Aboard the French Galley, II


In our second, and concluding, excerpt from “Memoirs of a Protestant”, Jean Marteilhe begins by giving us a description of the galleys of his era, one of the very few first-hand accounts to survive today. One is immediately struck not only by the severity of conditions, but by the seeming impossibility of one ever surviving such an ordeal. Yet, Jean Marteilhe did survive, and his memoir recounts his joyful liberation and journey to Geneva, where he was greeted as a hero of the faith. But even as we rejoice in the story of his deliverance, let us make sure that we do not learn the wrong lesson. This is a story of redemption and of God’s faithfulness. Rather than inflaming a self-righteous passion, it should cause us to reflect upon our own sinfulness, and to rejoice in the blessings of true religious liberty bought at so dear a price.

But before I proceed with a Detail of the many Miseries I endured whilst a Galley Slave, as there may some Names of the Parts of a Galley, and its Officers, occur in the Course of this Narration, which the Generality of Readers may be unacquainted with, it may not be improper to give a slight Description of this Vessel, its Crew, and Manner of fighting; reserving a more particular Account to the End of these Memoirs.

A Galley is ordinarily a hundred and fifty Feet long, and fifty broad. It consists but of one Deck, which covers the Hold. This Hold is, in the middle, seven Feet, but at the Sides of the Galley only six Feet, high. By this we may see that the Deck rises about a Foot in the Middle, and slopes towards the Edges, to let the Water more easily run off; for when a Galley is loaded, it seems to swim under Water, at least the Sea constantly washes the Deck. The Sea would then necessarily enter the Hold by the Apertures where the Masts are placed, were it not prevented by what is called the Coursier. This is a long Case of Boards fixed on the middle, or highest Part of the Deck, and running from one End of the Galley to the other. There is also an Hatchway into the Hold, as high as the Coursier. From this superficial de-scription perhaps it may be imagined, that the Slaves and the rest of the Crew have their Feet always in Water. But the Case is otherwise; to each Bench there is a Board raised a Foot from the Deck, which serves as a Foot-stool to the Rowers, under which the Water passes. For the Soldiers and Mariners there is, running on each Side, along the Gunner of the Vessel, what is called the Bande which is a Bench of about the same Height with the Coursier, and two Feet broad. They never lie here, but each leans on his own particular Bundle of Cloaths, in a very incommodious Posture. The Officers themselves are not better accommodated; for the Chambers in the Hold are designed only to hold the Pro-visions and Naval Stores of the Galley. The Hold is divided into six Apartments.

Above: Venice, Museo Storico Navale (navy museum), wooden model of galley with rowing (oaring) slaves

1. The Gavon. A little Chamber in the Poop, which is big enough only to hold the Captain’s Bed.

2. The Escandolat. Where the Captain’s Provisions are kept and dressed.

3. The Compagne. This contains the Beer, Wine, Oil, Vinegar, and fresh Water of the whole Crew; together with their Bacon, salt Meat, Fish and Cheese; they never use Butter.

4. The Paillot. Here are kept the dried Provisions, as Biscuit, Pease, Rice, &c.

5. The Tavern. This Apart-ment is in the middle of the Galley. It contains the Wine which is retailed by the Comite, and of which he enjoys the Profits: This opens into the Powder Room, of which the Gunner alone keeps the Key. In this Chamber also the Sails and Tents are kept.

6. The Steerage where the Cordage and the Surgeon’s Chest are kept, serves also during a Voyage, as a Hospital for the Sick and Wounded; who, however, have no other Bed to lie on than the Ropes. In winter, when the Galley is laid up, the Sick are sent to a Hospital in the City.

