Slave power – medieval warships driven by whips

One of the most difficult chapters to write in Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold, my new addition to the Outlaw Chronicles, was the one in which Robin Hood, Alan Dale and their comrades are captured by an Almohad prince of Spain and forced to labour in appalling conditions as galley slaves.

The historically inaccurate Ben-Hur gives a sense of the conditions on board a slave galley

The life of a Mediterranean galley slave must have been unimaginably horrible and I tried to capture a flavour of this in a passage in the novel (which you can buy here, should you wish) but I’m not sure I succeeded all that well. You can be the judge by reading the extract from the novel below but there may be spoilers for the plot of Caliph’s Gold. You’ve been warned!

Two-thousand years of misery

The practice of using slaves to row galleys in the Mediterranean has a long history – spanning some two thousand years. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans usually preferred to use free rowers in their fighting ships – despite the popular image of the galley from the movie Ben-Hur – they did on occasion use slaves. Rowing was a skilled job – and mistakes could cause the galley to sink and drown everyone on board. Professional rowers did a better job than forced labour, and when slaves were used they were quite often promised their freedom as a reward if they served the oars well.

For example, during the 5th century BC Peleponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, slave rowers were used to win the Battle of Arginusae and all were subsequently given their freedom. But during the 3rd century Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, Scipio Africanus conscripted thousands of slaves for use in the Roman galley fleet. Sadly, their fate is not recorded.

White slave trade

In the Middle Ages, the Knights Hospitaller, an order of fighting monks who specialised in medical care, used captured Muslim slaves – and debtors, bizarrely – to pull their oars; and their great enemies, the Ottomans, repaid the compliment by chaining Christians to the benches. After the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, 12,000 Christian slaves were freed from the galleys of the Turks. The fearsome Barbary pirates (16th to the 19th centuries) also used Christian slaves in their galleys. It’s been estimated that more than a million Europeans were captured by these Muslim rovers and sold into slavery in North Africa and their raids sometimes ranged as far north as Ireland.

The use of slaves in galleys continued in France until 1715, and among the pirates of the North African coast, right up until the 19th century. It is difficult to generalise over such a long period but slaves did not tend to live very long on the benches – a ten-year career being quite exceptional. One practice that galley slave-drivers did institute was to give the rowers as much fresh water as they wanted. They realised that slaves died quickly of dehydration so it was much cheaper to carry vast quantities of water, than to replace the slaves.

Anyway, I hope I have described the awful life of a galley slave adequately in the following extract. Please feel free to send me your comments!

Robin Hood and the Caliph’s Gold: Chapter 17

There are some periods in a man’s life that are so painful to recall that his outraged mind wipes them almost completely from its folds, until only a few lodged fragments and images remain. Such was the time that I spent as a wretched galley slave aboard the Emir of Valencia’s ship, the Khamsin . . .


The first impression that remains in my mind is of the stench below decks: an almost solid invisible wall of faecal matter, urine, old sweat and rotting meat. I could feel my eyes smarting from contact with the noxious fumes – they truly felt as if they were bleeding. It was dim down there, too, and much hotter than above, and I was astounded to see so many naked men all crowded together in such a small space. I later discovered that there were two hundred rowers, all slaves, from a motley of all nations and creeds, packed tightly in a space a stone’s throw long and two spear-lengths wide. 

The rowers were on two levels, two men to each oar, with fifty oars on each side of the ship. It was not fully dark down there for the deck above the rowers was not solid wood but a latticework of square holes, which allowed in a grey twilight. My bare feet splashed in foul, swampy bilge water, and the movement sent a dozen black scurrying shapes leaping out of my path. 

We were herded by our captors to the centre of the ship and forced to sit down in the raised central area where the big kettledrums were situated. The wooden boards under our bare arses were gelatinous with years of filth. The drums were silent now but two men, squat, furry, well-muscled brutes, sat before them on stools glaring at us, emanating a pure, mindless loathing. 

The galley slaves, in contrast, entirely ignored us. Most were slumped over their oars, resting their heads on their folded arms, apparently asleep. Some just gazed into space, blank-eyed, lean, pale faces clawed with misery.

The slave-masters were a different breed to the Black Guards we had faced above, and it was clear that they had dominion here in this lower Hell. They were stripped to the waist, torsos gleaming with sweat, and wore filthy, baggy trews of canvas or linen. Over their shoulders were curled loops of black, gleaming leather whips. The chief slave-master – a huge hairy fellow wearing a sleeveless leather jerkin – was giving orders in gutter Arabic, and I saw that the other slave-masters were searching through the rows of slaves, seeking out the dead, unfixing their fetters with heavy keys, and hauling the bodies into the central walkway, roughly piling them. One man, who was dragged limply from the benches, proved not to be completely dead. He stirred and gave a weak cry, and one of the guards, immediately smashed his head three times with the heavy butt of his whip until he was still. The bodies were then dragged along the slimy walkway and up the steps through the square hatch and away into the light. I thought I could hear the splashes as they were dumped over the side to fatten the circling sharks.

