The Galleon of Ribadeo, the dormant colossus from the Age of Discovery that awakens…

By Beñat Eguiluz Miranda

Have you ever listened to water breaking through the hull of a galleon? Have you ever listened to the sails opening to a breeze of air? Have you ever felt the smell of an oaken futtock lain down in the dockyard? Have you ever heard the sound of trees moving through the water? These sensations have disappeared as if blown away by the wind, carried out to unknown lands. But yet, they were never gone. They are still with us, lying at the bottom of the ocean…

When one imagines the Ribadeo galleon sailing, this image might come to mind.

When one imagines the Ribadeo galleon sailing, this image might come to mind.

The ancient maritime culture unveils its secrets to the curious beings that want to gather again such beautiful wisdom, forgotten in the silence of the seas. Though, they can still speak to us and tell the truth kept by time, the secrets of a maritime past.

There is a wonderful example of such a secret, which is kept hidden in a very extraordinary land. Each shipwreck of the Iberian Coast had its narrative, but those of the Age of Discovery are frequently lost to memory. It is in Galicia where a dormant giant lies hidden, waiting to return to the light. It is the Galleon of Ribadeo that has been discovered, not such a long time ago.

After nearly five centuries, the accumulated knowledge of fishermen, divers, sailors, historians, and archaeologists, has pushed the matter of this shipwreck to the forefront of Iberian maritime culture. The Ribadeo galleon was constructed and sailed by an Atlantic-facing community and gathered the wisdom from Northern European and Mediterranean traditions into a fascinating mixture of technique and technology that would sail to the edges of the known world. These Atlantic seafarers such as the Portuguese, Galician, Cantabric, Asturian, Basque, and Andalusian people formed a wide and connected culture across different kingdoms, such as Spain and Portugal. The ocean enabled bonds to develop between peoples, surpassing borders and drawing cultures together, such as the Basque people of Southern France and others whose traditions linked to the Iberian, from Southern and Northern seas alike, to give birth to a common tradition, the Atlantic Iberian.

All of that knowledge lies on the bottom of the Eo estuary, as an evocative fragment of the past, in Ribadeo, north-eastern Galicia. For us, the archaeologists and historians, now is the time to recover these unique and long-forgotten remains and bring them back to life. Society has always been ready to connect to its past and cultural history.

What lies on the bottom of the estuary does not seem like an amazing ship at first glance. But it is only the diver who can see the different aspects of the shipwreck and so understand what the value of the galleon is. The Ribadeo shipwreck is thought to be a 16th century galleon from the time of King Phillip II of Spain. The current hypothesis is that this is the galleon Santiago, built at the same time as its twin galleon San Felipe. These galleons had a similar shipbuilding design and were sent as part of the same fleet.

It was in 1596 that the galleon Santiago went to Ireland as part of the fleet called La flota del Socorro de Irlanda or “The fleet for the military support of Ireland”. Both on the way to Ireland and back home, the Spanish fleet suffered from storms, and its vessels were damaged. Because of this damage, the Santiago, with two other urcas (a type of cargo ship) that were carrying thousands of soldiers, had to anchor and land in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1597 the Santiago was wrecked at a shallow depth and its crew were assisted by the villagers of Ribadeo. No one died in the wreck, and all soldiers and sailors were sheltered in the village. Although the incident had a fortunate ending, there was not enough food in such a small village for so many soldiers from the three ships. For this reason the mayor of Ribadeo ordered grain to be brought from the surrounding villages to be ground and baked for these exhausted and ill soldiers and sailors. This new information was found recently in the local archives by historian and ForSEAdiscovery fellow José-Luis Gasch-Tomás.

The Santiago was 32m long on its lowest deck and might have been much longer along the upper works of the vessel. Considering the size of the Ribadeo galleon’s futtocks, it was also a large ship for those times, a colossus that was not commonly seen in 16th century Spain, so large that when the ship wrecked, most of its structure remained above the waterline. But sadly nothing can remain forever, and these upper structures of the galleon were worn away by the waves and currents in the Eo estuary.

Archaeologist Miguel San Claudio documenting the wreck. Photo by the author.

Archaeologist Miguel San Claudio documenting the wreck. Photo by the author.

Unlike most shipwrecks, the Ribadeo galleon still maintains its original shape in the lowest part of the hull, unscattered, and the lower sides have not fallen away as is most common. As nautical archaeologist Miguel San Claudio and diver Fernando Carrillo said on diving on the wreck for the first time, “We saw a 2 meter high structure lying down on the bottom of the river”. It is an extraordinary preservation that kept the hull in the original shape, although the upper structures on the sides of the ship collapsed to the outside and the decks of the ship collapsed under their own weight

The first time I dived on the wreck you could feel the size of such a vessel, as you could not see it in one piece from the bow to the stern. A single futtock on the Ribadeo galleon is as big as the keel of many ships from the 16th century, a very unusual feature for a warship from that time. Its beams are very wide, and the deck planking is thick as well. The outside planking on the ship is so broad that it makes the vessel spectacular to see and very enjoyable to dive on.

Archaeologist examining the outer hull planking of the Ribadeo galleon. Note the width. Photo by Miguel San Claudio.

Archaeologist examining the outer hull planking of the Ribadeo galleon. Note the width. Photo by Miguel San Claudio.

From the shipbuilding perspective the value of the wreck is obvious, but from the dendrochronological point of view, the site has much potential as well. There is a great amount of preserved wood that could provide more information on the origin of the ship, timbers, forests and tree species that formed its structure.

If the galleon of Ribadeo could be restored, this is how I would imagine it. Rigging is not fully represented. Inspired by the first image in the article: La sala de las Batallas, Palacio del Escorial. Drawing by the author.

If the galleon of Ribadeo could be restored, this is how I would imagine it. Rigging is not fully represented. Inspired by the first image in the article: La sala de las Batallas, Palacio del Escorial. Drawing by the author.

For members of the ForSEAdiscovery project, the campaign in Galicia in June 2015 has brought about many ideas that still need further research. Hopefully one day we will be able to retrieve from this shipwreck a culture that has been sealed by centuries. Memories of explorers might come back through our work and shed light on a wonderful piece of material culture that has remained only in the mists of the ocean: a galleon sealed by time, forgotten until the present…

Beñat Eguiluz Miranda is a nautical archaeologist and doctoral fellow (ESR5) with ForSEAdiscovery, based at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. His research topic is titled Atlantic shipbuilding and the Iberian Bizcayan transition, 1560-1650. He is a member of the Society of Researchers for Underwater Archeology in Spain (SIAS). He is also an active member of Albaola Itsas Kultur Faktoria, a Basque society for the maritime past.

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