An In-Depth Analysis of the Xebec

Steve Pope in Hornblower's Navy calles the xebec a museum piece by Nelson's time. This is far from true, considering that the Royal Navy had at that time tested with success the qualities of the xebec. The French too built seven ships based on the xebec design and these ships even fought successfully against British ships.

Xebec anatomy
The anatomy of a xebec.

Vital Statistics

Dimensions (meters): Length 25-35, Beam 7-10, Draught 1-2
Displacement (tons): 150-250
Crew: 200-450 (2/3 were soldiers)
Guns: 4-36 (varying calibre, 6-18lb) + 6 culvern or swivel guns

These are the parameters I have been able to collect concerning the xebec's dimensions, tonnage, crew, and guns. The wide ranges come from a large variety of sources, but one must remember that the xebec existed from the mid 1600's to the mid 1800's, was used as both a merchantman and a warship, and could easily vary in size according to need and function. It seems that the average xebec carried 24 guns, displaced 250 tons, and carried about 350 sailors and soldiers.

Merchant XebecAlgerian Xebec
Here we see the difference in size between a merchant xebec and a Corsair xebec in relation to gun carriage.

The xebec under sail was noted to be the fastest and most agile craft of the Mediterranean. However, the ship was not suited to heavy weather due to its low freeboard and shallow draugt. As well, if it were a Corsair vessel loaded with armed troops, its range would be limited due to the fact that the stores required for that many men would take up a large amount of space. Being lightly built and of typical Mediterranean matierals, the xebec was not a strong vessel. As Thomas Jefferson put it, Algerian xebecs were "so light as not to stand the broadside of a good frigate."

These were the physical disadvantages of the xebec. Added to this was the fact that the gunners on most Barbary (North African) xebecs were poorly trained and very inaccurate. Calibres were not standardized like in modern navies so this also added to the xebec's disadvantages.

What the xebec lost in weakness and poor crews, it made up for in speed and manoevreability. This ship type was famous for its speed and handling under sail. If the wind died, the xebec could also rely on a set of 10 to 20 oars. With that kind of movement and versatility, it was easy for a xebec to run circles around slower, heavily laden merchant ships. In a time of crisis, a xebec could easily escape naval warships too.

These qualities made the xebec attractive to North African Corsairs, noteably Algeria. However, the Knights of Malta, thier Christian opposites, did not seem to adapt the design, preferring galleys and eventually a modern Westernized navy. Nevertheless, many European states integrated the xebec into thier navies, notably France, Spain, and Britian. Britain built two xebec-based ships (Dart and Arrow) in 1797 and both vessels were particularly successful. France and Spain utilized the design to fight the Corsairs with their own weapon. It is undoubtable that Portugal, Russia, the Italian city-states, and other nations did the same thing.

Two odd accounts of xebecs outside the Mediterranean occur in North America and in the Baltic. There are some records of xebecs operating on the Great Lakes during the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (Repulse and Champion). There is also a record of 12 xebecs on the Danish casualty list after the bombardment of Copenhagan in 1801 by Horatio Nelson. Each of them mounted four guns. At the battle of Svensksund in 1790, 'hemmemas' were used as gunboats, and greatly resemble xebecs.

~ A British Xebec ~ A French Chebec ~ A Spanish Jabeque ~ A Barbary Xebec ~ A Russian Shebec ~ A Swedish Hemmema ~ An Italian Sciabecco ~

A xebec in action would have been a grand sight. Algerian xebecs rarely operated together but those of other nations probably did. Once a Corsair xebec had located a victim, it would close rapidly and probably fire a few shots off. If this failed to affect surrender, then the crew of 200 to 450 would board and waste the enemy party. North African Corsair vessels primarily relied on thier speed and ability to dispatch large numbers of soldiers onto the enemy's deck. Given the weakness of a xebec's light hull and the poor aim of Corsair gunners (worse than the French Navy!), a prolonged gun battle was not an option. Only Europen xebecs would engage in that kind of conflict, with better trained crews and gunners.

The relationship between the xebec and other ship types is almost one of mystery and extreme doubt. It is argued that the xebec derived from a galeotta, a smaller type of galley. The felucca seems a more likely source. Both are very similar vessels and both derive from the millennia-long evolution of the galley. However the transition from a felucca to a xebec is far more smooth when compared to that of a galeotta and a felucca. Observe the characteristics of the two following images:

A xebecA felucca
The appearance of these two ships is very similar, especially the extended overhang at the stern, which was characteristic of the xebec.

