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1516-1700 - Habsburg

The discovery of America, the acquisition by marriage or conquest of Sicily, Naples and Flanders, gave the kings of Spain a yet stronger motive for maintaining a powerful navy. The maxim that their ships were the bridges which joined their widely scattered dominions was fully accepted by them and their servants. But neither the Catholic sovereigns nor the Habsburgs who held the throne till 1700, made any attempt to organize a common navy. The sources from which the naval armaments of Spain were drawn during the greatness and decline of the country were these. Galleys were maintained in the Mediterranean, but they were mainly found by Sicily and Naples, or by the contracts which the kings of Spain made with the Genoese house of Doria.

On the ocean the chief object of the Spanish government was to conduct and protect the severely regulated trade with America. Thus it was mainly concerned for long to obtain the lumbering and roomy vessels called galleons, first designed by Alvaro de Bazan, marquess of Santa Cruz, which were rather armed traders than real warships. The crown did not build its own ships, but contracted for them with its admirals. The American convoys sailed from and returned to the Bay of Cadiz. One squadron, the fain, carried the trade, was navigated by the admiral, with whom was associated a general, who commanded the few warships proper, and was answerable for the protection of the whole. Another squadron, called of Cantabria, was maintained on the north coast, and was employed to see the convoy on its way and meet it on its return home. It had its own admiral and general.

The ships were always treated as if they were transports for carrying soldiers. The seamen element was neglected. The command was divided between the capitan de mar (sea captain) who was responsible for the navigation and the capitan de giurra (soldier captain) who fought the ship. The same division went through all ranks. The soldiers would neither help to work the ship nor fight the guns. They used musketry only, or relied on a chance to board with sword and pike. Properly speaking there was no class of naval officers, and the overworked and depressed seamen could not supply good gunners. No general naval administration existed. The office of admiral of Castile became purely ornamental and hereditary in the family of Henriquez. It was not replaced by a navy office.

One of the innumerable boards through which the Spanish kings governed, looked after the making of contracts, and co-operated with the council of the Indies which was specially concerned with the American convoys. After the disasters of the later years of Philip II some efforts at improvement were made. Better ships were built, and something was done to raise the condition of the seamen. But no thorough-going organization was ever created, and in the utter decadence of the 17th century the Spanish navy and seafaring population alike practically disappeared.

The Spanish Navy could not face the Dutch. An attempt made in 1639 to send ten thousand troops by this route led to a crushing defeat of the convoying fleet, which the Dutch attacked in the Downs, where it had sought English shelter.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:56:34 ZULU