Page images

But the chief use of the galleys was as a place of custody and punishment for persons convicted of flagrant crimes, among which at the time of which we speak, none was regarded as more heinous or meriting severer treatment than the heresy of Protestantism.

The officer on board immediately concerned with the charge and chastisement of these wretched outcasts was styled the Comite, under whom were two others called Sous-Comites. Their implement of office was the formidable cow-hide of which we have heard in other slave regions, and not only were they unchecked, but stimulated in the use of it by the superior officers of the ship, whenever circumstances made an unusual exertion of speed desirable. At such times the blows would fall like hail on the backs of the rowers who, stripped from the waist upwards, were tugging at the oars, while bruises and blood followed every stroke, and a chorus of yells ascended from the unhappy victims. These were the ordinary forms of chastisement, or rather of stimulant, employed; for definite offences against rule or discipline was reserved the more terrible punishment of the bastinado. The offender was stretched face downwards across the wide plank that traversed the galley from stem to stern, separating the benches. His arms projecting over one bench were firmly held by two convicts, and his legs by two more on the opposite side. A powerful Turk, stripped to the waist, scourged with all his force the bare back of the prostrate victim, the Comite, thong in hand, standing by and stimulating the Turk in his turn, if he detected any relaxation in the energy of the other. Rarely, it is said, after ten or twelve such blows did the sufferer retain speech or motion, but the punishment was continued notwithstanding, the patient being brought to life after it was over by a strong infusion of salt and vinegar rubbed into his back. Íwenty or thirty lashes were a common punishment, but as many as fifty, eighty, or even a hundred were occasionally given; such inflictions as these were generally fatal, but who heeded the death of a galley slave?

Apart from the liability to such tortures, the ordinary condition of these unhappy beings was painful in the extreme; constantly chained to the bench at which they sat by day, and under which they slept by night; exposed to all the vicissitudes of the elements (except in winter, when the galleys were taken into harbour, and some shelter was allowed); covered with vermin; scantily clothed, miserably fed, and degraded almost below the brutes by the treatment they received, they were compelled by sheer force of the whip to render an amount of work at the oar which under no other system could have been extracted from


human muscles. The labour of a galley slave,' has become proverbial, and not without reason; but probably very few of those who use the illustration realise its force. İt is observed by the writer of this narrative that by stress of torture men may be got to do that which would be otherwise impossible. He illustrates this by his personal experience. 'No one,” he says, 'looking for the first time at these miserable slaves, could suppose them capable of sustaining the labour of the oar for half an hour at a time. Yet they were occasionally compelled to pull for ten or even twelve hours at a stretch.' Nay, he adds that he had himself been forced to row with all his strength for twentyfour hours at a time without any cessation. On such occasions the Comites put into the rowers' mouths as they pulled pieces of bread dipped in wine, that they might not take their hands from the oar so as to interrupt the stroke. The scene on board a galley at such a time was horrible in the extreme. The incessant crack of the whip as it descended on the rowers' backs, the yells of the wretched bondsmen bleeding under its strokes, the oaths and threats of the Comites enraged at seeing their galley falling out of rank, and the shouts of the officers in command urging them to redouble their blows, formed an assemblage of sights and sounds dreadful to the imagination. Still, at whatever cost of suffering and of life (for many fainted at their work, and never again revived), the end was gained, and an amount of work performed which no voluntary labour could have achieved, nor any bribe or reward extracted from free men. This statement does not rest upon mere conjecture, the experiment was actually tried. Upon one occasion, in the year 1707, the author informs us that the Government of France wished to employ some galleys upon a service in which, on account of the facilities afforded for escape, it was thought unadvisable to use the service of the slaves. The galleys were manned accordingly with free mariners-men accustomed to the labour of rowing, but it was found impossible to make them endure the work. The galleys made no way, and the commandant was obliged to write to the Minister and represent to him the impossibility of navigating the vessels otherwise than by slave labour. A striking illustration of the cruel extremities sometimes practised towards the crews is furnished by the following anecdote :

On one occasion,' says Marteilhe, our galley was at Boulogne, where the Duc d'Aumont, afterwards Ambassador to the English Court, then resided. Our captain, M. de Langeron, entertained the Duke on board his vessel; and as the sea was then calm, and he wished to give his guest some amusement, he proposed to him an excursion out to sea, to which the other assented. We rowed at an Vol. 120.-No. 239.



easy rate nearly to Dover, and the Duke observing the rough work and wretched condition of the rowers, remarked, among other things, that he could not understand how these poor wretches could sleep, being so closely packed together, and having no convenience for lying down, except under their benches; to which the captain replied, "I know very well how to make them sleep, and I will prove what I say by the effect of a good dose of opium, which I am preparing for them.” He then called the Comite, and gave him his orders to tack about and return to Boulogne. The tide and wind were now against us, and we were about ten leagues from harbour. Having put the galley about, the captain gave orders to pull “ hard all” at the double quick stroke. This stroke is the most severe labour that can be conceived, and takes more out of a crew in one hour than four hours of pulling at the ordinary rate, not to mention that it is impossible to keep it up without sometimes getting out of stroke, and then the whip falls on the rowers like hail. At last we reached Boulogne, but so exhausted and sore with blows that we could hardly move arm or leg. The captain directed the Comite to order all hands to lie down, which was done at the sound of the whistle. Meanwhile the Duke and his officers sat down to dinner, and upon their getting up from table after midnight, the captain told the Duke that he should like him to see the effect of his opium, and taking him along the gangway, they saw the wretched crew, of whom the greater part were really asleep, but some unable to close their eyes for pain pretended to be so, having had orders to that effect from the captain, who did not choose that his opium should appear to have failed of its effect. But what a horrible sight was then presented to view! Six miserable creatures cowering in a heap one over the other under each bench, all perfectly naked, for none of them had had strength left to put on their shirts; most of them bloody, from the stripes of the whip, and their bodies reeking with sweat. “See, Sir," said the captain to his guest, “whether I don't know the secret of making these fellows sleep; I will now show you that I can make them wake up also.” He then gave the order to the Comite, who sounded the whistle. Then appeared the most piteous sight that can be imagined. Scarcely one among them was able to rise, their limbs and bodies were so stiff; and it was only by sharp blows of the whip that they were all forced to get up, putting themselves into ludicrous and painful contortions as they did so.'

