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Fighting Ships and Prisons: Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV Review


Our memory of galleys is often focused on the idea of them in the ancient world, with a vision of rows of galley slaves chained to the oars, preparing for a ramming attack on enemy ships. This view is a hodge podge of eras, as many of the rowers in the ancient world were not slaves, but instead freemen, highly trained and disciplined - but if the ancient world didn't use slaves to the extent we would think of, the early modern one definitely did, exemplified by the great galley fleet of the French Sun King, Louis XIV. Thousands of men were condemned to the oars, captured from the Muslim powers, bought at slave markets, even experimentally imported from West Africa and the Iroquois tribes to man the oars of the most magnificent galley fleet in Europe, under terrible and trying conditions - all to serve an increasingly obsolete and ineffective military arm. Paul W. Bamford furnishes a splendid account of conditions on the ships and the life of sailors, the organization of the galley corps, and its relationship to justice, prisons, and the early modern French economy in his excellent book Fighting Ships and Prisons: Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV.

The French galley Réale returning to port

The French galley Réale returning to port

Bamford's introduction lays out a general structure of social relations on French galleys, particularly officers and leaders and their relationship to king and alternate orders such as the Pope or the Knights of Malta, the prisoners and slaves who manned the oars, and priests and chaplains, and how they fit into Louis XIV's broader political goals and ambitions.

"The Uses of Galleys" looks at the role of the galley and its use across Europe and the Mediterranean, their advantages and usage in the Mediterranean, both by the Christian European states and Muslim, principally North African ones. It was under Louis XIV that the French massively expanded their galley fleet, despite the increasingly secondary military role that galleys played, as a counter to other galley fleets, as a strategy of prestige, noble patronage with co-opting French nobles from the Knights of Saint John, economic labor with the enslaved oarsmen, and due to their appealing nature to a land-centered king like Louis XIV to whom galleys were a much more understandable and predictable weapon of war than fickle wind-based sailing ships. Protestants and convicts, as well as slaves and foreigners, were sent to the galleys to be reformed, in fighting for his most Christian Majesty Louis XIV against the infidel.

"Limitations of the Oar" covers the increasingly limited actual combat role of galleys, which could not mount as many heavy guns as sailing ships, were vulnerable to cannon-fire, and whose structural integrity and sailing abilities were increasingly undermined by the naval arms race. Galleys could not operate in rough seas, their range was limited, and they were heavily impacted by adverse winds and currents. Galleys were capable of moving under their own power, without the wind, but their rowers would quickly grow tired rowing against the wind, and were rarely as fast as advertised. The only real advantage of galleys was in running down enemy galleys, but the French found little success in this against the Spanish, who did not often wish to give battle and whose fleet often included more carefully selected and elite rowers which gave them the speed advantage, while the French had insufficient bases to intercept the Spanish. There were few actual battles, nor many successes, of French galleys in combat. What galleys were often used for instead was to enforce deference from other Mediterranean powers and force them to salute to France, as a diplomatic tool for the prestige and influence of France.

The French galley base in Marseille

The French galley base in Marseille

"The Base at Marseille" moves on to the basing arrangements of the galleys. The regular French navy had its main bases at Rochefort, Brest, and Toulon, but the French Galley Corps was based out of Marseille. The development of Marseille's galley base was of benefit to Marseille and furnished support for the galleys, and clearly delineated between the sailing navy and the rowing navy, and Louis XIV was determined to make it into the largest and grandest of any galley base in the world. This was however, an excellent representation of contestations between central and local authority, because while the local merchants and elites of Marseille welcomed the labor and business of the galleys, they did not like them taking up so much prized waterfront space in an expanding galley base. The galley base intendants furthermore were finally self-interested, which was nothing out of the ordinary at the time. Although the arsenal which was ultimately constructed was an impressively sized and grandiose affair, it still had many defects and shortcomings, showing once more that the focus was more on grandeur than on efficiency. These problems were also linked to the inherently nepotistic and clientalism based administration of Ancien Régime France, which prioritized loyalty over competence and honesty.

