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A carrack was a three- or four-masted sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Genoese for use in commerce. They were widely used by Europe's 15th-century maritime powers, from the Mediterranean to northwest Europe, although each region had models of slightly different design. The Portuguese and the Spanish used them for oceanic travel and to explore the world.
With linguistic variation, these ships were called: caracca or nao in the Genoese dialect and in Castillian Spanish; nau in Portuguese; caraque or nef in French. The name ‘carrack’ probably derives from the Arab Harraqa, a type of ship that first appeared along the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers roughly during the 9th century.
Carracks were ocean-going ships: large enough to be stable in heavy seas, and roomy enough to carry provisions for long voyages. They were usually square-rigged on the foremast and mainmast and lateen-rigged on the mizzenmast. They had a high rounded stern with large aftcastle, forecastle and bowsprit at the stem. As the forerunner of the great ships of the age of sail, the carrack was one of the most influential ship designs in history; while ships became more specialized, the basic design remained unchanged throughout this time period.
By the Late Middle Ages the cog, and cog-like square-rigged vessels equipped with a rudder at the stern, were widely used along the coasts of Europe, in the Baltic, and also in the Mediterranean. Given the conditions of the Mediterranean, but not exclusively restricted to it, galley type vessels were extensively used there, as were various two masted vessels, including the caravels with their lateen sails. These and similar ship types were familiar to Portuguese navigators and shipwrights. As the Portuguese gradually extended their explorations and trade ever further south along Africa's Atlantic coast during the 15th century they needed a larger and more advanced ship for their long oceanic adventures. Gradually, they developed their own models of oceanic carracks, generalizing their use in the end of the century for inter-oceanic travel. In addition to the average tonnage naus, were also built some large naus (carracks) in the reign of John II of Portugal, but being only widespread after the turn of the century. The Portuguese carracks were usually very large ships for their time (often over 1000 tons), and having the future large naus of the India run and of the China and Japan trade, also other new types of design.
The origin of the word carrack is usually traced back through the medieval European languages to the Arabic, and from thence to the Greek κέρκουρος (kerkouros) meaning approximately "lighter (barge)" (literally, "shorn tail", a possible reference to the ship's flat stern). Its attestation in Greek literature is distributed in two closely related lobes. The first distribution lobe, or area, associates it with certain light and fast merchantmen found near Cyprus and Corfu. The second is an extensive attestation in the Oxyrhynchus corpus, where it seems most frequently to describe the Nile barges of the Ptolemaic pharaohs. Both of these usages may lead back through the Phoenician to the Akkadian kalakku, which denotes a type of river barge. The Akkadian term is assumed to be derived from a Sumerian antecedent. Sumerian antecedent A modern reflex of the word is found in Arabic and Turkish kelek "raft; riverboat". from a fusion and modification of aspects of the ship types they knew operating in both the Atlantic and Mediterranean and a new, more advanced form of sail rigging that allowed much improved sailing characteristics in the heavy winds and waves of the Atlantic ocean.
A typical three-masted carrack such as the São Gabriel had six sails: bowsprit, foresail, mizzen, spritsail, and two topsails.
Carracks in Asia
From around 1515, Portugal had trade exchanges with Goa in Portuguese India, consisting of 3 to 4 carracks leaving Lisbon with silver to purchase cotton and spices in India. Out of these, only one carrack went on to Ming China in order to purchase silk, also in exchange for Portuguese silver.
From the time of the acquisition of Macau in 1557, and their formal recognition as trade partners by the Chinese, the Portuguese Crown started to regulate trade to Japan, by selling to the highest bidder the annual "Captaincy" to Japan, in effect conferring exclusive trading rights for a single carrack bound for Japan every year. That trade continued with few interruptions until 1638, when it was prohibited on the grounds that the ships were smuggling priests into Japan.
In the middle of the 16th century the first galleons were developed from the carrack. The galleon design came to replace that of the carrack although carracks were still in use as late as the early 17th century.
- Santa María, in which Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to America in 1492.
- São Gabriel, flagship of Vasco da Gama, in the 1497 Portuguese expedition from Europe to India by circumnavigating Africa.
- Flor do Mar or Frol de la Mar, as it was called, served over nine years in the Indian Ocean, sinking in 1512 with Afonso de Albuquerque after the conquest of Malacca with a huge booty, making it one of the mythical lost treasures.
- Victoria, the first ship in history to circumnavigate the globe (1519 to 1522), and the only survivor of the Spanish expedition.
- La Dauphine, Verrazzano's ship to explore the Atlantic coast of North America in 1524.
- Grande Hermine, in which Jacques Cartier first navigated the Saint Lawrence River in 1535. The first European ship to sail on this river past the Gulf.
- Santo António, or St. Anthony, the personal property of King John III of Portugal, wrecked off Gunwalloe Bay in 1527, the salvage of whose cargo almost led to a war between England and Portugal.
- Great Michael, a Scottish ship, at one time the largest in Europe.
- Mary Rose, Henri Grâce à Dieu and Peter Pomegranate, built during the reign of Henry VIII — English military carracks like these were often called great ships.
- Grace Dieu, commissioned by Henry V. One of the largest ships in the world at the time, she was one of the very first ships to be armed with cannons.
- Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai, a war ship built in India by the Portuguese
- Santa Anna, a particularly modern design commissioned by the Knights Hospitaller in 1522 and sometimes hailed as the first armoured ship.
- Madre de Deus, which was seized by the Royal Navy off Flores Island. Built in Lisbon during 1589, she was the world`s largest ship. She was stolen by the English in 1592 with an enormously valuable cargo from the East Indies that is still considered as the second-largest treasure ever found. She was supposedly renamed and used as an English ship from thence onward.
- Santa Catarina, Portuguese carrack which was seized by the Dutch East India Company off Singapore in 1603.
- Nossa Senhora da Graça, Portuguese carrack sunk in a Japanese attack near Nagasaki in 1610
- Peter von Danzig, ship of the Hanseatic League in 1460s-1470s.
- Konstam, A. (2002). The History of Shipwrecks. New York: Lyons Press. pp. 77–79. ISBN 1-58574-620-7.
- Gong, Y (1990). "kalakku: Überlegungen zur Mannigfaltigkeit der Darstellungsweisen desselben Begriffs in der Keilschrift anhand des Beispiels kalakku". Journal of Ancient Civilizations 5: 9–24. ISSN 1004-9371.
- Kirsch, Peter (1990). The Galleon. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-546-2.
- Nair, V. Sankaran (2008). Kerala Coast: A Byway in History. (Carrack: Word Lore). Trivandrum: Folio. ISBN 978-81-906028-1-5.
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- The Development of the Square-Rigged Ship: from the carrack to the full-rigger
- Computer modeling of a Portuguese carrack