Portuguese Ships: Life on Board the Portuguese Navigators »
Portuguese Ships and Portuguese Navigators Credito D. João de Castro (1540), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Portuguese Ships: Life on Board the Portuguese Navigators

Life aboard Portuguese ships in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries was an adventure of great challenges, dangers and discoveries. Portuguese navigators were the first to explore an unknown world, opening new commercial and cultural routes with Asia, Africa and America. But what was the day-to-day life of these Portuguese navigators who set out to sea in search of wealth and glory?

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Caravels and Portuguese Ships

The caravel and the nau were two types of ships used by the Portuguese in the great navigations of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.

The caravel was of medium size, with triangular sails (latin sail) that made it possible to make better use of the wind.

It was agile, fast and easy to maneuver.

It could carry up to 50 people and had little load capacity. Ideal for exploring unknown coasts and facing sea currents.

Caravela Vera Cruz on the Tagus River Credito Lopo Pizarro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Caravela Vera Cruz on the Tagus River Credit: Lopo Pizarro via Wikimedia Commons

The ship was larger, equipped with round sails, which required favorable winds. Therefore, it was slower, heavier and difficult to maneuver.

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It could carry up to 200 people and had a large load capacity. It was used for long-distance travel and to transport goods and wealth.

Portuguese caravels and ships also had differences in their structure. Caravels did not have the tall “castles” at the stern and bow of ships, that is, covered areas in front and aft. The ships had several decks (decks below the main deck) and three masts.

The caravels were decisive for the discovery of the various maritime routes and for the consequent cartography, present in the Portuguese Planisphere.

The strategy for conquering trade by sea required more robust means of transport. It became the era of wooden ships with two, three or four masts.

Portuguese ships could carry cargo of up to 500 tons. They were developed to sail on the high seas, facing storms, currents and winds from the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

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Pássaro no Ombro

Replica of one of the Portuguese ships, the Santa Maria, by Christopher Columbus in 1492; Credit Dietrich Bartel via Wikimedia Commons
Replica of one of the Portuguese ships, the Santa Maria, by Christopher Columbus in 1492; Credit Dietrich Bartel via Wikimedia Commons

They had forecastle and stern castles, where the officers and nobles stayed and a hold where the sailors, soldiers, cargo and animals were packed.

There were also Portuguese Carracas, which were cargo and war ships used at the end of the XNUMXth century and in the XNUMXth century.

These ships, from the period of the first ocean-going ships such as the Santa Maria, were the subject of enormous development and innovation in their design and sizes in a short time, due to the armed confrontation in the Indian Ocean, the large load and the long distances covered.

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Carracas are one of the types of Portuguese ships; Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich via Wikimedia Commons
Carracas are one of the types of Portuguese ships; Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich via Wikimedia Commons

Crew

The crew was made up of different types of people: the captain, who commanded the ship; the pilots, who guided navigation; the masters, who supervised the maneuvers; the foremen, who helped the masters; the sailors, who carried out orders; the cabin boys, who were sailor apprentices; the bombers, who handled the firearms; the soldiers, who defended the ship from attacks; the religious, who took care of the spiritual part; the clerk, who recorded everything that happened; the doctor, who treated the sick; the barber, who cut hair and performed bloodletting; the carpenter, who repaired the damage to the ship; the caulker, who sealed the gaps in the wood; the cook, who prepared the meals; and also other minor officers.

They were all an integral part of Portuguese navigators seeking glory.

The dangers

The dangers that the crew faced were many and unpredictable. Shipwrecks were frequent, caused by storms, currents, rocks or fire on board.

Many Portuguese ships were lost, being at the mercy of the seas and oceans or enemies.

Pirate attacks were a constant threat, especially from the Arabs, Turks and Dutch, who disputed dominance of trade routes with the Portuguese.

Confrontations with the natives of the lands visited could also be fatal for the crew. Some people were peaceful and receptive to the Portuguese, but others were hostile and violent.

The crew had to be prepared to fight or flee, depending on the situation. Some were captured and enslaved or killed by the natives.

The feeding

The crew's food was very precarious and insufficient.

They received around 400 grams of hard, salty biscuits daily, which were often moldy or infested with rats and cockroaches.

They also received two small doses of water and wine, which were stored in poor conditions and caused infections and diarrhea.

Each month they were entitled to 15 kg of salted meat, onion, vinegar and oil.

Captains and officers could take other foods, such as sugar, honey, flour and fruit. They could also transport chickens and sheep to complete their diet, while the common crew had to be content with salted meat and biscuits.

The animals were kept in the ships' holds, along with the cargo and sailors.

Each crew member cooked for himself, but there was not always a fire available and, therefore, hunger was a continuing problem.

The Entertainment

Entertainment for Portuguese navigators was scarce and limited. Some sailors liked to play cards, which was prohibited. If they were caught in the act by a friar, the decks were confiscated and thrown into the sea.

Another form of entertainment was theater performances, always with religious themes. The crew members acted out biblical stories or stories about saints, using improvised clothes and props.

There were also moments of music and dancing, especially during religious festivals or commemorative dates.

The sailors played instruments such as viola, drum or flute and sang popular songs or songs in praise of God.

During stops on dry land, the crew took the opportunity to learn about local cultures, exchange goods and enjoy the pleasures of life.

Portuguese Ships Life on Board the Portuguese Navigators Image nCultura
Portuguese Ships; Life on Board the Portuguese Navigators; Image: IPEC

The health

Diseases on Portuguese ships were a common cause of death among crew members. Lack of hygiene, poor diet and confinement favored the spread of infections, diarrhea, scurvy, syphilis and other illnesses.

There was a doctor and a barber on board, but their resources were limited and often ineffective.

Sick crew members were isolated in an improvised infirmary in the hold or in the stern castle.

The most common disease that killed the most men was scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C in the body. The gums were bleeding, the teeth were falling out, as well as internal bleeding.

Other frequent diseases were: dysentery, typhus, malaria, syphilis and scabies.

The Rewards

The rewards that crew members received for their voyages were varied and uncertain.

Some received a fixed salary, others received a share of the profits from the sale of goods, others received only food and clothing.

Some received honors and titles, others received forgiveness for their crimes.

Some received fame and glory, others received oblivion and indifference.

It is estimated that around a third of Portuguese ships were lost at sea or captured by enemies.

But everyone received the opportunity to discover new worlds, new cultures, new landscapes, new riches.

And everyone had the unique opportunity to be part of the history of Portugal and Humanity.

Ship that belonged to the fleets of Vasco da Gama (1502), D. Francisco de Almeida (1505) and Afonso de Albuquerque (1510). He took part in the conquest of Hormuz (1507). Portuguese Marine Image
Ship that belonged to the fleets of Vasco da Gama (1502), D. Francisco de Almeida (1505) and Afonso de Albuquerque (1510); He took part in the conquest of Hormuz (1507); Image: Portuguese Navy

Arrival in Japan

The arrival of Portuguese navigators in Japan occurred in 1543.

The Japanese were impressed by the firearms that the Portuguese carried and called them “tanegashima”, the name of the island south of Japan, where they disembarked.

The Portuguese, in turn, were fascinated by Japanese culture and art, and took many objects with them, such as porcelain, fans and screens.

The cultural exchange between the two peoples was intense and lasted about a century, until Japan closed itself off from the outside world.

Also, already before, the arrival in Brazil in 1500, which was recorded in letter from Pero Vaz de Caminha, was marked with the exchange of gifts between the sailors and the natives of the so-called Land of Vera Cruz.

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