"Building and Victualing the Galley Corps" continues with how galleys were built, discussing technical features of their design and the special nature of some of the flagships, heavily decorated and lavishly, and expensively, outfitted - such as Réale, whose cloth alone cost the staggering sum of 109,000 livres, a measurable part of the entire naval budget! It also discusses shipbuilding with either ships built by the state, ie. by régie, or by contractors, by enterprise, much cheaper but often of inferior quality. Contracts themselves varied wildly in terms of re-compensation and terms. The state attempted to institutionalize and publicize the private knowledge of galley designers, who learned their craft in the family trade and were loath to share their secrets, but failed to achieve anything of note with its naval architecture school due to hardened and stubborn resistance of the designers, eager to preserve their trade. The fast growing French galley fleet led to many vessels to be built from green and unseasoned timber, shortening their life, and the overcrowding onboard led to filth and uncleanliness. As the French galley fleet reached its maximum size and began to shrink however, galley lifespans grew greatly, as more effort was made to conserve the ships and better timber was used. Supplying the fleet was often prone to corruption, which is part of why the galley fleet, despite its limited military achievements, consumed 20-25% of the navy's total budget.

Finding the officers to man the ships was both a problem and a reason for why the galleys were created, as is explained by "Officers and the Crown." Almost every galley officer was a nobleman, galleys played a prominent crusading role, and had a dash and old-style martial vigor which sailing ships did not possess - while conditions were better for officers as they would not have to serve long overseas like sailing ships, and they could get fast promotion. The training school of these men were the Knights of Malta, where most of them were drawn. These noblemen officers were an unruly lot, extremely proud and independent, and often disobeyed instructions. Many galley positions were purchased, rather than earned, giving the office owner exceptional independence. Officers and their corruption was a common affair, as officers had a variety of prerequisites and controls over their men that they exploited to their financial advantage. The process of attempting to curb this and exert royal control over the galley officers would be a long and difficult one.

"Chaplains, Lower Officers, and Freemen Crew" moves onto the middle ranks of the galley crews. Chaplains were much critiqued for religious zeal, on ships which were intended to carry out punishment and conversion of French Protestants, but in fact chaplains seem broadly to have been rather moderate and were driven to greater strictness by orders from above. It was only in the late 1680s that religious policy turned notably cruel, under direction from higher authorities. Other non-commissioned officers included surgeons, who like other men in authority in this era profited greatly off of the men under their charge. Perhaps the greatest single authority in mens' life however, was the comité, and the argousin, who had direct control over the oarsmen, and who kept the men in line with force and brutality. They were allocated privileges such as tavern rights, the right to sell alcohol to the men on the galleys, a long-standing and historical concession and one which they could exercise due to bringing wine onboard the ships without paying duties. These prerequisites formed a much larger portion of re-compensation than actual wages. Soldiers and recruits were at the bottom of the hierarchy, and like the oarsmen were not provided enough pay to survive on just their job on the ship, requiring them to take up a profession on land as well. Their poor pay and ill treatment drove away free oarsmen and led to problems with the soldiers.

Slaves were the preferred backbone of the galley fleet, and "The Procurement of Slaves" examines how these, overwhelmingly Muslim, slaves were purchased. The French went to a variety of slave ports across the Mediterranean but faced the problems of foreign competition, and their desire for good relations with the Muslim powers, who did not look kindly on their subjects being enslaved on French galleys. Over time this need for good relations would reduce the number of slaves on French galleys. Only infidels, ie. non-Christians such as Muslims, could be slaves, although sometimes errors led to Levantine Christians or Eastern Europeans being enslaved, and the lot of others was sometimes little different from slaves. The French had high opinions of Turkish slaves and sought to procure many of them, or captured them as the French even commissioned privateers specifically attempting to capture slaves. Sometimes more exotic sources were used, such as some Russians, and even proposals for Greeks, as well as imports of slaves from West Africa in an experiment (ultimately not followed up on) and even Iroquois prisoners of war!

