Monday, 15 June 2015

The Protestant galley slaves

According to André Zysberg, in the period between the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, 5%  of convicts entering the galley fleet in Marseilles were Huguenots and Camisards - 600 out of a total of 12,000 convicts at any one time. (The figure dropped to 1% after 1716).  In all 1,550 Protestants are recorded in the Marseille registers. The pattern of their arrival mirrored the peaks of Louis XIV's policy of repression against the Huguenots:the Revocation itself, the start of the War of the League of Augsburg (1690), the Peace of Ryswick in 1697 and the Revolt of the Camisards in the early 18th century.  They were condemned according to the provisions of the Edict of Fontainbleau:  22%  for attempting to leave the country, 53% for illegally gathering in "Churches of the Desert", 11% for possession of firearms or gunpowder and 1% for sheltering a pastor.

The Huguenot galley slaves are commemorated in the Musée du Désert in Anduze in the Gard. The museum's website has a comprehensive A-Z listing of names of those persecuted.  Building on the work started by Gaston Tournier in the 1940s, they have amassed over 2,700 biographies. (This is getting on for twice Zysberg's number, a discrepancy not entirely explained, even if not all those condemned actually ended up in Marseilles).

Gallery and memorial in the Musée du Désert

Contemporary lists and accounts  give a little more sense of the reality behind the numbers. According to the former galley chaplain Jean Bion, Protestants entered Marseille in the chain gang a hundred at a time but by 1707 less than a quarter survived - and many of those who remained  languished in the dungeons of the Château d'If and other prisons.  A "True and Exact List" published in 1698 gives the disposition of some 350 Protestants,  dispersed a dozen or so to each galley.  According to Jean Marteilhe, there were twenty-two Huguenots aboard the six galleys of the Atlantic fleet at the fall of Dunkirk in 1712 and forty on the flagship La Réale in Marseille.  He reports that in 1714 lists were drawn up of "upward of three hundred" Protestants in Marseille in the wake of  diplomatic pressure from Britain for a general amnesty.  Despite these initiatives - and the fact that many Huguenots  were able eventually to buy their freedom  - in 1755 a list of "Protestants who are now actually slaves aboard the French Gallies" could still muster fifty names.  The very last forçats pour la foi - Paul Achard, aged 72 and Antoine Riaille 64, unaccountably omitted for lists,  were finally released in 1775, both having served over thirty years as bagnards.

Museum and lists of names:

 Musée du Désert - Virtual visit (galley slave memorial and memorabilia)

" Les Galériens Protestants" on on the Musée du Désert website:

The genealogical site, "Huguenots de France et d'ailleurs" is also preparing a database of Protestant galley slaves:

Athanase Coquerel, Les forçats pour la foi, étude historique (1684-1775) (1866)
This older study has a list by year

See also:
"Sentenced to the galleys"  article in Virtual Museum of Protestantism

Contemporary lists: 
A true and exact list of the French Protestants, slaves on board the French Galleys, for adhering to the Profession of the Protestant Religion [July 1698]

List of 1755

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