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Setting Sail

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Miniature Sheet
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First Day Cover
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First Day Cover
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Special Folder
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About Setting Sail

In contrast to land and air transport, sailing has enabled locales far and wide to be e ciently connected by sea routes for millennia. While the period of its emergence is a subject of debate among historians, there are two predominant theories that currently exist. One argues that sailing rst emerged among the coastal peoples of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, while the other asserts that it arose simultaneously in two distinct locales, after which its use spread to contiguous regions. According to the latter theory, sailing rst emerged on both the Nile River, which later in uenced naval construction in the Mediterranean and the Near East, and in the vast Indonesian archipe- lago, from where the rst human colonisers of the Australian continent departed roughly 60,000 years ago. Given the archipelago’s unique geography and the distances between its roughly 17,000 islands, it is universally acknowledged that sailing was adopted early on in the region.

In the West, and in strictly conceptual terms, naval construction and the invention of the primeval square sail can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. Following centuries of technical evolution among the peoples of the Mediterranean, Arabs introduced and disseminated new sailing techniques from the Orient. With respect to the origins of the lateen sail, this is also a topic ridden with controversy. Nonetheless, there is little doubt regarding its use early on by the Polynesians. The question that has yet to be answered is whether its emergence in the Mediterranean was due to its spread by Arabs, whose ships in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would have featured them, or whether, as several studies seem to suggest, it evolved independently before it was widely disseminated a posteriori by Arabs.

The southern voyages of the Normans and the growth of trading relations throughout the Middle Ages also contributed to the concentration of various “practices“ of naval construction in the Mediterranean and the development of the most advanced navigational techniques. In this sense, the Phoenicians, Romans, Mallorcans, Genoans, Portuguese and Castilians, and later the Dutch, the French and the English, developed a vast body of knowledge that culminated in the invention of the clipper in the mid-19th century, followed soon after by the iron-hulled sailing ships. This marked the apogee and decline of sailing, an era otherwise known as the Golden Age of Sail.

It is this extraordinary journey that constitutes the leitmotif of the exhibition Setting Sail, one whose evolution is creatively structured into three distinct epochs: Early Days , Unifying Days and Later Days . The Early Days was a period in which various construction techniques for sailing vessels were consolidated. Its evolution unfolded in a piecemeal fashion in places that were highly distinct from one another, the aim of which was to meet local needs in terms of both transportation and warfare. The Unifying Days was characterised by the co-existence and dissemination of different “schools” in which the evolution of technical advances led to the emergence of new types of vessels and to the use of mixed techniques. The Later Days was marked by the discovery of innovative materials and techniques as a result of scientific and technological advances, which spurred the construction of steamships in the nal years of the epoch. This coincided with the rise of steam-powered ships that no longer relied on the existence of favourable winds, signalling the end of an era!

António Gonçalves