Such was the kind of existence, a life of toil almost insupportable, of blows, of curses, of association with the vilest criminals, of dangers, and of degradations of every kind, which at this time more than 300 Protestants, men of respectable condition of life, of irreproachable character, and, in some instances, of saintly piety, were enduring on board the French galleys; a condition from which, as they were constantly assured by the chaplains on board, who generally proved the most rancorous of their persecutors, a single word from themselves would, within


forty-eight hours have set them free. Yet could not all this suffering extort from them a renunciation of their faith.

In some respects, indeed, and especially so far as the influence of priests and Jesuits could be brought to bear against these martyrs of conscience, the 'Hugonot dogs, as they were called, were even more hardly treated than their criminal associates.

Marteilhe himself, indeed, as appears from his own candid narrative, obtained from various causes an exemption from some of the most dreadful rigours of his lot. Even in favour of these wretched captives some mitigating influence could be and was exercised through the mediation of their co-religionists in various parts of France. This influence operated in various ways. Sometimes the persons in authority over the slaves were in their secret hearts friendly to the faith which they had not the courage openly to profess; sometimes they were worked upon by Protestant friends or connexions. We may collect, too, from this memoir, that there was something in the personal character of Marteilhe --his probity, his truthfulness, his patience, and his superior intelligence — which moved in his behalf the hearts of those who were not utterly steeled to mercy. Nor is it presumptuous to believe that, as in the case of His persecuted servants of old, He to whom these poor men so faithfully bore witness, gave them "favour in the sight of their stern gaolers and overseers. There were, however, incidents to this cruel service from which there was no privilege of exemption, perils of the sea and perils of war, of which the author of this narrative endured his full share. A striking account is given of a storm in which the galley that he rowed in narrowly escaped foundering. A squall suddenly sprung up in a time of apparently settled fair weather, and caught the vessel in a situation of great exposure to the wind. All on board gave themselves up for lost, and in that hour of confusion the bonds of discipline being relaxed, the galleyslaves began to triumph, and fearlessly taunted their officers. "Now, gentlemen, they cried, we shall very soon be all upon a footing—we shall all drink out of the same glass presently. It seemed as if all hope were lost, and they were in the very jaws of death, when they were rescued by the extraordinary skill and adroitness of a fisherman, one Peter Bart, who was on board, an habitual drunkard, but in his sober moments an incomparably skilful seaman. To this man, despairing of all other resources, the captain gave an absolute discretion to save the vessel, making over the command into his hands. By a marvellous effort of skill this daring and dexterous pilot brought round the galley and steered her safely, with only some slight damage to her bow, into Dunkirk Harbour.


E 2

But to the fettered and closely-packed inmates of these floating prisons there was another danger even more dreadful than the tempest. The galley-slaves, when their vessel was in action, were placed between two fires; that of their own guns and that of the enemy. How frightful was the carnage when from the port-holes of the tall frigate with which they were engaged, the cannon poured down its volleys into that chained and defenceless mass of human beings below! And however much the enemy might be inclined to spare those whose sympathies were probably on his side, he could hardly disregard the fact that, to disable those who constituted the motive power of the vessel was in fact to place the galley at his mercy. A striking illustration of the dangers to which the galley-slaves were exposed, and at the same time one of the most spirited descriptions we have ever met with of an obstinate sea-fight, is given by Marteilhe, who was cruelly wounded, and escaped with his life almost by a miracle on that occasion. The singular nature of the contest, and the admirable conduct of one of the combatants, the commander of an English frigate, entitle this action to an honourable place in the records of naval daring.

It was in the year 1708, when the French galleys were employed by their government, then at war with this country, in cruising about the Channel to cut off stray ships or make descents on the English coast, that a squadron of six of these vessels, under the command of De Langeron, being not far off Harwich, got sight of a fleet of merchantmen, thirty-five in number, who were coming from the Texel, and making for the mouth of the Thames, under the convoy of an English frigate, the · Nightingale,' of thirty-six guns. The prospect of so rich a booty aroused all the ardour of the French commander, who, confident in his superior strength and numbers, instantly formed his plan for capturing the merchantmen and demolishing their convoy. Four of the galleys were ordered to chase and make prize of the merchantmen, which could offer little or no resistance, while De Langeron himself, with his own galley, in which Marteilhe was one of the rowers, prepared to attack the frigate. A sixth galley was in reserve, but did not immediately join in the action. The French captain, who counted on an easy victory, no sooner came within gunshot of his opponent than he poured in a fire from his guns, to which the frigate made no reply; and the galley was thereupon driven, according to the usual style of attack, with all the force of her oars to crush the stern of the English vessel, the marines being prepared to rush on board and complete the capture. But this manoeuvre was frustrated by the skill and presence of mind


« PreviousContinue »