Skip to main content

History of

By 28 de January, 2024April 29th, 2024No Comments

The history of wooden shipbuilding: defending centuries-old knowledge

In the history of shipbuilding in Portugal, particularly wooden shipbuilding, Vila do Conde plays a fundamental role. From its shipyards came part of the maritime expansion fleet of the 15th and 16th centuries. The mission of CdAN – Centro de Artes Náuticas (Center for Nautical Arts) is to defend the invaluable knowledge accumulated over the centuries and pass it on to the future.

It’s no coincidence that the replica of the Nau Quinhentista (16th century ship) is anchored in the River Ave, next to the Customs Quay: this is where the shipyards that made Vila do Conde one of the largest shipbuilders in the kingdom during the Age of Discovery were located. And if, after half a millennium, it has been possible to replicate a ship, it is because know-how is still part of the DNA of this land.

Such a strong shipbuilding industry didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It is presumed that the first shipyards were created in the municipality in the 11th and 12th centuries. Going further back in time, we have the first written record mentioning the existence of salt pans and fishing grounds in Vila do Conde from the year 935 – although boat building is not mentioned, it is unreasonable to imagine sea activities without it.

In the 13th century, construction and port dynamics increased. However, it was from the 15th century onwards and especially in the 16th century that the construction of wooden boats in Vila do Conde grew exponentially. There are considerable records of their participation in the country’s maritime expansion and consequent commercial activity at the Documentation Center for 16th Century Maritime Ports (CEDOPORMAR), which is integrated in the Alfândega Régia (Royal Customs House) – Shipbuilding Museum, one of the CdAN’s centers.

Boom of the wooden shipbuilding industry in the 16th century

In 1568, almost 60% of the population of Vila do Conde was involved in maritime transportation and trade, shipbuilding and associated industries such as sailmaking and rope-making. About the intense work in the shipyards, see this passage from the doctoral thesis “Vila do Conde – Um porto nortenho na expansão ultramarina quinhentista” (A northern port in the 16th century overseas expansion), by researcher Amélia Polónia:

“The early importance of the group of caulkers and carpenters from the Vila do Conde stream is immediately suggested by the granting of letters of privilege dating from the end of the 15th century, which, after all, embody the royal recognition of the projection of these men, not only in the local context, but throughout the kingdom.”

Most of the ships for North Africa and America left from these shipyards. In terms of trade links, the local warehouse and fleet were decisive in the routes passing through the islands (Madeira, the Azores and the Canaries), S. Tomé and the coast of Africa, and in the connection to Flanders.

This importance diminished significantly at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century. With the increase in voyages to the East, the royal authorities decided to increase the size of the ships, which prevented them from being built in Vila do Conde. However, it did not dispense with the mastery of its carpenters and caulkers, who were requisitioned to work in Lisbon and Porto, which greatly reduced the production capacity of the local shipyards.

Local shipbuilding continued at a less intense pace. In the 20th century, activity was regular, with the exception of the Second World War – at this time, it is estimated that more than a thousand boats were built in Vila do Conde, most of them fishing boats.

A past with a future

The Portuguese ships that transformed the idea of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries were the result of a combination of Mediterranean and Nordic construction techniques.

It was in the 16th century that the scratch-building process began to be used, whereby a full-scale geometric plan of the various parts of a boat’s structure was drawn up. This more scientific method increased production capacity, giving the Portuguese shipbuilding industry a competitive edge. It became so important that it was only passed on to trusted people who were responsible for designing the boat. It was a closely guarded secret, but it has come down to the present day.

In the “Livro da Fábrica das Naus”, a manuscript by Father Fernando Oliveira (16th century), an early form of “sala do Risco” (where the wood peaces were drawned to be cutted) is perceived. The fact that this work was only published for the first time in 1898 shows that important technical knowledge was passed down from generation to generation by master builders and adopted empirically.

Today, Vila do Conde’s shipyards are located on the left bank of the River Ave, in Azurara. They are the largest in Portugal dedicated to the construction and repair of wooden boats and one of the largest in Europe. Here you can witness the use of centuries-old materials and techniques in the construction of fishing boats and replicas of ancient vessels.

The municipality is therefore the guardian of the history of wooden shipbuilding. Preserving it means training new generations, ensuring that inherited know-how is not lost and conveying the value of this art in the city to those who visit Vila do Conde. This is what the CdAN’s mission is all about.

More than “freezing” memories, the Nautical Arts Center exists to stimulate their active experience, and in new ways (re)affirm a strong identity that deserves to have a future.