The Deforestation that "Wood" Result from European Shipbuilding During the Age of Exploration

Jessie Whitfield

Historical texts have documented the countless technologies, ideas, diseases, plants and animals the European ships delivered around the world during the Age of Exploration. However, these texts fail to include one key cargo item: deforestation. European shipbuilding triggered an epidemic of forest depletion that gradually spread to the lands they encountered. Beginning in the early fourteenth century, wood fueled the increased production of exploratory sea vessels. The loss of trees coincided with the rapid rate of shipbuilding. Eventually, Europeans exploited their timber reserves to such an extreme that they began looking elsewhere for wood, including colonies in North America and Southeast Asia. With newfound resources, the European shipbuilding machine churned on, yet before long deforestation also became an issue in the colonial areas. Although shipbuilding played an integral role in a period of European advancement, it devastated not only the European environment but the forests of other continents as well.

Prior to the Age of Exploration, hardwood trees blanketed all of Europe to form a forest giOB47;comparable in size to the Amazon Basin” (David Morse). Forest density was intense, such that “scattered clearings must have appeared like islets in an ocean of green” (Morse).

Nevertheless, as humans discovered the value of wood as fuel for warmth, deforestation followed close behind. The progression of human technologies presented more uses for timber. Eventually, wood became a staple in a wide range of manufacturing processes, among them shipbuilding. The production of sea vessels put extreme pressure on the oldest and largest trees in European forests; the massive tree trunks that were years in the making were also the best suited for the immense hulls of open sea ships. For every ship built, the environment lost some of its oldest flora members, who were unfortunately also the hardest to replace.

Shipbuilding was also closely intertwined with another forest consuming industry: metallurgy, especially iron production. Iron comprised the weaponry and structural support aboard many sea vessels. Because the production of iron required high temperatures, the demand for firewood grew to almost insatiable proportions. Thus, the amount of timber invested in shipbuilding included more than just the lumber for the hulls. As David Morse points out, the trend in metallurgy history dictated that “wherever ironmaking took over . . . it did away with the forest” (Morse). In effect, shipbuilding and its association with iron production impacted the forest landscape two-fold.

The deforestation effects of increased shipbuilding was most visible in the change of Great Britain’s landscape during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Those who traveled across Ireland at this time reported that one could ride all day and not see a single tree, an image that contrasts sharply with the carpet of trees that covered the area only centuries before (Brown, Terry). Of course, the price the environment paid for shipbuilding was not merely aesthetic. The loss of wind protection afforded by trees increased soil erosion on English farms (Brown, Terry). Following the construction of the British Navy during the reign of Elizabeth I, poor farmers in need of fuel burned straw and dried manure, robbing the soil of nutrients and further decreasing farmland quality (Brown, Terry). Undoubtedly, the ecosystems that once thrived in European forests crumbled as their habitats disappeared. The lack of watershed protection also lead to increase stream erosion and altered the path of many waterways ("Deforestation"). Quite apparently, shipbuilding’s effacing of entire forest landscapes cost the European environment dearly.

Tragically, the European environment would not be the only one to pay. As wood became a scarce commodity in Europe, explorers began to tap into overseas timber resources to supply the everchurning shipbuilding
machine. In fact, imperial strategy focused on forest reserves so much that “empires rose and fell based on the availability of forests” (Brown). No two examples serve this point as well as the North American and Southeast Asian colonies. During the sixteenth century, the well-forested New England countryside attracted British and French explorers and provided an ample timber resource for these conquerors. At first, the abundance of New England wood seemed endless; by 1880, firewood had surpassed all other energy sources and reached its employment peak (“Ancient undisturbed repose”). Soon, however, the immortality of New England forests was spoiled by the appearance of deforestation indicators in the environment. These effects mirrored those of the European environment, including severe soil and stream erosion. In one case, the soil from a recently deforested hillside dammed a river, providing an unfortunate example of deforestation
effects intersecting (“Ancient undisturbed repose”).

The appearance of familiar deforestation consequences in one colony did not prevent Europeans from continuing their quest for timber on other continents. Nearly two centuries after the discovery of the New
England forest reserves, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese explorers unearthed a gold mine of shipbuilding and repair materials in Southeast Asia ("A Brief History"). As early as 1677, Dutch rulers bargained with leaders of the Javanese to gain “access to the rich teak forests of the northern coast” ("A Brief History). Expectedly, deforestation and its eroding effects soon followed. By mid-nineteenth century, many Southeast Asian governments, most notably Java and Thailand, attempted to halt further forest exhaustion by devising systems of forest management and forest laws ("A Brief History"). Despite these valiant efforts, the damage done could not be entirely reversed; acres and acres of forests, thousands of years in the making, had been whittled down in the name of European shipbuilding and could never be fully recovered.

Undeniably, the steady incline of European shipbuilding bolstered the travels that marked a turning point in the cultures around the world. With these sturdy wooden vessels, Europeans successfully exchanged ideas and technologies with once isolated communities. While this increased communication was key in the global progression of human culture, it occurred at a hefty cost to forests and the environment in general. Are the Europeans to be blamed for this damage? At the time, no feasible alternative shipbuilding materials existed besides lumber (the Europeans were simply not that technologically advanced). The only two options were use wood and sail to new lands or refuse timber use and resist the gnawing temptation to travel abroad. Thus, the deforestation caused by European shipbuildling exemplifies the conflict that has plagued humans throughout history: the inevitable and seemingly unavoidable tension between human progression and the welfare of the environment.


"Ancient Undisturbed Repose." The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends. Summary Report. Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources and the Nature of Illinois Foundation. 1994. [http://dnr.state.il.us/OREP/INRIN/ctap/sumrepo/chap5/repose.htm]

"A Brief History of Human Forest Relations." [http://www.mekonginfo.org/mrc_en/doclib.nsf/0/34790D2E14E84703C725686D0008621E/$FILE/CHAPTER2.html]

Brown, Terry. "Wood in Development of Civilization." [http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/teach/for111/Wood%20in%20Development.pdf]

"Deforestation." [http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/Andes/7292/Deforestation.html]

Morse, David. "Turning Trees to Iron." Trumpeter: 9, 1 [http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/content.back/v9.1/morse.html]


Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 2/6/03