Found the original article I wrote, Published a decade ago (Wow! really?… time flies!) in October of 2008, so I’ll republish this here now for you…
The year is 1524. I’m in the Spanish territories of the new world, specifically the newly founded city of Granada in what is present day Nicaragua. As the quartermaster for Hernandez De Cordoba I can order and purchase arquebus, you know, one of those splendid matchlock firearms that simply terrify the natives. Each arquebus costs about 60 pesos or 3 Gold Doubloons and 4 pesos (16-1 exchange rate Silver Pesos-Gold Doubloons with 8 silver reales making up a peso, the reales are what are known as pieces of eight, but I digress here) , I place an order for twice as many as Senor De Cordoba thinks we need, but what I really want is at least one 12 or 24 lb Bronze or Brass cannon.
Not counting shipping and portage, how much does one Bronze Cannon cost?
In a time when it takes me thirty minutes or less to find the answer to a question I have, for three days I have been using the best of my Google Fu to learn an answer to this question, to no avail… The best I was able to do is rough extrapolation based on the prices of firearms and cannons sold during the Spanish Armada of 1588, and the American War of Independence in 1776.
In 1588 I can get a 24lb bronze cannon made for 156 pounds in the Crowns money
Reference: Cannons during the Spanish Armada;
and I can get a musket in 1776 for about 3 pounds 2 pence.
Reference: Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylavania in the Council of Safety, 15 October, 1776
” An order was drawn on Mr. Nesbett in fav’r of Adam Drinkhouse, for 7 Muskets, 21 pounds 10 pence, Delivered to Col. Halley at Flying Camp, to be charged to the Col.”
Why was the base called Flying Camp in 1776?, and what is Flying Camp a reference to anyway?
Back to the Spanish Cannon. So the cannon-to-musket price ratio is at least 53-1, but is most likely a bit less since cannons were more expensive to make in 1588 as by 1776 the tools and craft of firearms making had greatly improved resulting in some significantly decreased casting costs, so 50-1 seems like a good ration, and that would make the Bronze Cannon of 1524 cost around:
162 Doubloons and 4 pesos
While this is not necessary accurate, at least its a start. Would anyone happen to have more accurate information on the cost of purchasing a Spanish cannon in the 14th century?
I did learn a few interesting tidbits such as:
Regular wages for troops was almost nonexistent in the 14th Century, most of the time, the troops were paid by taking a share of the loot obtained during battle. I’m sure this led to some interesting campaigns.
One of Christopher Columbus’ ships, the Vizcaina has been located…
The Continental Congress, in 1775 issued Letters of Marque to any privately owned armed vessel. During the course of the war more than 1,700 vessels were chartered as Privateers, and they accounted for the capture or sinking of over 4,200 British ships that carried war supplies or supported the Crowns efforts in the colonies. English vessels that carried no war supplies, and were not escorted by the Crowns warships were not counted, in fact, the seized ships and goods were returned to their original owners if it was discovered that the ship carried trade goods only. This was determined in an International Maritime Court, which was not necessarily strict in its interpretation of what constituted Aiding the Crown in it’s war effort. I’m sure this led to some interesting nautical engagements, and no small amount of politics.
The average American sailor had it tough. During the course of the war there was roughly a 50/50 chance of being killed, injured or captured. If captured, the crew usually had an option to swear loyalty to the Crown and were then impressed to serve as a sailor in the English Navy, for next to no pay, with the hazards of being hunted by fellow privateers to look forward to. I’m certain this also led to some interesting naval engagements as well. Those that refused this new service were transferred to England or prison ships located in New York, and off New Foundland. Here the chances of succumbing to illness, disease or starvation rose considerably more even, although in the latter half of the war many of these sailors received opportunities to be repatriated in prisoner exchanges.
To give you some idea of the success incurred by the privateer fleets of the new world during the War of American Independence, up until the battle of Yorktown all of the Continental ground forces combined had succeeded in capturing 15,000 or so English troops… during the same time frame, the Privateers fleets took more than 16,000 prisoners in naval engagements.
If being a continental sailor was a risky affair, the rewards for success were commensurate, while the average pay for a soldier in the continental army was $9 a month, sailors on successful voyages that brought in a prizes earned significantly more, sometimes more than 100x times that. There are reports of sailors earning more than $1,000 a month for a routine privateer voyage.
While the Continental army languished for a lack of funds and available manpower to fight the war, this branch of service (The Privateers) grew at nearly an exponential rate until 1781. It was only curtailed in its growth by the fact that the British Crown curtailed shipping war supplies to the colonies after Yorktown. Another words, fewer targets were available as the English merchants no longer supported the war on the colonies. In summary, after the war, many American industries, businesses, and educational institutions were founded or supported by American sailors, and the profits of the Privateers…. Yarr.. Mateys!!!
Some cool links if you need to do your own research:
Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War
Pilgrim Hall Museum “Some Seventeenth Century Vessels and the Sparrowhawk”
Incredible Story of the Alliance, the only American Continental Frigate in the first commissioned fleet to survive the entire duration of the War. Launched in 1778. Preyed on English shipping in Europe, and sailed in Jone Paul Jone’s Squadron for a time…
Not related, but still interesting.. the Atocha Treasure Company, just one ship, sailing with the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet… The treasure was worth more than four hundred million dollars US!!!