Rowing to Death
By Awake! writer in France
WE CAN just imagine the sight. Crowds stare as the French king’s newly commissioned galley leaves the Mediterranean port of Marseilles. It is one of the most beautiful ships ever to sail the seas. Intricate carvings as well as lavish gold and pearl ornamentation grace the stern. The finest embroidered cloths add regal splendor to the deck. As the morning light glistens on the baroque extravagance, some proudly reflect on King Louis XIV’s reputation as “the Sun King.”
By the 17th century, galleys were of only limited military use, yet King Louis XIV decided to increase the number of his vessels to 40—the largest galley fleet in the Mediterranean. Experts estimate that 20 would have amply served his needs. What was the purpose of such a large fleet?
The king’s adviser Jean-Baptiste Colbert explained: “There is no power that better characterizes the greatness of a prince and gives him more fame among foreigners than that of the galleys.” Indeed, the primary reason for Louis’ galleys was prestige. Yet, what was the price of that prestige?
Consider the human suffering. Packed on a ship’s deck—less than 150 feet [45 m] long and 30 feet [9 m] wide—were 450 rowers. They lived and worked in this cramped environment for months at a time. Their skin became ulcerated from the salty sea air, and their bodies bore the scars of frequent beatings. Half would die in what French historians call France’s “greatest spoiler of men.”
Indeed, what meant pomp and glory for a few meant misery and death for many others. Where, though, did the king get the many thousands of rowers to man his 40 vessels?
In the Middle Ages, galley rowers—or galeotti, as they were called—were freemen, and rowing was considered an honorable profession. By the 17th century, however, things had changed. Some rowers, called Turks, were purchased from the Ottoman Empire. Most were Muslims, although some were adherents of Orthodoxy. Prisoners of war were also used.
“Among the most obnoxious and senseless initiatives that were undertaken to ‘strengthen’ the crew was undoubtedly the sending of Iroquois warriors to the galleys of the Sun King,” observe French historians. Seizing Native Americans proved to be a mistake. In 1689 they had to be sent home after the Iroquois nations threatened the early French colonists.
Louis’ ambitious projects, however, required more rowers. Colbert found the solution. He informed magistrates of the king’s wish that they “condemn the greatest number of criminals possible and that even the death penalty be converted to that of the galleys.” Using criminals this way was not new. Convicts had been used as galley slaves during the wars with Italy some two centuries earlier. However, the number sent to the galleys during the reigns of Louis XIV and his great-grandson Louis XV was without precedent. Between 1680 and 1748, about 60,000 men were condemned to row. Who were these galley slaves?
Who Were the Recruits?
Up to half of those sent to the galleys were common criminals. They ranged from murderers to petty thieves. Smugglers were also punished in this way, at times making up a large number of those who manned the oars.
In addition, socially marginalized individuals were forced to man the galleys. In 1666 the officer in charge of them in Marseilles wrote: “I would like a decision to be made to take the lazy, the pilgrims, . . . the Gypsies, and other wanderers and fill up whole galleys with them. . . . That would clean the world of its burdensome filth.” Thus, under the pretext of maintaining public order, Gypsies and paupers were recruited. And in 1660, even Polish pilgrims visiting a sanctuary in France were forcibly enlisted!
Another source of manpower was deserters from the army who, after capture, were given a life sentence on the galleys. Runaways had their nose and ears mutilated, their cheeks branded with the fleur-de-lis, and their head shaved. During the numerous wars of Louis XIV from 1685 to 1715, about 17,000 deserters were sent to the galleys. What awaited these men?
The galley rowers’ agony actually began even before going to sea. Initially, they were left in temporary prisons for up to six months before being chained with hundreds of others and dragged to Marseilles. For some, such as those sent from Brittany or Paris, this forced march was a 500-mile [800 km] nightmare lasting over a month. One contemporary called it “the worst punishment for the convicts.” Many died on the road.
However, it was not just the length of the journey or the meager rations that killed them. Guards severely mistreated the prisoners. Beatings and deprivation of food and sleep took a heavy toll. In addition, people along the route showed little sympathy for the men who regularly crisscrossed the French landscape. In reply to his supplication for water, local women are said to have answered one of the prisoners: “Walk, walk! Where you’re going, you’ll have plenty of water!”
Half Did Not Survive
Many of those convicted had never seen the sea, let alone galleys. Arrival at the port of Marseilles, then, was a rude awakening. The prisoners were herded onto an empty galley and examined, as one of them wrote, like “cows purchased at the market.” Personal details were recorded, and the prisoners became numbers in the galley system. “Entry into the society of galley rowers no doubt caused extreme disorientation and was a huge psychological and physical shock,” notes a historian. However, worse treatment awaited them.
