid, in these words:

"Si Votre Majeste n'etait pas bien persuadee de la bonne foi de ses allies, ces demarches de Schonnenberg me seraient plus suspectes. II m'a dit qu'il n'avait pas de commerce avec le comte d'Harack. Je sais cependant qu'il en a, qu'il est tres-souvent chez Leganez, et que meme il fit entremise pour I'achat des vaisseaux dont j'ai parle a Votre Majeste dans ma derniere lettre, et qu'il en fait remettre le soin a don Quiros, au lieu de le laisser aux marchands qui les devaient acheter. II y a pourtant encore quelque contestation la-dessus.

Pour ne pas donner de soupfon mal a propos, je suis oblige de dire a Votre Majeste que cet homme se mele de negoce aussi bien que des affaires de ses maitres, et que, par ses demarches avec les gens qui sont bien avec la Reine, il croit venir a bout d'entrer dans quelque affaire considerable. Jusques ici, Sire, je n'en puis demeler la verite."[24.24] (sic)

Cooling off the issue, Louis XIV answered de Blecourt on Sep 19, 1700:

"Je ne doute pas que le sieur Schonnenberg n'ait presentement execute les ordres qui lui ont ete envoyes de faire une declaration semblable a celle que vous avez faite, et il est tres-necessaire que sa conduite en cette occasion ne laisse aucun lieu de douter de la parfaite intelligence que ses maitres veulent qu'il entretienne avec nous. Je sais qu'il a fait de grandes plaintes de la conduite du comte d'Harack a son egard, lorsqu'il etait question de procurer son retablissement dans les fonctions d'envoye des foats Generaux. Ainsi j'ai pene a croire qu'il ait eu commerce avec cet ambassadeur.

Je ne serais pas surpris que, s'etant toujours mele de negoce, il voulut encore avoir part a I'achat de vaisseaux que le roi d'Espagne veut faire en Hollande. Mais, comme cette acquisition n'augmenterait pas les forces de l'Espagne, il est inutile de la traverser et il importe peu que cet achat se fasse ou par l'ambassadeur d'Espagne a la Haye, ou bien que le soin en soit remis a des marchands."[24.25] (sic)

We have no further information on the characteristics of these ships but the magnitude of the artillery in each one of them at the ime meant that the ships would weight about 900 tonnes each. These would be large gallions but the situation was seen as not unusual by the French king; probably, the introduction of the new eight ships would simply be part of a routine replacement of older vessels.

Galleons were versatile ships: They could be used to transport cargo, passengers, soldiers or could act as true warships. Caravels and naos were the first ships to be used for exploration; then the galleons took over and were used until about 1750 as main fleet ships (see The Galleon).

One thing to consider is that galleons from the XVI, XVII and XVIII centuries were different ships; also, there were differences depending on the country that built them and the materials: Spain introduced the use of American and perhaps African woods, which where generally better than what other European countries could get. Nevertheless, these ships demanded quite an amount of wood just to be built, and some long-term planning to get the trees required. A forest of 3000 threes could be necessary.

Spanish galleons of the XVII century would have a variable number of cannons, depending on the mission assigned. Usually, the cannons were stored in an armory, not in the ship while it was in port. Artillery was so expensive that it made sense to keep the cannons under constant care and vigilance. On receiving orders, each captain would decide how many cannons he would take in his next voyage, and what type of artillery, because there were different kinds.

The system was complicated and naturally, the cannons were heavy so mounting them took a while, but it provided enhanced flexibility.

The Spanish navy during the second half of the seventeenth century would assign one sailor per 6 tonnes of cargo in such a ship, plus officers and marines. Spanish ships of that size would carry about 150 marines each to provide protection against the attack of pirates, and at least 150 crewmen of all ranks.

In today's terms, each one of those ships would equal a battle cruiser costing about 200 million euros each.


The Dutch galleon Mauritius.
Mauritius. Fragment from Het uitzeilen van een aantal Oost-Indiëvaarders. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[70].



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