A Galley has fifty Benches for Rowers, that is to say, twenty-five on each Side. Each Bench is ten Feet long; one End fixed in the Coursiery the other in the Bande half a Foot thick, and placed at four Feet Distance from each other. They are covered with Sackcloth, stuffed with Flocks, and over this is thrown a Cow-hide; which, reaching down to the Banquet or Foot-stool, gives them the Resemblance of large Trunks. To these the Slaves are chained, six to a Bench. Along the Bande runs a large Rim of Timber, about a Foot thick, which forms the Gunnel of the Galley: To this, which is called the Apostie the Oars are fixed. These are fifty Feet long, and are poised in Equilibrio upon the afore-mentioned Piece of Timber; so that the thirteen Feet of the Oar which comes into the Galley, is equal in Weight to the thirty-seven which go into the Water. As it would be impossible to hold them in the Hand because of their Thickness, they have Handles, by which they are managed by the Slaves.

The Method of Rowing A Galley

The Comite who is Master of the Crew of Slaves, and the Tyrant so much dreaded by the Wretches fated to this Misery; stands always at the Stern, near the Captain, to receive his Orders. There are two Sous Comites also, one in the Middle, the other near the Prow. These, each with a Whip of Cords, which they exercise without Mercy on the naked Bodies of the Slaves, are always attentive to the Orders of the Comite. When the Captain gives the Word for rowing, the Comite gives the Signal with a Silver Whistle, which hangs from his Neck: This is repeated by the Sous Comites Upon which the Slaves, who have their Oars in Readiness, strike all at once; and beat Time so exactly, that the hundred and fifty Oars seem to give but one Blow. Thus they continue, without requiring further Orders; till by another Signal of the Whistle, they desist in a Mo-ment. There is an absolute Necessity for thus rowing all together, for should one of the Oars be lifted Flogging a crewman. Sketch by Captain’s Clerk Charles F. Sandsup, or fall too soon; those be-fore leaning back, necessarily strike the Oar behind them with the hinder Part of their Heads; while the Slaves of this, do the same by those behind them. But it were well if a few Bruises on the Head [were] the only Punishment: The Comite ex-ercises the Whip on this Occasion like a Fury; while the Muscles, all in Convulsion under the Lash, pour Streams of Blood down the Seats; which how dreadful soever it may seem to the Reader, Use teaches the Sufferer to bear without Murmuring. The Labour of a Galley Slave is become a Proverb; nor is it without Reason that this may be reckoned the greatest Fatigue that can be inflicted on Wretchedness. Imagine six Men chained to their Seats, naked as when born, sitting with one Foot on a Block of Timber, fixed to the Foot-stool or Stretcher; the other lifted up against the Bench before them holding in their Hands an Oar of an enormous Size. Imagine them lengthening their Bodies, their Arms stretched out to push the Oar over the Backs of those before them; who are also themselves in a similar Attitude. Having thus advanced their Oar, they raise that End which they hold in their Hands, to plunge the Opposite in the Sea; which done they throw themselves back upon their Benches below, which are somewhat hollowed to re-ceive them. None, in short, but those who have seen them labour, can conceive how much they endure: None but such could be persuaded, that Human Strength could sustain the Fatigue which they undergo for an Hour successively. But what cannot Necessity and Cruelty make Men do? Almost Impossibilities. Certain it is, that a Galley can be navigated in no other Manner, but by a Crew of Slaves, over whom a Comite may exercise the roost [with] un-bounded Authority. No free Man could continue at the Oar an Hour unwearied: yet a Slave must sometimes lengthen out his Toil for Ten, Twelve; nay, for Twenty Hours, without the smallest Intermission. On these Occasions the Comite or some of the other Mariners put into the Mouths of those Wretches a Bit of Bread steeped in Wine, to prevent Fainting through Excess of Fatigue or Hunger, while their Hands are em-ployed upon the Oar. At such Times are heard nothing but horrid Blasphemies, loud Bursts of Despair, or Ejaculations to Heaven; all the Slaves streaming with Blood, while their unpitying Task-Masters mix Oaths and Threats, and the smacking of Whips, to fill up this dreadful Harmony. At this Time the Captain roars to the Comite to redouble his Blows; and when any one drops from his Oar in a Swoon, which not unfrequently happens, he is whipped while any Remains of Life appear, and then thrown into the Sea without further Ceremony. How much happier is that unpitied Wretch, than those he leaves behind! Perhaps Heaven was pleased to give him all his Punishment here, with a View of rewarding him with a happy Immortality. The Bursts of Anguish which I have felt, at seeing my Brother Protest-ants thus inhumanly butchered, can never leave my Mind: Yet I will cease lamenting; they want not my Tears, nor any human Compassion, to add to their present Felicity. But to return from this Digression. As I was young and vigorous, the Keeper put round my Leg a Chain extremely thick and heavy…. It may not be unnecessary to mention, that the Comite eats upon a Table raised over one of the Seats, by four Iron Feet. This Table also serves him for a Bed; and when he chooses to sleep, it is covered with a large Pavilion made of Cotton. The Slaves of that Bench sit under the Table, which can be easily taken away where it interferes with the working below of the Vessel. These six Slaves serve as Domestics to the Comite, Each has his particular Em-ploy; and when-ever he eats or sits here, all the Slaves of this and the Benches next it, are uncovered out of Respect. Every one is ambitious of being either in the Comite’s or Sous Comite’s Bench; not only because they have what is left of the Provisions of his Table, but also because they are never whipped while at Work. Those are called the Respectable Benches, and being placed in one of them, is looked upon as being in a petty Office.