In a compartment measuring just seven and a half feet [2.30 m] in length and four feet [1.25 m] in width, five men lived and rowed for months at a time chained to their benches. Each rower had a space of just a foot and a half [45 cm] in which to sit. Space was so cramped that the men could not even bend their arms while pulling the oars, each of which measured at least 39 feet [12 m] in length and weighed over 280 pounds [130 kg]. Rowing for hours at a time was backbreaking work that tore the rowers’ muscles, greatly taxing their strength and stamina. It was “comparable to the most difficult tasks performed in a tropical climate,” explains a historian.
Galleys were low-lying, and the rowers were only about three feet [one meter] above the waterline. As a result, they were constantly soaked, they often rowed with their feet in water, and their skin was eaten by the salty air. Food rations were meager. “Convicts would do anything to survive,” notes a historian. Escape was almost out of the question. The bounty placed on the head of escapees motivated local peasants to join the hunt for any who tried to get away. Only 1 in 100 succeeded.
Sentences were rarely respected. Thus, a rower condemned for a few years might find himself still at the oar some 25 years later. About a third of the men died within three years. Overall, half the rowers did not survive. Mortality was just as high for the rowers on land as at sea. During the winter of 1709/10, one third of them died because of famine and the extreme weather. Tragically, some had been sent to the galleys just because of their religion.
Condemned for Their Faith
In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and Protestantism was banned in France.* About 1,500 Protestants were condemned to the galleys because they refused to convert to Catholicism or tried to flee the country. Punishing “heretics” this way had been tried in 1545, when in one week 600 Waldenses* were sent to the galleys by order of King Francis I. Under Louis XIV, the so-called very Christian king, the persecution took on new dimensions.
Why were Protestants sent to the galleys? An official of the king indicated the reason: “There is no other way to bring back the heretics besides force.” A historian adds: “The king hoped that as soon as they breathed the ‘galley air,’ most of the condemned Protestants would abandon the religion for which they had made so many sacrifices.” Most, however, refused to abjure their faith so as to be set free. As a result, they were often subjected to horrific public beatings at the instigation of the ships’ Catholic chaplains. Some died; others bore scars for the rest of their lives.
Despite this cruel violence, Protestants actively shared their faith with others. As a consequence, some, including at least one Catholic chaplain, became Protestants. Those considered the most dangerous, the educated Protestants, were taken off the boats and thrown into dungeons to die. This did not, however, stop the Protestant galley rowers from helping one another, even to the point of arranging literacy classes for their fellows who could not read.
The condemned kept sight of why they were being persecuted. “The more I suffer, the more I love the truth that makes me suffer,” Protestant Pierre Serres wrote. Many countries were appalled to hear of France’s religious persecution. In 1713, Queen Anne of England successfully pressed for the release of many who had been condemned. Ironically, Protestants who had previously been banned from leaving France were now expelled.
Death of the Galleys
Eventually, the galleys drifted into oblivion, victims of naval realities and a lack of funding. King Louis XIV’s financial problems resulted in cutbacks. By 1720, only 15 boats remained, and their activity was greatly reduced. Much of the time, galley rowers stayed in Marseilles, where they became part of the city’s economic scene, working in nearby soap factories or selling the clothes that they knitted. Finally, in 1748 a law was passed that in effect sounded the galleys’ death knell.
Galleys still haunt French consciousness. Faced with hardship, French people will often exclaim: “Quelle galère!” or literally in English, “What a galley!” We owe much of what we know about life on the galleys to personal accounts written by Protestant rowers. In the face of blatant religious discrimination, they formed an organization of mutual aid and moral support. Endurance and hope were important to their survival, and compromise was out of the question.
Interestingly, even taking into account the religious intolerance of the time, historians have expressed their surprise that judges were prepared to “enforce, without batting an eye, legislation that gave an equal status to honest, loyal subjects and the worst criminals.”
Indeed, the memory of the galley slaves remains a powerful testimony to the terrible injustices that humans have inflicted on their fellowmen. Yes, “man has dominated man to his injury.” (Ecclesiastes 8:9) Happily, the time is near at hand when God’s appointed Ruler, Jesus Christ, “will deliver the poor one crying for help, also the afflicted one and whoever has no helper.”—Psalm 72:12-14.
[Picture on page 13]
They rowed under pitiful conditions
© Musée de la Marine, Paris
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The caption in French above the picture reads: “Certain and honest ways to bring heretics back to the Catholic faith.” The picture is dated 1686
[Picture Credit Line on page 12]
Pages 2, 12, and 15: © Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris