Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The galley slaves of Marseille

La Réale rentrant au port (Anonymous, after 1694)
Musée national de la Marine, Paris

It comes as some surprise to learn that penal servitude in the royal galley fleet  was a reality in Ancien régime France until as late as the 1770s.  An increasing anachronism in 18th century warfare, galleys survived surprisingly late into the 18th century. The zenith of the war galley as an instrument of French naval hegemony in the western Mediterranean was in the 1690s, when the royal fleet based in Marseille numbered up to forty vessels (There was also a small fleets in Dunkirk, Brest and Bordeaux). In 1699 the Arsenal at Marseilles was rebuilt and extended. The galleys were a symbol of French royal power, as is clear from the magnificent decorations of the lead galley, La Réale, preserved today in the Musée de la marine in Paris. The royal galley was a piece of Baroque theatre; according to Nicolas Arnoul, Louis XIV's intendant of the fleet, it was "a triumphal chariot, with 300 chained slaves; Roman emperors could not boast as much" (cited by André Zysberg)   Followed the War of Spanish Succession, from 1719 to 1738 a dozen or so galleys were maintained of which only six to eight were operational.  The Regent's legitimised natural son Jean Philippe d'Orléans was given the post in 1719 of Général des galères, which he held until his death in 1748  - an appointment which no doubt contributed to the continued  nominal existence of the fleet.  The last campaign in which galleys were involved took place under his command in the summer of 1747.  On 27 November 1748 Louis XV finally signed the order which formally disbanded the fleet and merged its personnel into the navy.  The majority of convicts were shifted elsewhere, chiefly to Brest, the chief base of the Atlantic fleet.  In 1779 there were only two galleys remaining in Marseille and four in Toulon.  The very last galley of France, la Ferme, was broken up in 1814.


The Peine des Galères

The concept of "penal servitude" in the galleys was laid down relatively late in the galleys' history.   "La peine des galères", with the double meaning of punishment and hard labour,  was not institutionalised in law until 1670 to 1690;  up to this period, galleys had been manned on a fairly ad hoc basis by Muslim slaves, deserters from the royal army, vagabonds and gypsies, and criminals whose death sentences had been commuted.  Slaves, particularly Turks from central Europe, continued to provide about 20% of the galériens. The Criminal Ordinance of 1670 for the first time set fixed term sentences to the galleys (three, five, nine years) as penalities for grand criminel offences in royal courts - bailliages, presidials, and the  Parlement -and made life in the galleys an alternative sentence for many capital offences. Further laws in May 1680, June 1722 and August 1729 made a term of servitude in the galleys the mandatory penalty for smuggling and the illicit sale of salt, tobacco and painted fabrics. During the reign of Louis XIV prisoners were often kept beyond their sentence, but under the Regency sentences were strictly adhered to.

The decline of the fleet did not mean an end to "la peine des galères" as punishment -  far from it. The convicts were merely diverted onto servitude in port of Marseille, where they worked both in the Arsenal, the prison factory and contracted out to employers in the town. After 1748 this organisation was taken over and adapted in the bagnes (dockyard penal compounds), notably the notorious Bagne at Brest. According to Richard Mowery Andrews, the regiment which developed in the galleys and the bagnes provided a model for later penitentiaries. The modern prison was not "born" in the late 18th century, as Michel Foucault has argued, but in the galleys : "the progenitive form of the modern French penitentiary... were the royal war galleys at Marseilles". (Andrews, Law, Magistracy and Crime p.316)

Who were the galley slaves?

In 1989 André Zysberg  published a monumental study of the Marseille galériens using the (then) pioneering technics of computerised data analysis to examine detailed records, preserved in the Toulon archives,  of 60,000 convicts registered between 1680 and 1748. The numbers involved were huge,  suggesting an average of 870 entering the system each year. In the early 18th-century, there were some 12,000 convicts at any one time,  represented a sixth of the total population of Marseille. 40% of the men were sentenced by the royal courts or condemned to the galleys for vagabondage and mendicancy; 30% were smugglers ; 25% were deserters from the army (until 1716 when  the figure dropped to 5%  due to the re-imposition of a mandatory death penalty for desertion) 

Here is André Zysberg in a TV programme from 1978, examining the registers. Many of those convicted were guilty of pitifully minor crimes - the theft of spoons and forks, or of a cow  In addition about 5% were Huguenots, though this figure declined to 1% after 1716.