They began to slot us Locksley folk into our places, the places vacated by the dead. Nikos Phokas who, like us, had been roughly stripped and bound, stood up and cried out in bad Arabic: “No, sirs, not me. I am not with these men. They took me captive. I am a knight of Crete, a nobleman . . .”

The whip smashed across his shoulders, breaking the unmarked skin, and Nikos screamed like a pig at slaughter. I doubted he had ever felt the cut of the lash before. But he continued protesting. “I am the only son of the Archon of Messara, in Crete. My father can pay you . . .” He went down under the hiss and crack of leather, his flesh sliced into a bloody mess by the whips of the slave-masters – yet still he insisted on his rank and privilege. 

“You’re a knight of Crete?” said the chief slave-master, coming over. 

Nikos rose up again, bleeding heavily and babbled that he was, saying: “Ransom me, sir, my father is a great lord who will pay handsomely . . .”

The slave-master laughed. “Not any more. You’re no lord’s brat here.” 

He slapped Nikos hard across the face, a full strength blow from his meaty hand, knocking the boy down to the boards. Then he put a foot on his neck and squashed his face into the slime. “You’re a worm, that’s what you are, a filthy worm; and, if you say one more word, I’ll silence you for ever.”

I was next. I knew better than to protest. I was seized by two burly slave-masters and bundled roughly on to a low, hard bench. My right foot was clasped in an iron ring and chained to a bolt sunk deep in the ribs of the ship. Nikos, who by now had discovered the wisdom of holding his silly tongue, was chained on the same bench right next to my left elbow. 

He looked at me, his eyes huge and filled with horror. I tried to smile encouragingly but also put a single finger to my lips. He nodded dumbly.

It took a surprisingly short time to fix all of us in place. Less than an hour, anyway. And, all the while, above us we could hear Khalil’s men taking possession of the dhow and the Cretan galley; wrenching the two ships apart, somehow, and then the bang of hammers and rasp of saws as repairs began. 

Of course, we slaves could see nothing of all this in the stinking gloom below decks. Nikos and I were on the lower level of benches, with two naked ancient wretches on the level above; their feet at the height of our heads. The Cretan knight and I shared a single, thick, very long pinewood oar, dark and oily-smooth from the many horny hands that had wielded it before us. My friends were scattered all along the ship on both sides – Robin a few rows ahead of me, near Ricky who was already slumped in the rower’s resting pose, head on his crossed arms over the oar. Little John and Hanno were somewhere behind me on the other side. I was gravely worried about those two. Both had taken wounds in the battle and, while they had been salved and bound up tight with linen bands while we waited for Khalil to board the ships, I did not know if they would be able to pull an oar. The alternative, if they could not row, was to be dumped over the side of the ship for the sharks – there was no mercy in this place. None. And very little rest. How would they ever heal their torn flesh and recover their full strength?

There was one glimmer of hope, a very faint one. When all the new slaves had been chained in their benches, there was a flurry of fresh activity. And a dozen or so Black Guards came down the rowing deck, and they were carrying small wooden boxes, very heavy. They passed by our benches and stacked them at the rear of the ship in raised alcove, out of the filthy bilge. I watched them work and, when I turned away, I caught Robin’s eye. He gave me a grim little smile and a lightning fast wink. I knew exactly what my lord was thinking: “At least the gold is still with us.”

That meant that my lord was already scheming. That meant he would get us out of this alive. Somehow. I was sure of it; fairly sure, anyway.

How can I describe the life of a galley slave? Simply put: it was a Hell on Earth. Perhaps worse than the real Hell, I shall only know that when I meet my Maker and if I am consigned to the Fire for my sins. But whatever the Almighty has in mind for me, however much He chooses to torment me, it cannot be all that much worse than the life of a captive rower on a Moorish warship. As I have already said, I blocked most of that hideous time from my mind. But I will tell you only this: we rowed for four hours without a break, then rested four hours. We did this again, again, and again, for ever. 

We were driven by the beat of the kettledrums, which throbbed out almost continuously, like the very heartbeat of the ship. I shall never forget that awful sound: boom, boom, ba-boom, boom; boom, boom, ba-boom, boom . . . on and on, never ceasing, until it became the rhythm of my own heart, pulsing in my veins, the music of all the aches of my body, whether I was awake or trying to snatch a few instants of feverish half-sleep at the oar.

