Evangelist Ken McDonald

AV 1611, The Book that runs the world

The following story humbles me and reminds me that I just don't have it all that bad when I begin to complain!

The Huguenots in France
Samuel Smiles

Published 1903




Page 222

The punishment of the men found attending religious meetings, and taken prisoners by the soldiers, was to be sentenced to the galleys, mostly for life. They were usually collected in large numbers, and sent to the seaports attached together by chains. They were sent openly, sometimes through the entire length of the kingdom, by way of a show. The object was to teach the horrible delinquency of professing Protestantism; for it could not be to show the greater beautifulness and mercifulness of Catholicism.

The punishment of the Chain varied in degree. Sometimes it was more cruel than at other times. This depended upon the drivers of the prisoners. Marteilhe describes the punishment during his conveyance from Havre to Marseilles in the winter of 1712.
[47] The Chain to which he belonged did not reach Marseilles until the 17th January, 1713. The season was bitterly cold; but that made no difference in the treatment of Huguenot prisoners.

The Chain consisted of a file of prisoners, chained one to another in various ways. On this occasion, each pair was fastened by the neck with a thick chain three feet long, in the middle of which was a round ring. After being thus chained, the pairs were placed in file, couple behind couple, when another long thick chain was passed through the rings, thus running along the centre of the gang, and the whole were thus doubly-chained together. There were no less than four hundred prisoners in the chain described by Marteilhe. The number had, however, greatly fallen off through deaths by barbarous treatment before it reached Marseilles.

It must, however, be added, that the whole gang did not consist of Huguenots, but only a part of it—the Huguenots being distinguished by their red jackets. The rest consisted of murderers, thieves, deserters, and criminals of various sorts.

The difficulty which the prisoners had in marching along the roads was very great; the weight of chain which each member had to carry being no less than one hundred and fifty pounds. The lodging they had at night was of the worst description. While at Paris, the galley-slaves were quartered in the Château de la Tournelle, which was under the spiritual direction of the Jesuits. The gaol consisted of a large cellar or dungeon, fitted with huge beams of oak fixed close to the floor. Thick iron collars were attached by iron chains to the beams. The collar being placed round the prisoner's neck, it was closed and riveted upon an anvil with heavy blows of a hammer.

Twenty men in pairs were thus chained to each beam. The dungeon was so large that five hundred men could thus be fastened up. They could not sleep lying at full length, nor could they sleep sitting or standing up straight; the beam to which they were chained being too high in the one case and too low in the other. The torture which they endured, therefore, is scarcely to be described. The prisoners were kept there until a sufficient number could be collected to set out in a great chain for Marseilles.

When they arrived at the first stage out of Paris, at Charenton, after a heavy day's fatigue, their lodging was no better than before. A stable was found in which they were chained up in such a way that they could with difficulty sit down, and then only on a dung-heap. After they had lain there for a few hours, the prisoners' chains were taken off, and they were turned out into the spacious courtyard of the inn, where they were ordered to strip off their clothes, put them down at their feet, and march over to the other side of the courtyard.

The object of this proceeding was to search the pockets of the prisoners, examine their clothes, and find whether they contained any knives, files, or other tools which might be used for cutting the chains. All money and other valuables or necessaries that the clothes contained were at the same time taken away.

The night was cold and frosty, with a keen north wind blowing; and after the prisoners had been exposed to it for about half an hour, their bodies became so benumbed that they could scarcely move across the yard to where their clothes were lying. Next morning it was found that eighteen of the unfortunates were happily released by death.

It is not necessary to describe the tortures endured by the galley-slaves to the end of their journey. One little circumstance may, however, be mentioned. While marching towards the coast, the exhausted Huguenots, weary and worn out by the heaviness of their chains, were accustomed to stretch out their little wooden cups for a drop of water to the inhabitants of the villages through which they passed. The women, whom they mostly addressed, answered their entreaties with the bitterest spite. "Away, away!" they cried; “you are going where you will have water enough!”

When the gang or chain reached the port at which the prisoners were to be confined, they were drafted on board the different galleys. These were for the most part stationed at Toulon, but there were also other galleys in which Huguenots were imprisoned—at Marseilles, Dunkirk, Brest, St. Malo, and Bordeaux. Let us briefly describe the galley of those days.

The royal galley was about a hundred and fifty feet long and forty feet broad, and was capable of containing about five hundred men. It had fifty benches for rowers, twenty-five on each side. Between these two rows of benches was the raised middle gallery, commonly called the waist of the ship, four feet high and about three or four feet broad. The oars were fifty feet long, of which thirty-seven feet were outside the ship and thirteen within. Six men worked at each oar, all chained to the same bench. They had to row in unison, otherwise they would be heavily struck by the return rowers both before and behind them. They were under the constant command of the comite or galley-slave-driver, who struck all about him with his long whip in urging them to work. To enable his strokes to tell, the men sat naked while they rowed.

