THE LAST GALLEYS
by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 303.
Today, we finally put galley slaves to rest. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Our technology has, on the
whole, freed us. But, freedom has always seesawed
as new technologies have come and gone. Oars, for
example, gave us freedom of motion, but few people
other than slaves have ever pulled oars in a
We all know that galleys were widely used in the
ancient Mediterranean world. But when do you
suppose navies quit using galleys and galley
slaves? Well, they didn't die out until late in the
reign of Louis XIV, in the early 1700s.
A century and a half before, 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.
Seven years after the ten-year minimum sentence was
imposed, the last great battle among galleys was
fought -- the Battle of Lepanto. In 1571 two great
galley armadas formed up in a battle for control of
the Eastern Mediterranean. These ships carried some
sail, but their main engines were convicts and
prisoners of war. Spain and the Papal states gathered
over 200 light galleys and six Venetian galleasses. A
galleas was a huge slow-moving oar-driven gun
platform. The Turkish forces were larger but not so
well equipped. The two armadas finally found each
other near the Greek town of Lepanto, in that strip
of water that bisects Greece. The Europeans won, but
not until 16,000 people had been killed and 8000 more
A young Spanish soldier, not yet 24 and sick with
fever, took three bullets in that battle. His name
was Miguel de Cervantes, and one of the bullets
ruined his left hand. He wrote that the fight was
"the greatest day's work in centuries," but he also
lived to write Don Quixote de la
Mancha. And there he painted armed combat in
far more complex terms.
For all its size, the battle of Lepanto was as
anachronistic as Don Quixote himself. It was the
last great clash of dinosaurs. Galleys spent
another 150 years dying out, while the technology
of sailing ships raced on ahead. The 16th century
galleon was so named because it represented the
galley modernized and reshaped into a pure sailing
Technology gives the gift of freedom, all right.
But the long survival of anything as terrible as
slave-powered galleys tells us we aren't always as
quick to accept that gift as we ought to be.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Stokes, G.P., Last Galley Battle. Military
History, August, 1989, pp. 26-33.
The basement cell where Cervantes was later
imprisoned in La Mancha for his political
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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