Galley slave

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They are ruled and chastised by strokes on their backs and soles of their feet on the least disorder, and without the least humanity; yet are they cheerful and full of knavery ~ John Evelyn
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines ~ G. K. Chesterton

A galley slave was a slave rowing in a galley, either a convicted criminal sentenced to work at the oar (French: galérien), or a kind of human chattel, sometimes a prisoner of war, assigned to the duty of rowing.

In the ancient Mediterranean, galley rowers were mostly free men, and slaves were used as rowers when manpower was in high demand. In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, convicts and prisoners of war often manned galleys, and the Barbary pirates enslaved captives as galley slaves. During the 18th and 19th centuries, pirates in Asia likewise manned their galleys with captives.


  • Then to make up the breach, all your strength you must rally,
    And labour and sweat like a slave at the galley.
  • My Master and the Neighbours all
      Make game of me and Sally;
    And (but for her) I’d better be
      A Slave and row a Galley:
    • Henry Carey, "The Ballad of Sally in our Alley"
    • Poems on Several Occasions (1729)
  • And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
    And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
    Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
    Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
    They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung
    The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.
    They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
    Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
    And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
    Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
    And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign—
    (But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
  • We went to visit the Galleys, being about twenty-five; the Captain of the Galley Royal gave us most courteous entertainment in his cabin, the slaves in the interim playing both loud and soft music very rarely. Then he showed us how he commanded their motions with a nod and his whistle, making them row out. The spectacle was to me new and strange, to see so many hundreds of miserably naked persons, having their heads shaven close and having only high red bonnets, a pair of coarse canvas drawers, their whole backs and legs naked, doubly chained about their middle and legs, in couples, and made fast to their seats, and all commanded in a trice by an imperious and cruel seaman. One Turk he much favoured, who waited on him in his cabin, but with no other dress than the rest, and a chain locked about his leg but not coupled. This galley was richly carved and gilded, and most of the rest were very beautiful. After bestowing something on the slaves, the captain sent a band of them to give us music at dinner where we lodged. I was amazed to contemplate how these miserable catiffs lie in their galley crowded together, yet there was hardly one but had some occupation by which, as leisure and calms permitted, they get some little money, insomuch as some of them have, after many years of cruel servitude, been able to purchase their liberty. Their rising forward and falling back at their oar is a miserable spectacle, and the noise of their chains with the roaring of the beaten waters has something of strange and fearful to one unaccustomed to it. They are ruled and chastised by strokes on their backs and soles of their feet on the least disorder, and without the least humanity; yet are they cheerful and full of knavery.
  • It was long and narrow, a typical trading-ship of the southern coasts, high of poop and stern, with cabins at either extremity. Conan looked down into the open waist, whence wafted that sickening abominable odor. He knew it of old. It was the body-scent of the oarsmen, chained to their benches. They were all negroes, forty men to each side, each confined by a chain locked about his waist, with the other end welded to a heavy ring set deep in the solid runway beam that ran between the benches from stem to stern. The life of a slave aboard an Argossean galley was a hell unfathomable. Most of these were Kushites, but some thirty of the blacks who now rested on their idle oars and stared up at the stranger with dull curiosity were from the far southern isles, the homelands of the corsairs. Conan recognized them by their straighter features and hair, their rangier, cleaner-limbed build. And he saw among them men who had followed him of old.
  • They do not know how the proud beauty burns
        With love, and yearns
      For one fair, golden-headed galley slave,
      Doomed by the Emperor on the coming day
        To be the tiger’s prey,
      And whom by prayer or plea she cannot save!

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