The Galeotti: rowing out of the Barbary Coast September 25, 2010Posted by Beachcombing in : Modern , trackback
It’s been a bad week in the seventeenth century. There you were, a French pilgrim, just minding your own business, lounging around on a Catalan cutter and, bang, Barbary pirates overrun the ship. Next thing you know you are being shunted on board their vessel kicking and screaming and being told that you are to be taken to the slave markets of Algiers.
What still not convinced that things could get any worse? Allow Beachcombing to try and convince you otherwise.
While your more handsome Christian companions are sold off to local Islamic burghers for garden work and, in some cases, sodomy, you are getting on a bit and have no wealth to speak of back home. It is only some local sea captains that show any real interest in you. They keep asking you to jump up and down to test elasticity and they measure your grip with their hands. Then finally they make you chew some wood soaked in vinegar. After about five minutes you discover it is not wood but a stale biscuit and make the mistake of smiling. Woops! You’ve shown that your teeth are up to the diet of a galley slave and you’ve won your one way ticket to rowing hell.
You are brought to the harbour and told to say goodbye to the land. You may not take this very seriously – you are more concerned with the appalling smell coming from said boat. But when you learn that two of the five men on your bench have been on the boat without rest for thirty years and the other for eight or nine years without touching the shore your regrets begin to bubble up like bile.
As you sit down you see that the backs of the dozens of men lining the rowing stations have reddish stained backs, a combination of the sun (no sun block for the galeotti) and the slash of the supervisor’s whip.
That whip made of a stretched and dried bull’s penis is not though the worst thing that awaits you. What sends many of the newcomers mad is the lack of space. You are chained to a bench from which you cannot move and it is here in the prone position that you will sleep - kind of. If there is a chase at sea you will not sleep for days at a time. Otherwise you will sleep for one or two hours at night as the benches take turns to nod off. Like a twenty-first century executive or a junior doctor you’ll be doing twenty hours a day.
The pay is not as good though.
The only freedom that a galley slave has is to relieve himself by clambering over colleagues with his chains and resorting to a special opening in the boat-side. Many rowers do not though have the strength to get up. They soil themselves where they sit creating the unique aroma of your working environment.
The soilers will not last long. Weak and dead slaves – a chase often sees several rowers expire – will be thrown overboard to lighten the load and will give you one of your few moments of joy, a little more wriggle room.
You want out? Then try the risky game of convincing your captors to let you write home and ask for ransom. These ransoms are generally honoured if they arrive, but if your relatives do not write back then depend on your captors to make your life even worse. Test the desperation in the following seventeenth century letter from the galleys (79) and this poor soul had not yet even put his hand on an oar.
For the love of God, my Father, do not abandon me in this horrible captivity; for the Viscera of the Virgin Mary, that which you have to do, do it with all speed possible, since if my ransom does not arrive soon, my Master will send me to the Galleys, where others of my companions have gone. For the Holy Souls of Purgatory, do no let me die in despair within the Galleys, but either with Charity or with your help get me out of this Hell, where I remain, with irons and fetters and chains around my neck and shackles at my feet.
Beachcombing imagines that you are consoling yourself that relatively few will have ended up suffering this fate. Well don’t bother. At Lepanto it is estimated that there were 80,000 rowers on the various boats, while scholars have suggested that millions of Christians were sucked into the Arab slave markets from 1500-1800. Beachcombing’s advice? Never leave shore and never go to Calabria.
Beachcombing was wondering idly (as you do) about other appalling existences and unsavoury jobs: suggestions on a postcard to drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com