In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arsenals

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Origins of Early Modern Dockyards
  • Management and Administrative Organization
  • Changes in Military Naval Architecture
  • Supplying the Dockyard
  • Victualing of the Fleet

Atlantic History Arsenals
David Plouviez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0255


Dockyards were major instruments of the reach of European states’ navies over all the seas and oceans of the world. These national institutions, usually ports, were designed for building, maintaining, and repairing military fleets. Depending on the state, however, some of the warships were built and outfitted in private dockyards, following a contract between the navy and a businessman. The first arsenals were built in the Middle Ages, especially in Venice, which opened its dockyard in 1104 and then served as a model for all of Europe, while the Ottomans built their dockyard around 1390 at Gallipoli. New World discoveries with European overseas expansion from the 15th century and the need to protect the emerging colonial empires, as well as their trade with the home country, led to the widespread use of these facilities by all maritime powers from the late 16th century. The layout of these ports varied little from one dockyard to another. All had an enclosure to protect the fittings and gear needed for shipbuilding and equipping the vessels and the buildings and specific workshops: basins, dry docks, shops, cordage, forges, and foundries to manufacture cannons and anchors. The requirements for establishing a dockyard were common to all European countries, although generally, these criteria were far from being standardized. These facilities had to be located in good, large harbors that were sufficiently deep and protected to accommodate large vessels. In addition, their location should enable them to deploy their forces rapidly on the marine foreland while also benefiting from a rich and accessible hinterland. The dockyard, therefore, was a concentrated center of military activity and a point of convergence for streams of people and equipment, while also a base for deploying naval forces. In addition to the Mediterranean dockyards built mostly during the Middle Ages (Venice, Istanbul, Genoa, Naples, Barcelona, and Cartagena), other facilities were created on the Atlantic Arc (Brest, Lorient, and Rochefort in France; El Ferrol in Spain), the Channel (Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Chatham in England; Cherbourg in France), the North Sea (Antwerp and Amsterdam), and the Baltic (Karlskrona, Stockholm, and Kronstadt) between the 16th and 19th centuries. Moreover, the organization of European overseas empires led to the founding of dockyards outside Europe, such as Halifax, the English Harbor, and Bombay for England; and Havana, Veracruz, and Guayaquil for Spain. These overseas dockyards entail a considerable circulation of techniques and a certain transposition of European models into the colonies.

General Overviews

The history of dockyards is inseparable from that of the major European navies. However, despite the new lines of historiographical questioning prompted by the war at sea from the 1970s to the 1990s, synthetic works are rare—except for the masterly study Glete 1993 analyzing the development of European and American navies over the longue durée between the 16th and 19th centuries. Monographs on specific states are an essential complement, but not all European countries have received the same attention. At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, naval histories appeared in many countries, such as Clowes 1897 on the Royal Navy or Roncière 1899–1932 for the French navy. While these broad surveys are still synthetic works of quality, they remain essentially focused on recounting certain key events. For some navies, recent research has updated these older contributions by taking an interconnected and comparative approach. For example, after Rodger 1986—a history of the Royal Navy in the 18th century—the author then undertook to write a comprehensive synthesis beginning in the Middle Ages and ending in modern times (Rodger 1997, Rodger 2004). Other European navies have not yet been the subject of research on this scale; we must often content ourselves with more focused studies from a chronological point of view such as Bruijn 1993 for the Dutch navy, Navarro 1981 for Spain, and Acerra and Meyer 1987 for France.

  • Acerra, Martine, and Jean Meyer. La grande époque de la marine à voile. Rennes, France: Ouest France Université, 1987.

    A traditional academic study on the history of the French navy from the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century. A very relevant overview.

  • Bruijn, Jaap. The Dutch Navy of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

    An excellent and thorough analysis of the Dutch navy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Unequalled to date.

  • Clowes, Laird. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present. London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1897.

    Before the work of N. A. M. Rodger, this volume was the only synthesis on the history of the British navy. An interesting example of these great historical works of antiquarians at the end of the 19th century. Although this study is important for understanding historians’ concerns at the time, its conclusions are largely outdated. (Also available from London: Chatham, 1996–1997.)

  • Glete, Jan. Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500–1860. Stockholm: Almqvist, 1993.

    A synthesis of the history of European and American navies from the beginning of the Early Modern period to the Second Industrial Revolution. This study is well grounded, with a very complete critical apparatus and a significant quantity of statistical data.

  • Navarro, José P. Merino. La Armada española en el siglo XVIII. Madrid: Fundacio Universitaria Española, 1981.

    Classic study on the history of the Spanish navy from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century. The author focuses above all on the administration and organization of the Spanish navy. Nonetheless, this work serves as a solid introduction to the subject for other aspects (shipbuilding, supplying).

  • Rodger, Nicholas Andrew Martin. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 1986.

    An important work on the history of the British navy in the 18th century, which the author treats in a general way while also raising highly relevant questions.

  • Rodger, Nicolas Andrew Martin. A Naval History of Britain. I: The Safeguard of the Sea, 660–1649. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

    This is the first major synthesis of maritime England history to the medieval period and the beginning of the modern age. A book that has no equivalent.

  • Rodger, Nicolas Andrew Martin. A Naval History of Britain. II: Command of the Ocean, 1649–1815. London: Allen Lan–Penguin, 2004.

    These two volumes constitute an unequalled treatise, not only for the history of the Royal Navy, but also for all other contemporary navies. The standard work on the subject.

  • Roncière, Charles de la. Histoire de la marine française. 6 vols. Paris: Plon, 1899–1932.

    Similar to the work by Laird, Charles de la Roncière retraces the history of the French navy in six very dense volumes, which remain important from a historiographical point of view.

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