For the majority of people who enjoy sailing today, it’s simply a fun past-time, a way to spend time with friends and family out in nature of the water. And for those who aren’t afraid of large bodies of water—as a great many people in fact are—it’s probably one of the most soothing activities to partake in. Of course, I’m a bit biased being a bit of a sailing nut myself. Despite the great recreational joy sailing brings to so many people, for most of human history sailing has been a fundamental part of survival: it was necessary for trade, food acquisition, and security.
A few months back I wrote a post about two of the world great sailing cultures: the Polynesians and the Vikings. For them sailing was part of their every day life and vital to their survival. I think it’s probably safe to assume that many of them enjoyed sailing, but it wasn’t a recreational activity to them, but the cornerstone of their respective civilisations. They were far from the only seafaring cultures the world has produced however. Another two, both this time from Europe, worth considering are the Portuguese and the Italians.
For most of history it’s been impossible to talk about the Italians as a singular culture. After the country of Italy was created its founder said ‘We’ve created Italy, now we must create Italians.’ For most of the region’s post-Roman history it was dominated by powerful and often feuding city states. Two of the most powerful cities to emerge were Venice, on the Adriatic Sea, and Genoa, in the Western Mediterranean. What made these two cities great was their respective trading empires. Venice had holding in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean and somewhat counterintuitively Genoa maintained holdings as far away as the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea.
Both cities had admirable navies that were unmatched in the Mediterranean until the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the Battle of Lepanto. Venice’s ability to mass produce the galleys that were the preeminent vessel of the mediaeval Mediterranean was one of its strengths and with scattered holdings across the sea Genoa was able to assert power that was far greater than the average city-state at that time.
The dominance of both these cities began to ebb—in part due to the Ottomans—but also the trade routes changed once the Portuguese and Spanish began sailing to the Americas and the Orient by rounding southern Africa.
Prince Henry the Navigator was one of the most important members of the Portuguese royal family despite not being a ruler. His role as a patron of sailors however and founder of organisations to support and help sailors was one of the most crucial roles in Portuguese history that lead to the country’s dominance on the seas, which we’ll look at more closely next time!