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Life aboard a galleon

This cutaway illustration shows the inside of a galleon and the various decks. The ship, moored in a port on the Caribbean coast...Read More >>This cutaway illustration shows the inside of a galleon and the various decks. The ship, moored in a port on the Caribbean coast of South America, is taking on supplies—as well as its precious cargo of silver ingots and other treasure—before setting sail for Spain. How many men would set sail on a Spanish galleon in the 1500s? On board would be the sailing crew and their commanders, numbering about 80, and soldiers with their officers, about 120. With so many people (and animals, kept for fresh meat, milk and eggs) crowded together in a small space, conditions on board a galleon could become extremely unpleasant—noisy, filthy and smelly. It was important that the crew cleaned the ship thoroughly, including pumping the dirty water out of the bilges, on a daily basis.



Commander, officers, sailing crew and soldiers aboard the galleon

Commanders and officers

In overall command was the capitán (captain). He was a soldier rather than a sailor; the commander of the ship’s sailing crew was the maestre (master). He was responsible for sailing the galleon, for keeping it seaworthy and for ensuring it had adequate supplies. The maestre was assisted by a number of officers, including the piloto (pilot), responsible for navigation, the contramaestre (boatswain, or bosun), who looked after the rigging and ensured the ship runs smoothly, the despensero (chief steward), in charge of food and drink, and the codestable (master gunner) who supervised the the ship’s guns.
There were also officers who played no part in the running of the ship, including a chaplain, a surgeon and government officials who oversaw the cargo. The soldiers had their own chain of command. They were infantrymen whose purpose was to defend the ship from attackers.

Unlike other officers, who were appointed for a single voyage, the master of a galleon remained with his ship for the duration of its active service.

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