At the end of the first hour, my arms, my back and my legs were burning with agony; my palms were bloody and blistered, my naked arse rubbed raw. I had sweated several pints and my mouth was as dry as I imagined the great southern desert to be, and I was seriously wondering if Death was not a sweeter alternative than this endless hauling on that slippery smooth, God-damned oar, pushing the weight forward, dipping the oar, pulling back against the sea; pushing it forward, dipping, pulling back . . .

Any mistake was punished with the whip: if you were out of time with your fellows, even a fraction, the lash cracked down and split the skin on your shoulders or back; if you slowed even a fraction, they sliced your skin – sometimes on your tender belly or thighs; if you complained or spoke out of turn, or said almost anything, in truth – again you were corrected with the lash. Few of the galley slaves spoke at all, for fear of incurring the slave-masters’ wrath. But I braved a short whispered conversation with the two men above me on the first day. They were both Italians, I discovered, fishermen who were captured off Otranto and sold as slaves. I asked how many years they had been rowing like this – they both looked to be old men, of at least sixty years – and discovered they had been chained here for only nine months; they were both twenty-six years old, and wished to die, as soon as possible, but could find no way of ending their misery. 

When my first four-hour stint was over – and it seemed like I had endured a full day of the hardest toil I had even done, worse than fighting a pitched battle – we were given a few scraps of stale bread and a kind of watery bean stew, which I wolfed down in a few moments. And water, a very great deal of water, a whole wooden bucketful for each thirsty rower. 

Water, I was to discover, was the one great necessity on a galley, and each vessel had to carry oceans of it to keep the rowers fit enough to perform their labours. Without water, the oarsmen simply died. And that was inconvenient for the slave-masters: it meant hauling out the lolling dead and replacing them with fresh men – if they could find them. It was easier to give the living ones plenty of water – and plenty of the lash.

Only half the oarsmen rowed at one time – every other file rowed while the other men rested – unless there was a battle or some other sea emergency that required full speed. I discovered that on the third day of my captivity, when an autumn storm blew up out of nowhere. I can only surmise it was the third day for time had already lost its meaning by then in that nightmare existence. Day and night blurred into one stretch of lighter or darker agony. 

I had just finished my four-hour stint, and had slumped gratefully over my oar, drowsing like all the others, when the ship began to sway and rock alarmingly.  I could hear the loud slap of waves breaking on the wooden ship’s side, not a yard from my ears, and the shouts of alarm came echoing from above through the lattice of the gratings, along with torrents of water. 

The whips cracked out and our section’s drums began to beat once again. One Locksley man shouted out in English, saying that this was unjust, that they had already done their part . . . and was flayed into submission with a few licks of the cutting leather. And we were all forced to row again; our tormented arms and legs screaming with every pull of the heavy pine oar. 

The chief slave-master walked down the central aisle, calling out in Arabic that we must all row for our lives – row or die. The storm would take all of us if we did not row harder, he said, and no man’s chains would be loosed if the ship began to founder. So we rowed. Exhausted bodies writhing in ever-fresher agonies, our poor muscles screaming, even if our mouths were clamped and silent, teeth grinding against the constant burning pain. 

It is astounding what a man will do – what he can do – when his very life is at stake. We ran before the storm, toiling hard for two hours or more, and I guess that we outran it, for we came eventually into a place of calm seas and quiet – a harbour, someone whispered, Sardinia, said another, and the buzz of words spread throughout the decks; for once not silenced by the slave-masters. And there we stopped. The drums ceased their hideous pulse. And I slumped over my oar and immediately fell into a deep death-like sleep

We rested for a blessed day and a blessed night, while the rain splashed and trickled down through the holes in the latticework above. It was the only wash I had during that hellish voyage. They pumped out the bilges, two slaves freed to this new labour, a constant stream of putrid brown water was sucked from below our feet and splashed over the side of the galley, even as the blessed rain fell, and fell. I had long since grown used to fouling myself where I sat, like every other galley slave, wallowing in my own shit and piss. They fed us later, too: double rations, fresh, soft bread straight from the port bakers, no doubt, with a few hunks of gristly goat bone mixed in the usual slop. The food was gone in an instant, as always, and I was ravenously hungry still. I didn’t complain. Instead, I slumped and slept on my oar again.

I remember several short whispered conversations that I had with Nikos during that long nightmare journey across the Mediterranean Sea. I don’t remember when the first conversation took place, after we had endured two full days on the bench, I believe, somewhere between Sicily and Sardinia. 

He whispered, “It is your fault I am here. This is all of your making.”

