The history of shipbuilding in Korčula deserves to be told in at least two articles.
We can’t be entirely sure when the practice of shipbuilding started on Korčula. What we can suppose, however, is that the practice was started by the communities of the prehistoric times, which is supported by the fact that Vela Špila by Vela Luka is where the earliest evidence of sea creatures on the island were found, and it’s very hard to imagine that all of those were caught from the shore. That would lead us to believe that those communities, like most others living by the sea, had the need to go sailing and build some type of vessels to accommodate that.
What we do know for a fact is that Greek colonists from as early as 6th century BC built ships on the island of Korčula. Also, areas near where Lumbarda is located today are confirmed by archaeological findings to have accommodated shipbuilding. Additionally, people of Korčula were known for their pirate-like behaviour in the Roman documents from the time when they ruled over Korčula, as Apian writes about Octavian’s occupation of Korčula because of their intensive pirate undertakings. And to be a successful pirate stronghold, you need to build your own ships and be able to man them confidently.
One of the major historic documents in Croatia is the so-called Korčula Statute, written in 1214, which confirms that there is shipbuilding on the island, as it sets out the rules for shipbuilding, and bans any wood cutting without specific permission by the Town council. Statute also bans any deliberate burning of the forest, with the intent of damaging it.
The first exact piece of information about a ship being built on Korčula is recorded in a law suit from the 15th century, in which someone named Vukić pressed charges against someone called Bogić, who supposedly attacked him at the location where a ship (called “karaka”) was being built. Karaka (in English called the argosy) was a large sail-boat, built in the Dubrovnik Republic since the 15th century, and is still considered to be one of the largest ships of its time.
At that same time, Korčula fell under Venetian rule, and their intent was to reduce the shipbuilding in Korčula in order to stop their competition with their Venetian navy. In 1499 the Venetian rulers allowed the Korčula shipbuilders to build larger ships, under the condition that they are only allowed to sell their boats to the Christian commanders. One of the key factors for the shipbuilding on Korčula in that period was the closeness to the powerhouse that was Dubrovnik Republic, which bought many ships from the shipbuilders in Korčula, except in those periods when their laws barred them from buying any ships outside of the Republic itself. When those laws were in place, many educated shipbuilders from Korčula moved to the Dubrovnik Republic, to work on the ships there.
However, the builders in Korčula figured that they needed to organize and create a united front in the communication with the government, and so they submitted the request in 1550 to the Venetian Senate to create their guild. The request was approved in 1620 (just remember that next time you’re waiting for a piece of paper for a week or two from the government – it took 70 years!), and that allowed for the creation of the St. Joseph Bank, an association/guild that helped create social security for their members, financially helping those member who were ill, poor or unable to work, and it had an additional guild-like and religious character, and it is still active within the parish of Korčula. Its organization, setup and management make it one of the original guild associations in Croatia.