AskDefine | Define galleon

Dictionary Definition

galleon n : a large square-rigged sailing ship with three or more masts; used by the Spanish for commerce and war from the 15th to 18th centuries

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A large, three masted, square rigged sailing ship with at least two decks.


large sailing ship

Extensive Definition

A galleon was a large, multi-decked sailing ship used primarily by the nations of Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. Whether used for war or commerce, they were generally armed with demi-culverin.
Galleons were an evolution of the caravel and carrack (or nao), for the new great ocean going voyages. A lowering of the forecastle and elongation of the hull gave an unprecedented level of stability in the water, and reduced wind resistance at the front, leading to a faster, more maneuverable vessel. The galleon differed from the older types primarily by being longer, lower and narrower, with a square tuck stern instead of a round tuck, and by having a snout or head projecting forward from the bows below the level of the forecastle. In Portugal at least, carracks were usually very large ships for their time (often over 1000 tons), while galleons were mostly under 500 tons, although the Manila galleons were to reach up to 2000 tons. Carracks tended to be lightly armed and used for transporting cargo, while galleons were purpose-built warships, and were stronger, more heavily armed, and also cheaper to build (5 galleons could cost around the same as 3 carracks) and were therefore a much better investment for use as warships. There are nationalistic disputes about the origin of the galleon, which are complicated by its evolutionary development, but each Atlantic sea-power developed types suited to their needs, while constantly learning from their rivals.
The galleon was powered entirely by sail, carried on three to five masts, with a lateen sail continuing to be used on the last (usually third) mast. They were used in both military and trade applications, most famously in the Spanish treasure fleet, and the Manila Galleons. In fact, galleons were so versatile that a single vessel may have been refitted for wartime and peacetime roles several times during its lifespan. The galleon was the prototype of all three or more masted, square rigged ships, for over two and a half centuries, including the later full rigged ship.
The principal warships of the opposing English and Spanish fleets in the 1588 confrontation of the Spanish Armada were galleons, with the modified English "race built" galleons developed by John Hawkins proving decisive, while the capacious Spanish galleons, designed primarily as transports for long ocean voyages, proved incredibly durable in the battles and in the great storm on the voyage home; most survived.


Galleons were constructed from oak (for the keel), pine (for the masts) and various hardwoods for hull and decking. Hulls were usually carvel-built. The expenses involved in galleon construction were enormous. Hundreds of expert tradesmen (including carpenters, pitch-melters, blacksmiths, coopers, shipwrights, etc.) worked day and night for months before a galleon was seaworthy. To cover the expense, galleons were often funded by groups of wealthy businessmen who pooled resources for a new ship. Therefore, most galleons were originally consigned for trade, although those captured by rival nations were usually put into military service.
The most common gun used aboard a galleon was the demi-culverin, although gun sizes up to demi-cannon were possible.
Because of the long periods often spent at sea and poor conditions on board, much of the crew often perished during the voyage; therefore advanced rigging systems were developed so that the vessel could be sailed home by an active sailing crew a fraction of the size aboard at departure.

Distinguishing features



  • Alertz, U. (1991) Vom Schiffbauhandwerk zur Schiffbautechnik : die Entwicklung neuer Entwurfs- und Konstruktionsmethoden im italienischen Galeerenbau (1400-1700), Hamburg : Kovač, ISBN 3-925630-56-2
  • Humble, R. and Bergin, M. (1993) A 16th century galleon, Inside story series, Hemel Hempstead : Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-7500-1339-7
  • Kirsch, P. (1990) The Galleon: the great ships of the Armada era, London : Conway Maritime, ISBN 0-85177-546-2
  • Rutland, J. (1988) A galleon, 2nd rev. ed., Connaty, M. (ed.), London : Kingfisher, ISBN 0-86272-327-2
  • Serrano Mangas, F. (1992) Función y evolución del galeón en la carrera de Indias, Colección Mar y América 9, Madrid : Editorial MAPFRE, ISBN 84-7100-285-X
galleon in Bosnian: Galeon
galleon in Catalan: Galió
galleon in Danish: Galeon
galleon in German: Galeone
galleon in Spanish: Galeón
galleon in Estonian: Galeoon
galleon in Finnish: Kaljuuna
galleon in French: Galion
galleon in Croatian: Galijun
galleon in Hungarian: Galeon
galleon in Icelandic: Galíasi
galleon in Italian: Galeone
galleon in Japanese: ガレオン船
galleon in Dutch: Galjoen (schip)
galleon in Norwegian: Gallion
galleon in Polish: Galeon
galleon in Portuguese: Galeão
galleon in Romanian: Galion
galleon in Russian: Галеон
galleon in Serbo-Croatian: Galeon
galleon in Serbian: Галеон
galleon in Swedish: Galeon
galleon in Turkish: Kalyon
galleon in Ukrainian: Галеон
galleon in Chinese: 蓋倫帆船

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

bark, bawley, bilander, brig, brigantine, bully, buss, caravel, cat, catamaran, clipper, corsair, corvette, cutter, dandy, dhow, dromond, fishing smack, flattie, four-masted bark, four-master, frigate, galiot, galleass, hooker, hoy, ice yacht, junk, keelboat, ketch, knockabout, lateen, lateener, lorcha, lugger, nobby, ocean racer, outrigger, pilot boat, pinnace, piragua, pirogue, pram, pungy, racing yacht, rigger, sailing auxiliary, sailing canoe, sailing dinghy, sailing packet, sailing trawler, sampan, sandbagger, schooner, scooter, shallop, sharpie, shipentine, skipjack, sloop, smack, smack boat, snow, tartan, topsail schooner, trimaran, well smack, whaler, wool-clipper, xebec, yacht, yawl
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