We hadn’t spoken much before then, only practical muttering about the timing of our strokes, or general murmured oaths and desperate prayers for salvation, but the searing venom in his voice that time took me quite aback. 

He said, “If I were not so tired, I would kill you with my bare hands.”

I said, “If I were not so tired, I would defend myself. But, think on this, Griffon, if you killed me, you would have to pull this oar on your own.”

That shut him up.

A day or two later, I convinced myself he had died. When our stint was over, he crashed down on the oar and did not move at all for some hours. 

I whispered his name. He did not respond. I poked him with a finger, still nothing. I shoved him harder. He lifted his head with a jerk and said, “What? What is it?”

“I thought you were dead,” I said.

“What of it?” he replied. 

I couldn’t think of a reply. He said, “I was dreaming, you English bastard, and you woke me. I was dreaming that I was lying under an olive tree in Crete with a girl I know, and we were drinking cold white wine . . . And you woke me. To this Hell. God, how I hate you. You woke me.”

I begged his pardon, and meant it. I too knew the sweet respite of a faraway dream. But he refused to let it drop.

“It is all right for you – you were born to drudgery; you are no gentle, you have no honour, no noble family lineage, you were born for servitude. This is your rightful lot.”

I felt my own rage rising then. I thought about smashing him in the face with my fist, maybe more than once, maybe until he truly was dead. But managed to control myself; the slave-masters would bring down the lash on us both. I had seen it before when a fight broke out on the benches. Instead I said, “You speak a great deal about your honour. Too much, I would say, for a Cretan. Why, after so many years of Saracen rule over your dusty little backwater, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were at least half Moor, by blood.”

He struck me then, a weak slap, and his other hand raked at my eyes. I ducked and punched him once, a short pop to the chin that rocked him back, but we both subsided when the slave-masters began to shout. We’d learnt by then not to provoke our captors. We stared at each other in furious silence. 

“What would you know about honour, anyway?” he muttered.

“I know a galley slave has none,” I said.

“You and your oath-breaking lord have taken even that from me.”

I felt like hitting him again. But I could see one of the slave masters watching. 

“No talking,” he said, and lifted his whip to emphasise his point. 

A little while later, when we were once more labouring at the oar, I whispered to him, “My lord did not take your honour; if you wish to blame someone, blame Prince Khalil, master of this vessel. He is your true enemy.”

But Nikos did not choose to reply.

After something like a week – I cannot say for certain in the blur of pain and exhaustion that was our existence below decks – the Cretan began to weep into his water bucket. He was sobbing and slobbering, the snot running down his chin, moaning about mercy and Death, and cursing the world in general and me in particular. He did not stop. It went on and on. No one else in that fetid box paid him the slightest attention, sunk as they were in their own all-consuming misery. Tears were common. Some wept or wailed or muttered, or prayed aloud, to whatever God they believed in. I prayed to St Michael, the warrior archangel, more than once a day, begging him to save me. Some slaves screamed out in their agony – or begged guards to have pity and end their horrible lives. They got the whip – nothing more. 

But when Nikos began sobbing, I was unnerved. I expected him to cry himself out and then sink into a deep sleep – it was during our four-hours rest. But he went on and on, and I genuinely thought he would never stop.

After a while, I hissed at him to be quiet. If he did not wish to sleep, there was no reason why his moaning and snuffling should keep me awake. 

He said, “Kill me, choke the breath from my body. I will not resist – I swear it. I beg you, Alan, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, finish me.”

I was struck with a pang of sorrow for him – for me, for all of us. 

“Hush now,” I said, “do not despair. Robin will come up with a plan. Look yonder, he is speaking with Ricky, who knows the benches better than any man  – doubtless between them they will think of some way out of this.”

“Even if he did think of a plan – and I cannot see how he could – why would he save me? We are enemies. You’re my enemy. Your perfidious lord will take you away, up to the light and air and leave me in this pit to suffer.”

“He is not your enemy. He will not leave you here. I swear it. I will not leave you here. When we get out, I promise, Nikos, we shall all go together.”

His snuffling slowed, he gave a few more wets gulps and stopped.

“Do you mean that, Alan? You will take me out of here?”

“I swear it, Nikos. We are Christians, men of the True Faith. We have quarrelled, it is true, and we have fought and shed blood in the name of our quarrel. But on this foul bench we must be comrades. I shall not abandon you to this earthly torment. Hold fast, man. Keep your courage. Robin will save us – you wait and see. The Earl of Locksley will take us from here.”

I even convinced myself that this was true, that Robin would save us.

But my lord did not. He could not. Robin could do nothing to end our agony.

Extract ends.

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