I was, as already mentioned, placed in this Bench, which however I did not long keep; for still retaining some of the Pride of this World, I could not prevail upon myself to behave with that Degree of abject Sub-mission, which was necessary to my being in Favour. While the Comite was at Meals, I generally was turned another Way; and with my Cap on, pretended to take no Notice of what was passing behind me. The Slaves frequently said that such Behaviour would be disagreeable, but I disregarded their Admonitions, thinking it sufficiently opprobrious to be the Slave of the King, without being also the Slave of his meanest Vassal. I had by this Means like to have fallen into the Displeasure of the Comite which is one of the greatest Misfortunes that can befall a Galley-Slave. He enquired whether I partook of those Provisions he usually left; and being informed that I refused to touch a Bit. Give him his own Way, said he, for the present; a few Years Servitude will divest him of this Delicacy.

One Evening he called me, to his Pavilion, and accosting me with more than usual Gentleness, unheard by the rest, he let me understand, that he perceived I was born of a Rank superior to the Rest of his Crew; which rather increased than diminished his Esteem; but, as by indulging my disrespectful Behaviour, the rest might take Example, he found it necessary to transfer me to another Bench: However, I might rest assured of never receiving a Blow from him, or his inferior Officers, upon any Occasion whatsoever. I testified my Gratitude in the best Manner I was able; and from that Time he kept his Promise; which was some- thing extraordinary in one who usually seemed divested of every Principle of Humanity. Never was Man more severe to the Slaves in general, than he; yet he preserved a Moderation towards the Huguenots of his Galley, which argued a Regard for Virtue, not usually found among the lower Classes of People. To present the Reader with an Instance of his Respect for those of the Reformed Religion, let me repeat what happened the first summer of my Slavery.

The Chevalier Longeron Maulevrier our Captain, was bred up altogether in Jesuitical Principles. He held Protestants in the utmost Detestation, and frequently ordered the Comite to give the Huguenots an hempen Breakfast, so he jestingly termed a Whipping; which Order, tho’ the Comite seemed to obey, his Blows were always sure to light on others.

In every Expedition, the Poor and those of humbler Stations, who suffer most, are least taken notice of; the Miseries of the Great are held up to engage your Compassion and Attention, while the Slave who feels the most complicated Distress seldom finds even Pity to soften his Sorrows. . . .

Wounded In Battle . . . .