The chain gangs.
 The great chain gangs on their way to the galleys in Marseille were a conspicuous and minatory sight on the roads of  Ancien régime France.   Prisoners  from all over France converged on Paris, Rennes and Bordeaux, where the Grandes Chaînes were formed,  heavily armed convoys of between 250 and 400 men.  In Paris the chain gangs left twice a year from the notorious fortress prison of La Tournelle on the Left Bank, taking the main route to Dijon via Auxerre and Montbard, as far as  Chalon. They were then transported in open barges down the Saône and Rhône to Avignon. The final 70 miles over the hills of Provence were completed on foot. More than 300 miles were covered in a month or so, at a forced pace of 15 miles a day, each man burdened with 40 pounds of iron around his necks and ankles. Many perished en route.

On arrival at the Arsenal in Marseilles, the convict was entered in the registers (with physical description) and given a number by clerks, then thoroughly inspected by physicians and officers.  If deemed fit to row, he was unchained and taken aboard a training galley.  He was stripped naked and his head shaved; issued with the uniform of the galérien, the infamous red stocking cap, blue shirt and knee-length kilt, rough red stockings and long heavy winter cape.  He went barefoot except when detailed to work ashore.  He constantly wore a leg fetter and chain aboard the galley.

Life on board the galleys

Jean-Baptiste de La Rose, Arsenal des galères de la ville de Marseille, 1666 
 Marseille, Musée de la Marine
The chiourme, or company of chained oarsmen, lived in their galleys all year long, even in the "dead season" from October to April, when the fleet was anchored in the inner harbour of Marseilles.  In winter they slept on the deck under a huge canvas covering.  Many died of cold - 3,000 in the winter of 1709-10.  On board space was unimaginably constricted. 450 soldiers galériens  and crew, with all their equipment, munitions and stores, were packed into a vessel which measured a mere 49 yards long by 10 yards wide.  There was a cargo hold divided into twelve compartments, an elevated stern deck which contained the officers' quarters and the main deck filled by the rowing benches.  In addition, soldiers, sailors and cannons  were housed on or under the raised prow deck.  

There were typically 260 oarsmen - twenty-six benches, with five rowers to each oar. Each man was given a station according to his relative strength; often Turkish slaves held the most onerous positions.  Each bench was seven feet long and six inches wide, with a slanted back and foot planks on the back for the rowers on the bench behind.  The oarsmen moved shoulder to shoulder, completing one stroke every three seconds.  In calm seas they could achieve the considerable speed of five nautical miles an hour.  Only cutting sugar cane or mining were remotely comparably in the expenditure of human energy.  The exhausting regime was prey to the petty tyrannies of the comites or overseers, who were free with the lash and open to corruption.  Like all prisons of the Ancien régime, peculation was rife among the petty officers and prisoners with access to funds could significantly improve their lot, gaining more rations or a better placement on the rowing bench. In 1703 it was estimated that about one-third of the galley slaves did not leave the port because they had bribed the officers.  "Everything was for sale" remarks André Zysberg, "even freedom itself".

Like the forced labour of later centuries, on the galleys a fine balance was maintained between punishment and the need to preserve sufficient strength to work.  Rations were minimally adequate - a pound-and-a-half of wheat bread, bean soup, olive oil and a litre of red wine.  Each galley had a surgeon, small infirmary and medical stores - though as the memoirs of Protestant convert Jean Bion attest, conditions for the sick on board the galleys could be truly appalling.  The Royal Hospital in the Arsenal was an advanced facility by the standards of the day - heated, well-ventilated, with 175 available beds.  Almost half of convicts died during their servitude  - most of infections and cold, and most within the first three years -  a figure which remained constant in war and in the period of peace and work in the Arsenal between 1716 and 1748. 

