“Olandus Caravellam & Casasaedificare Curat,” Americae Pars Qvarta, 1590, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E141.B9 oversize rare.


In the 1440s, a caravel style ship could be found in the Atlantic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. These small-to-medium sized ships were used as cargo carriers, warships, patrol or dispatch boats, and pirate ships. The earliest evidence of the caravel was on the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century. They were used mostly as fishing vessels.

Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal started exploring the West African coastline using his home in Sagres as a navigational center. The Portuguese discovered that the standard medieval merchantman could not sail effectively through the winds and currents along the coast. So, Prince Henry and his builders started to adapt the caravel for long-distance exploration and trade. The ships were designed and built at the port of Lagos, Portugal.

Portuguese shipwrights built two- or three-masted ships without a forecastle and a low aft castle. The hull design had a rounded bottom with room for lots of cargo that would be useful for carrying goods for trade. While sailing around the coast, the ship would be rigged with a lateen sail for the ease of tacking. Captains, such as Christopher Columbus, would convert the sails to square for open water and to add speed.

The ships weighed from 50 to 200 tons and were cheap to rig, cheap to man, and carried much cargo. The caravel was favored for its speed and maneuverability especially along the inlets and streams in Africa and the newly discovered Americas.