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Rowing to Death

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 weaved cloths add regal splendor to the deck.

By the 17th century, galleys were of only limited military use, yet King Louis XIV chose to increase the number of his vessels to 40, the largest galley fleet in the Mediterranean. The primary reason for Louis’ galleys was prestige.


Finding Rowers

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 followers of Orthodoxy. Prisoners of war were also used.

Convicts had been used as galley slaves during the wars with Italy some two centuries prior. However, the number sent to the galleys during the reigns of Louis XIV and his great-grandson Louis XV was without precedent.


Who Were the Recruits?

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. Another source of manpower was deserters from the army who, after capture, were given a life sentence on the galleys. During the numerous wars of Louis XIV from 1685 to 1715, about 17,000 deserters were sent to the galleys.


Half Did Not Survive

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.”

In a compartment measuring just seven and a half feet in length and four feet in width, five men lived and rowed for months at a time chained to their benches. Tragically, some had been sent to the galleys just because of their religion.


Condemned for Their Faith

About 1,500 Protestants were sentenced 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. Why were Protestants sent to the galleys? 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.” This did not, however, prevent Protestant galley rowers from helping each other, even to the point of arranging literacy classes for their fellows who couldn’t read.


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. However, the memory of the galley slaves remains a powerful testimony to the terrible injustices that humans have inflicted on their fellowmen.

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