Sunday, 21 June 2015

Life in the galleys - the Memoirs of Jean Marteihle

The memoirs of the Huguenot convict Jean Marteilhe, represent one of the few eye-witnesses accounts of life aboard the galleys. The circumstances surrounding the first publication of Marteilhe's work in Rotterdam in 1757 are not really known, but in 1758 it was translated into English by no lesser personage than Oliver Goldsmith (under the pseudonym James Willington).  There are modern critical editions in both French and English.

Persecution of the Huguenots according to Romeyn de Hooghe;
 Illustration from the Huguenot Museum in Germany

Marteilhe was born in Bergerac in 1684 into an affluent and well-educated Protestant family. In 1700 when the duc de La Force was given permission to "convert" the local Huguenots; twenty-two dragoons were forcibly billeted with the Bergerac family, Jean's father imprisoned and his mother tortured into signing a renunciation of her faith. Jean and a companion attempted to escape to Holland but were captured at the French frontier near Marienbourg and imprisoned in Tournay.  Having been condemned to the galleys, the young men were held for several months in Lille.  In January 1702 they were advised by the sympathetic prison governor to avoid the arduous march to Marseilles by joining the last of the bands of convicts heading for Dunkirk where the six galleys of the Atlantic fleet were based.  They were given a wagon and spared the worst deprivations of the journey. But on arrival, they were assigned to the galleys:  Marteilhe served first on board the Heureuse commanded by Commodore de la Pailleterie, then later on the flagship La Palme. 

The Chain gang

Marteilhe did not in fact escape the horrors of the chain-gang for, after several years in the Atlantic fleet, following the surrender of Dunkirk to the English in 1712, he and twenty-two fellow Huguenots compelled to transfer to the galleys in Marseilles.
Illustration from Gaston Tournier's  Les galères de France et les galériens protestants (1944)
There were four hundred men in all, or two hundred couples, in the chain-gang. A chain about a yard long joined the collars of each pair, with a large ring in the middle, through which passed the links of the ponderous grande chaîne which kept the whole gang together. The weight which each man carried was about one hundred and fifty pounds.  The rapacity of the escort aggravated the hardship.  At Charenton, in freezing weather, all the prisoners were compelled to strip naked and stand for two hours to remain stark naked while their clothes were searched, ostensibly to find hidden files.  Afterwards came blows, when the victims were too stiff to move, and they were dragged back to their places by the chain attached to their necks. On this and the succeeding day, eighteen men died of exposure and ill-usage.  

To an extent the Huguenots were spared the worse cruelties through the aid of the nouveaux convertis, who rushed to meet these "confessors of the truth"; in Paris a rich sympathiser paid "one hundred crowns to buy us off from blows" However, they could do little to mitigate the discomforts of the prisoners when, as at Rouen, they were crowded into a foul hole, or, as at the Tournelle,  chained by the neck to huge beams, uable neither to sit norstand. Fortunately for Marteilhe he was detained here only three days and three nights.

This entry from the Marseilles register records Marteilhe's arrival from Dunkirk; his name is also preserved in an official roll of 47 slaves liberated in June 1713.  See:
"Jean Marteilhe’s official traces" 27 April 2014
Tumblr post by Trompe-la-mort "Ça me connaît"

The experience of the galériens

Marteihle's account includes a number of digressions on the nature of the galleys, and, in the appendices,  more extended description of the galleys and the employment of the galériens when in the port.  Here is one such passage where he elaborates on the experience of rowing a galley:

Marteihe first describes the exiguous conditions on board the galleys, and the way in which the galley slaves are chained, crowded together, on their benches:  He goes on to explain their labour:

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 requring further Orders, till by another Signal of the Whistle, they desist in a Moment.  There is an absolute Necessity for thus rowing all together; for should one of the Oars be lifted up, or fall too soon; those before 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 was the only Punishment: the Comite exercises 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 who 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 Footstool 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 receive 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 most unbounded Authority.  No free Man could contnue 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 employed 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! (p.57-9)

The bastinado

According to Marteilhe, it was above all the capricious and sadistic power of the captains and overseers which made the life of the galériens  unbearable.  He might, he writes, have endured the labour, were he not subject to "the capricious Insolence of a Parcel of petty Tyrants". A brutal captain might arouse the chained rowers from their exhausted sleep merely to show a visitor how promptly he could set the galley in motion. Marteilhe's memoirs include one of the most graphic accounts of the dreaded "bastinado", not in the French galleys a "foot-whipping", but a vicious flogging:

The Criminal is stript from the Waist upward. He is extended with his Face downward, his Arms upon one Bench, and his Legs upon the Opposite, which are held by two Slaves that stand opposite each other. The Executioner, who is generally a Turkish Slave, stands over him with a Rope in his Hand, with which he is to beat the Criminal without the least Mercy ; for if he happens to be remiss, which is seldom the case, the Sous Comite [galley sergeant] uses him as he should have used the Criminal. Thus then every Stroke is laid on with the Executioner's whole Force, so that each Blow raises a Wheal as thick as one's Thumb. Few that are condemned to suffer this Punishment, can sustain above ten or twelve Blows without fainting. This, however, does not prevent the Executioner from proceeding. He continues to lay on the miserable and seemingly lifeless Carcase, till the Number of Blows ordered by the Major are Completed. Twenty or thirty are generally inflicted for slight Offences. I have seen fifty, eighty, even an hundred ordered ; but then those who are thus punished seldom recover. When the allotted Number of Stripes are given, the Surgeon Barber of the Galley rubs the Criminal's Back with Salt and Vinegar ; which, though it may prevent a Gangrene, yet renews all the Poignancy of his former Anguish. (p.55)

Marteilhe recounts how he was among sixty slaves re-distributed among the vessels shortly after his arrival. They were led to an open area belonging to the Arsenal, humiliatingly stripped and handled "as if they had been purchasing Oxen at a Fair".  The men were divided into two classes, the weaker and the stronger.  Marteilhe was allotted to the Palma whose comite was particularly vicious, though in fact he proved amenable to bribery - Marteilhe had his chains struck off and assigned to the comite's bench where he was eligible for scraps for the table. He was later transferred to another bench but escaped the rigours of the lash.

Having served at the oars over several campaigning seasons, Marteilhe was to sustain almost fatal injuries in an engagement with the British off the mouth of the Thames and, on his recovery, finally gained himself a trusted position as secretary to the commodore of the fleet, Langeron Maulevrier. Here we gain a glimpse of the organisation which had evolved to get money and help to the Protestant prisoners.  Marteilhe acted as intermediary for the reception and distribution of remittances which he did successfully with the aid of a loyal Turkish shipmate.  In Marseilles François Sabattier, who performed a similar service,  was not so lucky and was mercilessly flogged, then confined to a dungeon in the Château d'If. (He was released in 1713).

After the arduous march to Marseilles, Marteilhe was released as part of a general amnesty in 1713.  Little is known of his later life; he died in Holland in 1777 at the grand old age of 93. 


The memoirs of a Protestant [J. Marteilhe] condemned to the galleys of France, for his religion 
[Dublin 1765 edition]

There are modern critical editions of Marteilhe's text in French (2001, edited by André Zysberg) and in English (2010, "Galley Slave" in the Seaforth Publishing series: Seafarers' voices)

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