Museu Marítim de Barcelona

Living in chains
Lack of hygiene, poor food, changes in temperature, salt… Life aboard a galley was very hard. The rowers survived for an average of two years on a galley.

2 thoughts on “Museu Marítim de Barcelona

  1. Anonymous

    Galley slaves


    Contrary to the popular image of rowers chained to the oars, conveyed by movies such as Ben Hur, there is no evidence that ancient navies ever made use of condemned criminals or slaves as oarsmen, with the possible exception of Ptolemaic Egypt. Literary evidence indicates that Greek and Roman navies relied on paid labor or ordinary soldiers to man their galleys. Slaves were put at the oars only in times of extreme crisis. In some cases, these people were given freedom thereafter, while in others they began their service aboard as free men. Roman merchant vessels (usually sailing vessels) were manned by slaves, sometimes even with slaves as ship’s master, but this was seldom the case in merchant galleys.

    It was only in the early 16th century that the modern idea of the galley slave became commonplace. Galley fleets as well as the size of individual vessels increase in size, which required more rowers. The number of benches could not be increased without lengthening hulls beyond their structural limits, and more than three oars per bench was not practicable. The demand for more rowers also meant that the relatively limited number of skilled oarsmen could not keep up with the demand of large galley fleets. It became increasingly common to man galleys with convicts or slaves, which required a simpler method of rowing. The older method of employing professional rowers using the alla sensile method (one oar per man, with two to three sharing the same bench) was gradually phased out in favor of rowing a scaloccio, which required less skill. A single large oar was used for each bench, with several rowers working it together and the number of oarsmen per oar rose from three up to five. In some very large command galleys, there could be as many as seven to an oar.

    All major Mediterranean powers sentenced criminals to galley service, but initially only in time of war. Christian naval powers like Spain frequently employed Muslim captives and prisoners of war. The Ottoman navy and its North African corsair allies often put Christian prisoners to the oars, but also mixed volunteers. Spain relied on mostly servile rowers, in great part because its organizational structure was geared toward employing slaves and convicts. Venice was one of few major naval powers that used almost only free rowers, a result of their reliance on alla sensile rowing which required skilled professional rowers. The Knights of Saint John used slaves extensively, as did the Papal States, Florence and Genoa. North African ghazi corsairs relied almost entirely on Christian slaves for rowers.


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