We have seen how the Frigate avoided being boarded, by dexterously turning to lie on our Side, by which we were exposed to the Fire of her Artillery, charged with Grape Shot. It happened that my Seat, on which there were five Frenchmen and one Turk, lay just opposite one of the Cannons, which as I readily perceived was charged. The two Vessels lay so close, that by raising my Body in the least, I could touch this Cannon with my Hand. A Neighbourhood so terrible filled us all with silent Consternation. My Companions lay flat on the Seat, and in that Posture endeavoured to avoid or rather waited the coming Blow. I had presence of Mind sufficient to observe, that this Gun was pointed in such a Manner, that those who lay flat would receive almost all its Contents; and accordingly was determined to sit up-right, since I was chained, it was impossible entirely to quit my Station. In this Manner then I awaited Death; which however, I had scarce any Hopes of escaping. My Eyes were fixed upon the Gunner, who with his lighted Match, was employed in discharging every Piece, one after the other. I saw him approach nearer and nearer to the fatal one, and felt all that Opposition of Passions, so Consonant to my Circumstances, Dread of immediate Pain and Hope of ensuing Happiness. I lifted my heart to my God, in all the Ecstasy of fervent Devotion. Have Pity, O Father, on my poor Soul, and as thou hast allotted meFall of Nelson to mourn on Earth, may I be comforted with thyself in Heaven. I now felt stronger Assurance of Divine Mercy, than I had ever before experienced, and looked upon Death with Philosophic; nay more, with Christian Fortitude. I had the Con-stancy to observe the Gunner apply the lighted Match, what followed I only knew by the Consequences. The Explosion had stunned me; I was blown from my Seat upon the Coursier, which was as far as my Chain would permit. Here I remained, I cannot say how long, lying across the Body of the Lieutenant of the Galley, who had been killed some Time before. The space, however, must have been considerable, as I afterwards gathered from different Circumstances. At last recovering my Senses, and finding myself lying upon a dead Body, I crept back to my seat. It was Night, and the Darkness was such, that I could neither see the Blood that was spilled, nor the Carnage that was heaped around me. I imagined that their former Fears still operated upon my Companions; and that they still kept upon their Bellies to avoid the no longer threatening Danger. I felt no pain from any Wound, and thought all in perfect safety. I remained in this complacency of thought for some Time, and even took a malignant Pleasure in the Continuance of the Terrors of my fellow Slaves. But at last, desirous to free them from their Fears, I gently kicked him that lay next me, rise my Boy, said I, the Danger is over. I received no Answer, I spoke louder, but still all were silent about me. The Turk of our Seat, one remarkable for his Truth and Probity, who had been chained next me, was lying among the rest; he had been a Janissary, and had frequently boasted of his never knowing what Fear was. I was accordingly resolved to rally the Fellow upon his present Behaviour. What Isouf! cried I, where is your boasted Intrepidity now? For shame rise, the Slaughter is over. Upon this I went to raise him by the Hand; when, O Horror! My Blood still freezes at the Remem-brance! This Hand came away from his Body; and with its deadly Coldness, chilled me with more than usual Terror. I threw it back with Detestation on the Body of the poor Wretch to whom it belonged, and quickly perceived that my Companions were mashed to pieces, by that very Discharge which I avoided; and that of six, I alone remained the miserable Survivor. I was sitting in a pensive Posture on the Slaves Seat, and had not been long in this Attitude, when I perceived somewhat moist and cold run down my Body, which was naked. I put my Hand to the Place and found it wet; but as it was dark, I was unable to distinguish what it was. I suspected it, however, to be Blood, flowing from some Wound, and following with my Hand the Course of the Stream, I found my Shoulder near the Clavicle, was pierced quite through. I now felt another Gash in my left Leg, below the Knee, which also went thro, again another, made I suppose by a Splinter, which ripped the Integuments of my Belly; it was a Foot long, and four Inches broad. I lost a great Quantity of Blood, before I could have any Assistance; all near me were dead, as well those before and behind me, as those of my own Seat, Of eighteen Persons on the three Seats, there was left surviving only me….