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"Condemnations to the Oar" is about perhaps the most famous group of oarsmen, the condemned and criminals, who were sent to the galleys to serve out their sentence. Branded and sent to the galleys, the monarchy sent an increasing number of offenders there rather than to prisons, to get useful work out of them. In the 1680s, a flood of protestants were condemned to the galleys, swelling their ranks and where they faced exceptionally bad treatment. Invalids and the elderly who were sent to the galleys were simply chained up in hulks, being unfit for serve at the oars. Many were unfit when they arrived at Marseille, due to terrible treatment in prisons before arrival and the rigors of the march overland to the port. Large chains were sent overland by conductors, ranging from across France, marching down the Rhone to Marseille in doleful conditions. Foreign princes too sometimes chose to get rid of their prisoners by sending them to the French galleys.

"Life Aboard" paints a picture of the crowded and poor conditions on the galleys, where men were plagued by the cold, insufficient living space, and above all else insufficient food. Although the rations improved slightly over time, they were not enough to feed men on their own, requiring them to get employment on land - and during long campaigns at sea where this was not available, men suffered and hungered. Galleys were terribly overcrowded, although only on campaign would everyone be stuffed onboard, the galleys finding shelter at night with their decks rigged as a great tent at sea, crewmen below and officers on platforms rigged above them. Theft, crime, and rebellion was punished with harsh and quick discipline. Hospitals and priests and chaplains looked after the spiritual and health needs of the men, although illness and death was still terribly high by modern standards. The chapter also looks at training, the operation of oars, and communication to people outside of the galleys.

"Life Ashore" by contrast looks at the employment and working life of the galley crews off their ships, as they were essentially forced to find employment on land. This gave them some financial relief and was important to local economies, providing a huge source of cheap labor for Marseille - with disastrous effects for local workers it might be added, and ones which were replicated whenever galleys were stationed elsewhere. Men on the galleys came from all walks of life, and some had little shops onshore, others were entrepreneurs, and still more worked as laborers. When in such a role, their employers were responsible financially for them not escaping. Some were even employed as teachers for young boys. Restrictions existed on the activities of the men, particularly to do with contact with women and venereal diseases. Workhouse prisons, bagnes, were established in the 18th century, and proved tremendously profitable to the operators if not as financially useful to the state as intended, with much of the chapter discussing the system of labor relations and costs in these, and the living standards within. Galley convicts also found employment in emergency situations, such as workers in Marseille during the plague of 1720, during which time many died but due to their service many would win their freedom.

"Releases and Escapes" discusses the oversight and surveillance system of guards to keep oarsmen from from escaping, with financial penalties for guards who failed to prevent escapes, as well as talking about the system of corruption that nevertheless existed to facilitate galley men from escaping. As a rule, escapes were still rather few, and the security system worked well. Release from the oars was difficult, requiring payment, the man to be invalid, and for him to have served his term. Some invalids were shipped off to the Americas, but this was vehemently opposed by the men themselves, not eager to be exiled forever to a strange land in difficult conditions. Slaves often won their release through prisoner exchanges with the Muslim polities. Conversion to Christianity could sometimes win a slave their release, but this meant they were isolated both in the French and Muslim world, a stranger to both.

"Transition to Prisons" returns to the subject of the prison workhouses, the bagnes, as the decline of galleys meant that increasingly to be sentenced to the galleys meant to be sentences to the bagnes. Although galley officers clung to their increasingly obsolete service and former prestige, galleys were on the way out, with the galley corps finally ending in 1748. The number of prisoners was reduced, although slaves continued to be purchased, punctuated though it was with occasional diplomatic crises with the Muslim world. The bagnes became the subject of prison reform, and although this had mixed success, the bagnes definitely offered much better conditions than other prisons of the time, shown even in the visit by the suspicious and francophone John Howard, famous advocate of prison reform, who had a positive impression of the French bagnes. Once the galleys themselves were reformed from the galley system, it would over time come to be a surprisingly humane and by the standards of the era, decent, institution.

