Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Captives of the Corsairs—II

The treatment of slaves in private houses varied in accordance with the nature of their masters. Some had the luck to be purchased by patrons, as the owners were often called, who were of a mild and gentle disposition, and these, save for the bitterness of losing their liberty, had little to complain of so long as they were obedient and industrious. But many of the stricter sort of Moslems took a great pleasure in ill-treating Christian slaves; first because they were Christians, and second in the hopes of forcing them to renounce the hated faith. Such owners as these drove their slaves to severe toil in the fields and gardens under the blazing sun of Africa. Those who were too old or feeble for this work were sent out with an ass laden with water-skins to sell water along the streets. Others gathered fruit and carried it to market. Women were set to work to clean houses, wash clothes, mind children, and perform the most menial tasks of the household. And these people, be it remembered, had often been persons of rank and authority in their own country.

As one writer remarks: "Everything connected with the subject of Christian slavery in the Barbary States is of the deepest interest. When that institution was at its height there were from 20,000 to 30,000 captives at a time in Algiers alone, representing every nation in Europe and every rank in society, from the viceroy to the common sailor, men of the highest eminence in the Church, literature, science, and arms, delicately nurtured ladies and little children, doomed to spend their lives in infamy. The majority never returned to their native land, and few have left us a detailed account of their sufferings, or a record of the dramatic events passing every day around them."

Guarding christian captives


The miseries of the shore-slaves were great: those of the galley-slaves were far, far greater. When a galley left the port the Christian slaves who pulled her oars were all chained to the rowing benches. This was done lest in the hour of battle against a Christian vessel the slaves should rise upon their masters, to aid their friends in the other vessel and win their freedom. And chained to those benches the poor creatures remained until the cruise was over, even if it should last for months. Upon these narrow seats they were packed so closely, sometimes five, six, or seven men to an oar, that it was not possible for them to sleep at full length, and they crouched together in hopeless misery. Their food was ships' biscuit and water, with an occasional spoonful of rice or gruel. Nor did they get too much of that, for great quantities of food were difficult to carry, and when hard rowing was needed, the whip took the place of provender.

We must not forget that things were just the same in the navies of Christendom. Both sides, Corsair and Christian alike, used slaves, or men in the position of slaves, for this terrible labour of the oar. The Corsairs used Christian captives, the Christians used Moslem captives or convicts, men who were sent to the galleys for their crimes. It was not possible to obtain freemen for such cruel toil under such wretched conditions: none would undertake it save by force. "The Corsairs of Algiers only served their enemies as they served them: their galley-slaves were no worse treated, to say the least, than were Doria's or the King of France's own. Rank and delicate nurture were respected on neither side: a gallant Corsair like Dragut had to drag his chain and pull his oar like any convict at the treadmill, and a future Grand Master of Malta might chance to take his seat on the rowing bench beside the commonest scoundrel of Naples. No one seemed to observe the horrible brutality of the service, where each man, let him be never so refined, was compelled to endure the filth and vermin of his neighbour, who might be half a savage and was bound to become wholly one."

Now and again a galley-slave has written an account of his unhappy days on the oar-bench. Listen to what one of them says: "Think of six men chained to a bench, one foot on the stretcher, the other on the bench in front, holding an immensely heavy oar, bending forward to the stern with arms at full reach to clear the backs of the rowers in front, who bend likewise; and then having got forward, shoving up the oar's end to let the blade catch the water, then throwing their bodies back on the groaning bench. A galley oar sometimes pulls thus for ten, twelve, or even twenty hours without a moment's rest. The boatswain, or other sailor, in such a stress, puts a piece of bread steeped in wine in the wretched rower's mouth to stop fainting, and then the captain shouts the order to redouble the lash. If a slave falls exhausted upon his oar (which often chances) he is flogged till he is taken for dead, and then pitched unceremoniously into the sea."

"Those who have not seen a galley at sea, especially in chasing or being chased, cannot well conceive the shock such a spectacle must give to a heart capable of the least touch of feeling. To behold ranks and files of half-naked, half-starved, meagre wretches, chained to a plank from whence they remove not for months together (commonly half a year), urged on, even beyond human strength, with cruel and repeated blows on their bare flesh; and thus for whole days and nights successively, which often happens in a furious chase, where one party, like vultures, is hurried on almost as eagerly after their prey, as is the weaker party hurried away in hopes of preserving life and liberty."

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


In such a pursuit as this there is one very striking point to be observed: if it is a Christian galley which is in flight, then Christians are pursuing Christians, Moslems are flying from Moslems. In the Christian galley perhaps two hundred chained Turks and Moors are hoping eagerly that their friends will come up and free them from irons and the lash. But the lash is there at that moment, and it will be used without stint or mercy, and the boatswains dart to and fro, eager to mark an unwilling worker. So they pull and pull lest they be flogged to death. So in the Moslem galley. There the Christians hope to see their friends escape, but they, too, must put their backs into their work, or those same backs will be scored to the bone.