What is a Hermaphrodite Brig or Brigantine?

Sometimes when we are reading about history, we come across terms that we don’t understand. It may not be a question of lack of education or breadth of experience. It sometimes has to do with not understanding the technical details of a technology that is no longer commonly used. Imagine someone a few centuries into the future having to try to piece together through context the difference between a Toyota Corolla and a Honda Civic, a PC and a Mac, or an XP versus a Windows ME.  They probably would realize that the first two were some kind of motor vehicle and the last four had something to do with computers, but the subtle differences would be lost on them.

I have been reading about the War of 1812, and I regularly come across terms like “a hermaphrodite brig”, or a brig or a felucca or a sloop or a schooner or a brig goelette, and in my mind, for some time, I have just been translating these terms into “some kind of ship or boat.” But then if you read a sentence like: “They converted the brig into a hermaphrodite brig,” you really start to wonder. Does that mean that a hermphrodite brig isn’t a “kind of brig”? And if not, what’s the difference?

When I looked up hermaphrodite brig in the wikipedia, I was directed to the entry on “brigantine”.  Apparently brigantine is the modern day term for a hermaphrodite brig. It denotes a ship with two masts, where only the forward one is square rigged. Here is a picture from the wikipedia:

File:Exy.jpgIn case you are wondering what it means to be “square rigged”, it refers to sails that have horizontal spars that are perpendicular to the mast. The spars are also sometimes also called yards, and the tips that go beyond the sail are called “yard-arms”. Apparently, a square rigged sail is more aerodynamic, compared to its non-square equivalent. Here is a picture from the wikipedia of a square rigged mast.

A hermaphrodite brig has two masts, and only one of them is squared: the forward one. But a brig, on the other hand, is a ship with two masts both of which are squared. Here is a picture from the Wikipedia of a brig:

The question is: if you’ve got a brig, why would you convert it to a hermaphrodite brig? If square rigging is the most aerodynamic, why would you choose to make one of the masts less aerodynamic?

Brigs were used as cargo ships as well as warships . When  in battle they could carry as many as eighteen guns. With both masts square-rigged, a bigger crew was required to man the same sized ship. So if you wanted to use a smaller crew, then converting to a hermaphrodite brig, with only one square mast, was a good choice.

A brig would normally require a twelve man to sixteen man crew. This begs the question: How few hands could a hermaphrodite brig or brigantine be crewed by? The wikipedia is unclear on this point. If you know the answer, please post it in a comment.

The best way to learn about ships and boats is to experience them for yourself. However, there are neither brigs nor brigantines for sale on Amazon today. The closest vessel I have found that you can buy online is this:

If you want to do research about types of sailboats, here is a good book to buy:

© 2o11 Aya Katz

About admin

I am a publisher, linguist, primatologist and writer. I am an editor at Inverted-A Press. I'm a primatologist with Project Bow. And I administer PubWages.
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9 Responses to What is a Hermaphrodite Brig or Brigantine?

  1. Sweetbearies says:

    Very intriguing info behind this part of history.

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Sweetbearies! The more I read about this period, the more I realize how little I know about the technical details of how people lived, fought and traded.

      • Sweetbearies says:

        Are you interested in ship history in general, or early American history in particular? If you are interested in ship history I recommend The Bounty by Caroline Alexander or Fragile Paradise Glynn Christian, which both include details about sailing and the ship the HMAV Bounty. I am more interested in the South Pacific aspect of this story, and the mutiny itself, but there are some people who really get into the ship aspect. On a group about the Bounty history there are people who talk about how they actually sell in these tall ship replicas, etc. I am not very technical on ships myself, but some people really get into it.

        • admin says:

          Sweetbearies, I am interested in both, but what prompted me to research brigantines is that I’m trying to understand the War of 1812 in particular and the part that ships played in it. The US had hardly any navy, but it declared war on Great Britain, which was at the time a great naval power.
          In reading various passages about ships and naval encounters, I realized I was missing some of the points that were being made, because I didn’t understand the detailed differences between the vessels.

  2. Ellis says:

    It is actually a bit more subtile. unfortunately, the modern-times naming convention differs from the old one.

    Your first image is what they used to call hermaphrodite brig or schooner brig: square rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft on the mainmast.

    The second image is a ship they would have classified as a brigantine: square rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft mainsail mainmast, square topsails, but no main-course (=lowest square sail on the main mast).

    A brig is nearly the same as a brigantine, and the difference could be hard to spot in the distance. if a Brigantine adds a main-course, it is a Brig.

    And then there was the jackass-brig. it was a hermaphrodite brig with a square top sail on the main mast. The topsail didn’t add all that much advantage, so they where commonly re-rigged with a gaff topsail instead of the square topsail, thereby becomming a hermaphrodite brig.

    see: http://ship-building.org/taxonomy/term/3
    for some pictures.

    In modern times, the schooner-brig is usually just called brigantine.

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Ellis. I think I was missing the difference between a brig and a brigantine. The silhouettes of the ships that appear in the link you provided are very helpful.

  3. Donald says:

    A very good book with old sailing terms would be (two years before the mast (Richard Henery Dana)). A good read about trade on the Cailf. Coast mid 1800s.

  4. Russell says:

    I’m just rereading TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST since high school (I’m 85) and have done some sailing but have been intrigued and somewhat mystified by many of the old timey sailing terms and language. I’m finding it to be such a wonderful story and learning more about early California and about Richard Henry Dana is glorious.

  5. jim hoch says:

    Square rig ships are optimized for sailing downwind and were generally used for open ocean. If the wind was blowing in the wrong direction they would just wait for it to change. Fore and Aft rigged ships, like a schooner, could sail into the wind to some extent and were more favored for coastal ships.

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