This transition is especially probable because the word felucca probably comes from the Turkish word 'fulk,' meaning a ship. This suggests that the feluuca was of Turkish/Barbary design and thus much more probable that the Turks and Corsairs developed the xebec from thier own feluccas.

It is also probable that the xebec itself gave birth to bith the mystico and the polacre. The lateen rig of a xebec was most likely the original rig, but some time around the turn of the 18th century, square sails were added. By the middle of this century there are French and Moroccan xebecs with square-rigged mainmasts, a rig called a la polacca. The term polacca comes from a Greek word which means 'much pointed.' The term polacca or polacre refers to a square rig with masts that are all one piece, that is to say, no topmasts or crosstrees. The yards of a polacre rig could be lowered to spill wind and furl the sail. When three square sails replaced the lateen sail on the main mast and a square topsail and a gaff mizzen replaced the lateen mizzen, the xebec became 'polacre rigged.'

Two xebec rigs
The two rigs of a xebec, the left is lateen, while the right is polacre rigged.

From a polacre-rigged xebec it was an easy transition to a full polacre. A point occurs where polacre xebecs become 'polacre-settees,' which were lateen rigged on the fore and mizzen (i.e. xebec with a polacre rig). By the late 18th century polacre-xebecs were soon fully ship-rigged and became true polacres, although some people merely call them xebec-frigates. However it is easy to see how the polacre could have developed from the xebec, considering the similar lines and features. The polacre has virtually the same hull shape as a xebec with all the standard features. The only difference was that the polacre was slightly larger than a xebec, so it is probable that the polacre was derived from larger xebecs, which were probaly rigged 'a la polacca' to supplement thier size.

A polacreA polacre with a xebec rig
Here I took the hull of the polacre and simply changed the rig, which creates a xebec.

The mystico was simply a French derivative of the xebec design. This ship type was primarily used for dispatches and for military operations of a non-combative nature. They were polacre rigged and retained the basic characteristics of the xebec. The only difference would probably be the added strength of European construction and materials.

The xebec under sail is something difficult to explain. For this, we can refer to Landstrom's description of a lateen sail and its rig: "the halyard always ran in a block above the shroud attachments. Since forestays could not be used, the mast often sloped slightly forward. The shrouds were tautened with lanyards, and could easily be thrown loose when sailing on different tacks. The long yard was bound together of two or more pieces and held to the mast by a parrel in the form of a slipknot, which could easily be loosened from the deck. The sail was checked by two tackles to the lower yard-arm and two braces, which usually started slightly below the upper yard-arm" (51). He says earlier on that page that "the lateen sail was suitable precisely for coastal traffic with a small crew, and it was more efficient than the square sail in sailing close-hauled"

With this description, the method of tacking a lateen sail can be derived. In some cases, when the ship was close-hauled or on a zig-zag course, the lateen sail would not be tacked but rather left for the wind to fill in either direction. In anticipation for this, some ships left two sails on one side of the mast and the remaining sail on the opposite side. The sail would be adjusted by the braces and tackles depending on point of sail and wind force.

The actual method of tacking would be a long and arduous process. It would entail hauling down the sail with the spar and physically move the entire apparatus to the opposite side of the mast. It is probable that this was done in the destined port in anticipation of the return journey.

A lateen sail and its rigging
A diagram of a lateen sail and its rigging.

Considering the popularity and long-term use of the xebec, it is easy to state that they were effective in combat. Barbary xebecs primarily relied on thier speed and manouvreability to deliver large numbers of soldiers to the decks of thier enemies. However, most European nations seem to have successfully used xebecs in gunnery battles, using the manoevreability to point the ship's arsonel in the right direction.

Obviously Pope was wrong in calling the xebec a museum piece, considering that most European nations involved in the Mediterranean had thier share of xebecs in the age of Nelson. Many used them for anti-Corsair patrols and as contemporary coasters. Of course, it cannot be denied that the xebec still had its place amongst Mediterranean traders as a merchant ship too. The effectiveness of this ship ensured its continued use by Barbary Corsairs well into the 19th century. Ultimately the xebec only came out of favour when Admiral Lord Exmouth in 1816 bombarded Algeirs for the final time, and Algerian piracy largely ceased.

Information: page #1

To the picture gallery


Return to the main page

Site by Xebec Inc. founder and chairman, Ryan Moore. Copyright 2003.