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Ferrebeekeeper has had the same group of topics for a long time, so it is time to experiment with some new ones.  Today’s topic—ancient ships—is not entirely new on this blog.  We have already written about various galleys and longships (including a Greek trireme, an ancient Egyptian reconstruction, and a Viking longboat), however today we concentrate on the greatest warship of the Byzantine navy, the mighty dromon.   The dromon was the mainstay of the Byzantine navy for seven centuries from the 5th century AD to the 12th century AD.  The galley was based on the ancient Roman liburnian, a sort of small galley used for patrols and raids by the Roman navy. Dromons were different from liburnians in that they abandoned underwater rams (which were in declining use in the Empire) for an above-the-water spur.  Additionally dromons featured a full deck, and they were rigged with lateen (triangular) sails by the age of Justinian.

A Lateen-rigged Monoreme Dromon

A Lateen-rigged Monoreme Dromon

The principal feature of the dromon, as with other ancient Mediterranean warships, were the banks of oars which propelled the ship in battle.  Earlier dromons of the sixth century were single-banked (“monoreme”) ships with 25 oars per side, however by the ninth century it seems that dromons were being built with 2 banks of oars divided by a deck.  The top bank held 25 rowers per side and the bottom could have had up to 35 which meant the ships were crewed b 120 rowing men.

An Amazing Model of a large late dromon

An Amazing Model of a large late dromon

Dromons were fearsomely outfitted with weapons.  In addition to their sharpened spike (which was used to sheer off the oars of rival boats) they had great companies of marines—armored soldiers who boarded enemy vessels to fight their crews by hand.  A grand spout on the prow was used to spray Greek fire, a sticky napalm-like flaming liquid which was extremely hard to douse (the exact nature of which has been lost to history).  Large dromons had wooden castles at fore and aft from which marksmen could fire bows, crossbows, or scorpions.

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Dromons were the principal craft which the Byzantines used in their many wars against barbarian invaders like the Vandals and the Rus and then against successive Muslim dynasties hellbent on taking the empire.  These naval battles must have been horrifying and grand to watch.  Greek fire gave the Byzantines some advantage (although it was treacherous stuff) but eventually the ships would become entangled.  The marines would snatch up their shields from where they hung along the sides of the dromon and together with all the oarsmen (who were not slaves but fighters) would participate in brutal pitched battles.

Dromon Model

Dromon Model

The largest body of fresh water in China is Lake Poyang in Jianxi Province.  The size of the lake fluctuates tremendously between the wet season when the lake’s surface area is 4400 square kilometers and the dry season when it shrinks down to 1000 square kilometers.  So every year Lake Poyang shrinks from being the size of Utah’s Great Salk Lake into being the size of Lake Champlain.  Lake Poyang is the southern wintering ground of a huge number of migratory birds.  It is also the site of what was reputedly the world’s largest naval battle.   The north side of the lake is treacherous to navigate and it is said that more than 100 ships have vanished there in the past hundred years.   There is a temple on the northern shore of the lake named Laoye Miao (temple of the Old Fellow) and locals call the waters near the temple the “death area” and the “demon horns” because so many ships are lost in that area.

Laoye Miao Temple

Lake Poyang did not always exist.  In 400 AD it was an inhabited plain along the Gan River, however when the Yangtze River switched courses the entire plain flooded.  Located halfway along the Yangtze, the lake has great strategic importance.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Yuan dynasty had lost control of China.  Various groups of rebels fought each other to seize the throne of heaven.  By summer of 1363 AD there were two main contenders for control of China, Zhu Yuanzhang, the charismatic but ugly leader of the red turbans, and Chen Youliang, the king of Duhan which controlled the most powerful fleet on the Yantze.  The former had a smaller force of maneuverable ships while the latter had greater numbers of men (Chen’s navy was believed to have had more than 600,000 men) and a large number of huge tower boats—literal floating fortresses.    The total number of combatants on the lake is reckoned to have numbered  over 850,000 men.

Artist’s Conception of the Battle of Lake Poyang

Unfortunately for Chen Youliang, the battle started as the lake began to dry out.  To prevent the dauntless troops of Zhu Yuanzhang from scaling the tower boats with hooks and ladders, Chen ordered his boats to hold close formation, but this turned out to be ruinous since Zhu launched fire boats into the consolidated line.   Hundreds of thousands of sailors died in the horrible fiery battle, and Zhu Yuangzhang went on to found the Ming dynasty, one of China’s greatest dynasties.

Over the centuries, the lake itself kept claiming ships at an astonishing rate.  Some of the stories are quite colorful. In 1945 a Japanese ship loaded with plundered treasure sank almost instantly, drowning all 200 sailors and a large treasure.  A team of Japanese divers attempted to salvage the wreck but all the divers drowned except for the expedition leader who went permanently insane. After the war, several members of an American team also drowned.   On just one day, August 3rd, 1985, thirteen ships foundered or sank.

Some people have tried to ascertain what makes the lake so treacherous.  Some experts believe that a huge sunken sandbank tends to cause whirlpools and unexpected currents.  Local legend is more inventive.  According to myth, an immense capricious turtle lives beneath the lake.  Although the turtle often sinks ships, he can also be benevolent.  The story of how the Laoye Miao temple came to be built is that the turtle intervened in the great naval battle of 1368 by directly rescuing Zhu Yuangzhang.  When Zhu took the title of Hongwu emperor he returned and built the temple to the ancient turtle.

Lake Poyang is drying out.

Although boats are still vanishing today, it is a less bigger problem than the vanishing of the lake itself.  The migratory birds are relentlessly poached and the river fish are going extinct from overfishing and industrial waste.  A more direct threat comes from the great three gorges dam upstream on the Yangtze.  Because of the immense dam the lake appears to be drying out, and in January of 2012 it only had a surface area of 200 square kilometers.   If the situation continues, the enigmatic and treacherous lake may go back to being a dry plain like it was in 400 AD.

Lake Poyang

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