Les galères et les galériens

French galley slaves of the ancien régime


Criminal procedures in Europe have developed since the Papal Inquisition used interrogation and confession under torture.

Prison was a foretaste of hell where the guilty considered their opportunity to recant and receive absolution; those who continued to deny their sins were sent to hell.

The justice of the King of France had other priorities: proven criminals were pressed into military service to the King.

Ships rowed by galley slaves have been used in the sheltered seas of the Mediterranean since ancient times.

The galley ships «galères» of medieval France were rowed by «forçats», criminals condemned to slave labour known as «galériens» sentenced to «la peine des galères».

The modern French still use these words as the ultimate forced slave labour.

galè du Roy

Galères were based on designs from the ancient world: the Greek trireme - rowed by three rows of oarsmen on each side. But service in the armies and trireme navies of ancient Greece was one of the honourable obligations of a citizen.

Galères were based at Brest, Dunquerque and Marseille (although later moved to Toulon) and used in the wars of France against the Italian states. The numbers of forçats were insufficient and were augmented by free men, particularly during the wars of Louis XIV.

The fighting season was restricted to the summer as the galères were unsuitable for stormy seas. During the winter, the galériens were quartered still on the galères in the ports. Some galley slaves were permanently chained at the ankle to keep them in place.

Galley slaves rowed bare-chested; discipline and heavy labour was maintained on board ship by the whip «fouet» and the rope-end.

Galériens lived in close proximity and their life expectancy was not long.

The heads of the Galériens were shaved which marked them as forçats, criminals. Turks kept a tuft of hair.

Galériens of the time of the Hugenot Protestant forçats were issued with two shirts and a jacket per year; the jacket covered down to their knees, the elbows and knees were reinforced with red material. Because of the permanent chain on the ankle, it was necessary to wear a «jupe» ie divided skirt trousers with button or lace-up fixings to allow the ankle fetter chain; modern equivalents are the pop-off trackie trousers with buttons up the outside leg seam. The ensemble was completed by a red woolen hat.

Tattooing was outlawed by the Church and I cannot find any mention that galériens were tattooed. It seems that tattoos were rediscovered from the Polynesians by the sailors of Captain Cook's "Bounty" and spread amongst the forçats, transportés and bagnards thereafter.

Many songs are derived from origins in the galères and bagnes.

By the time of the French Revolution of 1789 the galères were outdated in naval warfare; criminals were condemned to transportation to the bagnes and penitenciers coloniaux, the equally notorious prisons and forced labour settlements as republican France colonised Guyana, Polynesia and New Caledonia. The military recruited volunteers, from 1831 foreigners were recruited into the Légion Étrangère as paid volunteer légionnaires.

The accounts of life on the galley ships are from the Captains of the ships, those who gained freedom or reprieve eg André Prudhomme (1586) and from Hugenot Protestants like Jean Marteihle.

Bagnards et forçats d'après les dessins de Pierre Letuaire (1798-1885), correspondant de presse à «l'Illustration»

Les galèriens protestants des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles

La Galère - poem by Jean Genet about galériens

Les Tsiganes

L'histoire de l'Archiduc Slbert, Gouverneur General et puis Prince Souverain de la Belgique

Lexique du vocabulaire de la marine dans des dictionnaires et textes de la Renaissance française

I pirati mediterranei

I - poem from Associazione Nazionale di Amicizia Italia-Cuba

FFL/ LE - The massive door swung open to a gaping gateway into the unknown. Beyond was the lure of adventure in the most mysterious corps of warriors the world knew...[US]

French penal regimes

The Training Ships History Page - Royal Navy traditional discipline and preparation for a life of "Rum, buggery and the Lash"

Some Medieval Torture Museums in Europe

Be a galley slave in your own gym - my rowing machine workout scores

Pirate punishments and pirate sexuality - Punishments for buccaneers, outlaws and masculine antiheroes

Discipline and punishments of the Roman legions

Return to my HomePage http://www.milism.net

url of this page http://www.milism.net/galere.htm

do not reproduce, copy or reframe: content copyright squaddie John © 2003. Page ICRA labelled.