On the galleys of Louis Quartorze, rehabilitation remained a goal for the next life rather than this. On ceremonial occasions galley slaves were expected to provide archaic howls of despair to denote their condition as lost souls in a captive body. A resident chaplain, usually drawn from the Lazarists of St Vincent de Paul  led prayers morning and evening on board the galley, celebrated mass on Sundays and attended to spiritual welfare.

In the port of Marseille

During the winter months, between October and April, when the galleys came into port, the convicts worked in the Arsenal or were contracted to the artisans and merchants of Marseille.  At the apogee of the system some two thousand men, chained in pairs, came daily into the town to work.  They were concentrated mainly in the soap factories of the Rue Sainte  and Place aux Huiles and in the sugar refineries.   Leather goods and clothes were also made on board ship.  Contracts were usually controlled by the petty officers who paid the convicts piece rates, but it was also possible for the oarsmen themselves to amass money for raw materials such as cotton and silk thread.  The rive Neuve of the Arsenal, where the convicts produced goods as artisans and operated small dockside shops and stalls constituted a thriving and cosmopolitan market area.

The cheap labour of the galley slaves was critically important to the Marseille economy.  In 1702 rules were negotiated by the guilds and corporations with the officers of the galleys to regulate hire, salary and rights of the galériens; at this time no less than seventy-seven merchants and craftsmen, representing all the corporations of Marseille, were involved in the use of convict labour.

18th-century print of the Arsenal after Jacques Rigaud (1681-1754)
One of a set of 4 prints depicting the galleys of  Marseilles - sold by Vasari in December 2014
As the number of galleys at sea declined in the 18th century, work ashore became increasingly important.  The royal Arsenal in Marseille, expanded significantly at the beginning of the 18th century, is reckoned as  "possibly the largest factory in France".  Inside its walled enclave was the armory of the fleet, plus  docks, construction and repair yards, and a vast complex of foundaries, ateliers and warehouses, reckoned to employ several thousand men - artisans, salaried or piece-rate workers as well as  convicts. A brigade of four hundred galériens were assigned permanently to hard labour in the docks, added to by oarsmen in the off-season.

Plan of the Marseille Arsenal: http://desinroc.free.fr/chrono2/galere.html

The decline in numbers of galleys, from fifteen in 1720 to just six in 1748, meant that labour at the Arsenal became the principal form of punishment for most convicts.  The Marseille bagne or penitentiary factory was created in 1700 on the initiative of Phelypeaux de Pontchartrain, then Secretary of State for the Navy.  One to two thousand prisoners deemed unfit to row served out their sentence there, producing textiles for the fleet.  Work was contracted out to a consortia of Marseille merchants, who received a subvention for each convict worker and paid them a small wage.  The bagne was administered by the intendant of the galleys, with the state providing  food and clothing, guards and medical care.  The accommodation - a long, barrack-like, two-story building - prefigured subsequent compounds at Brest, Rochfort and Toulon.  On the ground floor was an immense factory space, where convicts were fettered to their work tables,whilst on the second floor the dormitory could accommodate perhaps 2,000 chained inmates. The justification of the system by Benigne du Trousset d'Hericourt, the last intendant of the galleys, expresses the full Enlightenment agenda or utility and reform: "The establishment of the bagne factory is useful to the State and to the galleys in several ways; it provides for manufacturing, it forms workers, it occupies and instructs convicts with term sentences so that once their sentences are served they know a trade and can earn a living, it furnishes uniforms for the oarsmen at no expense to the State". (quoted by André Zysberg)


André Zysberg
Les Galériens du roi - vies et destins de 60 000 forçats sur les galères de France : 1680-1748 (1987)
There are no extracts from the book available on the internet, but you can hear André Zysberg discuss his principal conclusions in this episode of Apostrophes from 1987:

See also:  Richard Mowery Andrews Law, Magistracy, and Crime in Old Regime Paris, 1735-1789: Volume 1 (1994), p.316-30.

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