Were Galley Slaves Really Chained To The Boat?

I have the image from “Ben Hur”-galley slaves chained to the gunnels. Is this true? The slaves had to be fed, and had to crap and pee-how could they do this if chained? Locking them down then unlocking them seems like it could be difficult and time consuming. So is the Hollywood conception totally wrong?

I don’t know if it’s true; but weren’t the slaves on the slave ships chained most of the time? Crap and urine probably went into the bilge, and would be scooped or pumped out at times by small parties of slaves.
Releasing a lot of slaves at the same time seems like it would be likely to result in mutiny.

I don’t have a cite handy, but yeah, absolutely. Recall that African slaves would be chained in the hold on the cruise from Africa to the Americas, so allowing the slaves to get up for a pee and poo break weren’t exactly high on the to do list for most slavers…you just live with the stink and allow the waste to flow into the bilges. Galley slaves would most likely be chained to the oars before engagement, i.e. you wouldn’t chain them down for days since that doesn’t make sense in terms of galley combat, but instead most likely chain a relatively fresh crew before beginning maneuvers for your engagement. And you’d chain them down so that they couldn’t bolt from the oars at a bad time. I remember reading a book a while ago about North African pirates doing this with slaves captured in various raids, but I can’t recall what the book was now (hell, it might have been a Horatio Hornblower book :p).

Yah, and what better motivation to add some urgency to the situation when the captain yells “We’re going to be RAMMED!”

It is my understanding that slaves were not usually used for combat galleys. One slave moving his oar at the wrong time could foul the entire bank, and your galley is dead in the water. And if your galley is boarded, how do you repel boarders? With free men they drop oars and grab swords and defend the boat. With slaves they just sit there.

To take an example from Ben Hur the captain tests them by making them row harder and harder, and eventually slaves start dropping from exhaustion. But that means the oars go out of control, which means everyone gets fouled, which means the exercise is over.

For a merchant ship you can stop, beat the crap out of the offending slaves, and explain that the next guy to foul the oars gets thrown overboard. How do you do that in the middle of a battle?

Depends on the galley. The Athenian galleys were rowed by free men- being a rower on a galley was considered the equal of being a hoplite infantryman.

Roman galleys were typically also rowed by free men, as were the Carthaginian galleys. Slaves were used in special, dire occasions, but on the whole, the rowers were free.

Only in the 14th-15th centuries, did the use of galley slaves become a common thing, with Christians enslaving Muslims and vice-versa. At about the same time, the galleys were also filled with prisoners, primarily condemned men. The slaves and prisoners were likely chained to the oars.

They were different from slaves for sale. They’re your ship’s engine(s). Maybe “new-hires” need to stay chained (and taste the supersonic tip of a whip every now and the) to discipline them. But the seasoned ones are basically your sailors with some semblance of discipline and loyalty. How long could they stay chained at the oar without walking or stretching before they suffer a physical breakdown?

The best description I’ve seen is in C.S. Forester’s Mr. Midshipman Hornblower. In the late 1790s, the Spanish navy, innately conservative, is still using a few galleys manned by slaves and prisoners. An older officer tells a young Hornblower that with 30 crew members and over 200 slaves, chained to the benches, “they daren’t let 'em loose, not ever.” He describes the stench of the galleys carrying over the water to the other ships in the harbor.

I can’t find a complete free copy but if you go to the Amazon page for the book, click “look inside” and search for “galley” the description is on pages 184-186.

And the most famous galley slave (as a prisoner) was Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. He’s mentioned on this page
“the King of France decreed that all galley prisoners would serve at least ten years. Surviving for ten years in a galley was no mean trick. Galley slaves were branded with the letters G-A-L. They were forced to eat, sleep, and labor chained in their own filth. When one collapsed, he was simply chucked overboard. Mercy dictated that his throat first be cut, so he wouldn’t have to suffer drowning.”

Certainly the position as described by Forester is as it was described by O’Brien in the Aubrey Maturin books. And for what it’s worth, O’Brien is known for his high degree of historical accuracy. IIRC he certainly suggests that galleys propelled by chained slaves were used in combat and that they were feared by sailing vessels because galleys - unlike sailing vessels - could move directly upwind.

Gloriana’s Torch, one of Patricia Finney’s quasi-thriller / historical novels set in Elizabeth I’s reign (books which strike me as likely pretty historically accurate – people may disagree) includes episodes of galley-slave life. One of the principal English characters falls into Spanish hands, and is made a galley slave, just in time to take part in the Armada’s expedition against England.

His galley is portrayed as a well-run outfit: not any fun for those who row it, but things could be even worse. The captain is relatively kind to his slaves, if they behave themselves – reckoning to get more work out of them that way. The slaves are, essentially, permanently chained to their benches. There’s an attempt to handle sanitary matters, by means of a gutter put in between each rowing-bench, at right-angles to the side of the ship: human waste goes in there, and can periodically be flushed out, using buckets of sea-water. The stench is still pretty awful – but again, conditions could be worse still.

Much made above about, what to us would be, the horrible stench. To someone from the 17th/18th century, it would not have been exceptional. If you lived in a city, the drains were open channels in the street. In the country, animal waste was everywhere.

Sue Townsend, in her biography of Pepys, describes how you would acquire the smell of the house you lived in. Unwashed bodies, chamber pots, dogs and cooking all mingled together.

Smell yes, Stench no. The seventeenth century was worse, (people not bathing) then medieval times, or Roman times, for that matter. The myth of Medieval filth was just that, a myth.

Apologies - I got the wrong Author - it was Claire Tomalin’s biog of Pepys.

I am aware of the medieval theories, but we are discussing different times.

This is the quote (more or less) I think that any of us going back to virtually any city at that time, would need a peg for our noses. A local would not see a little shit underfoot as specially disgusting.

This all reminds me of Eric, a Discworld book in which the title character and Rincewind have travelled back in time to the Discworld!Trojan Wars and are being interrogated by an army sergeant.

The sergeant helpfully explains that whether they cooperate or not they are going to end up as trireme slaves, but if they play along he will see to it that they get sent to the top bench where there will only be salt water and the occasional seagull to worry about. If they give him trouble they will end up on the bottom tier and the world will not look anything like as pleasant.

Then one of the two innocently points at the city and asks if it is Discworld!Troy and the sergeant replies “You wouldn’t be making fun of me, would you? Only there’s such things as quinqueremes. You wouldn’t like that at all.”

Wikipedia has a surprisingly good article about this.

but then we forget that central heating was a modern invention; and when every piece of fuel had to be chopped by hand and carried or carted to the fireplace location, winter fuel was in short supply for most households - especially in bigger towns far from the forest. Not to mention carrying every bucket of water, often pumped by hand, and the need to heat it 3 seasons of the year…

Even the “chamberpots tossed into the street” - without running water, flushing detritus would be left to the heavy rains, which did not happen that regularly, even in Britain. Nobody would be motivated or paid (or fed) to haul wagonloads of water to flush the streets.

I don’t think people appreciate just how much machines and the huge amount of energy that we consume to power them have improved our lives, compared to the days when everything was done manually.

Recall a CBC program where they were discussing England in the 1600’s (?) and someone describes how those nobles’ wigs were greased to hold shape and frequently powdered to make them presentable. One diarist describes that a wig was broken open for its biannual or leap year cleaning, and found to be “full of animaliculae.”