The Almighty Hellburners of Antiquity

March 27, 2016

Hellburners were a type of fire ship best-known to have been used in Europe during the 16th century AD. Whilst hellburners were first used during the early modern period, fire ships were already in use during ancient times.

Fire Ships in the Peloponnesian War

Generally speaking, fire ships were ships that were filled with combustibles, deliberately set on fire, and sent into an enemy fleet, either by steering or drifting. In an age when ships were constructed with wood, fire ships were dangerous weapons indeed. One example of the use of this weapon in ancient times can be found in The Peloponnesian War, which was written by the Greek historian, Thucydides”

In an attempt to set fire to the remainder of the Athenian fleet the Syracusans filled an old merchant ship with brushwood and pine logs and, with the wind in the right direction, set it to light and let it drift towards the Athenians. Put is fear again for their ships the Athenians devised counter-measures to extinguish the flames and keep the fireship at a distance, and so averted the danger.

A Change to Explosives

Whilst the goal of a fire ship was to set enemy ships on fire, hellburners were built to blow them up. Instead of being loaded merely with combustibles, these fire ships were laden with explosives, thus making them much more deadly. Hellburners are known to have been utilized during the Siege of Antwerp, and perhaps also during the more famous Battle of Gravelines.

The Siege of Antwerp

The Siege of Antwerp was an episode in the Eighty Years War between the Dutch and the Habsburgs, and took place between 1584 and 1585. An account of the use of the hellburners can be found in John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands, 1584 – 1609.

In this account, Motley stated that the hellburner was invented by Gianibelli, a Mantuan who had settled down in Antwerp. Motley further claimed that Gianibelli had a personal vendetta against the Spanish, which prompted him to build the hellburners when Antwerp was besieged by them:

He had gone from Italy to Spain that he might offer his services to Philip, and give him the benefit of many original and ingenious inventions… he was constantly denied an opportunity of explaining his projects, the quick-tempered Italian had gone away at last, indignant. He had then vowed revenge upon the dul(l)ness by which his genius had been slighted, and had sworn that the next time the Spaniards heard the name of the man whom they had dared to deride, they should hear it with tears.

The Spanish besiegers had built a bridge of ships over the River Scheldt in an attempt to starve the population into submission. It was this bridge that Gianibelli intended to destroy, and two ships, named ‘Fortune’ and ‘Hope’ respectively, were prepared for this undertaking. According to Motley, the hellburners were constructed as “marine volcanoes”.

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