Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ships: The Workhorse Of The 19th Century

Even lubbers have heard the term "brig" in reference to a type of ship. The word gets thrown around in ersatz nautical speech just like it was a given that we all know what we're talking about. The question at that point becomes, do we?

Originally known as a brigantine, the two masted sailing ship we know today was originally used by Mediterranean corsairs. She was, in that early incarnation, lateen rigged on both masts, with only one cross tree each. Her serviceability, shallow draft and speed made her perfect for the work of pirating. But what was attractive to freebooters was also attractive to the burgeoning merchant mariners of the time. Soon enough European shipbuilders began turning out their own forms of the weatherly ships. By 1800, there were four kinds of brig sailing the waters of the world, from coastal routes to blue water.

The foremost type of brig, shown at the header of this blog, is the brigantine proper. She is ship or square rigged on her foremast with her main carrying a fore-and-aft mainsail and square topsails. This rigging makes her not only fast but agile and her shallow draft, between 7 and 11 feet, allows her to maneuver in inlets and rivers that large frigates would have no chance of sailing into. By the early 1700s her type was the first choice of pirates in waters surrounding the Americas, Europe, Africa and in the Indian Ocean. By the mid-1700s, the merchant marine had joined the pirates and larger brigs were hauling goods in most of the areas mentioned.

Another type of brig, used predominantly in Europe, was the snow. Shown at the header of this post she was brig rigged with the exception of a four-sided staysail right aft on her main. The snow was heavier and more fat-bottomed than the brig proper. This sacrifice of speed for cargo area made her impractical for pirates and privateers. She was a merchant ship all the way.

The third evolution of this type of vessel was the hermaphrodite rigged brig or simply the hermaphrodite brig. These ships, developed late in the 1700s, were not uncommon around the world but were best suited to relatively sheltered sailing where winds could come from any direction with unpredictable results. The hermaphrodite did well in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean but she thrived in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. A hermaphrodite was simply a shallow draft brig, square rigged on her foremast and fore-and-aft rigged on her main. She was surprisingly fast in all weathers and could sail closer to the wind than any square-rigged vessel regardless of size. No wonder the privateers of the early 19th century loved her.

A purely Mediterranean version of the brig was originally known as a polacre and came to be known as a polacca in some countries. She shipped pole masts - not the stepped variety seen on almost all sailing ships that allow for tops and crosstrees. Setting or reefing her single square sails must have been quite a challenge.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars the brig in all her incarnations was in almost universal service. Many navies used her for training, while the British and in particular the Americans put her to work hunting pirates, thus fighting fire with fire. And the brig continued to thrive, used for various duties until as late as the first decade of the 20th century.

Surprisingly versatile and capable of almost anything if maintained and handled correctly, the humble brig was the unquestionable workhorse of the 19th century. If your family emigrated from somewhere in Europe, in fact, you may very well have a brig to thank for their safe journey. And that is something far more amazing than one simple word could ever encompass.


Cristina said...

Ahoy, capt'n!
We are big fans of your blog and we happen to be in yer coasts for the big robotic conference in Egan these days.

If you have some time to spare tomorrow night, we'll be glad to invite you to a round of grog -or Alaskan beer, whatever comes first- for all the fun yer writings have brought us :)

We'are lodged at the Hilton at the moment; drop us a line here if you want to join us tomorrow after the conference and we'll set something.



Pauline said...

Ahoy, Cristina! So good to hear from you. I'm hoping your enjoying the scenic port of Anchorage (the weather is perfect for your stay!) and would love to meet you.

Email me at and let me know your logistics.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another interesting and informative post, Pirate Queen. Sounds like you have fans to meet tomorrow... That should be fun!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Brigs, particularly the Gulf variety, are my absolute favorite sailing ships in the world. Genetics, maybe, or good taste. Being French I suppose I shouls imagine it's both, ne c'est pas?

Timmy! said...

Oui, Mademoiselle...

Daggar said...
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Pauline said...
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