Their dress was always insufficient, summer and winter—the lower part of their bodies being covered with a short red jacket and a sort of apron, for their manacles prevented them wearing any other dress.

The chain which bound each rower to his bench was fastened to his leg, and was of such a length as to enable his feet to come and go whilst rowing. At night, the galley-slave slept where he sat—on the bench on which he had been rowing all day. There was no room for him to lie down. He never quitted his bench except for the hospital or the grave; yet some of the Huguenot rowers contrived to live upon their benches for thirty or forty years!

During all these years they toiled in their chains in a hell of foul and disgusting utterance, for they were mixed up with thieves and the worst of criminals. They ate the bread and drank the waters of bitterness. They seemed to be forsaken by the world. They had no one to love them, for most had left their families behind them at home, or perhaps in convents or prisons. They lived under the constant threats of their keepers, who lashed them to make them row harder, who lashed them to make them sit up, or lashed them to make them lie down. The Chevalier Langeron, captain of La Palme, of which Marteilhe was at first a rower, used to call the comite to him and say, "Go and refresh the backs of these Huguenots with a salad of strokes of the whip." For the captain, it seems, "held the most Jesuitical sentiments," and hated his Huguenot prisoners far worse than his thieves or his murderers.

And yet, at any moment, a word spoken would have made these Huguenots free. The Catholic priests frequently visited the galleys and entreated them to become converted. If "converted," and the Huguenots would only declare that they believed in the miraculous powers of the clergy, their chains would fall away from their limbs at once; and they would have been restored to the world, to their families, and to liberty! And who would not have declared themselves “converted," rather than endure these horrible punishments? Yet by far the greater number of the Huguenots did not. They could not be hypocrites. They would not lie to God. Rather than do this, they had the heroism—some will call it the obstinacy—to remain galley-slaves for life!

Many of the galley-slaves did not survive their torture long. Men of all ages and conditions, accustomed to indoor life, could not bear the exposure to the sun, rain, and snow, which the punishment of the galley-slave involved. The old men and the young soon succumbed and died. Middle-aged men survived the longest. But there was always a change going on. When the numbers of a galley became thinned by death, there were other Huguenots ready to be sent on board—perhaps waiting in some inland prison until another "Great Chain" could be made up for the seaports, to go on board the galley-ships, to be manacled, tortured, and killed off as before.

Such was the treatment of the galley-slaves in time of peace. But the galleys were also war-ships. They carried large numbers of armed men on board. Sometimes they scoured the Mediterranean, and protected French merchant-ships against the Sallee rovers. At other times they were engaged in the English channel, attacking Dutch and English ships, sometimes picking up a prize, at other times in actual sea-fight.

When the service required, they were compelled to row incessantly night and day, without rest, save in the last extremity; and they were treated as if, on the first opportunity, in sight of the enemy, they would revolt and betray the ship; hence they were constantly watched by the soldiers on board, and if any commotion appeared amongst them, they were shot down without ceremony, and their bodies thrown into the sea. Loaded cannons were also placed at the end of the benches of rowers, so as to shoot them down in case of necessity.

Whenever an enemy's ship came up, the galley-slaves were covered over with a linen screen, so as to prevent them giving signals to the enemy. When an action occurred, they were particularly exposed to danger, for the rowers and their oars were the first to be shot at—just as the boiler or screw of a war-steamer would be shot at now—in order to disable the ship. The galley-slaves thus suffered much more from the enemy's shot than the other armed men of the ship. The rowers benches were often filled with dead, before the soldiers and mariners on board had been touched.

Marteilhe, while a galley-slave on board La Palme, was engaged in an adventure which had nearly cost him his life. Four French galleys, after cruising along the English coast from Dover to the Downs, got sight of a fleet of thirty-five merchant vessels on their way from the Texel to the Thames, under the protection of one small English frigate. The commanders of the galleys, taking counsel together, determined to attack the frigate (which they thought themselves easily able to master), and so capture the entire English fleet.

The captain of the frigate, when he saw the galleys approach him, ordered the merchantmen to crowd sail and make for the Thames, the mouth of which they had nearly reached. He then sailed down upon the galleys, determined to sacrifice his ship if necessary for the safety of his charge. The galleys fired into him, but he returned never a shot. The captain of the galley in which Marteilhe was, said, "Oh, he is coming to surrender!" The frigate was so near that the French musqueteers were already firing full upon her. All of a sudden the frigate tacked and veered round as if about to fly from the galleys. The Frenchmen called out that the English were cowards in thus trying to avoid the battle. If they did not surrender at once, they would sink the frigate!

