While reading Roger Crowley’s book, “City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas”, I stumbled across one of the greatest things that happens in a history book. A line that the author drops with obscene nonchalance, yet it contains another book or two worth of information in a few short words. In this case, it was a paragraph about an ongoing naval battle between Genoa and Venice, where the Genoans caught Venice’s admiral Nicolo Pisani in the harbor of Negroponte. Crowley writes, “chased back to Negroponte with an inferior force, [Pisani] scuttled his galleys in the harbor rather than risk a fight. Doria [the Genoan admiral] was forced to withdraw. Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on.”
“Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on”
Since a picture of Nicolo Pisani does not seem to exist on the internet, pretend this image of two random stereotypical Venetian masqueraders is actually an image of Pisani lifting the boats from the sea with his bare hands.
This battle happened in 1351, how in the dickens did the Venetians salvage scuttled boats from the harbor or Negroponte without some sort of exceptional technology that allowed them to pump air into a ship some ten or fifteen feet or more deep in the water? The assumption is that the water of the harbor would need to be at least ten feet deep to allow for merchant ships to sail in and out; though it is possible that the ships were not totally submerged, though the scuttling was designed to prevent damage to the ships and crew, and partially submerged ships are still vulnerable to fire and damage. In the modern era, raising a ship is a technological endeavor that uses cranes and pumps and hydraulics, so how then did a handful of merchant marines from a half millennium ago lift the ship out of the water?
This is a picture of Negropone’s harbor, just to give some context. Venice straight up Lazarus’d galleys and went on their merry way without even a footnote in history.
The answers to the questions about how the plucky Venetians figured out how to lift the ship remain elusive and apparently unresearched. As for the simple act of raising a ship or doing other versions of marine salvage, one of the earlier references of a salvage operation comes from Albrecht von Treileben’s salvage of the Vasa in Sweden. According to some sources, Treileben used diving bells to assist his divers while they meandered around in the ship 100 feet below the surface of Stockholm’s harbor. Simply peeling cannons out of the water took thirty years between 1630 and 1660, nearly three hundred years after Pisani’s actions. Not only was it three centuries later, the Vasa salvage was a monumental undertaking and required engineering minds from England and Germany to just get the expensive parts of the ship back (people were salvaging the cannons before the main body, which was only raised out of the water in 1961). Crowley’s Venetians seem to be otherwise unphased by the difficulty of the more modern undertaking of actually raising a ship.
For reference, this is what a scuttled ship looks like; somewhat like a sad fish bowl decoration.
The practice of marine salvage was quite normal, in fact, Samuel G. Margolin has an article in the “North Carolina Historical Review” that describes the legal ramifications in the late 1600s Carolinas if one went off “wrecking”, or pilfering the remnants of a shipwreck (technically the products still belonged to the merchant shipping company, so it was theft. Individuals who were caught wrecking were often branded with a letter T by their left thumb to mark them permanently as a thief). In one case, a man named “Captain Anthony Dawson” was hanged because he had apparently been attempting to disable the wrecked ship during the rescue operations to “imbezell purloyne and convey away” all her “sailes rigging apparell furniture and stores in his possession.” Perhaps more damning than his attempts to steal the sails and drapes was that Dawson was described as “having not the fear of God before his eyes and his alegiance to… the King not regarding.”
Actual information on the history of raising ships is much more difficult to find than the filching of stuff that was in a shipwreck. In a newspaper from 1945, buoyancy and air-tightness were discussed in a set of lectures by a speaker at the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association, where the primary method of lifting the ships is described as a pump that forces air into the underwater vessel, thereby displacing the water and eventually raising the ship. If the hole in the ship gapes too widely, divers need to be sent in first to repair the inside of the ship to a degree. Hydraulics and pumps allow the modern person to raise a boat, but earlier references to similar technology becomes much more sparse. Perhaps the earliest reference to a raising of a ship came a full two centuries after Pisani, when Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose capsized and sank right in front of him in 1545. At low tide, wires were passed beneath the ship and fastened to pontoons. When high tide arrived, the boat was lifted off the bottom of the seabed and could be towed to shallower water, at which point the process would be rinsed and repeated. The pontoon method failed and the Mary Rose remained underwater until 1982.
A visual of the Pontoon method from “Bells, Barrels and Bullion: Diving and Salvage in the Atlantic World, 1500 to 1800” by John E. Ratcliffe
The style used for the failed raising of the Mary Rose would likely have been as close to the technology that would have been available to the Venetians at the time, but the pontoon method requires several turns of the tide, and works very slowly. Based on that, it must be assumed that one of several things is at play in the story of Pisani refloating his ships and sailing on:
- Crowley made an assumption in his writing and simply passed over the information without worrying about the accuracy of the statement with regards to either the scuttling or the refloating of Pisani’s ships.
- Venice had access to pumps or some other technology that is not found on Google or JSTOR.org, and they were able to raise ships without struggle.
- Pisani’s ships were scuttled in shallow water parts of the harbor, making the repair easier and the subsequent bilge pumping possible.
- Pisani never actually scuttled his ships or refloated them. People in history tell self aggrandizing stories about their exploits with shocking regularity (here’s looking at you, Bernal Diaz del Castillo), it’s quite possible that Pisani never sank his ships but told people that he had and the source survived the last 600 years.
- Lastly, it is possible that I have neither access to, nor the understanding of maritime history and technology enough that I would be able to do justice to the question of raising a ship 600 years ago. The raising of the Mary Rose is theoretically the most important single thing to show that Pisani’s actions are possible, but it was the most difficult source to find.
In the end, the mysteries of the raising ships of Pisani have yet to be answered definitively or with ease. The act of raising a ship in the 1350s is nearly two hundred years earlier than the next most notable example, and even then the Mary Rose refloating was a failure. Pisani sank and floated a substantial number of galleys in a single season. In all likelihood, either a piece of vital information is missing or a piece of information was fabricated.
Crowley, Roger. “City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas”, (Randomhouse, 2011).
Margolin, Samuel G. “”Contrary to All Law and Justice”: The Unauthorized Salvage of Stranded and Sunken Vessels in the Greater Chesapeake, 1698-1750.” The North Carolina Historical Review 72, no. 1 (1995): 1-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23521868.
Critchley, Geo. R. “(2) HOW WRECKED AND SUNKEN SHIPS ARE SALVED.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 93, no. 4686 (1945): 164-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41361896.
Ratcliffe, John E. “Bells, Barrels and Bullion: Diving and Salvage in the Atlantic World, 1500 to 1800.” Nautical Research Journal 56, no. 1 (2011): 34-56. http://www.academia.edu/1522075/Bells_Barrels_and_Bullion_Diving_and_Salvage_in_the_Atlantic_World_1500_to_1800