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Pirates & galleons

Inside a galleon

A Spanish galleon of the 16th centuryA Spanish galleon of the 16th century Galleons were originally built as warships, to escort the convoys of cargo vessels sailing between Spain and the Americas. From about 1600, all treasure from the New World, including gold bars, silver ingots and coins, was transported in the royal galleons. A galleon was a ocean-going ship. It typically had a carrying capacity—the maximum size of its cargo—of about 500 toneladas (Spanish tons)—huge for its time. Despite its great size, a galleon was vulnerable to pirate attacks because it was slow to manoeuvre. The crew of more than 200 men relied on the ship’s extensive weaponry to defend themselves.

Below deck

The galleon's upper decks were divided into different sections. The front (bow) and rear (stern) decks were higher than the middle decks. Below the upper decks was the main deck, measuring around 30 metres (100 feet) long by 10 metres (33 feet) wide at its widest. At the stern were the captain’s quarters, the most luxurious cabins on the ship.

Click on this cutaway illustration for a keyClick on this cutaway illustration for a keyThe next deck down was the lower deck or gundeck. A galleon of this size carried about 24 cannon. This was where the crew’s quarters were found. The galley, or ship’s kitchen, with its brick oven to protect the wooden ship from the fire, was also on this deck. 

The holds, containing the ship’s stores and its cargo, lay beneath the lower deck. At the very bottom of the ship were the bilges. These were packed with heavy stones, called ballast, to help keep the ship upright in the water and to prevent it tipping over in high seas.

The only original galleon to be preserved is the Vasa (or Wasa), a Swedish warship built between 1626 and 1628. She sank after sailing only about 1300 m (1400 yards) into her maiden voyage in 1628. She was raised from the seabed in 1961 and was later preserved as a museum ship.

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