The conclusion to the book urges us to look at the galleys as more than just their military role, but as part of a broader system with varied objectives. They served, even without much in the way of military action, the interests of the king, and the strategy of Louis XIV. They served as a way for Louis XIV to bind together his multiple strands of political action, from his policy of peace with the Muslim world, to his championing of himself as a good Christian prince, to his absolutism and quest for prestige, and which gave birth to an infamous system that would go down in history as a famously harsh life at the oar - but which also evolved over time into a more enlightened and rational project which showed the evolving society of ancien régime France.


Bamford's book manages to paint an impressively broad and detailed picture of the French galley fleet and the life of its men, ranging from what purpose it served to the French state, to its operation, to the lives of its men, economic role, administrative disputes, religious motivations and life, the purchasing of slaves and the condemnation of convicts, and the long term relationship of galleys to prison reform, at least in a small sector of French society. It is a tremendously well organized and excellent work, with no comparable book on the subject in English. Bamford's combination of brilliant in-depth examination of the life and times of his subject, a moving description of the fate of the men at the galley oars and a clear-sighted vision of their relationship to wider French society makes the book a very useful and intriguing source for information about a crucial site of historical memories of the French navy and governmental power in France and a passionate story of life on board and ashore for the men of the French galley fleets.

If there is one element of the book which can be lacking at times, it is the lack of focus on the actual military component of the French galley fleet. Although it runs to great length in describing the purpose and the utilization of the galleys, there is very little which actually talks about their tactical deployment, and operational deployment is indeed rather limited as well. This is a shame since there must have been more actions which the galleys fought than are mentioned in the book, even if it does note that their engagements with enemy galley fleets such as the Spanish one were rather few. What would also have been intriguing is to discuss what sort of arguments were advanced for the continuing utility and effectiveness of galleys. The book notes that there were a variety of conservative writers who wrote treatises concerning the continued utility of galleys, but doesn't mention what their arguments were. Other books have mentioned auxiliary roles for galleys, such as for towing ships of the line when they were becalmed, and galleys continued to be used in the Baltic until late in the 18th century, and so clearly there could have been additional discussion of the military importance of galleys.

This however, is also one of the more refreshing aspects of the book, for although it concerns itself with a military institution, the military impact and military use of the French galley fleet is not as important as the broader relevance and role of the French galley corps in Louis XIV's state and the continuing evolution of French society. Be it in regards to the evolution of state centralization and the project of Louis XIV to co-opt nobles into his service, his prestige and grandeur, the economic role of the galleys in Marseille, or their usage as an outlet for the arrested Huguenots and other prisoners as part of the project of purging French society of dissidents, the galley corps served many objectives beyond just military ones. This makes the galleys valuable as a tool to understand not just themselves, but French national politics and Louis XIV - it sheds new light on his decisions and actions. It is good to remember that any military institution is far more than just a military organization and serves far more than just military objectives.

It also has a good supply of illustrations and maps, as well as some of them incorporating useful statistical analysis. This makes many of the subjects more easily understood and better visualized.

Fighting Ships and Prisons pays real tribute to the terrible and woeful lot of the men on French galleys, in their dreadful, overcrowded conditions, under the lash, harsh discipline, exploited and abused, bought and sold, condemned to die at the oars, brought in chains to Marseille, poor wretches whose lot in life was to suffer and perish. It is hard not to be moved by the wrenching descriptions that it writes of the plight of the galley slaves and convicts, but it goes beyond this to give a holistic and complete story of the saga of the broader purpose and use of the French galley corps, and the way that its transformation over time served to create what we can perceive as a modern prison system. There is both a great emotional connection to the obvious suffering of the men, even if their names are rarely mentioned, but also an excellent placement into context, description of Louis XIV's strategy, and an understanding of the evolution of the system. For its sweeping, broad, detailed, compassionate, and prosaic description of this saga in French history, it undoutedly deserves the recognition as the best book upon the subject of the galleys of early modern France.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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