Age of Sail
As larger sailing vessels exceeding 100 tons displacement began to appear, powered by increasingly sophisticated sails, vessels were able to make longer voyages and withstand the harsh weather of the open ocean in order to begin exploring areas further and further away from their homes in Europe. These larger vessels were also able to carry more weapons and with the addition of the cannon, ships became more dangerous than ever, both against targets at sea and targets on land.
Although the voyages of discovery made during this period were primarily mercantile in nature, the protection of sea lanes allowing the profits of these voyages to return home quickly sparked an increase in battles at sea. Just ten years after Vasco da Gama opened trade with India in the 16th century, the Portuguese fleet crushed an enemy fleet to gain dominance over the Indian Ocean and ensure that goods could travel freely between Europe and India.
Seventy years later, in 1582, the first naval battle in the Atlantic took place as Spain and France fought over the Azores. Just six years after this victory for the Spanish navy, they sent an Armada against England, then ruled by Elizabeth I in one of the first naval engagements fought on a mass scale. Sir Francis Drake was able to scatter the Spanish fleet, which lost more than half of the 130 ships forming the armada. This marks the rise to dominance of the English Royal Navy, a position they would enjoy for nearly 300 years.
The 16th century also saw some of the largest naval engagements in Asia during the Middle Ages. Throughout much of the history of Asia the dreaded Wako pirates of Japan strangled trade between Japan, China and Korea. But the end of Japan’s long and bloody civil wars and the rise of the Shogun Hideyoshi saw Japan for the first time turn attention to foreign conquest. Hideyoshi built a large and formidable fleet, ridding the seas of Wako (at least temporarily) so that he could invade Korea. His ultimate aim was the conquest of China’s Ming Empire as well. This seven-year war between Japan and Korea shows the importance of a combined arms strategy in any foreign invasion overseas. The Japanese army dominated the Koreans on land but the Korean navy was generally superior to the Japanese fleet. By fighting a scorched earth strategy denying the occupying Japanese army access to Korean crops and preventing resupply over the sea, the Koreans eventually forced the Japanese to withdraw.