The English captain took no notice. The frigate then turned her stern towards the galley, as if to give the Frenchmen an opportunity of boarding her. The French commander ordered the galley at once to run at the enemy's stern, and the crew to board the frigate. The rush was made; the galley-slaves, urged by blows of the whip, rowing with great force. The galley was suddenly nearing the stern of the frigate, when by a clever stroke of the helm the ship moved to one side, and the galley, missing it, rushed past. All the oars on that side were suddenly broken off, and the galley was placed immediately under the broadside of the enemy.

Then began the English part of the game. The French galley was seized with grappling irons and hooked on to the English broadside. The men on board the galley were as exposed as if they had been upon a raft or a bridge. The frigate's guns, which were charged with grapeshot, were discharged full upon them, and a frightful carnage ensued. The English also threw hand grenades, which went down amongst the rowers and killed many. They next boarded the galley, and cut to pieces all the armed men they could lay hold of, only sparing the convicts, who could make no attempt at defence.

The English captain then threw off the galley, which he had broadsided and disarmed, in order to look after the merchantmen, which some of the other galleys had gone to intercept on their way to the mouth of the Thames. Some of the ships had already been captured; but the commanders of the galleys, seeing their fellow-commodores flying signals of distress, let go their prey, and concentrated their attack upon the frigate. This they surrounded, and after a very hard struggle the frigate was captured, but not until the English captain had ascertained that all the fleet of which he had been in charge had entered the Thames and were safe.

In the above encounter with the English frigate Marteilhe had nearly lost his life. The bench on which he was seated, with five other slaves, was opposite one of the loaded guns of the frigate. He saw that it must be discharged directly upon them. His fellows tried to lie down flat, while Marteilhe himself stood up. He saw the gunner with his lighted match approach the touchhole; then he lifted up his heart to God; the next moment he was lying stunned and prostrate in the centre of the galley, as far as the chain would allow him to reach. He was lying across the body of the lieutenant, who was killed. A long time passed, during which the fight was still going on, and then Marteilhe came to himself, towards dark. Most of his fellow-slaves were killed. He himself was bleeding from a large open wound on his shoulder, another on his knee, and a third in his stomach. Of the eighteen men around him he was the only one that escaped, with his three wounds.

The dead were all thrown into the sea. The men were about to throw Marteilhe after them, but while attempting to release him from his chain, they touched the wound upon his knee, and he groaned heavily. They let him remain where he lay. Shortly after, he was taken down to the bottom of the hold with the other men, where he long lay amongst the wounded and dying. At length he recovered from his wounds, and was again returned to his bench, to re-enter the horrible life of a galley-slave.

There was another mean and unmanly cruelty, connected with this galley-slave service, which was practiced only upon the Huguenots. If an assassin or other criminal received a wound in the service of the state while engaged in battle, he was at once restored to his liberty; but if a Huguenot was wounded, he was never released. He was returned to his bench and chained as before; the wounds he had received being only so many additional tortures to be borne by him in the course of his punishment.

Marteilhe, as we have already stated, was disembarked when he had sufficiently recovered, and marched through the entire length of France, enchained with other malefactors. On his arrival at Marseilles, he was placed on board the galley Grand Réale, where he remained until peace was declared between England and France by the Treaty of Utrecht.

Queen Anne of England, at the instigation of the Marquis de Rochegade, then made an effort to obtain the liberation of Protestants serving at the galleys; and at length, out of seven hundred and forty-two Huguenots who were then enslaved, a hundred and thirty-six were liberated, of whom Marteilhe was one. He was thus enabled to get rid of his inhuman countrymen, and to spend the remainder of his life in Holland and England, where Protestants were free.

Excerpt From
The Huguenots in France
Samuel Smiles

Footnote 47: "Autobiography of a French Protestant condemned to the Galleys because of his Religion." Rotterdam, 1757. (Since reprinted by the Religious Tract Society.)

Footnote 48: Le comite ou chef de chiourme, aidé de deux sous-comites, allait et venait sans cesse sur le coursier, frappant les forçats à coup de nerfs de bœuf, comme un cocher ses chevaux. Pour rendre les coups plus sensible et pour économiser les vêtements, les galériens étaient nus quand ils ramaient.—Athanase Coquerel fils. Les Forçats pour la Foi, 64.

Footnote 49: "The Autobiography of a French Protestant," 68

Footnote 50: "Autobiography of a French Protestant," 112-21

Footnote 51: Saint-Simon and Dangeau