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A confused naval battle. Two battered ships drift in the foreground while smoke and flame.

The Almighty Hellburners of Antiquity

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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.

Pontoon bridge by Alexander Farnese blown-up during the siege of Antwerp, 1585.

Pontoon bridge by Alexander Farnese blown-up during the siege of Antwerp, 1585. (Public Domain)

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”.

The Dutch ship Fin de la Guerre ("End of War") during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585.

The Dutch ship Fin de la Guerre ("End of War") during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585. (Public Domain)

The gunpowder was placed in a ‘crater’ within the holds of each ship. Over the ‘crater’ was a hollow cone made of marble slabs which was filled with “mill-stones, cannon balls, blocks of marble, chain-shot, iron hooks, plough-coulters, and every dangerous missile that could be imagined.” So too was the space between the ‘crater’ and the sides of the ships.

All this was covered by planks and bricks, and a pile of wood was placed onto it. This wood was to be lighted, so as to trick the Spanish into thinking that these were ordinary fire ships. Whilst the gunpowder in one of the ships was to be ignited using a slow match, another was to be controlled by “an ingenious piece of clock-work, by which, at the appointed time, fire, struck from a flint, was to inflame the hidden mass of gunpowder below.”

A Surprise Attack

Gianibelli’s hellburners caught the Spanish by surprise, who, though were aware that an attack was being planned by the people of Antwerp, had been expecting “an invasion by a fleet from the city in combination with a squadron of Zeelanders coming up from below.” Regular detachments of fire ships were first sent against the Spanish in order to ease their suspicions. Then ‘Fortune’ and ‘Hope’ were deployed.

Hellburners at Antwerp by Famiani Strada.

Hellburners at Antwerp by Famiani Strada. (Public Domain)

‘Fortune’, unfortunately (no pun intended), did not reach its destination, but grounded near Kalloo. Instead of the explosion it was meant to produce, “the slow match upon the deck burned out, and there was a faint and partial explosion, by which little or no damage was produced.” On the other hand, ‘Hope’ reached its target, and exploded as planned. Though Gianibelli’s hellburners failed to lift the Spanish siege, it did cause much damage, destroying a large portion of the bridge, and killing a great number of men.

Hellburners are said to have been used during the Battle of Gravelines some years after the Siege of Antwerp. Whilst the famed Spanish Armada was docked in Calais, the English sent eight fire ships to cause chaos amongst the Spanish. It is unclear if these ships were like the hellburners used at Antwerp.

Day seven of the battle with the Armada, painted 1601, oil on canvas.

Day seven of the battle with the Armada, painted 1601, oil on canvas. (Public Domain)

It has been claimed that Gianibelli was in England when the Spanish Armada attempted to invade England, and may have turned these eight ships into hellburners. Regardless, chaos was sowed, as the Spanish, remembering Antwerp, panicked, cut the anchors of their ships, and sailed out to sea. The disorganized Spanish were then attacked by the English, and were forced to retreat northwards to Scotland, thus ending the threat of a Spanish invasion of England.

Featured image: A confused naval battle. Two battered ships drift in the foreground while smoke and flame. Photo source: Public Domain

By Ḏḥwty


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Motley, J. L., 1860. History of the United Netherlands, 1584-1609. [Online]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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